c. 2070 BC (according to the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project)–c. 1600 BC
Proposed location of the Xia dynasty
Proposed location of the Xia dynasty
• ?
Yu the Great (First and former)
• ?
Jie of Xia (Last)
• Established
c. 2070 BC (according to the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project)
• Disestablished
c. 1600 BC
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
Shang dynasty
Today part ofChina
Hanyu PinyinXià

The Xia dynasty (Chinese: 夏朝; pinyin: Xiàcháo; Wade–Giles: Hsia4-ch‘ao2) is the first dynasty in traditional Chinese historiography. According to tradition, it was established by the legendary Yu the Great, after Shun, the last of the Five Emperors, gave the throne to him.[1] In traditional historiography, the Xia was later succeeded by the Shang dynasty.

There are no contemporaneous records of the Xia, who are not mentioned in the oldest Chinese texts, since the earliest oracle bone inscriptions date from the late Shang period (13th century BC). The earliest mentions occur in the oldest chapters of the Book of Documents, which report speeches from the early Western Zhou period and are accepted by most scholars as dating from that time. The speeches justify the Zhou conquest of the Shang as the passing of the Mandate of Heaven and liken it to the succession of the Xia by the Shang. That political philosophy was promoted by the Confucian school in the Eastern Zhou period. The succession of dynasties was incorporated into the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian and became the official position of imperial historiography and ideology. Some scholars consider the Xia dynasty legendary or at least unsubstantiated, but others identify it with the archaeological Erlitou culture.

According to the traditional chronology, based upon calculations by Liu Xin, the Xia ruled between 2205 and 1766 BC. According to the chronology based on the "current text" Bamboo Annals, it ruled between 1989 and 1558 BC. Comparing the same text with dates of five-planet conjunctions, David Pankenier, supported by David Nivison, proposed dates of 1953 and 1555 BC.[2][3][4] The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, commissioned by the Chinese government in 1996, concluded that the Xia existed between 2070 and 1600 BC.

Traditional history

The Xia dynasty was described in classic texts such as the Classic of History (Shujing), the Bamboo Annals, and the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by Sima Qian. According to tradition, the resident Huaxia were the ancestral people of the Han Chinese.[5][6]

Origins and early development

Traditional histories trace the development of the Xia to the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. According to ancient Chinese texts, before the Xia dynasty was established, battles were frequent between Yellow Emperor's tribe and Chi You's tribe. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Classic of Rites say that Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty, was the grandson of Zhuanxu, who was the grandson of the Yellow Emperor. But there are also other records, like Ban Gu's, that say Yu's father is a fifth generation descendant of Zhuanxu. Other sources such as Shan Hai Jing mention Yu's father Gun was the son of Luoming, who was the son of Huangdi. Sima Qian traced the origin of the dynastic Xia to the name of a fief granted to Yu, who would use it as his own surname and his state's name.[7]

Gun's attempt to stop the flood

See also: Great Flood (China)

Gun, the father of Yu the Great, is the earliest recorded member of the Xia clan. When the Yellow River flooded, many tribes united together to control and stop the flooding. Gun was appointed by Emperor Yao to stop the flooding. He ordered the construction of large blockades (levees) to block the path of the water. The attempts of Gun to stop the flooding lasted for nine years, but ultimately failed because the floods strengthened. After nine years, Yao had already given his throne to Shun. Gun was ordered to be imprisoned for life by Shun at Yushan (Chinese: 羽山; pinyin: Yǔshān, Feather Mountain), a mountain located between modern Donghai County in Jiangsu Province and Linshu County in Shandong Province.[7]

Yu the Great's attempt to stop the floods

Han dynasty stone relief rendering of Yu the Great
Location of Xia dynasty (in pink) in traditional Chinese historiography. Because of the lack of written records, the existence of Xia is questioned.

