Ok, it’s 12:00. Eyes, me, asses, down, lots to cover. We do in fact have a lot to go over today. I’ve been trying lately to keep my videos in the neighborhood of ten minutes, but we’ll probably have to go longer today. So, let’s get cracking! This is Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Today we’re going to talk about the Xia, China’s first dynasty.
Last time we talked about the Chinese Flood Myth, and how it symbolizes in the historical consciousness a shift from the hunting and gathering Big Man society of the past to the intensive agricultural, stratified society of the present. According to the story, a terrible flood spread over the earth, and the previous society was utterly destroyed.
That’s where one of my historical Chinese bros comes in: Da Yu, or Yu the Great. I talk about him in another video, and you should check it out if you haven’t, because Da Yu is awesome. Here’s the short version: having worked tirelessly under the former ruler to stem the ceaseless flow, he was chosen as the heir to the throne. Having assumed power, Da Yu kept at his work until at last all of the floodwaters were tamed. He was remembered through the ages for his diligence and dedication, such that he was later described by Confucius as a perfect, enlightened sage-king. When he died, the throne passed to his son, thus establishing China’s first royal line: the Xia Dynasty.
That said, however, Da Yu is very much a mythical figure rather than a historical one. For one thing, he lived hundreds of years before “history” as defined by modern scholarship—that is, contemporary written documentation—emerged in China. And even then, the very earliest written documents contain no mention of even Da Yu or the Xia. In fact we don’t hear about them at all until the Zhou dynasty, a thousand years after their supposed time. Therefore it seems more likely to me that Da Yu was a mythical culture hero, perhaps somehow associated with water, than a real man.
Regardless of his historicity, I would posit that it’s more important to discuss the figure of Da Yu, the way he would be remembered, and that memory’s influence on Chinese culture. Even if he himself did not exist, he may as well have. The same is true for the Xia dynasty.
What is for certain is that sometime around four thousand years ago, nascent Chinese civilization had reached a turning point. Around the time of Da Yu is thought to have lived, the Longshan culture mysteriously collapsed. Some sudden natural or social upheaval occurred which, in folk memory, may have been conflated with the changing climate into the Flood Myth. Urban centers emptied seemingly overnight, or at least drastically shrank(2). But at the same time, around four thousand years ago a new urban center emerged to the south, at Erlitou in east-central China’s Henan province. Judging by the pottery and other artifacts left behind at Erlitou, it was related to, or at least influenced by, the Longshan culture(3). Another extremely important development occurred during this time: the emergence of kingship.
In 2011, archaeologists at Erlitou discovered a sprawling palace complex that seems to indicate that around this time, one of the Big Men got bigger, and made himself into what we’d call a king. There was, at some point, one Big Man who achieved hegemony and made himself into something new, a position maintained not by gift-giving but by coercion. To this day, the written symbol 王 wang2 “king” is a pictogram of a battle axe(4) which should tell you a little about how these guys maintained their power.
And not only did the kings have axes, but these axes were made of bronze! This was a material that the rulers of the Erlitou culture seemed to consider central to, and perhaps symbolic of, their regime. This importance is evidenced by the presence of what appears to be a bronze foundry just south of the Erlitou palace complex(6). Bronze would continue to play a central role in Chinese ritual culture even to the present day. If you ever go to a Chinese temple, you will see incense offerings placed into these beautiful bronze cauldrons, a direct continuation of the Erlitou culture’s practices:
Another interesting thing about the Erlitou culture is that its boundaries more or less match up with those of the Xia dynasty in later accounts. This, coupled with the presence of what appears to be a royal palace, seems to imply that the Xia did in fact exist, and that Erlitou was their capital; or at least that the Erlitou culture would later be remembered as the Xia.
