Archive for ‘myth’

19/08/2016

The return of the Xia | The Economist

CHINA’S leaders are immensely proud of their country’s ancient origins. President Xi Jinping peppers his speeches with references to China’s “5,000 years of history”. The problem is that archaeological evidence of a political entity in China going back that far is scant.

There is some, including engravings on animal bones, that shows the second dynasty, the Shang, really did control an area in the Yellow river basin about 3,500 years ago. But no such confirmation exists for the legendary first ruling house, the Xia. Even inside China, some historians have long suspected that the country’s founding story—in which Emperor Yu tames flooding on the Yellow river (with the help of a magic black-shelled turtle, pictured), earns for himself the “mandate of heaven” and establishes the first dynasty—was either a Noah’s-Ark flood-myth or perhaps propaganda invented later to justify centralised state power. This month, however, state-controlled media have been crowing over newly published evidence in Science, an American journal, that at least the flooding was real. This, they say, has made it more credible that the Xia was, too. Not everyone is so convinced.

Catastrophic floods leave their mark on soil and rocks. Qinglong Wu of Peking University and others have examined the geology of the upper reaches of the Yellow river. In the journal, they conclude that a vast flood did take place in the right area and not long after the right time for the supposed founding of the Xia. Although their evidence does not prove the existence of an Emperor Yu or of the dynasty he founded, it does provide a historical context in which someone might have gained power with the help of flood-taming exploits.

According to Mr Wu, a vast landslide, probably caused by an earthquake, blocked the course of the Yellow river as it flowed through the Jishi gorge on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. For six to nine months as much as 16 cubic kilometres (3.8 cubic miles) of water built up behind the accidental dam, which, when it finally burst, produced one of the biggest floods ever. At its peak, the authors calculate, the flow was 500 times the normal discharge at Jishi Gorge. Mr Wu reckons the ancient flood could easily have been felt 2,000km downstream in the area of the Yellow river said by Chinese historians to have been the realm of the Xia.

At about this time, either coincidentally or (more probably) because of the flood, the river changed its course, carving out its vast loop across the north China plain. The significance is that, while the river was finding its new course, it would have flooded repeatedly. This is consistent with old folk tales about Emperor Yu taming the river not through one dramatic action, but by decades of dredging.

The ancient flood can be dated because the earthquake that set the catastrophic events in motion also destroyed a settlement in the Jishi gorge. Radiocarbon dating of inhabitants’ bones puts the earthquake at about 1920BC—not 5,000 years ago but close-ish. Xinhua, a state news agency, lauded the study as “important support” for the Xia’s existence. Xu Hong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences challenged this, saying the scholars’ findings had not proved their conclusions. The first dynasty has gone from myth to controversy.

Source: The return of the Xia | The Economist

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06/08/2016

Science and History Align to Hint at China’s Founding Legend – China Real Time Report – WSJ

Like Noah and his animal-laden ark, China has its own creation legends. Thousands of years ago, one story goes, a man named Yu tamed the country’s terrible flooding with the assistance of a dragon and was ultimately named emperor.

Now the authors of a new paper published in the U.S. journal Science say they’ve found evidence of an ancient, cataclysmic flood that helps to underpin at least part of that legend. In a bigger leap, they also say their research helps offer evidence for the existence of what some describe as China’s first dynasty, the Xia, long seen in some quarters as a myth.

The team found that a massive flood took place around 1920 B.C., a time that coincides with when many scholars believe the Xia dynasty first emerged. The flood finding is notable, they say, because annals that mention the Xia dynasty say that Yu went on to found the dynasty and become its emperor after successfully dispelling flooding along the Yellow River.

“Many foreigners haven’t heard of the Xia dynasty or don’t believe it existed,” says Wu Qinglong, who led the team’s work during a recent post-doctorate stint at Peking University. “But in China, it’s different, this is a story passed down by tradition.

”According to their findings, an earthquake triggered a landslide that in turn swallowed up a large gorge located in Qinghai province traversed by the Yellow River. That landslide created a “huge cork” and a natural dam 200 meters tall that caused water to build up for six to nine months before breaking free, causing some 16 cubic kilometers of water to surge forth, says David Cohen, assistant professor in anthropology at National Taiwan University and a co-author on the paper.

