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Yu the Great

Yu the Great (Chinese: ; pinyin: D Y, c. 2200

2100 BC)* [1] was a legendary ruler in ancient China
famed for his introduction of ood control, inaugurating
dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and
for his upright moral character.* [2]* [3]

on the slopes of Mount Song, just south of the Yellow

River.* [13] He later married a woman from Mount Tu
(Chinese: ) who is generally referred to as Tushanshi (; Lady Tushan).* [14] They had a son
named Qi, a name literally meaning revelation.* [14]

The dates proposed for Yu's reign precede the oldest

known written records in China, the oracle bones of the
late Shang dynasty, by nearly a millennium.* [4] No inscriptions on artifacts from the supposed era of Yu, nor
the later oracle bones, make any mention of Yu; he
does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the
Western Zhou period (c. 1045771 BC). The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of
Yu. Proponents of the historicity of Yu theorise that stories about his life and reign were transmitted orally in various areas of China until they were recorded in the Zhou
dynasty,* [5] while opponents believe the gure existed in
legend in a dierent form - as a god or mythical animal
- in the Xia dynasty, and morphed into a human gure
by the start of the Zhou dynasty. Many of the stories
about Yu were collected in Sima Qian's famous Records
of the Grand Historian. Yu and other sage-kingsof
Ancient China were lauded for their virtues and morals
by Confucius and other Chinese teachers.* [6]

The location of Mount Tu has always been disputed.

The two most probable locations are Mount Tu in Anhui
Province and the Tu Peak of the Southern Mountain in
Chongqing Municipality.

2 Great Yu Controls the Waters

Yu is one of the few Chinese rulers posthumously honored with the epithet "the Great".

Ancestry and early life

For a family tree, see: Family tree of ancient Chinese

According to several ancient Chinese records, Yu was the
8th great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor: Yu's father
Gun was the 5th great-grandson of Emperor Zhuanxu;
Zhuanxu's father, Changyi, was the second son of the Yellow Emperor.* [7]* [8]* [9]* [10] Yu was said to have been
Han Dynasty depiction of Yu.
born at Mount Wen ( ), in modern-day Beichuan
County, Sichuan Province,* [11] though there are debates
as to whether he was born in Shifang instead.* [12] Yu's
mother was of the Youxin clan named either Nzhi ( Main article: Great Flood (China)
) or Nxi ().
During the reign of king Yao, the Chinese heartland was
frequently plagued by oods that prevented further economic and social development.* [15] Yu's father, Gun,
was tasked with devising a system to control the ooding.

When Yu was a child, his father Gun moved the people

east toward the Central Plain. King Yao enfeoed Gun
as lord of Chong, usually identied as the middle peak
of Mount Song. Yu is thus believed to have grown up


He spent more than nine years building a series of dikes

and dams along the riverbanks, but all of this was ineective, despite (or because of) the great number and size of
these dikes and the use of a special self-expanding soil.
As an adult, Yu continued his father's work and made a
careful study of the river systems in an attempt to learn
why his father's great eorts had failed.
Collaborating with Houji, a semi-mythical agricultural
master about whom little is concretely known, Yu successfully devised a system of ood controls that were crucial in establishing the prosperity of the Chinese heartland. Instead of directly damming the rivers' ow, Yu
made a system of irrigation canals which relieved oodwater into elds, as well as spending great eort dredging
the riverbeds.* [9] Yu is said to have eaten and slept
with the common workers and spent most of his time
personally assisting the work of dredging the silty beds
of the rivers for the thirteen years the projects took to
complete. The dredging and irrigation were successful,
and allowed ancient Chinese culture to ourish along the
Yellow River, Wei River, and other waterways of the Chinese heartland. The project earned Yu renown throughout Chinese history, and is referred to in Chinese history
as Great Yu Controls the Waters (Chinese:
; pinyin: D Y Zh Shu ). In particular, Mount Longmen along the Yellow River had a very narrow channel
which blocked water from owing freely east toward the
ocean. Yu is said to have brought a large number of workers to open up this channel, which has been known ever
since as Yu's Gateway(Chinese: ).* [9]


Apocryphal stories

In a mythical version of this story, presented in Wang Jia's

4th century AD work Shi Yi Ji, Yu is assisted in his work
by a yellow dragon and a black turtle (not necessarily related to the Black Tortoise of Chinese mythology).* [16]
Another local myth says that Yu created the Sanmenxia
"Three Passes Gorge" of the Yangzi River by cutting a
mountain ridge with a divine battle-axe to control ooding.* [17]

rendering countless number of people homeless, he could

not rest.* [14]* [18]
Yu supposedly killed Gong Gong's minister Xiangliu, a
nine-headed snake monster.

