China 20C: Legendary Chinese dynasties

The Xia dynasty (2205-1765 BC?)

After Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, came a series of semi-historical emperors, the last three being Yao, Shun and Y. Confucius regarded these three as being the models of the ideal rulers. Y drained the country of the waters of the great flood and founded the first semi-historical dynasty, the Xia.

Early Emperor – son of dragon and woman

To indicate the mythical quality of these rulers Yao was purportedly born of union of dragon and woman. Furthermore no evidence of these rulers appears until late in the Chou period.

Y, the Great Flood and the Canals

Whether a Y organized the drainage of the land after the Great Flood is secondary to the fact that numerous canals were already in place when history began. Further these canals were not created by small organizations but by a centralized system. Possibly the impetus to centralize came from the need to control the erratic Yellow River, the Huang Po. There is even a Chinese saying that says, We should have been fish but for Y.[7] Whether there was a Y or not, there must have been a centralized government to organize the taming of the Yellow River.

The 9 cauldrons, ting, of Y, first emperor of the Xia

Furthermore he started a very important tradition, which we shall see more of. Emperor Y of the Xia divided the empire into 9 parts. He ordered 9 ting, bronze cauldrons, to be made for the vassal states. These were passed down from emperor to emperor into the late Chou as emblems of the Imperial authority. The First Emperor lost them, suggesting to the Chinese that he lacked legitimacy. Indeed there are many depictions of the First Emperor looking hopelessly for the lost vessels. Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty even cast some more of these cauldrons to add legitimacy to her rule.[8] Anyway it was Y, the legendary founder of the Xia dynasty granted leadership because he controlled the Yellow River floods, who started the tradition of the 9 cauldrons as the symbol of legitimacy.

No bronze until Shang

Archaeologically bronze didnt exist in China until a few centuries into the Shang dynasty. Thus the tradition of the bronze cauldrons was probably started during the Shang and extended into the legendary Xia by the Chou historians. This is classic Chinese, exaggerating the date of origination to increase prestige, (the exact opposite of the US, who wants everything new and improved.) We shall further explore the significance of these bronze cauldrons when we explore the Shang dynasty.

Longshan equated with the Xia

Because of the continuity of culture between the Longshan and the Shang cultures many historians think that the Longshan culture could easily be equated with the Xia.

Some scholars have equated the Longshan culture with the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, the Xia, which is supposed to have immediately preceded the Shang.[9]

The Shang dynasty (1765-1122 BC?)

According to Chinese legend the tyrant Chieh Kuei of the Xia dynasty was overthrown by Tang, who founded the first historical dynasty, the Shang. In turn the last in their dynasty, the tyrant Chou Hsin, was overthrown by the state of Chou, which founded the next imperial dynasty and wrote down the Chinese legendary history.

Existence of Xia dynasty grants the Chou legitimacy

Some have suggested that the Chou historians created the Xia dynasty, which was overthrown by the Shang dynasty to legitimize their overthrow of the Shang dynasty

Y, Yao, and Shun appeared first in Late Chou literature. The Xia never appear in Shang oracle bones, and were possibly invented by the Chou to legitimize their conquest of the Shang.[10]

Mandate of Heaven internalized

This reflects the aforementioned concept, Mandate of Heaven. Heaven or the Tao grants the ruler legitimacy as long as they do a good job of taking care of their citizens. However, once they stop fulfilling their obligations they cease to fulfill the Mandate of Heaven, which is then given to another government. The last ruler of each dynasty is always characterized as a tyrant in order to vilify them and hence validate the revolution as Heavens Will. Any dynasty, no matter how degenerate, will attempt to maintain itself. However in Chinese thought, once a dynasty has ceased to align itself with Heaven, or the Tao, its days are numbered. Thus the Chinese demand for good government is internalized and institutionalized in their legends.


This ends the legendary history of China. It certainly reflects many Chinese themes. Now let us return to archaeological and historical China to see what kind of sprouts are springing above the surface of our Chinese geography.

[7]The Age of God-Kings, p150

[8] The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan, p 31

[9] The Arts of China, by Hugh Munsterberg, p 25

[10]The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 24

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