CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 9, March 2007


Chinese Myths of the Deluge | China Heritage Quarterly

Chinese Myths of the Deluge

Fig. 1
Fig. 1 Modern image of Da Yu, depicted in anachronistic dress of the type in which Qin-Han emperors are generally portrayed.

The labours of the legendary god-king Yu or Da Yu (i.e., Mighty Yu), (Fig.1) generally assigned to the 21st century BCE, in taming the long-term flooding of China's river systems constitute the opening chapter in the history of hydraulic engineering in China. All comprehensive histories of Chinese water conservation, hydraulic engineering and canal building, even those that deride the elevation of Yu to mythic status or the value of myth itself, open with praises of Da Yu. Although the following piece of clumping prose was composed during the political wrangles of the early 1970s which were fought out as a philosophical battle between Confucianism and Legalism, the triumph of hard labour and the war on nature it champions remain persistent themes in Chinese popular history writing to the present day:

The history of the development of hydraulic engineering in China is of great antiquity. According to legend, in the Yellow River valley, where our ancestors originated, there was extensive flooding more than 4,000 years ago. The Canon of Yao (Yao dian) in The book of history (Shang shu) states: 'Destructive in their spread are the waters of the deluge. In their vastness they embrace the mountains and submerge the hills, rising to the heavens with their swell'. The labouring people waged an unrelenting struggle with this overwhelming flood. According to legend, a man called Gun led the people in an attempt to control the floodwaters and they struggled to contain the floods by constructing dykes. Because production conditions at that time remained comparatively primitive, the attempt to use dykes to hold back the waters failed.

Later, leading the broad masses of labouring peoples and summarising the lessons of Gun's experience in controlling the flood waters, Yu adopted the tactic of channelling the floodwaters and eventually he triumphed in the battle with floods. The legendary Great Yu's control of the floods reflects the magnificent courage of the labouring people of our nation in ancient times in combating the elements and the unwavering spirit of struggle in which they advanced relentlessly to tackle the flood waters. From the time when humankind entered the stage of class society, such legends all bear a class imprint, and many works recounting these myths appeared in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. In one respect this coincided with the intensification of social revolution, the class struggle and the battle between Confucianism and Legalism in these periods. Mencius, trumpeting the need 'to emulate the kings of old', adopted the standpoint of antiquarian regression, and spoke of how 'Yu, in controlling the waters, relied on the way of water' ('Gaozi' section, Mencius) and 'The manner in which Yu conveyed away the waters was by doing what gave him no trouble' ('Lilou' section, Mencius).

To paraphrase, human beings were merely slaves of the forces of nature compelled to comply with the flow of the waters; human labour could never be used to effect improvements, because only by heeding the Mandate of Heaven could there be peace and no natural disasters.[1]

Fig. 2
Fig. 2 Recently renovated statue of Da Yu from the Temple of Yu in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province.
Fig. 3
Fig. 3 Photograph of the idyllic riverine landscape at the East Lake in Shaoxing. Photograph courtesy of

Chinese society, like many of the world's early civilisations that emerged in areas drained by mighty river systems, acknowledged the potentially destructive force of the waters that sustained agriculture and daily livelihoods by developing mythologies incorporating the notion of a universal deluge that threatened primordial humankind and potent images of mythic heroes who saved man from those floodwaters. In China, disparate bodies of mythology developed around a separate male and female saviour of mankind from the deluge, designated Da Yu and Nüwa, respectively. Today those myths have been dusted off, and both heroic figures have both been assigned new roles in China's ongoing heritage enterprise.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4 Procession at the Da Yu sacrifice in Shaoxing, 2006.Source: Shaoxing Daily News, 3 April 2006.

In 2006, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage separately listed the ritual ceremonies (jidian) associated with Da Yu (Fig.2) in Shaoxing, (Fig.3) Zhejiang province, and with Nüwa in Shexian county, Hebei province, as national cultural intangible heritage properties. [2] On 2 March 2007, the Ministry of Culture further approved the Zhejiang provincial government's proposal of 12 February 2007 that the 2007 ritual ceremony for Da Yu, to be held in Shaoxing, be elevated to national status. These are only some of the more recent public moves in regard to the rehabilitation and reworking of the cult of Da Yu examined in this article, a social development that would have been derided in the early 1970s as 'antiquarian regression' (fugu daotui).

Archaeologists Discover Hometown of Great Yu

In the meantime, at the beginning of 2007, the news that the hometown of Da Yu had been discovered by archaeologists appeared on a number of Chinese websites. These stories emanated from a symposium titled 'The ancient home of Da Yu' held by the Education, Science and Culture Committee of the People's Consultative Conference of Qinghai Province on 5 January 2007. The conference was attended by delegates from various provincial government units – the Department of Culture, Writers' Association, Tourism Administration and Qinghai Teachers' University.