3 The Nine Provinces

Main articles: Yu Gong, Nine Provinces (China) and
Nine Tripod Cauldrons
King Shun, who reigned after Yao, was so impressed by
Yu's engineering work and diligence that he passed the
throne to Yu instead of to his own son. Yu is said to have
initially declined the throne, but was so popular with other
local lords and chiefs that he agreed to become the new
emperor, at the age of fty-three. He established a capital
at Anyi (Chinese: ), the ruins of which are in modern Xia County in southern Shanxi Province, and founded
what would be called the Xia Dynasty, traditionally considered China's rst dynasty.* [19]
Yu's ood control work is said to have made him intimately familiar with all regions of what was then Han
Chinese territory. According to his Yu Gong treatise in
the Book of Documents, Yu divided the Chineseworld
into nine zhou or provinces. These were Jizhou (
), Yanzhou ( ), Qingzhou ( ), Xuzhou (
), Yangzhou (), Jingzhou (), Yuzhou (),
Liangzhou () and Yongzhou ().* [20]
According to the Rites of Zhou there was no Xuzhou
or Liangzhou, instead there were Youzhou () and
Bingzhou (), but according to the Erya there was
no Qingzhou or Liangzhou, instead there was Youzhou
() and Yingzhou ().* [20] Either way there were
nine divisions. Once he had received bronze from these
nine territories, he created ding vessels called the Nine
Tripod Cauldrons.* [21] Yu then established his capital at
Yang City ().* [22] According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu killed one of the northern leaders, Fangfeng (
) to reinforce his hold on the throne.* [23]* [24]

Traditional stories say that Yu sacriced a great deal of

his body to control the oods. For example, his hands
were said to be thickly callused, and his feet were completely covered with callus. In one common story, Yu had
only been married four days when he was given the task
of ghting the ood. He said goodbye to his wife, saying
that he did not know when he would return. During the
thirteen years of ooding, he passed by his own family's
doorstep three times, but each time he did not return inside his own home. The rst time he passed, he heard
that his wife was in labor. The second time he passed
by, his son could already call out to his father. His family
urged him to return home, but he said it was impossible as
the ood was still going on. The third time Yu was passing by, his son was older than ten years old. Each time,
Yu refused to go in the door, saying that as the ood was Yu mausoleum in Shaoxing




morphed into the rst man, who could control water, and
it was only during the Zhou Dynasty that the legendary
gures that now precede Yu were added to the orthodox
legendary lineage.

5.2 Modern
In the Republic of China era Sun Yat-sen envisioned
great plans for water control like Yu the Great, including a 30 million horsepower dam across the Yangtze
River.* [28] However the plans did not come into being as the Kuomintang were at war with Japan and the
Communist Party of China.* [28]* [29]

Yu temple in Yu mausoleum

According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu ruled the Xia Dynasty for forty-ve years and, according to Yue Jueshu (
), he died from an illness.* [24]* [25] It is said that
he died at Mount Kuaiji, south of present-day Shaoxing,
while on a hunting tour to the eastern frontier of his
empire, and was buried there. The Yu mausoleum (
) known today was rst built in the 6th century
CE (Southern and Northern Dynasties period) in his
honor.* [26] It is located four kilometers southeast of
Shaoxing city.* [26] Most of the structure was rebuilt
many times in later periods. The three main parts of the
mausoleum are the Yu tomb (), temple () and
memorial ().* [27] In many statues he is seen carrying an ancient hoe (). A number of emperors in
imperial times travelled there to perform ceremonies in
his honor, notably Qin Shi Huang.* [25]


