A new discovery suggests that it happened—but there is more at stake here than archaeologyby Philip Ball / August 10, 2016 / Leave a comment
The discovery of geological evidence for a massive flood on the Yellow River around 4000 years ago will surely delight the Chinese authorities. According to a paper published in Science by a team of primarily Chinese archaeologists and geographers, this event lends support to the ancient idea of a prehistoric civilization called the Xia dynasty, based in the lower Yellow River basin: the first manifestation of the Chinese state which, after a succession of other imperial dynasties, now resides in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
News reports of the discovery, including a commentary in Science itself, have pretty much universally accepted the story put forth in the paper. The scientific results, say its authors, show that the myth of a Great Flood, from which the Xia was said to have emerged, could be based on a real historical event. The researchers also say that their work supports arguments that this Xia dynasty can be identified with a Bronze Age culture whose artifacts have been excavated at a site at Erlitou in Henan province in central northern China. This finding, they imply, offers a rejoinder to those scholars who have seen the Xia dynasty “purely as a myth fabricated to justify political succession.”
But within that passing comment is a story that needs careful unpacking before we swallow the headlines. The politicised nature of these claims has been totally ignored in the news coverage, and the view of myth that they advocate is rather simplistic and naïve.
The findings themselves are undoubtedly interesting. Archaeologist Qinglong Wu of Peking University and his collaborators have studied deposits from an ancient landslide that formed a natural dam in Jishi Gorge, Qinghai province, through which the upper Yellow River flows from its source in high glacier lakes. The landslide was probably triggered by an earthquake known to have destroyed a prehistoric settlement at Lajia, 20 km or so downstream. They figure that the dam would have totally blocked the river for many months, creating a huge natural reservoir.
“It’s a questionable enterprise that regards myth as a kind of debased history”
They also found sediments in the lower gorge and the basin below it apparently created from a huge outburst of water. Natural charcoal in both the damming and the outburst sediments could be used for radiocarbon dating of these events. Taken together with dating of human remains in the Lajia settlement—presumably of people killed in the earthquake—the evidence points to damming followed by a catastrophic release of water in the Jishi Gorge around 1920 BC. The researchers argue that the flood would have been immense enough for the effects to propagate at least 2000 km downstream into the Yellow River valley, and to cause inundation of settlements on the lower river plain—traditionally held to be the “cradle of Chinese civilization.
This, say Wu and colleagues, might have been the event recorded in the myth of the Great Flood. In some versions of this story, the flood was said to have been caused by a battle between a semi-divine emperor and a demon. It is loosely dated to around 2200 BC, during the reign of an emperor called Yao. The flood waters covered the land for decades while engineers laboured in vain to discharge them. It was only when that task was appointed to a man named Yü that the problem was solved. Yü went back and forth across the land for thirteen years, digging channels, carving passages through mountains, and dredging the rivers, until the waters receded. In recognition of his achievements, Yü was crowned emperor—the first ruler of the Xia dynasty.
Skating over the three-century mismatch of dates between the putative reign of Yao and the Jishi outburst, Wu and colleagues say that their discoveries “provide scientific support that the ancient Chinese textual accounts [from the first millennium BC] of the Great Flood may well be rooted in a historic natural event.” They also support “the historicity of the Xia dynasty itself,” the researchers claim.
But to begin with, it’s a questionable enterprise that regards myth as a kind of debased history. Early anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Lévi-Strauss saw the role of myth in social terms. Malinowski called it “a charter for social action”: a cultural instruction for what needs to be done to maintain stability.
On China’s great rivers, floods on a mythic scale have been a problem that had to be confronted and solved with every cycle of the seasons since time immemorial—although they have been worsened, on the Yellow River in particular, by human settlement, which denuded the landscape and increased soil erosion and sedimentation. This makes the flood myth of China unlike that of any other nation on earth. “Probably no other people in the world,” wrote the mid-twentieth century scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham, “have preserved a mass of legendary material into which it is so clearly possible to trace back the engineering problems of remote times.”
The taming of the Great Flood represents a dream of social order”
Yoking the Chinese flood myth—which has a much stronger resonance in contemporary Chinese culture than do those elsewhere in the world—to a specific event thus misses the point that coping with massive flooding was a part of life in the valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and that the myth expresses the psychic impact of that contingency on the early cultures that dwelt there.
It’s for this reason too that in China the nature of water itself holds a particularly instructive message: flood is a metaphor for social order. The stability of society depended on bringing the water under control, channelling and pacifying it and making it orderly and obedient. The taming of the Great Flood thus represents a dream of social order. Whoever could achieve it would be, virtually by definition, a virtuous person and a valid ruler. According to historian Mark Edward Lewis, “every aspect of the Chinese flood myths… converged in meditations on the nature of the ruler and the justification of his authority.”