Yu was highly trusted by Shun, so Shun appointed him to finish his father's work, which was to stop the flooding. Yu's method was different from his father's: he organized people from different tribes and ordered them to help him build canals in all the major rivers that were flooding and lead the water out to the sea. Yu was dedicated to his work. The populace praised his perseverance and were inspired, so much so that other tribes joined in the work. Legend says that in the 13 years it took him to successfully complete the work to stop the floods, he never went back to his home village to stop and rest, even though he passed by his house three times.[8]


Yu's success in stopping the flooding increased agricultural production. The Xia tribe's power increased and Yu became the leader of the surrounding tribes. Soon afterwards Shun sent Yu to lead an army to suppress the Sanmiao tribe, which continuously abused the border tribes. After defeating them, he exiled them south to the Han River area. This victory strengthened the Xia tribe's power even more. As Shun aged, he thought of a successor and relinquished the throne to Yu, whom he deemed worthy. Yu's succession marks the start of the Xia dynasty. As Yu neared death he passed the throne to his son, Qi, instead of passing it to the most capable candidate, thus setting the precedent for dynastic rule or the Hereditary System. The Xia dynasty began a period of family or clan control.[9] It is believed that Zhenxun (modern Gongyi) and Yangcheng (modern Gaocheng)[10] were two of the capitals of the dynasty.

Hou Yi and Han Zhuo interregnum

Further information: Hou Yi and Han Zhuo

The third king of the Xia dynasty, Tai Kang, liked to hunt and ruled ineffectively. According to the Bamboo Annals, in his first year, Tai Kang went to hunt and his capital was attacked by Hou Yi. The occupation of the capital Zhenxun marked the beginning of a significant interregnum. In the 8th year of king Xiang, Hou Yi was killed by Han Zhuo, who had been his chief minister.[11]

Xiang of Xia was killed and his family escaped. The Xia throne was usurped by Han Zhuo, and ruled by his clan. Shao Kang, a son of Xiang, was sheltered by a tribal chief, and for years he managed to survive despite Han Zhuo's effort to eliminate him in order to prevent the return of the Xia clan. When Shao Kang reached adulthood, he began to prepare for his military uprisings. Several lords hated Han Zhuo's rule and joined Shao Kang's force. Later, he fought against the usurper and emerged victorious, while the latter committed suicide.

The reign of Shao Kang and his son Zhu is described traditionally as one of the most prosperous periods of the Xia dynasty.[12]


Jie, the last king, was said to be immoral, lascivious, and tyrannical. He was overthrown by Tang, the first king of the Shang dynasty. Tang is said to have given the small state of Qi as a fief to the remnants of the Xia ruling family.[13][14] This practice was referred to as "the two crownings and the three respects".

Zengzi was a descendant of the Xia dynasty Kings through Shao Kang.[15][16]

The Kings of the State of Yue claimed descent from the Xia dynasty Kings through Shao Kang.

Socioeconomic structure according to traditional accounts

Political divisions

Nine Provinces

According to the Book of Documents, Yu the Great divided his state into nine provinces (九州). These are Ji (), Yan (), Qing (), Xu (), Yang (), Jing (), Yu (), Liang () and Yong (). Each province was briefly described by the Book of Documents in terms of their soil quality, their productivity and other geographical characteristics. According to the chapter "Tribute of Yu" in the text, the Nine Provinces respectively correspond to modern regions of China as: [17]

Capital cities

The Xia dynasty moved the capital many times. According to traditional records, these capitals are as follows:

Capital cities of the Xia dynasty[18][19][20][21]
King Capital city Present location
Gun Daxia Part of Shanxi
Chong () Chong, Henan
Yu Gaomi (密都) Xin'an, Henan[22]
Yangcheng (阳城阳翟) Gaocheng, Dengfeng, Henan
Yangzhai (阳城阳翟) Xuchang, Henan
Jinyang (晋阳平阳) Jinyuan, Taiyuan
Pingyang (晋阳平阳) Southwest of Linfen, Shanxi
Anyi (安邑) Xia County, Yuncheng, Shanxi
Qi, Tai Kang Yangzhai (陽翟) -
Tai Kang, Zhong Kang Zhenxun (斟鄩) Speculated to be a Erlitou site 18 kilometers east of Luoyang
Xiang Diqiu (商丘) or Shangqiu Southwestern Puyang, Henan (简明中国历史地图集)
Zhenxun -
Shao Kang Lun (纶邑) Yucheng, Henan
Xiayi Xia County, Henan
Shangqiu -
Zhu Yuan () Jiyuan, Henan
Zhu, Huai, Mang, Xie, Bu Jiang, Jiong Laoqiu Kaifeng, Henan
Jin, Kong Jia, Gao, Fa Xihe Speculated to have been in Anyang, Henan
Jie Zhenxun -

"Fangguo" tribes

According to traditional Chinese records, the "fangguo" tribes were polities outside the Xia clan's direct rule. They were mostly large tribal peoples, but some were massive enough to become small states with more complex social structures, rivaling that of the Xia.[23] Many of the tribes were described as in regular relationships with the Xia court, being either allies or enemies. Eventually, some of the tribal chiefs joined the force of Tang to overthrow Jie's regime.