The title of the conference referred to an article published in Qinghai Daily on 15 September 2006, 'The Lajia site and Da Yu taming the waters' by Bao Yizhi, deputy-chairman of the Qinghai Provincial Consultative Congress. Bao claimed that Lajia was the hometown of Da Yu, and at the conference in 2007 a number of speakers amplified that claim and expressed the hope that the 'packaging' (pinpai) of Lajia as the hometown of Da Yu would encourage local tourism. The only archaeological contribution to the conference was a sketch of a proposed sculpture showing Da Yu taming the waters by Liu Chuncheng of the Qinghai Provincial Archaeology Institute, whose original design won the praise of the participants. No solid evidence that Lajia was the hometown of Da Yu was presented.

The Lajia site in Minhe county was first excavated in the year 2000 by archaeological teams working under Wang Renxiang and Ye Maolin of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The site, identified as belonging to the 4,000 year old proto-bronze age Qijia archaeological culture, was a prehistoric village where the corpses of more than twenty of its inhabitants were found preserved in their death throes as they huddled for security in the main room of a house during an earthquake and attendant flash flooding of the Yellow River. The positions of the corpses, some huddled protectively around infants, relay the human agony occasioned by flooding, but this was evidence of no universal deluge, nor of any connection with Da Yu.

Even though the Lajia site is probably now better known for the discovery by archaeologists working there in 2005 of the oldest noodles found in China, which happened to be have been made of millet and were well-preserved, Qinghai is recognised as one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation and the legend of Da Yu relates to a China-wide deluge that began with flooding in the Yellow River basin.

The Bare Bones of the Legend of Da Yu

Fig. 5
Fig. 5 Da Yu in a Promethean pose.

Within the warp of myth and legend that characterises archaic Chinese history, scholars draw on passages in Sima Qian's Shi ji (Historical records) and the apocryphal Zhushu jinian (Bamboo annals) to lend narrative and character to the anonymous parade of early archaeological cultures. In these early texts, Yu is assigned to the 21st century BCE, and was reportedly first named Si Wenming. It is impossible to know whether Yu emerges as part of a process of euhemerism or is sheer invention, albeit invention conforming to semi-rational contours.

Yu's father, Gun, was first assigned by the sage-king Yao (traditional reign dates, 2357-2258 BCE) to control flooding, but was so unsuccessful in his attempt to do so that, in some accounts, he was executed by Yao's successor, Shun (traditional reign dates, 2255-2208 BCE). Recruited as a successor to his father, Yu was assigned an army of 20,000 workers to assist him in dredging new river channels to serve as overflow outlets, and he spent thirteen years on this massive project. Yu is remembered as the embodiment of the dutiful civil servant, rather than as a Promethean hero. (Fig.5) Confucius and other pre-Qin writers were fulsome in their praise of Yu as the dedicated official, who passed by his home without entering the front door on three occasions during the thirteen years he was engaged in flood control, reasoning that a family reunion would distract him from his civic duties. Da Yu's efforts to implement water conservation projects across a vast inundated country began at Hukou, the 'Cauldron's Mouth', the narrow cataract on the western borders of present day Shanxi through which the seething Yellow River still bursts from the north-western plateau in its downward flow. After rectifying the problems of the Yellow River with a concerted program of dredging overflow channels, Yu turned his attention to the flooding problems of other major Chinese river systems. These he is said to have surveyed from mountain locations, explaining why there are historical associations between Yu and a number of Chinese hills and mountains. While his dredging efforts would win favour with today's conservationists, Yu's program also called for burning off undergrowth, now not regarded as the wisest of policies for preventing floods.

Fig. 6
Fig. 6 View of the 'holy mountain', Guiji Shan, also called Kuaiji Shan. Photograph courtesy:

Shun was so impressed by these efforts that he passed the throne to Yu (traditional reign dates, 2205-2198 BCE), rather than to his own son. Yu established his capital in Yangcheng, according to The Bamboo Annals, and in the second year of his reign, the prime minister serving Shun, the previous king, died. In the eighth year of his reign, Yu convened a meeting with all the tribal leaders on Tushan (mountain), in order to consolidate his hegemony. After Yu's death, Yu's son Xia Qi buried his father on the mountain and initiated the spring and autumn sacrifices at his father's grave, under the auspices of the polity he founded, the Xia, China's first dynasty. The mountain itself was renamed Guiji Shan, (Fig.6) in etymological acknowledgement that on this very mountain Da Yu had once 'gathered together' or 'recalled' (gui) the heads (ji) of the various tribes.

