Was Xia Dynasty Truly China’s First Dynasty?

There has been much controversial debate among historians, scholars, researchers and archeologists whether or not the Xia Dynasty has been conclusively proven to be China’s first dynasty kingdom? According to China’s ancient recorded history it was founded in 2070 BC and lasted 400 years.

Those who believe in this would cite the most authoritative Sima Qian’s monumental work Shiji or “Records of the historian”, which was divided into 130 chapters and comprising hundreds of thousands of words. It was completed in 91 BC. The author categorically asserted that Xia Dynasty was truly the first dynasty of China. According to him, this dynasty was ruled by 31 kings in the Yellow River region, the cradle of the Chinese civilisation. Of these kings, only one was capable and non-corrupt and all the others were weak and incompetent resulting in much internal power struggles among the ruling classes and external tribal invasions from time to time. This dynasty was completely ruined by its last king, who led a dissipated life of privileges and luxury during his reign. The Xia Dynasty was finally overthrown by one of its own high officials who founded the more successful and advanced Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC).

In the1950s, archeologists excavated a site at the district of Erlitou in Henan Province which convinced most people in China that it was the ancient capital of Xia Dynasty, based on historical records, despite the fact that no tangible archeological evidence, such as ancient tombs and artefacts came to light, to substantiate this site as the capital of the Xia Dynasty. If this dynasty indeed existed, then the famed tribal leaders Yao, Shun and Yu, who were mentioned in Sima Qian’s “Historical Record”, could well be accepted as the tribal rulers before the Xia Dynasty was founded by Yu’s son Qi. It was believed that the rulers then practised the so-called “abdication system” of power transfer in favour of the most able person to assume the overall rulership. Thus Shun abdicated in favour of Yu, after he had successfully solved the problem of perennial severe flooding of the Yellow River, the then longest and most turbulent river in China. It took him close to a decade to solve this problem. During that period, he passed his own house several times but declined to take time off from his urgent task at hand to spend some time with his own family until the taming of the devastating annual flooding problem was successfully accomplished.

Shiji by Sima Qian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Shiji by Sima Qian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Upon Yu’s death, his son Qi proclaimed himself king, thus abolishing the “abdication system” and adopting the “hereditary system”, which was adhered to by all subsequent Chinese dynasties until China became a republic in 1911. King Qi became the founder of the Xia Dynasty(1600-1046). Its 31 kings ruled this kingdom for 400 years and extended its territories to cover even part of the Yangtze River, now China’s longest river. It was finally overthrown by two rival tribal chiefs who replaced it with the Shang Dynasty, which brought a long period of  economic and social developments to China. Historians and other experts agreed that China did not seem to have a written script while the Xia Dynasty lasted.

The archeologists and other experts, both Chinese and Western, were unanimous that Shang Dynasty was the first proven dynasty of China only when nearly 100,000 oracle and other animal bones written script were excavated from the ancient ruins of the Shang capital Yin in Anyang district, also in Henan Province. According to  available sources, these relics clearly scripted in thousands of different pictographs carved on the oracle bones recording the relationship, the worshipping customs and political activities during Shang time, the perceived good and bad omens of the country as well as the names and reigns of its various kings, among other important occurrences. The oracle-bone script was the earliest known primitive Chinese writing. It subsequently led to the writing on bamboo strips which expanded the written script before the advent of paper and printing which greatly advanced the development and scope of Chinese script, more familiar to the present day readers.

Despite the seemingly persuasive supporting evidence that Shang Dynasty was preceded by Xia Dynasty as the beginning of the long period of the Chinese dynastic system, many Chinese and foreign archeologists as well as other experts still cling on to the more evidence-based conviction that Shang Dynasty is the first dynasty of ancient China unless and until concrete archeological evidence comes to light to substantiate the claim that it was indeed preceded by the Xia Dynasty.

It seems to me that concrete archeological evidence of Xia Dynasty’s existence as recorded in China’s authoritative written historical records should, with the passage of time, come to light when its period artefacts and other supporting finds are finally unearthed from beneath the immense territories of China to confront the sceptical experts as had been the case on many other occasions. The following are some prominent precedents.

