China's Great Flood May No Longer Be Just a Myth

China's Great Flood May No Longer Be Just a Myth HowStuffWorks
China's Great Flood May No Longer Be Just a Myth HowStuffWorks

Tales of the Great Flood permeate human culture, but do they stem from actual geological cataclysms, or are they as fanciful as the many magical feats and figures that factor into their telling?

For at least one of those myths, it's the former. A new study published in the journal Science provides geologic evidence for China's most important flood myth: Yu and the Great Flood.


The myth concerns a devastating flood, a father's doomed efforts to stop it through the theft of divine soil and his son's eventual victory over the deluge through the construction of drainage channels. Various versions of the myth resound with magic, but it ultimately comes down to real-world water management — and the victorious son is none other than Yu the Great, who capitalized on his flood-draining prowess to found China's Xia dynasty.

The Xia dynasty is the first in traditional Chinese history, an ancient time of legendary heroes that predates the second millennium B.C.E. Shang dynasty and even the earliest known modes of Chinese writing. Much is unknown about this myth-saturated period. While the rule of Yu and his offspring long factored into Chinese cultural identity and imperial historiography, early 20th-century scholars turned a skeptical eye to the Xia and even the Shang dynasty. Some historians don't even list Xia in the timeline of dynastic succession.

By the mid-20th century, however, new archeological evidence came to support the historicity of the Shang dynasty — and soon they looked to the Early Bronze Age Erlitou culture as the possible archaeological underpinnings of the legendary Xia. As a result, the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project shifted the Xia dynasty's traditional timeframe of 2200-1750 B.C.E. to 2070-1600 B.C.E.

And this is where we return to the Great Flood. If such catastrophic flooding actually occurred, then geological evidence would attest to the fact, potentially etching the start of Yu's rule in the very bones of Earth.

While no definitive scientific model outlines the historicity of China's Great Flood, Nanjing Normal University geology professor Wu Qinglong and his team focused on one particular theory: a second millennium B.C.E. earthquake-induced landslide dam (and ensuing outburst flood) on the Yellow River in China's Northwest Qinghai Province. Having discovered sediment evidence of just such an ancient occurrence, Qinglong's team calculated the potential flood power to 500 times average discharge and radiocarbon dated human remains from decimated Late Neolithic habitats positioned downstream.

Their findings, as reported in Science, date this flood at roughly 1920 B.C.E. If this is indeed historical evidence of the Great Flood, it also advances the starting point of the Xia Dynasty even more — 300 years earlier than the traditional timeline. The findings also would align the flood with Chinese archaeological records that identify 1900 B.C.E. as the transition point from the Late Neolithic Period to Early Bronze Age.

As Western great flood geologist David R. Montgomery puts it, "the rocks don't lie," though it falls to human beings to rectify their scientific truths with ancient history and mythological potency.

It remains to be seen to what degree these latest findings alter our understanding of Yu the Great and China's first dynasty.