Xia (Hsia) Dynasty

Xia (Hsia) Dynasty
Xia (Hsia) Dynasty

According to Chinese history taught until the early 20th century, culture heroes such as the Divine Farmer and Ox Tamer taught the people the arts of civilization. The Three Emperors (Yao, Shun, and Yu), also mythical, followed the culture heroes, who were venerated because they abdicated in favor of the most worthy man rather than letting their less-qualifi ed sons succeed them.

The third of the sage rulers, called Yu the Great, solved the flooding problems that afflicted the reigns of Yao and Shun by dredging the riverbeds and channeling the water to flow to the sea. As a result Shun appointed Yu king (r. 2205–2198 b.c.e.). The people were so grateful that they overruled Yu’s choice of a successor and put his son Qi (Chi) on the throne.

Thus began China’s first dynasty, the Xia, which ended in 1766 b.c.e. with the overthrow of the last tyrant king Jie (Chieh). The Xia was followed by the Shang (or Yin) dynasty (1766–1122 b.c.e.), which was succeeded by the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1122–1256 b.c.e.) Collectively they were called the Three Dynasties and established the foundations of the Chinese civilization.

Students of the scientific method in early 20th-century China began a "doubting antiquity school" that rejected the traditional dating in teaching Chinese history and called both the Xia and Shang dynasties fictional or mythical. Scientific archaeology in China began in the 1920s; it has authenticated the Shang as fully historic because of the existence of writing dating to the Shang era, which has been deciphered.

Archaeological excavations in China since the 1920s show that north and northeastern China, from the Yellow River valley to the coast entered the Neolithic age around 8000 b.c.e. Thousands of sites show regional differences in the development in the pottery, jade, stone, ivory tools, and vessels used for both utilitarian as well as religious and ritual purposes.

They also show increasing sophistication with the passage of time, evidenced in advances in technology and differentiation in status from the quality and quantity of items buried with the dead.

They also show a geographic expansion that ranged from the highlands in the northwest to southern Manchuria in the northeast, southward to the Yangtze River valley and along the coast. Interactions between them are manifested in similarities in the styles of items they produced.

In the third millennium b.c.e., in present-day Shandong (Shantung) Province in northeastern China, a Neolithic culture began to make the transition to the threshold of the historic age. It is called the Longshan (Lungshan) culture. Other Longshan sites are located in Henan (Honan) and Shanxi (Shansi) Provinces, also in northern China. They date from c. 3000 to c. 2000 b.c.e.

Urban centers with protective walls, elaborate tombs, and palatial sized buildings have been excavated, some clutters of settlements stretching over several hundred sq. miles. Implements were still made of stone, bone, and shell; pottery was wheel made and high temperature fired; and objects of alloyed metals were made for the first time.

As ancient Chinese historians expressed it, China had entered the era of 10,000 states; while 10,000 is an exaggeration, there definitely were hundreds, even thousands, of such settlements, and there must have been interactions and competition among the states.

Civilizations become historic with the existence of deciphered written records. Traditional Chinese historiography is the longest continuous historiographical tradition in the world.

According to that tradition, China’s fi rst dynasty, the Xia, dates to between 2205 and 1766 b.c.e. As Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), Grand Historian and author of Shiji (Shih-chi), or Records of the Historian (a comprehensive history of the Chinese world from the beginning to his lifetime in the first century b.c.e.) wrote that it was begun by Yu the Great and ended with the overthrow of the tyrant king Jie by the founder of the following Shang dynasty. Sima Qian named 13 successive rulers during the dynasty and had little information for any except the first and last kings. He listed 30 kings for the Shang dynasty.

No contemporary written documents have been discovered, although pottery shards bearing writing that date to the Xia have been found but have not been deciphered. On the other hand, huge amounts of Shang writing that were inscribed on oracle bones (tortoiseshells or scapula bones of large animals) have survived and have been deciphered.

Shang writing is proven to be the ancestor of modern Chinese writing. Information provided by the oracle bones proved Sima Qian correct in the names of Shang kings and their relationship to one another. By the same process they proved those who doubted the existence of the Shang wrong.

Excavations since the 1970s have established a major urban site at Erlitou (Erh-li-t’ou) in Henan as of the Xia era (c. 2000 b.c.e.); it was perhaps a capital city of the Xia (Sima Qian stated that the Xia moved capital cities several times).

According to Sima Qian, King Yu once summoned his contemporary rulers of the 10,000 states to meet at Tushan, his wife’s home state. He went on to give details about capital cities, genealogy, and other details of Xia and not of the other states. Perhaps this indicates that by the end of the third millennium b.c.e.

Xia had emerged as the leader among Chinese states, while others, including its successor dynasties, the Shang and Zhou did not become prominent until later. Since Sima Qian was right about the succession of Shang kings, perhaps in the future additional archaeological information will also prove the Xia chronology correct.