The Great Flood of China: Bringing a Legend to Life

Archaeological discoveries shed light on the Legend of the Great Flood of China.

Recently, a team of scientists led by Dr. Wu Quinglong of Nanjing Normal University found scientific evidence of a massive flood in China. They dated the flood back to 1920 BC on China’s Yellow River in the Jishi Gorge. The location and enormous scale of this flood lead experts to believe that the ancient legend of the Great Flood of China may have been, in part, a real event in history. Now archaeologists are attempting to retell the legend of one of the biggest floods of all time as it may have really happened.

great flood of china

Jishi Gorge of the Yellow River, site of massive ancient outburst flood. Credit: Qinglong Wu

What is the Ancient Flood Legend of China?

The legend of the Great Flood of China takes us back thousands of years when a great flood occurred on the Yellow River in China and swept away an entire civilization. A man named Yu was the only person who could tame the waters. With the help of a powerful dragon, magical dirt, and a black turtle, Yu worked non-stop for 20 years. The mighty dragon dredged the river and created channels, which were later used for irrigation. The magic dirt could expand continuously until it blocked the flood waters. The turtle transported the magic dirt from heaven on his strong back. He also hauled away the heavy mud that the dragon dredged up.

Yu was so successful in his endeavors to control the Great Flood of China that he was granted a divine mandate from the gods to rule the land. Henceforth, he would be known as Yu the Great, ruler and founder of the Xia dynasty of China.

great flood of china

Yu the Great tamed the Great Flood of China with the help of a dragon. Song dynasty paintings. Public domain.

What the Flood Tells Us About the Xia Dynasty

The Xia dynasty was China’s first dynasty and, like the Great Flood, is also legendary. Dates, and even the reality of the Xia rule are debated. This is because the written language did not emerge in China until around the 13th century BC. Different sources place the beginning of the Xia dynasty anywhere from 2205-1989 BC. With the new flood data, archaeologists believe the Xia dynasty began later than once thought.

An Ancient Civilization Destroyed

The flood occurred in the upper valley of the Yellow River, and this is consistent with the legend. The scientists also found the remains of dams of the right age and sedimentation deposits characteristic of those associated with a monstrous flood.

Sarah Kaplan, writer for The Washington Post explains in her article on Aug. 4, 2016:

In 2007, while conducting research on rock around the Yellow River, Wu noticed deposits that looked suspiciously like ‘outburst flood sediments.’ Bits of green schist — a type of rock found in the mountains far upstream — and mudstone were uncovered at sites all along the river. The sediments appeared in layers much thicker than was normal for the Yellow River, indicating that they had been deposited swiftly by a massive flood.

In 2000 archaeologists also discovered an ancient civilization, called Lajia. This settlement had been destroyed by a landslide as a result of a powerful earthquake. Carbon dating revealed that the bodies of the people killed in the earthquake were the same age as artifacts linked to the flood. The earthquake site had sedimentation in it that indicated floodwaters had reached it. In fact, the researchers found that the earthquake and flood happened during the same year.

How the Great Flood May Have Happened

Putting together the pieces of the puzzle, scientists determined that the earthquake caused the megaflood by triggering a landslide that dammed up the river in the Jishi Gorge. The water built up behind the rocky dam for 6 to 9 months until eventually, the dam broke. The rushing waters flooded the upper valley, destroying everything in its path.

great flood of china

Bones found at Lajia site determine the approximate date of earthquake and flood. Source: BBC, Cai Lanhai

One geologist, Darryl Granger from Perdue University said, “The flood was about 300,000 to 500,000 cubic meters per second [about 10,600,000 to 17,650,000 cubic feet per second]. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the largest flood ever measured on the Amazon River, the world’s largest river.

It’s among the largest known floods to have happened on Earth during the past 10,000 years.

From the Great Flood of China Emerges a New Civilization

The Great Flood of China possibly contributed to the development of Chinese civilization. It appears archaeologists discovered a giant flood that coincided with the transition from a Neolithic (late Stone Age) culture to a Bronze Age culture. Researchers calculated that perhaps Yu the Great became emperor around 1914 BC. If so, it’s very probable that grateful survivors had rallied around Emperor Yu. His dredging operations would have called for both increased interaction between different populations or tribes and technological advances to make the dredges more effective. As it is today, massive disasters can unify entire nations under a strong leader with a great vision.

Archaeological advances in technology coupled with scientific investigation give the ancient legend of the Great Flood of China possible credence. Thus, we now can speculate that out of the ruins of the real earthquake and one of the most massive floods of all time, a new greater, more advanced civilization may have been born.

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Kimberly Lin

Kimberly is a writer and the content manager for Historic Mysteries. If she's not plunging down the SEO rabbit hole, she's visiting some ancient site in Italy, where she currently lives in the middle of an active caldera. Kimberly will continue to venture around the world and write about the history she encounters.

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