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A dramatic 4,000-year-old Chinese myth known as the “Great Flood of Gun-Yu” has underpinned Chinese culture for millennia. Historians have long debated the veracity of the story, but a startling new study published in Science says there’s archaeological evidence that that flood was real. Here’s a primer on the original story, the new scientific findings, and some extra tidbits on more fantastic versions of the tale involving gods and dragons.
According to historical texts, Chinese civilization began when Emperor Yu founded the Xia dynasty circa 2000 BCE. The story begins with a great deluge during the reign of the Emperor Yao. The Yellow River broke its banks and devastated Yao’s territories, flooding crops, trees and villages. Uprooted from their homes, the people fled uphill to escape the torrential waters, seeking shelter in mountain caves.
Emperor Yao first appointed Prince Gun to deal with the flood. But after nine years of ceaseless flooding, Gun’s efforts proved futile. As punishment, Gun was killed, and his son Yu was ordered to step up to the plate in the wake of his father’s failure.
Instead of trying to contain the flood, Yu chose to divert it. He ordered channels to be dredged so the floodwaters would be drained away. Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, a 94 BCE text, describes how Yu proved himself a man of outstanding character in the many years that he toiled at his project:
“In his work, Yu was shrewd and diligent; his moral conduct was impeccable. He was benevolent and honest… The death of his father, Gun, caused him deep sorrow, and he toiled outside for 13 years, thrice passing his own front door but not daring to go inside. He ate simply and wore unadorned clothing, but offered ample sacrifices to his ancestral deities. He lived in a crudely built house, but spared no expense when it came to his channel digging project.”
It took 13 years for Yu to complete his task, but the floodwaters finally flowed freely into the ocean and Yu became a hero. Having successfully controlled the floodwaters, Yu gained the mandate of heaven and so began the Xia dynasty.
Using evidence from the sediments along the Yellow River, a team of geologists and archaeologists have verified that a devastating flood did indeed occur around 1900 BCE, approximately the date that the Xia dynasty is supposed to have begun. The catastrophe ranks as one of the largest freshwater floods in the past 10,000 years.
Sediments along the Yellow River confirm that an earthquake-induced landslide blocked an upper section of the Yellow River, creating a natural dam. The river would have trickled to a halt downstream as water built up behind the dam for a period of six to twelve months, leading to a catastrophic flood when the dam finally burst.
The researchers estimate that the waters reached an elevation of 240m above current river levels and reached settlements as far as 1,300 miles downstream. They also confirm that the dam burst would have caused long-lasting flooding on the lower plains, which is in accord with apocryphal records stating that the Great Flood lasted for 22 years.
These surprising discoveries give credence to the idea that the Great Flood legend was no mere myth, after all.
A much more fantastical version of the Great Flood tale drawn from a 4th-century text called the Shi Yi Ji is popular among children’s books and cartoons. In this version of the story, Gun and Yu are not princes but gods who help humanity with the aid of magical creatures.
The story starts, once again, with a great flood of unimaginable power that inundates the land. Starving and miserable, the people implored the Emperor of Heaven to save them from the curse of the terrible Water God, but the mighty Emperor was unconcerned by the fate of the mortals below.
However, one deity named Gun was moved by their pleas. Gun rode a celestial bird and stole into the palace of the Emperor of Heaven to acquire a magical substance called Xirang. This substance was an expanding soil that could absorb the floodwaters. Gun then sent a celestial turtle down to Earth to put the Xirang into the Earth, and the flood abated temporarily.
When the God of Heaven found out what Gun had done, he took back the Xirang and had Gun killed. Three years later, the stomach of Gun split open and thus appeared his deity son, Yu. Like his father, Yu also determined to save the mortals from their awful plight. With the help of the celestial turtle and a mythical dragon called a Yinglong, Yu successfully created a canal system that diverted the waters and restored peace to the people, thus completing the task his father had begun.