Xia Dynasty Marks Start of Historical China

The Xia Dynasty moved toward solidifying an empire, establishing dynastic rule, and instituting a range of social and cultural advances.

Summary of Event

Knowledge of the first Chinese dynasty, the Xia (Hsia), comes from both archaeological digs and ancient texts such as Sima Qian’s Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993). Although it has long been thought to be a mythical dynasty, its existence has been supported by the findings of modern archaeologists. Remains of the Xia civilization, which corresponds to the late Longshan or Erlitou cultures in archaeological terms, have been found near the Yinghe and Ruhe Rivers, bolstering the foundation myths that place the origin of the dynasty within the context of the Xia people’s vulnerability to flooding from the rivers near which they built. Shun
Xia Yu
Xia Qi
Xia Jie

The Xia and its successor Shang and Zhou (Chou) Dynasties were the first to move toward creating combined empires that would encompass various warring states, clans, and outsiders. Before the Xia Dynasty, much of the Chinese population lived in small villages and had little contact with their government or the outside world. Their worldview was formed by myths that presented their leaders as godlike beings, descended from heaven to rule.

By about 2100 b.c.e., Chinese civilization was centered on the Yellow River in the modern province of Henan. In ancient times, the Yellow River frequently overflowed its banks, flooding the communities nearby and destroying the lives of the peasants who depended on it for water. According to the legend, a man named Gun was executed by King Shun for his failure to control the flooding; his wife, Sewege (Suege), is said to have swallowed a spirit’s pearl while pregnant, which resulted in the apparently supernatural powers exhibited by her son, Yu. Following in his father’s footsteps, Yu (Yü) solved the problem of flooding by dredging the accumulated sediment from the river. He was so dedicated to the task of taming the river that he refused to enter his house until the task was done, saying that he did not have a family until the waters came under control.

Impressed by Yu’s success, King Shun gave him control over a large section of the empire, in equal standing with Shun’s son, Di. Shun and Di soon died, leaving Yu in control of both halves of the empire. This combination of the territories of central China represented the end of the prehistoric era in Chinese history. It also began the tradition of inherited control of the Chinese government.

The beginning of the Xia Dynasty has been explained by others in less dramatic terms. Some historians have suggested that Yu was a victorious military leader who defeated the political powers in the Yellow River region. Whichever explanation is accepted, most estimates place the start of the Xia Dynasty c. 2100 b.c.e., ending five centuries later c. 1600 b.c.e.

The Xia Dynasty saw the consolidation of the many tribes of central China into a community. Much of this occurred after Yu’s death. Yu had named an adviser and friend, Yi, as his successor, but Yi proved unable to live up to Yu’s legendary status. Yi was soon replaced by Yu’s son Qi, who garnered the support of the nobility within Xia territory. Upon seizing power, Qi sought out the approval of the major tribal leaders, many of who traveled to his capital and pledged their support to his rule. The Youhu, however, refused to recognize Qi as the ruler of China. Qi responded by sending a large armed force to the Youhu territory and destroying its ruling family. This show of force convinced any rivals that Qi was not to be challenged. However, after gaining control, Qi proved to be an ineffective emperor who drank himself to death. His empire was only held together by his ruthlessness. He was succeeded by his son, Tai Kang, under whose rule the dynasty’s decline accelerated. Kang was eventually exiled by a general from a neighboring empire, and Kang’s younger brother took over the throne.

Although ancient historians list seventeen emperors of the Xia Dynasty, little is known about most them after Emperor Qi. The considerable political and military conflict that prevailed during the Xia period is seen in the violent deaths of some of the emperors. The emperor Xia Xiang (2146-2079 b.c.e.) was assassinated by a general, who himself was killed by the next emperor, Xia Kang (2079-2057 b.c.e.). The final Xia emperor, Xia Jie (c. 1818-1783 b.c.e.), was sadistic in the treatment of his people. In one bizarre episode, Jie is said to have ordered three thousand of his people to jump into a lake of wine and then enjoyed the spectacle of their struggles as they drowned.

According to legend, Jie pursued a woman, Mei Xi. He built a palace for her and kept her interest by purchasing large quantities of silk, which she enjoyed tearing for the sound it made. This luxurious lifestyle, as well as his declaration that as long as the sun shone he would remain emperor, made Jie vulnerable to outside attack. Cheng Tang, leader of the neighboring Shang clan, defeated Xia Jie in Mingtaio, near the capital of Anyi. Jie’s permanent exile and eventual death initiated the fall of the Xia Dynasty and its replacement by the Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 b.c.e.).


The Xia Dynasty marked the transformation of the Chinese political system from a disjointed, prehistoric society to one with a developed government and a method for passing on power. The dynasty also marked the beginning of centuries of military and political struggles among dynasty members and with outsiders who sought to overthrow the ruling family and establish their own. The Xia Dynasty also saw the use of governmental power to protect the people from the natural disasters caused by the flooding of the Yellow River.

The reign of the Xia Dynasty saw the creation of a central government that used its power to expand beyond its borders while aiding the commercial advances of the population. It also was the first Chinese civilization to leave some definitive, though limited, record of its achievement and its culture and society.

Further Reading

  • Chang, Kwang-Chih. Archaeology of Ancient China. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Covers the archaeological evidence of Xia culture.
  • Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Discusses the archaeological evidence for the Xia Dynasty.
  • Gernet, J. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Covers the Xia Dynasty in the context of archaic monarchy in China.
  • Loewe, Michael, and Edward Shaugnessy, eds. Cambridge History of Ancient China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chapter 1 reviews the mythology of Xia origins and its relationship to history and archaeology.
  • Stevens, Keith G. Chinese Mythological Gods. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Relates the myths surrounding Yu and his taming of the Yellow River.