Chinese Great Flood of Gun-Yu Myth Explained

The Great Flood of China ascribed to the Gun-Yu myth might be partly true, says a new study published in Science. Find out below more about the myths, and the new scientific evidence that suggests a ring of truth to them!

The Great Flood, A Myth

The Chinese Gun-Yu myth is the most common one about floods in the country. Generations have narrated over and over again what has been passed on to them by their forefathers about the said Great Flood. The details of the accounts will vary.

Gun-Yu Great Flood occurred during Emperor Yao’s reign

According to some, the Gun-Yu Great Flood happened at a time when Emperor Yao ruled the region. It is said that he appointed his cousin Gun to manage the flood when it was unleashed. Gun agreed to carry out the monumental task, and quickly outlined his plans to do so. He endeavoured to use a magical substance to stop the flood.

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So, he started by stealing this substance called Xirang, which was also known as “Swelling Earth” because it could grow through self-expansion. Xirang is often mentioned in Chinese mythology. It belonged to Shangdi, the being considered as the Supreme Deity of the people of that time. With the Xirang, Gun constructed a number of dams to prevent the flood from overcoming the populations, but to no avail. The dams would all eventually crumble. This situation persisted for nearly a decade, and ultimately, Emperor Yao appointed another relative of his, Shun, as co-emperor. Shun attempted to boost the efforts to stop the flood. However, this also proved to be unfruitful, and Gun had still not been successful in holding back the waters. He was later banished by Shun, and was replaced by his own son, Yu.

Yu was able to do what others could not achieve: his efforts proved to be effective in stopping the floods. He had introduced drainage systems which successfully kept the water at bay.

Gun-Yu Great Flood & the Xia Dynasty

Another version of the same myth ascribed the events of the Great Flood to the time preceding the rise of the Xia Dynasty, back when the Yellow Emperor was the ruler of the empire. It is believed that he possessed a mass of dirt that could magically absorb water. This was stolen by his grandson, Gun, who distributed it to the people to soak up the overflowing waters. Gun also built structures like dams to hold off the waters. However, all of this would not do against the raging waters. In the face of the repeated failures, Gun’s son, Yu, decided to take matters in his hands. Yu was no ordinary man – he was considered a demi-god by his people who would say that Yu could change form. When he went to the Yellow Emperor to request for his magic dirt, he was granted his wish, and he was instructed to seek the assistance of a dragon and a tortoise for his task. The group of three then channelled rivers to the sea, and they built tunnels, canals, and dams. These efforts turned out to be productive – the people were finally saved.

Yu later founded the Xia Dynasty, after he became famous for both saving the world and having a lofty character.

The Hei Miao myth

The Gun-Yu Great Flood has yet another version. According to the Miao’s, the disaster was the doing of Thunder who, in wanting to drown the earth, triggered a flood which left only two survivors.

Myth Confirmed by Science?

Obviously, the myths described above are but myths. However, there might be a ring of truth to them as science has recently made discoveries that could confirm some of the happenings mentioned in these stories. A paper published in Science last August provides evidence of a great flood having ravaged through China’s first dynasty. These findings could be bringing the legend to an unprecedented light.

“Its importance is just like the story of Noah’s flood in the Western world,” says Peking University’s Qinglong Wu, the lead author of the study.

Up until now, it has not been confirmed whether Yu actually existed as no archaeological evidence has been found. However, the new findings suggest that the flood might have paved the way for Yu to becoming one of the greatest rulers of China. A flood did, indeed, hit China, or so says the study. But, is it the same flood to which Yu is associated?

The dates appear to coincide: the scientists explain that the flood happened at around 1920 B.C, a time when the Xia Dynasty might have possible happened.

“If the great flood really happened, then perhaps it is also likely that the Xia dynasty really existed too. The two are directly tied to each other,” says one of the authors, David Cohen from National Taiwan University.

Lead author Wu spotted evidence for the flood back in 2007 in a river valley of the Yellow River (called Jishi Gorge): yellow deposits were documented, interpreted by the researchers to have possibly been left by a lake. This would imply that the river must have been blocked at one point in time. To confirm this theory, Wu analysed a collection of cave dwellings (called Lajia) located nearby; this site is said to have been ravaged by an earthquake around 3,900 years ago. Wu found black sand there, uncharacteristic of other sediments in that region. According to the estimates of Wu, this sediment would have been washed in the area within a year following the earthquake. Further investigation showed the remains of a dam in Jishi Gorge, possibly left by a landslide. More in-depth analysis suggested that the dam was much larger, and that more dam remnants were present. This led to calculations that revealed the possible size of the dam: it would have been around 800 metres in width, 1,300 metres in length, and around 200 meters in height.

“That’s as big as the Hoover Dam or the Three Gorges Dam,” says another study author, geologist Darryl Granger from Purdue University. “Imagine a dam like that failing.”

The team of researchers performed further calculations based on the updated information, and found that the flood would have unleashed nine months’ worth river water in mere hours.

According to Wu, the flood revealed in their findings is, indeed, the one mentioned in legend.

“The Xia, the great flood, and the control of it have been taken as truth for more than 2,500 years in China,” Wu says. “Now, we have provided the scientific evidence for the flood—[which] means that other texts about the Xia dynasty should be reliable.”

Other researchers do not share this point of view, though. Rather, they maintain that the great flood is a myth concocted by later dynasties to impose their laws. For instance, an expert on ancient China, Sarah Allan of Dartmouth College, argues that the Shang dynasty even described themselves as sun-kings combating the Xia. She also says that the hypothesis of the authors cannot be proved.

“It’s very important to recognize that this evidence is useful in understanding the course of the Chinese nation”, says Allan.

“…their assumption is that even if it’s been revised and changed, [the great flood story] has a historical kernel, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”

“They’re arguing that it was history turned into myth,” she says. “I’m arguing that it’s myth turned into history.”

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