Geopolitical system

During the Xia Dynasty, the scope of direct jurisdiction of the state is limited to within the clan. Beyond the Xia's own tribe, other tribal leaders enjoyed relatively independent management and ruling rights in their own territories; for the Xia Hou, they expressed their mutual relations in the form of submission and tribute.[24] The Book of Documents says that Yu the Great determined the relationships between Xia and Fangguo tribes, dividing them into 5 categories according to the tribes' relative locations from the Xia clan's residence:

He [Yu] conferred lands and surnames. (He said), 'Let me set the example of a reverent attention to my virtue, and none will act contrary to my conduct, Five hundred li formed the Domain of the Sovereign. From the first hundred they brought as revenue the whole plant of the grain; from the second, the cars, with a portion of the stalk; from the third, the straw, but the people had to perform various services; from the fourth, the grain in the husk; and from the fifth, the grain cleaned.

Five hundred li (beyond) constituted the Domain of the Nobles. The first hundred li was occupied by the cities and lands of the (sovereign's) high ministers and great officers; the second, by the principalities of the barons; and the (other) three hundred, by the various other princes.

Five hundred li (still beyond) formed the Peace−securing Domain. In the first three hundred, they cultivated the lessons of learning and moral duties; in the other two, they showed the energies of war and defence.

Five hundred li (remoter still) formed the Domain of Restraint. The (first) three hundred were occupied by the tribes of the Yi; the (other) two hundred, by criminals undergoing the lesser banishment.

Five hundred li (the most remote) constituted the Wild Domain. The (first) three hundred were occupied by the tribes of the Man; the (other) two hundred, by criminals undergoing the greater banishment.[25]

The Book of Documents, the Book of Rites, together with texts such as Mencius, describe that the Xia had already established a distinguished official system with positions helping the Xia clan in managing the state. There were also laws set forth to maintain social stability within the country.

Economic status

Traditional narratives describe the Xia dynasty's agriculture as prosperous. The Analects contends that Yu the Great devoted himself to irrigation, improving the drainage system for cultivating crops. The texts also say that the people of Xia was gifted in making alcoholic drinks, with the notable legendary figure of Du Kang who is usually identified with Shao Kang. The population was described to have had vegetables and rice as the staple crop, and meat was usually reserved for sacrifices.[26] Additionally, manufacture of goods and trade with outside tribes flourished. The site at Erlitou contains many metallic fragments, suggesting that the time assigned to the Xia was characterized by bronze metallurgy.[27]

During Yu the Great's controlling of the floods, he renewed the transportation system. Sima Qian wrote in his Records of the Grand Historian that Yu used carriages to travel on land, boats to travel on rivers, sleds to travel on mud, and horses to cross the mountains. He surveyed the lands and opened up routes through geographical locations so that tributes from tribal chiefs to the Xia would be more convenient. He organized people to build roads connecting the Nine Provinces, helping to improve tributary and economic relations between the tribes.[28] Traditional texts record that the transport system of the Xia clan extended at least 500 – 600 li horizontally and 300 – 400 li vertically.[29] The Guoyu also records that the Xia dynasty ordered the roads to be opened up in the 9th month, the bridges to be finished in the 10th month.

Population estimates

The calculation of the Xia dynasty's population attracted interests during the Han dynasty. However, all calculations are speculations and extrapolations, due to difficulties stemming from time intervals. The Book of the Later Han quotes Huangfu Mi's work Diwang Shiji, which claims that when Yu the Great finished establishing the Nine Provinces, the total population was 13,553,923 individuals,[30] however, this number is highly speculative because Huangfu Mi reached his conclusion by extrapolating from demographical statuses of the Qin, Han, Jin dynasties. Modern Chinese scholars estimated the Xia's population by employing records from ancient texts. Records have it that when Tai Kang established Lun as his capital, the settlement had about one lu, which was 500 people according to Du Yu, and this number includes only soldiers . Modifying the figures and adding other types of people, Song postulated that this supposed city had around 1500 – 2500 individuals by the time of Tai Kang,[31] a number he classified as medium. Estimating the number of populous cities, Song finally calculated the result of over 2 million. Wang Yumin, using description of demography during the reign of Emperor Shun who directly preceded the Xia, concluded that the population of the dynasty was around 2.16 million.[32]

