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1.6: Was There a Xia Dynasty?

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    Before we get there, let’s go back to consider how we can know whether there was a dynasty before Shang, called Xia. Before the development of scientific archaeology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people sometimes stumbled upon or purposely looted old tombs with ancient bronze ritual vessels. Collectors in Song times and later adored the vessels, but had no way to scientifically analyze them. Knowledge of the deep past came from a small set of transmitted texts that were copied and recopied and eventually – beginning after about AD 800 – printed, and then turned into electronic copies.

    The most useful transmitted text for understanding antiquity was Sima Qian’s (145-86 BC) Shiji (Records of the Historian), a history of the known world up to his time. Sima Qian’s ancestors had been scribes keeping records for rulers, and his father Sima Tan served the Han dynasty as an astronomer and archivist. Tan began the Shiji, and his son finished it in about 90 BC on the basis of research in the Han archives, travel throughout the empire, interviews with knowledgeable people, and written records that no longer exist today. The Shiji has five parts:

    • the Basic Annals of events under each ruler;
    • tables of genealogy and chronology;
    • treatises on ritual, music, the calendar, astronomy, transport, and finance;
    • the “Hereditary Houses,” about the feudal states of Zhou times; and
    • categorized biographies of men and women of all kinds, as well as the earliest accounts of Korea and Japan.

    Later dynasties adopted this format, without the “Hereditary Houses,” for the official histories each compiled about the preceding dynasty. Historians today still rely on Sima’s work, and the next few chapters will refer to it often.

    Alongside the Shiji, readers before the age of archaeology learned about the past from the Five Classics. Like the Bible, the Classics were compilations of oral knowledge and written texts of many different ages. People both read and memorized them at various times, and they became the shared heritage of the East Asian countries.

    • The Book of Odes includes 305 poems of all kinds, composed and eventually written down from about 1000 BC to 400 BC.
    • The Book of Documents or Classic of History includes genuinely old speeches from about 1045 BC along with three other chronological layers of text, the last set written as late as AD 400.
    • Three books on ritual, which get lumped together as one classic, took shape only in the Han period.
    • The Book of Changes is an extremely strange guide to divining the future (or understanding the present). The oldest part of it may go back to around 1000 BC, with additions going up through about 100 BC.
    • Finally, the unreadably dull Spring and Autumn Annals of the state of Lu acquired commentaries that included lots of great stories of the politics of the era from 722 BC to 481 BC.

    In addition to the Classics, the writings of the philosophers of the Hundred Schools of Thought (about 550 BC to 139 BC) also commented on the past.

    The Classics and philosophers discuss an antique golden age of three dynasties: Xia, Shang, and Zhou. Golden-age governance began with Yao, a virtuous ruler who chose a filial man called Shun to replace him; Shun likewise chose Yu. When Yu died, this meritocratic succession ended, for Yu’s son founded the Xia dynasty and the whole tradition of inheritance of the throne. People throughout in East Asia read the Classics and philosophers and believed that the Xia kings had indeed ruled for 400 years, declining in virtue until the Shang founder overthrew the wicked last Xia king. But in the early twentieth century, Chinese scholars studying the Classics from a linguistic perspective began to doubt the very existence of Xia and Shang. Gu Jiegang and others, could see that the Classics had been written down starting at least five hundred years after the end of Xia and beginning of Shang. At that time, there was no independent evidence for the first two dynastic regimes, outside of these transmitted texts.

    Very shortly after the emergence of the “doubting antiquity school,” however, as the next section will discuss, archaeology provided evidence of Shang – its bronze vessels, oracle bones, building foundations, and tombs. Columbia University historian and archaeologist Li Feng has argued recently that when we put transmitted texts, preserved texts, and the archaeological record together, it makes sense to equate the Xia dynasty with the Erlitou culture, which was in the right time and place.

    The Erlitou culture had bronze weapons and vessels, demonstrating wealth and organization. Their state organization (government) could not have been as highly developed as the transmitted legends of Yao, Shun and Yu claim, but earlier sources do talk about Great Yu’s work on flood control, including a bronze vessel that may be authentically from about 900 BC. 13 So the myth, at least, of Yu controlling floods existed by then. Sima Qian’s Shiji and a text from two centuries earlier both recount a complete lineage of 16 kings of the Xia dynasty, beginning with Yu and ending with Jie, who was overthrown by the Shang. Since Erlitou left no texts, we will probably never know for sure whether they called themselves Xia or what their kings said and did. But Li Feng’s work suggests that we should neither accept the transmitted sources wholesale nor reject them entirely, but combine them with archaeological knowledge.

    Figure 1.4. Shang bronze personal ornaments. Left: bird-shaped hairpin finial, approx. 2” x 1.5”. How do you think this would have been attached to a hairpin? Right: appliqué in the form of a dragon, approx. 2” x 3”. What might it have been attached to? Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

    This page titled 1.6: Was There a Xia Dynasty? is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.