The Mythical Period
Early prehistoric China is called the “Mythical Period.” It encompassed the legends of Pangu, and the rule of the Three Sovereigns, and the Five Emperors. The period ended when the last Emperor, Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, and the Xia Dynasty began.
Recall what innovations emerged under the legendary rulers of China’s Mythical Period
- By 2000 BCE, cities developed in China, and the various cultures of the area began to merge into a larger, more unified Chinese culture.
- Most of what we know about the first part of prehistoric China is from Chinese mythology, which is why it’s now known as the Mythical Period.
- The Mythical Period includes the rule of the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors.
- The last of the Five Emperors was Emperor Shun. He left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded the Xia dynasty and instituted the practice of passing rulership to a son.
- Go: An abstract strategy board game for two players, where the object is to surround more territory than the opponent.
- millet: Any of a group of various types of grass or its grains used as food, widely cultivated in the developing world.
- urbanism: The change in a country or region when its population migrates from rural to urban areas.
- Pangu: A mythical Chinese being who created the universe.
- Yellow River: Huang He in Chinese. A river of northern China which flows for 5,463 km (3,000 miles) to the Yellow Sea.
- Yangtze: The longest river in Asia, the Yangtze flows from the highlands of Tibet through central China, and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai.
- Huai: A major river in China located about midway between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.
- Gilgamesh: The hero of a Babylonian epic, and the legendary king of the Sumerian city state of Uruk.
History as Told by Archaeological Evidence
As in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River valley, civilization in China developed around a great river. The Yellow River and the Huai and Yangtze Rivers, created fertile land, ripe for experimentation with agriculture. By around 4000 BCE, villages began to appear in these areas. The Neolithic Chinese cultivated a number of crops; the most important was a grain called millet. They also domesticated animals, such as pigs, dogs, and chickens. Silk production, through the domestication of silkworms, also likely began in this early period.
These villages influenced each other more and more over time, and by 2000 BCE a unified Chinese culture began to develop. There is also evidence of urbanism and the use of early writing d this time. These phenomena took place in China about 1000 years later than in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River valley.
Pangu: Portrait of Pangu, the creator of the universe according to Chinese mythology. This portrait is from Sancai Tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609, during the Ming Dynasty.
History as Told by Chinese Legend
Chinese mythology tells a different story of the beginning of civilization. It holds that the universe was created by Pangu, the first living being. After his death, Pangu’s left eye became the sun and his right eye became the moon. The Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors, a series of legendary sage emperors and heroes, helped create man. These legendary rulers taught the ancient Chinese to speak, use fire, build houses, farm, and make clothing. Fuxi and his wife, Nüwa, were credited with introducing domesticated animals and creating the basic social structure of family life. Shennong was a divine farmer who gave the people knowledge of agriculture.
The existence of these emperors occurred before written Chinese history, and so the dates of reign are uncertain. The Five Emperors began with Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, whose reign is believed to be from 2698-2599 BCE. He was considered the founding ancestor of the Han Chinese ethnic group, and is credited with the invention of Chinese characters, silk, and traditional Chinese medicine.
The Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi.: Portrait of the first of the Five Emperors, who was considered the original ancestor for Han Chinese.
Next came Zhuanxu, who was credited with the invention of the Chinese calendar and the introduction of religion and astrology. Little is known about Emperor Ku’s reign, believed to be from 2412-2343 BCE. Emperor Yao, whose reign was from 2317-2234 BCE, was credited with being a role model in dignity and diligence to future emperors, and was the inventor of the game “weiqi” (also known as “Go”). The last was Emperor Shun, whose reign was from 2233-2205 BCE, was known for his devotion. He left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded the Xia dynasty, and instituted the practice of passing rulership to a son. While these events are mythological, at their root there may be ancient memories of very early kings and rulers who emerged among the prehistoric Chinese, similar to the tales of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia.
The Xia Dynasty
The final part of the Mythical Period was under the rule of the legendary Xia Dynasty, which may have been mythological. After the final ruler became corrupt, he was overthrown by Cheng Tang, who founded the Shang Dynasty.
Recall characteristics of the Xia Dynasty
- Sima Qian ‘s “Historical Records,” the first comprehensive history of China, said that the last of the Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded the Xia Dynasty.
- The Xia Dynasty was the first Chinese dynasty; it is still not known whether this dynasty existed or is only mythological.
- According to mythology, when the last Xia king became corrupt and cruel, Cheng Tang overthrew him in c. 1760 BCE and founded the Shang Dynasty.
- Many argue that the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China much later, invented the idea of the Xia Dynasty to support their claim that China could only be, and had always been, ruled by one ruler.
- Mandate of Heaven: The Chinese philosophical concept of the circumstances under which a ruler is allowed to rule. Good rulers were allowed to rule under the Mandate of heaven, while despotic, unjust rulers had the Mandate revoked.
- Sima Qian: A renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BCE who wrote about the Xia Dynasty.
- Shang Dynasty: Also called the Yin Dynasty, succeeded the Xia Dynasty and followed the Zhou Dynasty. It existed in the second millennium BCE.
Sima Qian’s Historical Records
The earliest comprehensive history of China is the Historical Records, written by Sima Qian, a renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BCE. This history begins around 3600 BCE, with an account of the Five Emperors. According to this history, the last of the great Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded China’s First Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty. Yu supposedly began the practice of inherited rule (passing power from father to son), a model that was perpetuated in the later Shang and Zhou dynasties.
Depiction of Yu the Great: This hanging scroll shows Yu the Great, as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin.
According to mythology, Yu’s descendants ruled China for nearly 500 years, until the last Xia king became corrupt and cruel. This led to his overthrow in c. 1760 BCE by Cheng Tang, who founded a new dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, in the Huang River Valley.
Sima Qian’s Historical Records: The first page of Sima Qian’s Historical Records.
Debate Over the Existence of the Xia Dynasty
There is much debate among scholars about how much of this mythology is true. Many argue that the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China much later, invented the idea of the Xia Dynasty to support their claim that China could only be, and had always been, ruled by one ruler. The Zhou created the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven,” which stated that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at any given time. If he was a good ruler, he would have the support of heaven; if he was despotic, he would be overthrown. The various small states that had comprised Neolithic and Bronze Age China contradicted this version of history. Some people argue, therefore, that the Zhou may have created the idea of an ancient Xia Dynasty to support the idea that China always had one ruler.
Nonetheless, the Xia Dynasty may not be a complete fabrication; recent archaeological evidence may support its existence. (For a long time it was believed that the later Shang Dynasty may also have been purely mythological, until archaeology proved that it was real.) Archaeologists have discovered an advanced Bronze Age culture in China. Its capital, Erlitou, was a huge city around 2000 BCE. This may in fact be the people referred to in Chinese mythology as the Xia. It is believed that the Xia may have created a primitive writing system, though no evidence of this has been found. However, evidence does suggest that the Xia developed agricultural methods and experienced considerable prosperity. However, lack of irrigation and flood protection made the region prone to frequent floods and other natural disasters.