Place in historiography and culture


Because no documentary evidence about Yu survives,

there is some controversy as to the historicity of the gure. No inscriptions on artifacts dated to the supposed
era of Yu, or the later oracle bones, contain any mention of Yu. The rst archeological evidence of Yu comes
from vessels made about a thousand years later, during
the Western Zhou dynasty.
The Doubting Antiquity School of early 20th century historians, for example, theorised that Yu was not a person
in the earliest legends, but a god or mythical animal, who
was connected with water and possibly with the mythical
Dragon Kings and their control over water. According
to this theory, Yu (as god or animal) was represented on
ceremonial bronzeware by the early Xia people, and by
the start of the Zhou Dynasty, the legendary gure had

Beichuan, Wenchuan and Dujiangyan towns in Sichuan

have all made claims to be the birthplace of Yu the
great.* [30]

6 See also
Chinese emperors family tree (ancient)
Flood myth
Great Flood (China)
Natural disasters in China

7 References
[1] Wang Quangen , (1993). Huaxia Quming Yishu
. (Taipei: Zhishu-fang Chuban Jituan
), 42.
[2] Mungello, David E. (2009). The Great Encounter of China
and the West, 15001800 (3 ed.). Rowman & Littleeld.
p. 97. ISBN 9780742557987.
[3] , . [2002] (2003) .
. Intelligence press. ISBN 962-8792-80-6. p 40.
[4] Underhill, Anne P., ed. (2013). A Companion to Chinese
Archaeology. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 317. ISBN 978-14443-3529-3.
[5] Allan, Sarah (1991). The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art,
and Cosmos in Early China. State University of New York
Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-7914-9449-3.
[6] , . [2002] (2003) .
. Intelligence press. ISBN 962-8792-80-6. p 36.
[7] Book of Han () chapter
[8] Book of Lineages ()
[9] , . [2002] (2003) .
. Intelligence press. ISBN 962-8792-80-6. p 38.

[10] " dynasty brief history.

Retrieved on 2010-09-18.
[11] " (Chinese) Retrieved on 2010-09-18.
[12] " Retrieved on 201009-18.
. (Chinese).
Retrieved on 2010-09-18.
[14] Wang Hengwei . (2006) Zhongguo Lishi Jiangtang
#1 Yuan Gu Zhi Chunqiu .
Zhonghua Shuju . ISBN 962-8885-24-3. p 18.
[15] Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in ancient China, fth to third century, B.C.E.: a comparison with classical Greek rhetoric.
[1998] (1998). Univ of South Carolina Press publishing.
ISBN 1-57003-216-5, ISBN 978-1-57003-216-5. p 46
[16] Lewis, Mark Edward (2006), The ood myths of early
China, SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture,
SUNY Press, pp. 104105, 191192, ISBN 0-79146663-9 (especially, notes 90 and 97). The relevant text
is in Shi Yi Ji, Chapter 2: "
", etc.
[17] "
trieved on 2010-09-26.


[18] . (2005) (2006) #1 .

. ISBN 962-8885-24-3. p 19.
[19] . (2005) (2006) #1 .
. ISBN 962-8885-24-3. p 21.
[20] Ng Saam-sing . (2008). Zong-guok Man-faa Buiging Bat-cin Ci . Hong Kong:
Seong Mou Jan Syu Gwun (). ISBN
962-07-1846-1, ISBN 978-962-07-1846-5. p 37.
[21] Bjaaland Welch, Patricia. [2008] (2008). Chinese art:
a guide to motifs and visual imagery. Tuttle Publishing.
ISBN 0-8048-3864-X, 9780804838641. p 262.
[22] . [2003] (2003). .
. ISBN 986-7938-17-8, ISBN 978-986-7938-176.
[23] . [1996] (1996). .
. ISBN 957-11-1290-9, ISBN
978-957-11-1290-9. p 392.
[24] Bamboo Annals Xia chapter
[25] " Retrieved on 2010-09-26.
[26] " Mausoleum. Retrieved
on 2010-09-26.
[27] "
. Retrieved on 2010-09-26.


[28] Yan, Hong-Sen. [2007] (2007). Reconstruction designs

of lost ancient Chinese machinery Volume 3 of History
of mechanism and machine science. ISBN 1-4020-64594, ISBN 978-1-4020-6459-3. p 48.
[29] From 1994 to 2008 the Three Gorges Dam was built on
the Yangtze River
[30] "
. Retrieved on 2010-09-26.

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