Episode 4 - The Xia Dynasty

Please enter your text...

This is episode 4, the Xia Dynasty.

Last week, we covered the origins of the Xia dynasty and the legacy of Yu the Great, y’know, the flood control guy? Now we will look into what his ancestors got up to and basically – the themes of the dynasty. Such as the society itself and what evidence we do have of it – spoiler alert… there isn’t a lot. I will start with the time frames then, the Xia started officially with the rise of Qi, Yu’s son, and unofficially – it started with Yu. Which lands us in the year 2070 BC, and the dynasty lasted until around 1600 BC.

The capital of the dynasty was allegedly YangCheng, which is in today’s modern Henan province, however. Agriculture thrived during the period of the Xia, and that is largely due to Yu’s work at controlling the Yellow river and allowing people to be more settled in the Yellow River valley. Moreover, the smelting of copper and tin to make bronze allowed for larger agricultural yields in the fields. Side note here – bronze was not just used for agriculture, but for producing weapons and armour as well, thus making armed conflicts more favourable to the Xia.

This brings me on to our next topic – military. How did it work? In a nutshell, the Xia would war with neighbouring tribes, defeat them in battle then all was hunky dory. The Xia had new vassals, new vassals meant new taxes through tributes, which meant more money for the state. And the cycle repeats itself.

This new wealth through war and agriculture created an environment for social elites to rise and for government to be more stable. Class systems became a thing under the Xia but at the most basic levels. The top had the royal family, second were landowners and the last was peasants, who worked the land or slaves…Yep, just like everywhere else in the ancient world, slaves were a thing in ancient China.

As well as this, in terms of religion, the worshipping of ancestors seems to have been introduced during this time. I think (if the legends are to be believed) – Yu the Great has something to do with this. The royal family would often pray to their founding fathers – in this case, Yu – and pray for them to overwatch the dynasty, allowing good harvests and good fortune. The evidence for such ancestral worship can be found in the graves of the nobility – they did like to build elaborate tombs, very much like ancient Egypt. A lot of similarities can be drawn between the two, it wasn’t uncommon for pets, valuable items, such as jade bands, bronze armour, and even favourite slaves to be sealed in the tomb with their masters. Now I know what you are thinking – this is harsh. And you would be correct. But, it was considered the highest honour to go with your master to the afterlife and meet the ancestors. Kinda like you served your master in life, now you serve them in death. Now did the servant/slave get a say in any of this? Absolutely not. Might as well do this with a bit of meaning then I guess?

Now according to the ancient texts, the Xia dynasty had 18 rulers in total, if you count Yu the Great. Now to save time, and energy by not boring you to death, I’m not gonna talk about all of them. If you really wanna know ALL of them, I suggest doing a quick wee Google search. So instead, I will mention the noteworthy characters. And you will be surprised, after Yu, there aren’t really any noteworthy characters, apart from 2. Yeah… 500 years of rule and only 2 people are worth mentioning?!

The first is Shao Kang, he was the 6th king of the dynasty, and his reign lasted from 2007 – 1985 BC. However, his rule didn’t go to a great start. Rather the contrary, he spent the first half of his life in exile after his father was overthrown by a usurper named Han Zhuo. So yeah, great start… But what made him noteworthy? Well, during his time in exile his mother groomed him to become a great leader. She taught him his ‘birth right’, and how Han Zhuo had usurped power and became a tyrant. She also taught him how to rule benevolently when his time came and how to use military tactics.

The exile they saught was with a man who was sympathetic to the Xia cause, and he allowed Shao Kang to build in strength in relatively safety, and seeing an opportunity for power in the future – he even gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to Shao Kang! When he was ready, Shao Kang led a campaign against Han Zhuo and won the dynasty back. But by that stage it was all but inevitable, like Shao Kang’s father, Han Zhuo just squandered his position and was more interested in booze and women rather than running a kingdom.

When taking back the throne, Shao Kang didn’t commit any atrocities, and made sure his soldiers wouldn’t run rampant through the streets, restoring peace and stability to the region. The result was that he was welcomed back as a liberator rather than a tyrant.

Shao Kang hated his father and those after Yu the Great, and not for any personal reasons, but more because they squandered their position and responsibilities. Thus allowing Han Zhuo to usurp the throne. Even if it was only temporary. Shao Kang is probably the only reason why the dynasty lasted so long. Now what evidence is there of this? Pretty much none, apart from sources of such tales written hundreds of years after this happened. But still, not a bad story huh?

