Last modified on April 10, 2019, at 00:59

Xia dynasty

The Xia dynasty is an era of Chinese history that began in 2070 BC and continued until 1600 BC.[1] It was followed by the Shang dynasty. Shun, the last of the mythical Five Emperors, picked Yu the Great as his successor, according to the traditional account. Yu was able to control a worldwide flood by building embankments. Yu's son succeeded him, making Yu the founder of a dynasty. There were seventeen Xia rulers. The last was Jie. Jie fell in love with a woman who was both beautiful and cruel. Outraged rebels led by Zi Lü overthrew the Xia and established the Shang dynasty.[2] As this is the first recorded dynastic handover, it is a model for the "Mandate of Heaven" concept.

Xia dynasty
Chinese 夏朝

In the 1920s, scholars of the "Doubting Antiquities School" questioned whether the Xia should be considered historical.[3] It was once common to dismiss the dynasty altogether as mythical. In the 1980s, radiocarbon dating allowed archaeologists to identify Erlitou in northern Henan Province as the site of Zhenxun, the Xia capital.[4]

Erlitou was culturally dominant in its heyday and was unlike earlier Neolithic cultures. Its residents practiced ancestor worship, and the city can be viewed the place where a distinctively Chinese culture was forged.[5] Sites from the Xia period show mixed copper and stone use, a transitional phase between neolithic and Bronze Age culture. China entered the Bronze Age around 1700 BC, toward the end of the dynasty.

Myth or history?

Although the two most authoritative references, Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999) and the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project (2000), both treat the Xia as historical and identify it with the Erlitou site,[6] skepticism remains.[7]

History of China
Xia c. 2070–c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – 1046 BC
Zhou 1045–256 BC
Qin 221–206 BC
Han 206 BC – 220 AD
Three Kingdoms 220–280
Jin 265–420
Northern and Southern
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms
Song 960–1279
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1644–1911
Republic 1912–1949
People's Republic 1949–present

Xia was only one of dozens of states in China at this time.[3] Yu is said to have summoned the leaders of "10,000 states."[8] Oral tradition concerning the pre-historic states may have been reworked when their stories were written down in the early Zhou dynasty (c. 1045–256 BC). Emphasis on the Xia supports a "unilinear" view of history in which each dynasty passes the baton to the next.[3] Critics of this approach suggest that the Xia, Shang, and Zhou could all have existed at the same time as three of the 10,000 states.[8] Although the unilinear approach is much-criticized, it remains the standard framework for interpreting Chinese history.

Sarah Allan, a professor at Dartmouth College and a leading skeptic, has pieced together Shang mythology and cosmology. The Shang associated the Xia with the time of the flood, according to Allan. After the waters receded, the Xia grew weak. They were vanquished by the Shang sun-kings and eventually departed. There is no issue of dynastic handover in this version of the myth. The Shang rulers must have already viewed themselves as sovereign when the two peoples were living side by side. Shang records suggest that the Xia had a complex system of laws, as well as an unusual religion. Many traits of the Xia are the opposite of traits that the Shang associated with themselves. While the Shang represent light, fire, the sun, birds, and the East, the Xia represent dark, water, and the West. As such dualities fit all too neatly into yin-yang cosmology, they suggest at very least that the story has a mythological component.[9]

The Mandate of Heaven

The Shang version of the myth is quite different than the Zhou version, which emphasizes the shift of the Mandate of Heaven (tiānmìng) from the Xia to the Shang.[10] The Mandate is a central theory in Chinese political ideology. According to this theory, a dynasty rules until it the Mandate is forfeit as a result of a ruler's immoral behavior. The Zhou and later dynasties found this theory useful since it delegitimizes movements for regional autonomy. Skeptics note that the story of Jie's downfall is suspiciously similar to that of the final Shang ruler, who is also said to have been an immoral tyrant.[3]

Zhou religion, including the Xia myth, is the basis of Chinese Native Religion.


The following is the list of Xia rulers as given by Sima Qian.

Table of Rulers
Order Pinyin Chinese Reign (years)
1 Yu (the Great) 45
2 Qi 10
3 Tai Kang 太康 29
4 Zhong Kang 仲康 13
5 Xiang 28
6 Shao Kang 少康 21
7 Zhu 17
8 Huai 26
9 Mang 18
10 Xie 16
11 Bu Jiang 不降 59
12 Jiong 21
13 Jin 21
14 Kong Jia 孔甲 31
15 Gao 11
16 Fa 11
17 Jie 52


  1. These dates are from the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project (2000). Liu Xin gives 2205 - 1766 BC.
  2. "Xia dynasty," Britannica
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Lee, Yun Kuen, "Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History", University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu) 2002.
  4. "Stunning Capital of Xia Dynasty Unearthed", China Daily, Nov. 11, 2003.
  5. Allan, Sarah, "Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm", The Journal of Asian Studies, 66:461–496 Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  6. Chen Ning, "The Controversy of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project" (2009)
    Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaughnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC Cambridge University Press (1999). See "The Question of the Xia Dynasty," p. 71.
  7. Gillery, Bruce (July 20, 2000), "Digging into the Future", Far Eastern Economic Review: 74–77.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cambridge. p. 71.
  9. Allan, Sarah, "The myth of the Xia dynasty," The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 2, 1984.
  10. The legend of the the Xia can be compared to the legend of the King Arthur, which was created by Norman writers to justify the Norman Conquest.