First, take the origin of Chinese blue and white ceramic ware as a case in point. According to China’s ancient ceramic literature, the blue and white ware was already being produced in the kilns in Henan Province during the late Tang period (618-907). When the Song Dynasty (960-1279) succeeded Tang Dynasty, this was substantiated by thousands of Tang blue and white shards being dug up in Jindezhen of Jiangxi Province, the porcelain capital of China then and now.This ware was mainly exported to the affluent Islamic countries in the Middle East. This came to light in 1998 when an Arab cargo ship, which carried a large amount of Tang blue and white ceramics and other items on its way to their final destination in the Middle East, sank in Indonesian waters of Belitung. Its valuable cargo was completely salvaged and among them were thousands of intact Tang blue and white ceramic pieces of the 9th century. The Singapore Government paid tens of millions of  Singapore dollars to acquire these rare and valuable cargo. Some of these are now on display in its Asian Civilisations Museum.

This discovery astounded the Western Chinese ceramic experts who had hitherto firmly believed, albeit erroneously, that the manufacture of China’s blue and white ware began only during the latter part of Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) as confirmed, in their reckoning, by the world-famous unique pair of David Vases, in London’s Percival David Foundation, which are precisely dated to 1351. No earlier dated Yuan blue and white pieces were known to exist. The Balitung shipwreck finds in 1998 have conclusively proved them to be wrong.

The second case is the unearthing of the world-famous terracotta army guarding the outer burial moat of the massive burial chamber of the tyrannical First Emperor of China, the builder of China’s Great Wall, who ruled China from 206 to 221 BC. It is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. To date thousands of these life-size clay warriors, ingeniously lifelike and individually modelled on real human models, had seen the light of day again after being buried for more than 2000 years. The first of these was accidentally dug up by a farmer in 1974 in the suburbs of the then Chinese capital in Xian. This led to further diggings by archeologists and revealed to a hushed world the terracotta warriors protecting the First Emperor of China in the next world! Rows upon rows of these   8000 clay warriors are now housed  in the Terracotta Museum in Xian, the number one attraction there and a must-see sight for tourists from worldwide and from within China itself. Archeologists are still unearthing new artefacts there today and thousands more of these clay warriors and other precious items are awaiting discoveries after the very first of these was unearthed more than four decades ago.

Painting of Qin Shi Huang (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Painting of Qin Shi Huang (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned earlier in this post, the ancient Chinese records, foremost among them is the celebrated work of the  historian Shima Qian, seem to be spot on about the luxurious and massive underground burial place of China’s First Emperor. According to this and other historical writings, it resembles his actual palace in size and grandeur so as to cater to his afterlife needs. The inner moat to his burial chamber is believed to be covered by a river of mercury and anyone attempting to enter it would be killed by poisoned arrows and spears by numerous clay warriors guarding it. This mercury component has been analysed and confirmed by the scientific analysis of the soil content in the vicinity where these terracotta warriors were excavated. Inside the burial chamber, besides the corpse of the First Emperor himself, are that of his consort, favourite concubines and court officials. In addition, his  personal imperial attendants and servants were also buried alive to serve the Emperor’s needs in the next world. So also the principal builders, who knew the top secret entrances and exits, met with the same cruel fate in order to ensure that no future royal tomb robbers would ever intrude into it to steal the countless invaluable earthly treasures buried therein. The Chinese Government is said to know the actual location and secret entrances into the First Emperor’s tomb underneath a mountain but has wisely decided to abstain from excavating it until the state of its technology and techniques have advanced to a level that would ensure that it is safe to do so in order to preserve these unmatched national treasures as China’s national heritage.