The next one is the last king of Xia, Jie. Now, he is a noteworthy character for all of the WRONG reasons. Now where do I even begin with this guy? (sigh) I guess… I better begin with the formalities -the dates of his reign, 1728 – 1600 BC. How was his time on the throne? Well… I could imagine he said he had a whale of a time……… At the expense of everyone else. I am going to mention one particular example that I read about:

Jie was planning a banquet for him and his political allies, saying that he wanted the best food the empire had to offer. Now it makes sense, political allies are important, but the specifics are what makes this really bad. SO he would make ridiculous demands like he wanted grapes from the southern reaches of the empire, wine from the West, grain from the North and meat from the East. Anyone who disobeyed was to be executed, oh I forgot to mention, they only had a days’ notice. The result was that a few servants were executed… the king could apparently tell if his commands were not obeyed through the food served! Jeezzz….. Would not like to get on this guys wrong side.

So we know what kind of guy Jie was (a bastard of the highest order), but what about his wife? Surely she should be more level headed than him, and try to save as many servants as possible – haha nahhhhhhhh, this was a case of not opposites attracting, but exactly the same being attracted! Jie’s wife was named Mo Xi and she was probably worse than him in all honesty. And again, I am only gonna talk about 1 story here, I think one is enough to paint a vivid enough picture:

Mo Xi and Jie were not like a typical married couple, only keeping to themselves, they liked the company of…. Other people…. Total swingers. This was the result of many parties were people would, you know, get to know each other. Mo Xi, wanted to create the perfect party arena, like all of us I guess. The difference was though Mo Xi took things really far – rather than having a punch bowl for the guests, like normal people would do – she wanted a pool of wine. Yep you heard that correctly, a pool of wine. Scandalous! By all accounts the parties held were a blast, and why wouldn’t they be? A pool of wine sounds pretty awesome and insane at the same time. But Mo Xi made it turn a little sour and become a party pooper. After waking up with what must have been a killer hangover, she called for the servants who built the pool, then told them to jump into the pool and drink it all – those who didn’t, would lose their head. Now of course this was impossible, but with the fear of death in them, the servants tried to drink the wine, and drowned in the process. The whole kingdom could hear her laugh as she watched those poor people drown. 3,000 people died as a result of this insanity and clear abuse of power. Honestly humans, can we not be so cruel all the time? Like please?

Now like I said before, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support these stories, apart from not just one, but 2 accounts of this story written hundreds of years later. But I think they are worth mentioning, as the next dynasty use these stories to justify their overthrow of the current state. This brings me to this, what then, can we say is evidence toward the Xia’s existence?

The answer: Archaeology - In 1959, an ancient palace was found in Erlitou, in modern day Henan. This discovery produced numerous artifacts. Such as stone tools, pottery, jade ware, bronze ware, horn implements, bronze tools, weapons as well as bones. Based on radiocarbon dating of the artifacts, Erlitou places these artefacts at around the same time as the Xia. Geographically as well, the Xia could very much have been the Erlitou. This does show a little evidence then, that A dynasty existed, or at least some form of central government in the region did. What else then, was found in the palace at Erlitou? Unfortunately, there are no written records in the site – only animal bones with some markings on them. It could well have been the basis of Chinese writing, but until proven otherwise – the earliest form of Chinese writing has to be credited with China’s next dynasty – the Shang.

Speaking of which, while Jie and Mo Xi were enjoying their wee parties, having a blast and drowning their servants, some vassals of the Xia had had enough, and one in particular was the Shang tribe. The Shang were growing in strength as the Xia were becoming weaker, and it seemed now the time was right to overthrow the unjust dynasty and establish a new order.

Next time, we will look at the battle which brought the end of the Xia dynasty, and you will be glad to know, we are leaving the land of myth behind – looking forward we are going to be dealing with REAL history. The facts, and what happened. I hope you have enjoyed these past few episodes so far though, and I hope you enjoy the rest moving through China’s very, very, very long history.

And that is a wrap for this episode, so what do you think the Xia was like? Is it all purely fiction and myth? Or do you think these events actually took place? Let me know in the comments!