The Jishi Outburst Flood of 1920 bce and the Great Flood Legend in Ancient China: Preliminary Reflections

In: Journal of Chinese Humanities

On August 5, 2015, Science published an article by Wu Qinglong and a team of distinguished archaeologists that reported on the discovery of evidence for a massive outburst flood in the upper reaches of the Yellow River c. 1920 bce. The archaeologists identified this flood with the one brought under control by Yu 禹, who was traditionally regarded as the founder of the Xia dynasty. They further argue that since Erlitou culture originated around 1900 bce, the coincidence of date serves to confirm the identification of Xia and Erlitou culture. This article argues against the historical interpretation of this evidence for an ancient flood. In the early texts, Yu did not control a flood along the Yellow River; he dug all the riverbeds throughout the world so that the waters could flow into the sea. Moreover, the story of Yu controlling the waters and the foundation of the Xia dynasty were not linked in the earliest accounts. This story originated as part of a cosmogonic myth in which the world was made habitable and conducive to agriculture. Thus, it cannot be identified with any particular flood or used to date the foundation of the Xia. Finally, it argues that a great flood was more likely to have caused social disruption than the development of a new level of state power. However, this flood may have caused people from the Qijia culture, which was centered in the region of the flood and already had primitive bronze-casting technology, to flee to other regions including that dominated by Erlitou culture. This cultural interaction introduced metallurgy which was further developed in the context of Erlitou culture, thus spurring its development as a state-level society.

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    Sarah Allan“The Myth of the Xia Dynasty,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2 (1984; idem The Shape of the Turtle: Myth Art and Cosmos in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press 1991) 57-74.

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  • 3

    Ibid.; Sarah Allan“Sons of Suns: Myth and Totemism in Ancient China,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 44 no.1 (1981): 290-326.

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  • 11

    AllanThe Shape of the Turtle79-83; Hu Houxuan 胡厚宣 “Shi Yindaiqiunianyusi fang he si fang feng de jisi 釋殷代求年於四方和四方風的祭祀” Fudanxuebao 1 (1956).

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  • 16

    Allan“The Myth of the Xia” 249-252.

  • 21

    Li Shuicheng 李水城“Xibei yu zhongyuan zaoqi ye tong ye de quyu tezheng ji jiaohu zuoyong 西北與中原早期冶銅業的區域特征及交互作用,” Kaoguxuebao 3 (2005); Li Liu and Xingcan Chen The Archaeology of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 331.

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