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Xia Dynasty (ca. 2100 – ca. 1600 BC)

Yu the Great (King Yu) as imagined by the Song Dynasty painter Ma LinYu the Great (King Yu) as imagined by the Song Dynasty painter Ma LinAbout 4000 years ago, the area that is now China entered a transitional period that we can now study not only through its archeological remnants but also through its written records (that were written in later times about this period, for example the Book of Documents. An English translation of the Book of Documents (that is known by different names in Chinese such as Shu Jing, Shu King or Shangshu) can be read online at this page.

Bronze Jue (wine-drinking vessel), Xia Dynasty, Erlitou cultureBronze Jue (wine-drinking vessel), Xia Dynasty, Erlitou cultureOne of the semi-mythical leaders that the Book of Documents mentions is Yu the Great (ca. 2200 BC - ca. 2100 BC). He was the supposed founder of the Xia dynasty who was (and still is) greatly revered for the flood control measures (the building of irrigation canals and the dredging of riverbeds) that he was in charge of and personally worked on along the Yellow River, Wei River and other waterways.

The early cultures continued to produce pottery but now also began to develop a metallurgical industry. Copper, tin and other metals began to be mined and people developed a smelting technology that led to the creation of bronze.

This strong and durable material was being used to create tools as well as weapons and even beautiful objects of spiritual significance. This development marks the beginning of the real first historical state in Chinese history which is called the Xia. The Xia dynasty which began either around 2200 BC (according to the historian Sima Qian) or around 2100 BC (as most modern scholars believe) is unique in that we don't possess actual written texts from the Xia itself but can only study texts that talk about the Xia.

Portrait of Sima QianPortrait of Sima QianDuring the Xia period, large palace forms of architecture began to emerge. They were built on rammed earth platforms where wooden frames were filled with earth and then rammed down with flat stones to create a firm, compressed layer. The process was then repeated to create layer upon layer until it reached the desired height. The emergence of this new type of architecture during the Xia period was a significant change compared to earlier methods of construction and over time became characteristic of urban places in Chinese history.

Of course, it was the ruling elite who used these new palace structures for ritual and ceremonial purposes or other public functions whereas ordinary people continued to live in the partially excavated structures that are characteristic of earlier periods. This development of a social hierarchy was only possible through productivity increases in agriculture. For the first time, there was an agricultural surplus (of grain) and that allowed some people in society to concentrate on other tasks instead of farming. Therefore, artisans, craftsmen, warriors and spiritual as well as political leaders began to appear in society.

Left: Drawing of a Xia dynasty palace Right: Drawing of the Erlitou PalaceLeft: Drawing of a Xia dynasty palace Right: Drawing of the Erlitou Palace

These newly emerging political elites used these large-scale palace structures for public activities that were designed to legitimize their leadership. The performance of certain spiritual practices helped them to achieve this goal. Whereas earlier cultures in China engaged in totemism, a form of shamanism, where animal spirits were associated with particular tribal or clan or family groups, it was during the Xia dynasty that the worship of the totems of one particular family transformed into a royal ancestral cult. From then on, the ancestors of the current rulers were seen as divine powers who could affect life in the present world. The Xia leaders seem to have performed public sacrifices to commemmorize their ancestors and they seem to have performed rituals in which they asked the ancestors for help and advice regarding current problems of their world.

Location of the Xia dynasty stateLocation of the Xia dynasty stateThe capital of the Xia dynasty seems to have been a site called Erlitou, located in the western part of modern day Henan province. There we can find one of the most striking of the early palace complexes. These buildings used a post and beam architecture, where upright posts were erected on rammed earth platforms. Beams were then placed on top of these posts and a roof was built over these structures.

This kind of architecture used a minimal amount of timber, which was a scarce resource in North China. By using a post and beam system, fairly large interior spaces could be created which were perfectly suited as places of worship as well as for political activities. The walls of the structures were filled with wattle and daub, woven organic fibers that were then plastered with mud. The resulting walls were very light and therefore didn't have to carry a lot of weight (which was carried by the posts).

Most of what we know about the Xia is a projection back in time from what we know about the succeeding dynasty, the Shang dynasty (or from literature like the Book of Documents, the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals that were written in even more recent times).

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues with the story of the Shang dynasty in the next section. It is the first of China's imperial dynasties of which written records exist.