The Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC) was the first recorded dynasty in China, however the records and its existence are disputed.
It’s generally believed that the Xia empire consisted of several clans, located along the lower reaches of the Yellow River.
Xia Dynasty Key Facts
Chinese: 夏朝 Xiàcháo /sshyaa-chaoww/ ‘Summer Dynasty’
Established: 2070 BC
Capitals: Around today’s Henan and Shanxi provinces.
Features: Clans were united as a small empire and ruled using the dynastic feudal system.
Succeeded by: the Shang Dynasty in 1600 BC
Did the Xia Dynasty Exist or Not?
According to ancient historical literature, such as the Classic of History, the Xia Dynasty was the first dynastic clan to rule China. But the literary works were written in dynasties that existed after Xia.
There is no conclusive evidence or written record from the Xia Dynasty to prove that it existed. Therefore, some historians still doubt the dynasty is any more than a legend.
Archaeological Evidence? — Xia Imperial Palace Relics Found
A site (called Erlitu) was discovered in the central Yellow River basin where the Xia Dynasty is said to have ruled. It is between Luoyang and Zhengzhou, in western Henan Province.
Radiocarbon dating places these discoveries between 2000 and 1500 BC. But it is unknown whether the Erlitou people were the people who were called the Xia.
The site was discovered in 1959, and relics of a palace, tombs, and residential areas were found.
Bronze tools and artifacts were dug out. But no written records have been found except for some markings on pottery and shells.
Many stone tools, pottery, jade ware, bronze ware, horn implements, and mussels were unearthed. A Chinese dragon-shaped object decorated with beautiful turquoise was believed to be the original image of a Chinese dragon.
Historical Records of the Xia Dynasty
Some ancient accounts tell about the rise and fall of a small kingdom along the Yellow River in the northern part of the country over a 500-year period. But the accounts were all written later than the Xia Dynasty.
The main ancient accounts are in the Records of the Grand Historian (written between about 109 and 91 BC by Sima Qian), and the Bamboo Annals.
The Bamboo Annals was written by official historians of Jin and Wei during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC).
Xia Dynasty Accounts
The Origins of Xia — Descendants of a Great Emperor
Recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian, there were battles between clans before Xia was established. Xia was one of Zhuanxu’s descendant clans. Zhuanxu was one of the five great emperors in ancient times.
Yu the Great Established the Xia Dynasty (Reign: 2029–1978 BC)
Yu the Great was appreciated by Shun, the Xia clan’s king at that time. Because the Xia tribe grew stronger, they were able to defeat a rival tribe. Shun sent Yu to suppress the Sanmiao tribe and he succeeded, which helped to make the Xia clan a strong one. Shun passed his throne to Yu the Great, and the Xia Dynasty began.
Before the Xia Dynasty, the clans passed their kingship to a reputable person. But Yu the Great passed his kingship to his son, Qi. Then the dynastic system began.
There was another story that Yu the Great planned to pass the throne to Gaotao, but Gaotao died before Yu the Great. And then he planned to pass it to Boyi, but his son Qi gained a higher reputation than Boyi. So Qi killed Boyi and succeeded the throne.
Stories of Yu the Great Taming Yellow River Floods
In the written stories, there was once a great flood that lasted many years, in about 2215 BC. A man named Yu the Great was given the task to control the flooding on the Yellow River by a sagely king named Yao (2358–2258 BC).
As you can see, the dates of these supposed events don’t even match. It is said that Yao told Gun, who was Yu’s father, to control the flood.
But the dikes that he built against the flooding didn’t work. They collapsed, and the area was flooded. So Yao executed Gun and recruited Yu. Instead of relying on dikes, Yu had canals dug to divert the water. Digging the canals meant removing a mountain. The place where the mountain was removed was called Yu’s Doorway (禹门口).
The flood works united the people along the Yellow River together. Yu the Great tamed the flood with other clans, gaining him a good reputation. Because of greater harvests, the Xia tribe grew stronger. People respected Yu highly for successfully controlling the flood, and he later became the ruler of the Xia clan.
The Demise of the Xia Dynasty (1559 BC)
The Xia Dynasty is said to have continued for hundreds of years. The kingdom had ups and downs, and it expanded during the reigns of another 17 emperors.
The Xia Empire Lost Prestige and Broke Up with Other Clans
One of the emperors, named Kongjia, changed the custom of worshiping ancestors to worshiping supernatural beings. Some clans were dissatisfied with Xia’s rule. And when Jie inherited the throne, the good relationship between Xia and other clans had been broken.
The Last Xia Emperor, Jie (Reign: 1590–1559 BC)
The last emperor, named Jie, was very extravagant and fell into dissipation. Jie constructed a palace for his favorite concubine and drank all night long. He killed his loyal ministers who criticized him.
Emperor Jie was fond of women and every time he suppressed a clan, he took away the women that he wanted. The Shang clan grew stronger when Xia lost favor with the other clans. Jie then suppressed Shang and imprisoned Tang their leader, but he was later released.
It is said that Emperor Jie’s wanton rule led to the dynasty falling out of favor with Heaven, i.e. Xia lost the Mandate of Heaven, meaning that it was fated to be replaced.
The Shang Clan Led Other Clans to Supplant Xia
Around 1559 BC, Tang of Shang united the other clans to suppress Jie and succeeded. Jie was banished, and Tang became the first leader of the Shang Dynasty.