A huge flood 4,000 years ago could bolster China’s claims to a mythical dynasty

Jishi Gorge, upstream from the landslide dam.
Jishi Gorge, upstream from the landslide dam.
Image: Wu Qinglong
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Does a major new archaeological discovery extend recorded Chinese history back a few thousand years?

According to an article published yesterday (Aug. 4) in Science magazine, a team of archaeologists has collected proof of a massive flood that occurred around 1,900 years ago in China. The discovery, they conclude, proves the existence of the mythical Xia dynasty, or the first Chinese dynasty, which supposedly reigned from 2070 to 1600 BC and was started by Emperor Yu.

Emperor Yu.
Emperor Yu.
Image: National Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The only textual evidence of the Xia and Yu comes from Sima Qian, a Han dynasty court historian who lived in the first century BC—at least 15 centuries after the purported events.

The researchers point to lakebed sediments in the Jingshi Gorge, in today’s Qinghai province, where the Yellow River originates. The sediments, they say, show that after an earthquake that destroyed many Neolithic settlements, the river became obstructed by debris, creating a massive dam and an artificial lake. As the waters accumulated, unable to flow downstream, the pressure broke the dam, causing a devastating flood.

Proof for this chain of events, according to the researchers, is found at the Lajia settlement, a major Neolithic site 25 km (15 miles) downstream from the gorge. Also in Qinghai, the site was excavated in the past 20 years. Professor Wu Qinglong of Nanjing University found that the mud in the ancient layers of sediment at Lajia matched the material from the flood and landslide from the Jingshi Gorge.

The massive flood “provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty might really have existed,” wrote David Cohen, an archaeologist and study co-author at National Taiwan University, in the study. He added that “the devastating flood could have inundated settlements even a thousand or more kilometers downstream and created chaos from which a new political order emerged.”

Not so fast, some say.

According to historian Frank Dikotter at the University of Hong Kong, all that has been proven was the existence of a flood, but not the existence of the Xia.

“I really do not see how we can jump from one to the other,” he told Quartz. “But there is indeed a large tradition of one-party states and dictators who say that they have been around for millennia. Mussolini and his romanità, Ceauşescu and the Dacians… It is a way of saying, ‘We have been here since time immemorial, and we are not just some fluke of history.'”

Dikotter explains that the scientific obsession with proving the existence of the Xia dynasty is a recent phenomenon dating back to the late 1970s.

“Under Mao, the dominant ideology was Marxism-Leninism. Once that was debunked (after the Cultural Revolution’s disasters), it all became about science. Paleontologists, archaeologists, and scientists have all been enrolled to contribute to the national myth [of a]zhonghuaminzu, the Chinese nation,” he added.

Lajia is home to another myth that was later challenged. In 2005, an article in Nature magazine claimed that a “bowl of 4,000-year-old millet noodles” had been found there, proving that the dish originated not in Persia, as some modern researchers thought, but in China. Scientists later questioned whether millet alone could be used for noodles, or whether Lajia had the tools to produce flour.

More recently, food writer Jen Lin Liu, in her book The Noodles Road, wrote about her attempt to see the famed bowl of noodles, only to be told by Lu Houyan, the scientist who published the initial research, that the noodles had “disintegrated” once they arrived in Beijing from Lajia. According to Liu’s account, the only people who claim to have seen the noodles are a farmer and a graduate student, and even a famous dusty picture of the noodles was of a recreation.