The Chinese province of Henan was pounded last month by “once in a thousand years” rains that caused tremendous damage to life and property. The provincial capital Zhengzhou suffered devastating floods. We saw harrowing images of water levels rising with terrifying speed in subterranean subway stations and tunnels, heart-stopping rescues amid raging torrents, and distraught citizens struggling through chest-deep floodwaters. The human and economic toll of the inundation is incalculable. Stories of an ancient deluge can be found the world over, which suggests there had been a great flood, or a series of floods, the effects of which had been so catastrophic that the events entered cultural memories. Some of these stories involve the divine and the supernatural, but the tale of The Great Yu Controlling the Floodwaters is grounded in human enterprise. It came to pass that the central plains (where Henan is located) were flooded by the Yellow River, destroying crops and lives. The sage-king Yao ordered a man called Gun to undertake the work of flood mitigation. For nine years, Gun attempted to control the river by building levees along its banks. These, however, proved to be useless against the raging waters. When another sage-king, Shun, for whom Yao had voluntarily given up his throne, reviewed Gun’s work, he had him dismissed. Shun made the surprising decision to appoint Gun’s son, Yu, to take over where his father had failed. In a departure from Gun’s strategy, Yu diverted the waters using canals. After 13 years of hard work, Yu finally tamed the Yellow River. However, there’s one detail that has escaped most people’s notice: how familial ties had little or no bearing on official appointments at a time when the nascent Chinese nation was nothing more than a confederation of tribes that were active in the region around the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Yao’s supposed abdication to Shun, whose blood ties to him were so tenuous that both men were practically unrelated, has long been celebrated in Confucianism as an example of putting the good of the people above one’s family. And by appointing Yu despite his relationship to the disgraced Gun, Shun showed that family ties had no bearing on appointments to public service. In time, Shun passed his throne to Yu. Weird history: when palace maids tried to murder a Chinese emperor Not everyone is convinced that power was surrendered without a struggle. Still, for millennia the Yao-Shun-Yu successions were held up as the exemplary behaviour of kings. This did not last long, however. When Yu died, his son succeeded him as king, and his son after him, heralding the beginning of the age of jia tianxia (“all under heaven belongs to one family”), i.e. dynastic rule.