Yu the Great (大禹) was long regarded as an ideal ruler and kind of philosopher king by the ancient Chinese. He was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by establishing the Xia dynasty, and for his upright moral character.
According to ancient records, Yu traced his ancestors to the Yellow Emperor. When Yu was a child, his father Gun moved the people east toward the Central Plain. King Yao made Gun as lord of Chong. Yu is thus believed to have grown up on the slopes of Mount Song, just south of the Yellow River.
During the reign of king Yao, the Chinese heartland was frequently plagued by floods that prevented further economic and social development. Yu’s father, Gun, was tasked with devising a system to control the flooding. He spent more than nine years building a series of dikes and dams along the riverbanks, but all of this was ineffective.
Working with Hou Ji, an agricultural master about whom little is concretely known, Yu successfully devised a system of flood controls that were crucial in the prosperity of the Chinese heartland. Instead of directly damming the rivers’ flow, Yu made a system of irrigation canals which relieved floodwater into fields, as well as spending great effort dredging the riverbeds.
The dredging and irrigation were successful, and allowed ancient Chinese culture to flourish areas along the Yellow River.
In a mythical version of his story, during the thirteen years of flooding, he passed by his own family’s doorstep three times, but each time he did not return inside his own home. The first time he passed, he heard that his wife was in labor. The second time he passed by, his son could already call out to his father. His family urged him to return home, but he said it was impossible as the flood was still going on. The third time Yu was passing by, his son was older than ten years old. Each time, Yu refused to go in the door, saying that as the flood was rendering countless number of people homeless, he could not rest.
According to the fictional records, Yu ruled the Xia Dynasty for forty-five years.
Owing to his involvement in China’s mythical Great Flood, Yu came to be regarded as a water deity in Taoism and the Chinese folk religions.
By staff editor