The final example is the excavation of the controversial tomb in 2009 in Henan Province, believed by many researchers and archeologists to be the actual burial place of Cao Cao, the famed cunning statesman and learned scholar during the Three Kingdoms era (220-280) of Chinese history. He ruled the latter Han dynasty in the name of the powerless incumbent emperor. After Cao’s demise, his eldest son finally dethroned this last Han ruler and founded the Kingdom of Wei in 220 with himself as its first Emperor. This large burial chamber was supported by tomb finds pointing to it belonging to Cao Cao. Despite its authenticity having been challenged by many in this field of research, the provincial government has already proclaimed it to be that of Cao’s final resting place and is building a memorial museum and other supporting tourism facilities on site, as this would enhance its coffers considerably. Those doubting experts pointed out that this tomb had already been entered into by tomb raiders previously and the burial artefacts found therein could have been removed and replaced by fake duplicates to confuse those who came after them. Some historical writings and legends asserted that Cao had built 72 tombs in various locations in this province in order to prevent the tomb raiders from entering and plundering the artefacts buried with him.

The latest current research findings point to the high possibility that the above tomb and another Three Kingdom period tomb, subsequently discovered in the same province, seem to support the prevailing expert views that both these tombs belong to members of the Wei royal family but not that of Cao Cao himself. In the light of the above, the actual final resting place of Cao Cao still remains an unsolved mystery and a tribute to the cleverness and cunning of this formidable Chinese statesman who, in life and in death, has continued to confound the world about his actual burial place. It remains to be seen, whether, with the passage of time, this historical myth will be eventually resolved.

Mask of Cao Cao (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mask of Cao Cao (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As referred to above, the first historical record of China’s ancient history commenced with the authoritative account of Sima Qian’s work, Shiji, “Records of the Historian”, which has become a model in Chinese historiography. He began compiling it in 108 BC. He wrote this magnum opus fearlessly and gave a balanced account of the reigning monarch’s brilliant accomplishments as well as his less glorious deeds, and paid the ultimate price of humiliating and much feared castration for offending the dignity of the reigning monarch. Despite this, he continued to complete his Shiji undeterred in 91 BC and earned the admiration of future generations of Chinese historians and other scholars. They believe that Sima Qian must have had access to the Shang Dynasty’s official records as his historical account coincided accurately with the exact reign periods of all its 31 kings, the dark side of their reigns and their character defects which were all recorded on the nearly 100,000 oracle-bones script excavated from Shang tombs in the early 20th century.

After Sima Qian, all succeeding Chinese dynasties, influenced by Shiji, also began to compile official records of their dynastic histories. In addition, this was followed later by their provinces and counties documenting their own local records of the important events and other significant happenings taking place there. This has continued into the present time. However, the carefully chosen official scribes would, as a rule, invariably sing the praises of the reigning monarchs or their own local governments for fear that they would otherwise be punished severely like Shima Qian before them. Furthermore, the various clan and family genealogy records tracing their common ancestors and other clan and family descendents and regional customs and practices are also rich sources of historical records. On top of these, the popular Chinese historical novels depicting the many dynastic events and happenings, albeit often colourfully sensationalised or romanticised by their authors in order to cater to the tastes of the general readership, have also made these historical events and happenings come to life more vividly. A good example is the most well known “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, one of China’s four greatest classical literature, which was written more than one thousand years after the end of that exciting and turbulent era. So popular and well publicised has it become that many Chinese then and now still cling on to the mistaken belief that this and other widely read popular period novels are based on unadulterated actual historical facts!

To conclude this article, I have faith in the historical account of Sima Qian regarding his claim that Xia Dynasty is the very first dynasty of China. However, in view of China’s long history, large population base and huge landmass, when will this dynasty’s true existence be proven beyond doubt, no one really knows for sure. I am confident that with the present day’s more advanced state of technology and archeological development, Sima Qian’s assertion that Xia Dynasty preceded Shang Dynasty, written more than 2000 years ago, will prove to be a reality.

Lam Pin Foo

4 thoughts on “Was Xia Dynasty Truly China’s First Dynasty?

  1. Excellent informative report. I think also, it is only a matter of time before actual archaeological evidence is unearthed.

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