Modern studies

Gu Jiegang, founder of the Doubting Antiquity School

The time gap between the supposed time of the Xia and the first written references to it have meant that the historicity of the Xia dynasty itself and the traditional narrative of its history are at best uncertain. The Skeptical School of early Chinese history, started by Gu Jiegang in the 1920s, was the first group of scholars within China to systematically question the traditional story of its early history. By critically examining the development of the narrative of early Chinese history throughout history, Gu concluded "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".[33]

Some historians have suggested that the Zhou rulers invented the Xia as a pretext, to justify their conquest of the Shang, by noting that just as the Shang had supplanted the Xia, they had supplanted the Shang.[34] The existence of the Xia remains unproven, despite efforts by Chinese archaeologists to link them with the Bronze Age Erlitou culture.[35]

Among other points, Gu and other historians note certain parallels between the traditional narrative of Xia history and Shang history that would suggest probable Zhou-era fabrication or at least embellishment of Xia history. 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."[36]

In The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China, Sarah Allan noted that many aspects of the Xia are simply the opposite of traits held to be emblematic of the Shang. The implied dualism of the Shang myth system, Allan argues, is that while the Shang represent the suns, sky, birds, east and life, the Xia represent the moons, watery underworld, dragons, west and death. Allan argues that this mythical Xia was re-interpreted by the Zhou as a ruling dynasty replaced by the Shang, a parallel with their own replacement of the Shang.[37]

Other scholars also argue that Shang political class's remnants still existed during the early Zhou dynasty, Zhou rulers could not simply justify their succession to pacify Shang remnants if it's entirely fabricated since the Shang remnants, who remembered prior histories, would not believe it in the first place.[38] For example, the Classic of Poetry preserves the "Eulogies of Shang" (商頌 Shāng sòng) which represents the powerful State of Song,[39] whose rulers were the direct descendants of Shang dynasty.[40] Among those eulogies, the eulogy Chang Fa (長發) celebrated victories by the "Martial King" Tang of Shang against Wei (韋), Gu (顧), Kunwu (昆吾), and Jie of Xia.[41] During the later Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), an ancient bronze artifact, "Shu Yi Zhong" (叔夷鐘), was unearthed with an inscription describing how the founder of the Shang dynasty, Tang, overthrew the Xia dynasty. The owner of this artifact, Shu Yi, a high officer of the Qi Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn period (c. 600 BC), was actually a direct descendant of the Song rulers, which means he himself was a descendant of Shang people. This bronze artifact was used to memorialize his Shang ancestors. The inscription contradicts the hypothesis that the Zhou dynasty manufactured the existence of the Xia dynasty.[42]

Although the Shang oracle bone inscriptions contain no mention of the Xia, some scholars have suggested that polities they mention might be remnants of the Xia. Guo Moruo suggested that an enemy state called Tufang state of the Fang states mentioned in many inscriptions might be identified with the Xia.[43] The historian Shen Changyun pointed to four inscriptions mentioning Qǐ (杞), the same name as the state of , which according to traditional accounts was established by the defeated royal house of Xia.[44]

Archaeological discoveries

See also: Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project

Erlitou sites (black) and Xia capitals identified in traditional sources (red, with numbers for those from the "current text" Bamboo Annals)

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 the Erlitou culture was the site of the Xia dynasty, largely centering on whether archeological evidence of urban habitation across the region before the Shang dynasty should be taken as corroboration of the traditional account of a Xia, or expected regardless of the historicity of the Xia due to the trajectory of population growth and agricultural development in the fertile regions of eastern China from the neolithic through early history. Radiocarbon dating places the Erlitou sites at c. 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 later classical Chinese historical works.[45] In 1959, a site located in the city of Yanshi was excavated containing large palaces that some archaeologists have claimed to be the capital of the Xia dynasty. Through the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts regarding Xia;[46] in 2011, Chinese archaeologists uncovered the remains of an imperial sized palace—dated to about 1700 BC—at Erlitou in Henan, further fueling the discussions about the existence of the dynasty.[47] At a minimum, the era traditionally denoted as the Xia dynasty marked a period of urbanization and agricultural development bridging the late Neolithic cultures and the urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.[46]

