Natural Disasters and the Decline and Fall of the Xia Dynasty

[Introductory note: The history of China is that of a succession of dynasties. The fall of each dynasty on the stage of China has been followed by the rise of another. There have been tens of thousands of colourful protagonists who have graced the stage and millions of Chinese people who have endured so much suffering. During these events, natural calamities that often lasted for years seem to have had major roles in the play. Each calamity warned that retribution would follow those who had violated the principles of Heaven. Each calamity seemed to direct the decline and fall of a dynasty, and the rise of a new dynasty led by a moral monarch.]

There are very few historic records about the natural disasters during the Xia Dynasty (21st to 16th centuries B.C.). The record in Bamboo Slats Annals (or Zhu Shu Ji Nian in Chinese) is the only place where we can get a glimpse of what had happened. It was during the reign of the twelfth monarch of the Xia Dynasty, Emperor Qin (or Yin Jia), that the Xia Dynasty began to decline. In the last year of Emperor Qin’s reign, a severe drought began and the weather became extremely hot. The Bamboo Slats Annals recorded the drought: “Heaven has sent an evildoer down to earth for ten suns appear in the sky.” The ancient Chinese people believed that extreme temperatures and droughts were the signs of a demon’s presence in the human realm. Emperor Qin died during the very year when extremely high temperatures and severe drought hit China.

In the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Fa (1627 to 1615 B.C.), the fifteenth monarch of the Xia Dynasty, there was an earthquake; it was the earliest record of an earthquake in China and the world. “When Emperor Fa died during his seventh year of reign, Mount Tai shattered.” (From Bamboo Slats Annals. )

Toward the end of the Xia Dynasty there were two larger earthquakes.

Emperor Gui was the last emperor of the Xia Dynasty. During Emperor Gui’s reign, the Xia Dynasty was in a crisis. Emperor Gui, however, was living in extreme extravagance. He was also a bloodthirsty tyrant. According to the records in the Bamboo Slats Annals, Emperor Gui “spared no expense in building his palaces, decorating the terraces with precious jade, embellishing the rooms with fine jade and building gates in jade.” He rounded up beautiful women from all over the nation and kept them in his imperial harem. He indulged himself excessively with alcohol, sex, and music day and night. Emperor Gui allegedly constructed a wine pool large enough to sail a boat in. People often got drunk and drowned themselves in the pool of wine. Preposterous and absurd occurrences such as drowning in the wine pool would amuse Emperor Gui’s favourite concubine Mei Xi. In sharp contrast, the Xia people were suffering from extreme hardship. They could hardly put enough food on the table with their annual harvests, and they couldn’t afford to store any seed for the next year’s planting. Families everywhere were broken up and scattered whenever a natural calamity occurred. Emperor Gui’s subjects once pointed their finger at the sky and cursed him, “When the sun falls, we will be happy to die too!” That meant that they’d be glad if the sun fell from the sky and destroyed Emperor Gui, even if it meant that they would also die!

Emperor Gui was violent and cruel. He slaughtered people over trivial matters. There was a government official by the name of Guan Longfeng during the Xia Dynasty. He presented an “Emperor’s Picture” to Emperor Gui. The “Emperor’s Picture” was also known as the “Gold Picture.” It was an ancient drawing made by monarchs of previous dynasties, with magnificent pictures showing the accomplishment of ancient monarchs. It was intended to be used as a guide for future generations of monarchs of the national administration. Guan Longfeng presented an “Emperor’s Picture” depicting the stories of Emperor Yu (2205 to 2197 B.C.) regulating rivers and watercourses so they could be used to prevent floods. Guan had hoped that Emperor Gui would learn from Emperor Yu about governing the country, being frugal, and caring for his people, in order to ensure the longevity of the Xia Dynasty. Guan had also tried to explain to Emperor Gui that if he continued to squander excessively over entertainment, and kill people at will, he would soon see the end of the Xia dynasty! However, Gui did not listen to such earnest advice. After murdering Guan Longfeng, Gui warned the imperial court officials that if anyone dared to advise against his lifestyle like Guan Longfeng, they would face the same capital punishment. After that, the virtuous and earnest court officials disappeared from the imperial court, as well as any opposition to its ruler. As a result, Emperor Gui became even more arrogant and overbearing.

And so it came to pass that,“In the fifteenth year of Emperor Gui, one night there was a shower of meteors. There was an earthquake. The Yi and Luo Rivers dried up. In the thirtieth year of Emperor Gui, Mount Qu collapsed.” (From Bamboo Slats Annals. )When later generations talked about the decline of the Xia Dynasty, they always said, “In ancient times, the Xia Dynasty collapsed when the Yi and Luo Rivers dried up!” According to “The History of Zhou” in The History of the Six Dynasties (or Guo Yu), the feudal lord Cheng Tang (who later established the Shang Dynasty) decided that Emperor Gui was corrupt beyond redemption and lost all the support of his people. In compliance to heaven’s will, Cheng Tang led a crusade against Emperor Gui and thus ended the Xia Dynasty.

Many people see natural disasters as warnings and punishments from Heaven, aimed at those who do not conduct themselves in accordance with divine principles. Thus, the demonic crimes of Emperor Gui provoked Heaven, which ultimately eliminated him after multiple warnings in the form of natural calamities.

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