This is evident in the actions that the mythical Yü took. By draining away the floodwaters, he revealed the land afresh: now not a part of nature but the product of human labour. It had become, in short, a state and as such, it needed to be organised. By supervising this work, Yü established the basis for a bureaucratic system of governance. He measured up the lands, divided the country into provinces, and commanded their cultivation: in effect he was implementing an agricultural and administrative policy. Other officials in the Xia were appointed to set up social institutions and laws: to create an orderly state from what was previously inundated chaos. They formalised social relations, taught agriculture, arts and crafts, and drew up rituals and customs. Yü created a system of tax levies and tribute payments to the emperor. In this way, the flood myth supplied a rationale for the essential features of Chinese agrarian society: the regulation of waterways, the distribution of land, the hierarchies of command and obligation, and the use of organised labour for state projects. It is in the ancient text called the Yü Gong (Tribute of Yü; 5th-3rd century BC) that the first reference appears to this kingdom as Zhongguo: the Middle Kingdom, which is what China calls itself today.
Yü’s labours thus constitute the foundational myth of the Chinese state, and he himself became the legitimising figure of water management—and by extension, of all state authority. David Pietz, a historian of Chinese water management at the University of Arizona, says that “the sanctioning power of myths, adapted and retold to legitimise political authority, was expressed in a host of water management projects throughout history”—from the Grand Canal of the Sui dynasty (7th century AD) to the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze today.
Myth and legend have been actively mobilised by the Communist Party. When the first great dam on the Yellow River at Sanmenxia was built during the Mao era in the late 1950s, its concrete face was painted with a slogan in red characters several metres high that is attributed to Yü: “When the Yellow River is at peace, the nation is at peace.” More recently, a garden has been created on the cliff face overlooking the dam, dedicated to Yü and depicting him as a gigantic Hercules-like figure standing watch over China’s most notorious torrent.
The glorification of Yü is part of a more general political rehabilitation of China’s traditional past. When the Qingming Festival, the “Grave-sweeping Day” when ancestors are honoured, was officially reinstated in 2006 after being banned during the Mao era, the celebrations in the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, said to be where Yü died and was buried, were reported to include “ancient rituals” to venerate the water hero. And when President Jiang Zemin, an engineer himself, inscribed the characters on the gateway of the Great Yü Mausoleum in Shaoxing in 1995, he knew what a deep well of trust and veneration he was drawing from. The press duly anointed him as “The new Yü”: a leader who derived his authority from privileged knowledge about controlling the waters.
“Asserting that a Yellow River civilisation gradually expanded over all of China, historians could then insist on a cultural unity”
Establishing a historical provenance for Yü’s Xia “empire”—the first in a more or less unbroken sequence of dynasties—is vital for this narrative of nationhood. This dynastic model originated with the Han-dynasty scholar Sima Qian (c.145-86 BC), who fashioned it almost as a moral foundation for the unfolding of Chinese history. By situating the Han dynasty as the heir to previous “unified” regimes (Xia, Shang, Zhou), he was able to imply that there was something natural and even inevitable to its authority. Later emperors played the same game as the baton of empire was passed from one dynasty to the next.
The modern Chinese state sought to put this scheme on a quasi-scientific footing. According to the officially sanctioned history in the early twentieth century, Chinese culture began in the basin of the lower Yellow River, where a shamanic culture rather grandiosely labelled the Shang dynasty flourished around 1500-1100 BC. Some Chinese archaeologists have identified the Shang with bronze artifacts dated at around 1500-1300 BC and found at Erligang, near Zhengzhou in Henan. Asserting that this Yellow River civilisation gradually expanded over all of China, historians could then insist on a cultural unity that valorised an image of nationhood in the face of ethnic tensions on the country’s borders in Tibet, Yunnan and Xinjiang. When archaeological excavations at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing, in the 1920s unearthed the remains of early human ancestors of the genus Homo around a quarter of a million years old, this so-called Peking Man served as an Adam for the modern creation myth of China.
Over the past four or five decades this official story has been challenged, and it is now fairly comprehensively discounted by discoveries of rather advanced communities in ancient China that seem to have quite distinct origins from the Yellow River culture. In particular, the remains of a sophisticated Bronze Age culture was found in 1986 at Sanxingdui, near Chengdu in Sichuan, while another seems to have evolved independently from the “Shang” in the Yangtze valley. By now reasserting a (highly speculative) identification of the Xia with the Erlitou culture, the paper by Wu and colleagues reawakens this controversial and politicised debate.
None of this invalidates their interesting findings. It seems plausible that there was a massive breakup of a natural dam in Jishi Gorge around 2200 BC. This might be linked to the destruction of the Lajia settlement. It’s not inconceivable that it might have had significant effects far downstream, although there’s no hard evidence that these reached as far as the settlements on the lower Yellow River plain, let alone whether they impacted the Erlitou people. The eagerness to turn these results into a validation of the foundational myth of the Chinese state suggests that there is rather more at stake here than mere archaeology.
Philip Ball is author of “The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China” (Bodley Head, £25)