In an article published this month in American journal Science, Chinese geologist Wu Qinglong describes geological evidence of a catastrophic inundation along the Yellow River some 4,000 years ago. The findings may provide archaeological proof that the “great flood” of Chinese legend really did occur.

Scientific study of China’s great flood could prove 4,000-year-old legend

As the stories go, the central plains of China were heavily flooded during the reigns of legendary monarchs Yao and Shun, causing great misery to the people. In the beginning, Gun was commissioned to mitigate the floods, but he failed despite working at it for nine years. Gun’s son, Yu, was ordered to take over and, after 13 years, he succeeded where his father had failed.

Besides his engineering feats, Yu was also admired for his sense of duty. He travelled up and down the length of the Yellow River to survey the land, he was a hands-on leader who rolled up his sleeves and worked with his men, and he famously did not go home to his wife and young child on the three occasions when his work took him to his hometown.

The legend of Yu

For Yu’s great achievement, the ruler of the day, Shun, purportedly abdicated in his favour. Yu became king and first ruler of the Xia dynasty (about 2070BC to 1600BC). It should be noted that grand words such as “king” and “dynasty” belie the fact that the Chinese “state” at the time was probably just a confederation of tribes.