The precise date determined by researchers was derived from the analysis of findings at a village downstream from the dam destroyed by the earthquake. A test of bones of children killed in the quake found they died around 1920 B.C. The presence of sediment from the flood found in fissures caused by the quake helped establish the flood’s timing, Mr. Cohen said.

Still, scholars caution against too hastily connecting the dots between the existence of a flood, however sizable, and that of the Xia. James T. Williams, an assistant professor at Renmin University who studies the economy of Bronze Age societies in China, notes that written records invoking the Xia dynasty weren’t produced until hundreds of years later. While the flood evidence may be persuasive, he notes, “a one-to-one correlation” with the existence of the Xia is a harder case to make.Mr. Cohen acknowledges such skepticism. “A number of assumptions have to be made,” he says. “First, you have to accept that there was a Xia dynasty, and you have to accept that its founding was somehow related to a massive flood of the Yellow River.”

But for China, he says, “It’s a story of the foundation of civilization and how it came into being.

”Flooding remains a massive problem in China, with torrential rains leading to widespread urban flooding that has killed hundreds this year.

For its lead author, producing the report wasn’t easy. After completing his post-doctorate and leaving Peking University in 2012, Mr. Wu spent several years unemployed as he sought to complete his research. At times, he relied on loans from friends, he said. In Beijing, he lived in various subdivided apartments, including a three-room place shared among 10 for which he paid 600 yuan ($90) a month.

Still, he says he is gratified by his team’s findings. “We’ve found existence of a big flood. We think it’s very possible it’s the one from our legends and it helps support the history of the Xia dynasty,” he says. “The evidence supports the veracity of it all.”

Source: Science and History Align to Hint at China’s Founding Legend – China Real Time Report – WSJ

05/08/2016

Yellow River yields clues to Chinese legend of ancient ‘Great Flood’ | Reuters

A view of the Yellow river near the Lajia site, hit by a flood 4,000 years ago, in Qinghai province, China in this undated handout photo. Wu Qinglong/Science/Handout via REUTERS

The crushed skeletons of children point to an earthquake and catastrophic flood on China’s Yellow River 4,000 years ago that could be the source of a legendary “Great Flood” at the dawn of Chinese civilization, scientists say.

A Chinese-led team found remnants of a vast landslide, caused by an earthquake, big enough to block the Yellow River in what is now Qinghai province near Tibet.

Ancient sediments indicated that the pent-up river formed a vast lake over several months that eventually breached the dam, unleashing a cataclysm powerful enough to flood land 2,000 km (1,200 miles) downstream, the scientists wrote in the journal Science.

The authors put the Yellow River flood at around 1920 BC by carbon-dating the skeletons of children in a group of 14 victims found crushed downstream, apparently when their home collapsed in the earthquake. Deep cracks in the ground opened by the quake were filled by mud typical of a flood and indicated that it struck less than a year after the quake.

The flood on Asia’s third-longest river would have been among the worst anywhere in the world in the last 10,000 years and matches tales of a “Great Flood” that marks the start of Chinese civilization with the Xia dynasty.

“No scientific evidence has been discovered before” for the legendary flood, lead author Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University told a telephone news conference.

In traditional histories, a hero called Yu eventually tamed the waters by dredging, “earning him the divine mandate to establish the Xia dynasty, the first in Chinese history,” the scientists wrote.

Their finds around the Jishi Gorge from about 1900 B.C. would place the start of the Xia dynasty several centuries later than traditionally thought, around the time of a shift to the Bronze Age from the Stone Age along the Yellow River.

Some historians doubt the Xia dynasty existed, reckoning it part of myth-making centuries later to prop up imperial rule. Written records date only from 450 BC.

The evidence of a massive flood in line with the legend “provides us with a tantalizing hint that the Xia dynasty might really have existed,” said David Cohen of National Taiwan University, one of the authors.

Deluges feature in many traditions, from Hindu texts to the Biblical story of Noah. In pre-history, floods were probably frequent as ice sheets melted after the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, raising world sea levels.

Source: Yellow River yields clues to Chinese legend of ancient ‘Great Flood’ | Reuters

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