But ultimately, due to the absence of written documents at Erlitou, we just can’t be sure. Were these rulers in fact the Xia dynaasty? Or were they someone else? Did they even speak Chinese? We may never know. The most frustrating thing about the lack of written evidence is that it probably did exist, but doesn’t anymore. I say this because the very earliest written Chinese that we have is from the 14th or 13th century BC, only a few centuries after Erlitou. However, the writing system from this time period is a fully mature script, and that sort of thing doesn’t just pop up overnight—at least, not usually. These things happen organically, in a process that takes centuries of development from preliterate symbols (e.g. III) to writing (e.g. the written word “three”). The implication, therefore, is that the written text attested from the 14th century had been in development for at least several centuries before that. The most likely location for that development is at Erlitou.
Another reason I strongly suspect that the Erlitou civilization was literate is because of the accuracy of later records. The Bamboo Annals, a fourth-century-BC classic of Chinese history, contains a list of Xia kings, along with those of the immediately succeeding Shang dynasty. Both Xia and Shang were considered legendary by Western scholars until the 20th century, when documents dating from the Shang were recovered. Incredibly, the dates and names of the kings in these texts closely matches those of the Annals. Furthermore, the Annals accurately date the Mt. Tai earthquake of the 19th century BC—that is, the early Xia dynasty. There must have been an older source used by the writer of the Annals, but that primary source has now been lost. If the source used for Annals accurately listed the Shang kings, it does not seem like too much of a stretch to say that it may have accurately listed the Xia kings as well—which after all was only a few centuries prior. This would imply that somewhere down the line was a primary, or at least near-primary, source.
So, what happened? Where did these ancient sources disappear to? There are a few ways we can answer this question. The first, and most probable, is that the original documents were written on slips of bamboo, which then decomposed. Organic material doesn’t last long in the warm and damp climate of eastern China. Of course, these works would have been copied and circulated widely enough to be accessible to the writer of the Annals. So just to say that the source material rotted away isn’t enough.
That’s where hypothesis number two comes in. Less than a century after the composition of the Annals, a psychopathic dictator named Qin Shi Huang became the emperor. As part of his cult of personality, he decided to press the reset button on history and have everything begin with him. The atrocity that followed is called the “Burning of the Books and Burying of the Scholars”(6). Any written document that mentioned a history prior to Qin Shi Huang was outlawed and destroyed. Meanwhile, the intelligentsia was rounded up and killed. Kind of like another, more recent, fiasco in Chinese history.
Ironically, the reason we have texts like the Annals today is because Qin Shi Huang kept a personal library that he conveniently forgot to barbecue(7). Evidently this library included the Annals, but not the sources used thereby.
Hypothesis number three is that the written material of the Erlitou culture/Xia dynasty did exist, but at some point in the intervening four thousand years was found, ground up, and used as medicine.
The reason that we have documentary evidence of the Shang dynasty, which as I say came immediately after the Xia, is because during the Middle Shang period a new technique emerged for recording information: documents were engraved onto animal bones, which of course last a lot longer than bamboo slips:
However, this was a relatively late development, and no examples of Pre-Shang bone inscriptions have been identified.
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Farmers in Henan province have been digging up inscribed bones for centuries(9), but it wasn’t until recently that they were recognized as being written documents. Prior to that, people were kind of dumbfounded. They didn’t know what to make of these mysterious bones covered in cool symbols, so they decided that they were dragon bones.
And what do you do when you find a dragon bone? Well, that’s a silly question. Obviously you grind it up and use it as medicine. What else would you do? It wasn’t until the early 20th century that anyone realized that the cool doodles on the bones were actually written symbols—indeed, an early form of written Chinese directly ancestral to the hanzi of today. But it was too late. We will never know how much ancient knowledge was lost, what secrets will remain forever hidden, because some pharmacist wanted to make a quick buck. Perhaps on one of those bones evidence for the Xia dynasty was recorded, but someone unwittingly used it to treat malaria, rather than its intended purpose of revolutionizing Chinese historiography. Oh well.
That said, I remain optimistic that someday concrete proof will be unearthed linking the Erlitou culture to the Xia dynasty. So that’s it for today, thanks for joining me. Up next: Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part V: The rise of the Shang dynasty. See you next time.