Ancient History/China/Xia

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The Xia Dynasty of China is the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical records such as Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. The Xia Dynasty was established by Yu the Great. According to the traditional chronology based upon calculations by Liu Xin, the Xia ruled between 2205 BCE and 1766 BCE, however according to the chronology based upon the Bamboo Annals, it is between 1989 BCE and 1558 BCE. The Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Project concluded with 2070 BCE and 1600 BCE. Although there are some scholars who have doubts over whether the dynasty really existed,[1] archaeological evidence points toward its existence. According to historical records, it was preceded by the period of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors and followed by the Shang Dynasty.

According to the official history, the Xia Dynasty was founded when Shun (Chinese leader)|Shun abdicated the throne in favor of his minister Yu, whom Shun viewed as the perfect civil servant. Yu was greatly praised by his people for eliminating flooding by organizing the building of canals in all the major rivers. Soon before his death, instead of passing power to the person deemed most capable of rulership, Yu passed power to his son, Qi, setting the precedence for dynastic rule or the Hereditary System. The Xia Dynasty thus began a period of family or clan control.

The Skeptical School of early Chinese history, started by Gu Jiegang in the 1920s, was the first group of scholars within China to seriously question the traditional story of its early history: “the later the time, the longer the legendary period of earlier history... early Chinese history is a tale told and retold for generations, during which new elements were added to the front end”[2] Yun Kuen Lee's criticism of nationalist sentiment in developing an explanation of Three Dynasties chronology focuses on the dichotomy of evidence provided by archaeological versus historical research, in particular the claim that the archaeological Erlitou culture is also the historical Xia Dynasty. “How to fuse the archaeological dates with historical dates is a challenge to all chronological studies of early civilization.”[3]

Jie, the last ruler, was said to be a corrupt king. He was overthrown by Tang, the first king of the Shang dynasty.

After the defeat of Xia by Shang, some members of the royal family of Xia Dynasty survived as the Qi (Henan) state until 445 BCE. The Qi state was well recorded in the Oracle script as the one major supporter of the Xia Dynasty.[4] The Kings of the state of Yue, and therefore its successor state Minyue also claimed to be descended from Yu the Great.[5]

Archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the possible existence of the Xia dynasty at locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. There exists a debate as to whether or not Erlitou culture was the site of the Xia dynasty. Radiocarbon dating places the site at ca. 2100 to 1800 BC, providing physical evidence of the existence of a state contemporaneous with and possibly equivalent to the Xia Dynasty as described in Chinese historical works.[6] In 1959, a site located in the city of Yanshi was excavated containing large palaces that some archaeologists have attributed as capital of the Xia Dynasty. Though later historical works mention the Xia dynasty, no written records dated to the Xia period have been found to confirm the name of the dynasty and its sovereigns. At a minimum, the archaeological discoveries marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang Dynasty.


  1. Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X. 
  2. Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History. Journal article by Yun Kuen Lee; Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 41, 2002
  3. Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History. Journal article by Yun Kuen Lee; Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Vol. 41, 2002
  4. Guo li Taiwan shi fan da xue guo wen yan jiu suo ji kan By Guo li Taiwan shi fan da xue Guo wen yan jiu
  5. The State of Yue
  6. Fairbank, John K. China: A New History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992, page 35.