Pottery jue from the Erlitou culture

The only musical instruments found at Erlitou are a qing sounding stone, two small clapper bells (one earthenware, one bronze) and a xun (ocarina) with one finger hole.[48][49] Due to this extreme scarcity of surviving instruments and the general uncertainty surrounding most of the Xia, creating a musical narrative of the period is impractical.[50]

Archaeological evidence of a large outburst flood at Jishi Gorge that destroyed the Lajia site on the upper reaches of the Yellow River has been dated to about 1920 BC. This date is shortly before the rise of the Erlitou culture in the middle Yellow River valley and the Yueshi culture in Shandong, following the decline of the Longshan culture in the North China Plain. The authors suggest that this flood may have been the basis for the later myth of Yu the Great, and contributed to the cultural transition into the Erlitou period. They further argue that the timing is further evidence for the identification of the Xia with the Erlitou culture.[51] However, no evidence of contemporaneous widespread flooding in the North China Plain has yet been found.[52]

The Cambridge History of Ancient China, published in 1999, takes the beginning of Chinese history as the Xia's successor Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). Xie Weiyang responded to this standpoint unfavorably towards efforts in China to link archaeological research to historical records:

The Cambridge History of Ancient China adopted this standpoint with the promise of providing a commonly accepted synthesis based on an exhaustive discussion of the latest pre-Qin material available at the end of the 1990s. This is of extraordinary significance, because if this book aims to provide a commonly accepted synthesis, then the blood, sweat, and tears of Chinese scholars over the past decade that brought about countless achievements in Xia period research will become a joke, and many Chinese scholars in the field will lose all sense of direction and not know how to get back on the right track.[53]

However, as Chen Chun and Gong Xin point out, the debate upon the Xia dynasty's historical existence stems from different research orientations between Chinese and Western scholars. The authors assert that overseas scientific communities are hesitant to accept the results of Chinese researchers because their studies used traditional narratives of the Xia as a guide that instructed them on what to find, and because they quickly linked newly discovered artifacts, constructions and other evidences as representing the proof for the Xia's actual existence. They claim that mainland Chinese scholars focused mainly on extrapolations of excavated evidence to establish a historical perspective, and overlooked other complex factors in ancient human activities. This method, according to the two authors, resulted in high levels of subjectivity and contradicted the common trend among Western researchers, which took the physical discoveries as not necessarily representing real social or political units.[54]

Sovereigns of the Xia dynasty

The following table lists the rulers of Xia according to Sima Qian's Shiji. Unlike Sima's list of Shang dynasty kings, which is closely matched by inscriptions on oracle bones from late in that period, records of Xia rulers have not yet been found in archaeological excavations of contemporary sites, or records on later Shang dynasty oracle bones.

Posthumous names (Shi Hao 諡號)1
Order Reign2 Chinese Pinyin Notes
01 45 Also Yu the Great (大禹; Dà Yǔ) Founder of Xia dynasty
02 10 Son of Yu
03 29 太康 Tài Kāng Son of Qi  
04 13 仲康 Zhòng Kāng Son of Qi and younger brother of Tai Kang  
05 28 Xiāng Son of Zhong Kang  
06 21 少康 Shào Kāng Son of Xiang Restored the Xia dynasty
07 17 Zhù Son of Shao Kang  
08 26 Huái Son of Zhu  
09 18 Máng Son of Huai
10 16 Xiè Son of Mang
11 59 不降 Bù Jiàng Son of Xie  
12 21 Jiōng Son of Xie, younger brother of Bu Jiang  
13 21 Jǐn Son of Jiong Guoyu: Jǐn or Jìn, putonghua: Jǐn
14 31 孔甲 Kǒng Jiǎ Son of Bu Jiang, nephew of Jiong and cousin of Jin  
15 11 Gāo Son of Kong Jia  
16 11 Son of Gao  
17 52 Jié Son of Fa Also Lu Gui (履癸, Lǚ Guǐ)
1 The reign name is sometimes preceded by the name of the dynasty, Xia (), for example Xia Yu (夏禹).
2 Possible length of reign, in years. Mostly based on Zizhi Tongjian Waiji.

Xia dynasty family tree

Xia dynasty
(1) Yu the Great[55]
(2) Qi[56]
(3) Tai Kang
(4) Zhong Kang
(5) Xiang
(6) Shao Kang
(7) Zhu
(8) Huai
(9) Mang
(10) Xie
(11) Bu Jiang
(12) Jiong
(14) Kong Jia
(13) Jin
(15) Gao
(16) Fa
(17) Jie

See also



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