- Recall characteristics of the Xia Dynasty
- Sima Qian’s “Historical Records,” the first comprehensive history of China, said that the last of the Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded the Xia Dynasty.
- The Xia Dynasty was the first Chinese dynasty; it is still not known whether this dynasty existed or is only mythological.
- According to mythology, when the last Xia king became corrupt and cruel, Cheng Tang overthrew him in c. 1760 BCE and founded the Shang Dynasty.
- Many argue that the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China much later, invented the idea of the Xia Dynasty to support their claim that China could only be, and had always been, ruled by one ruler.
Mandate of Heaven
The Chinese philosophical concept of the circumstances under which a ruler is allowed to rule. Good rulers were allowed to rule under the Mandate of heaven, while despotic, unjust rulers had the Mandate revoked.
A renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BCE who wrote about the Xia Dynasty.
Also called the Yin Dynasty, succeeded the Xia Dynasty and followed the Zhou Dynasty. It existed in the second millennium BCE.
Sima Qian’s Historical Records
The earliest comprehensive history of China is the Historical Records, written by Sima Qian, a renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BCE. This history begins around 3600 BCE, with an account of the Five Emperors. According to this history, the last of the great Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded China’s First Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty. Yu supposedly began the practice of inherited rule (passing power from father to son), a model that was perpetuated in the later Shang and Zhou dynasties.
According to mythology, Yu’s descendants ruled China for nearly 500 years, until the last Xia king became corrupt and cruel. This led to his overthrow in c. 1760 BCE by Cheng Tang, who founded a new dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, in the Huang River Valley.
Debate Over the Existence of the Xia Dynasty
There is much debate among scholars about how much of this mythology is true. Many argue that the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China much later, invented the idea of the Xia Dynasty to support their claim that China could only be, and had always been, ruled by one ruler. The Zhou created the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven,” which stated that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at any given time. If he was a good ruler, he would have the support of heaven; if he was despotic, he would be overthrown. The various small states that had comprised Neolithic and Bronze Age China contradicted this version of history. Some people argue, therefore, that the Zhou may have created the idea of an ancient Xia Dynasty to support the idea that China always had one ruler.
Nonetheless, the Xia Dynasty may not be a complete fabrication; recent archaeological evidence may support its existence. (For a long time it was believed that the later Shang Dynasty may also have been purely mythological, until archaeology proved that it was real.) Archaeologists have discovered an advanced Bronze Age culture in China. Its capital, Erlitou, was a huge city around 2000 BCE. This may in fact be the people referred to in Chinese mythology as the Xia. It is believed that the Xia may have created a primitive writing system, though no evidence of this has been found. However, evidence does suggest that the Xia developed agricultural methods and experienced considerable prosperity. However, lack of irrigation and flood protection made the region prone to frequent floods and other natural disasters.