The mountain housing the mausoleum of Da Yu later gave its name to the prefecture and administrative centre today called Shaoxing. Yu acquired legendary status and was transmogrified into Yu the Great (Da Yu). He is sometimes also identified as one of The Three August Ones and The Five Emperors (Sanhuang Wudi), although there is disagreement between ancient texts on the composition of this early triumvirate of lords and quintet of supreme rulers.

The Temple of Yu

Fig. 7
Fig. 7 Photograph of stele inscribed 'Mausoleum of Da Yu', on the side of Guiji Shan.

There has been an intermittent history of worship at the site of Da Yu's mausoleum, (Fig.7) and the rituals performed there are classified by Chinese historians as belonging to three types: (1) official commemorative rituals; (2) ceremonies of the Si clan, Da Yu having being born Si Wenming; and (3) ceremonies of folk worship (minjian jisi). This hierarchical ordering of religious rituals overlooks the fact that the belief in and worship of Yu must have been sustained by popular religion, and that official rituals were only a reactive attempt to channel and regulate local beliefs.

Nevertheless, China's bureaucratic imperative dictated that the official rituals were broken down, in turn, into three types: (1) official commemorative rituals conducted on the occasion of imperial visits; (2) ceremonies conducted at the time of major state events or crises; and, (3) sacrifices conducted in spring and autumn each year by envoys of the central government and local officials. According to early Chinese writings, in addition to the Xia spring and autumn sacrifices initiated by Yu's son, another descendant established the state of Yue, which roughly corresponds in area to today's Zhejiang province, (Fig.8) and for the period of 1,900 years from the establishment of this state until its destruction by Qin in 222 BCE, ancestral rites for Yu were also conducted in Yue.

Fig. 8
Fig. 8 Map showing the location of Shaoxing in Zhejiang province.

In 210 BCE, China's first historical emperor Qin Shihuang personally travelled to Guiji and presided over a sacrifice for Yu, thus initiating the tradition of imperial sacrifices. After Liu Bang established the Han dynasty, he too conducted this sacrifice. In the year 126 CE, Sima Qian, the Grand Historian, travelled to Shaoxing, where he 'ascended Guiji Mountain and explored the Grotto of Yu'. (Figs. 9 and 10) In 179, during the reign of the Han Emperor Lingdi, the stele inscribed 'Han Yu Miao Bei' was erected at the mausoleum in Shaoxing, and during the Liu-Song dynasty, Xie Huilian (407-433) also climbed Guiji Mountain and composed a libational text for the sacrifice at Yu's mausoleum, the oldest of the sacrificial texts related to Yu extant today thanks to its inclusion in the ancient literary anthology Wen xuan (The selection of writings).

Fig. 9
Fig. 9 The ornamental entrance of the sealed Grotto of Yu (Yu Xue).

Fig. 10 Fig. 10 The exquisitely carved inscription sealing the Grotto of Yu in Shaoxing.

During the Liang dynasty, in 545, the Temple of Yu was rebuilt, acquiring the basic dimensions it has retained to this day. The image of Da Yu had now come to exemplify the sagacious ruler who spared no effort to assist the common people. To this end, the Tang dynasty official and poet Song Zhiwen (d. 712) composed a poem in praise of the selfless Da Yu when, during the reign of Emperor Zhongzong (r. briefly in 684, 705-710), he served in exile from the year 709 onwards as magistrate of Yuezhou, as Shaoxing was then known. In a poem titled Ji Yu miao wen (Text of the sacrifice at Yu's temple), Song contrasted the sloth and venality of the officials of his own era with the selflessness of Da Yu.

In the subsequent Song and Yuan dynasties, the status of the mausoleum and temple of Da Yu was further elevated, and the preservation of these sites became concerns of the central government. In 964, 'the worship of Yu' (si Yu) was classified by the imperial government as a 'regular ceremony' (changdian), and at the time of the annual event pilgrims would flock to the shrine emptying the urban districts of Shaoxing. The gentry would hire decorated boats, host banquets and organise theatrical performances. Even the poor spent all they could afford celebrating on the lakes and waterways of Shaoxing.

During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) the Mongol rulers also lavished expenditure on maintaining the temple of Yu, but in the Ming and Qing dynasties the rituals received heightened official attention. From the 4th year (1371) of the Hongwu reign period onwards, the government would select a day in the first ten-day period of the mid-month of both spring and autumn to conduct a sacrificial ritual for Yu. Every three years, sacrificial prayers (zhuwen) would be issued and dancers and musicians from the court would participate in the celebratory performances. Yu was inscribed as 'the first teacher of kings' (wangshi zhi shou), and was worshipped together with the Three Kings (Sanwang, the founders of the first three dynasties, i.e., Xia, Shang and Zhou), the Five Lords and the founders of the Han and Tang dynasties in a temple established in the capital, where on a propitious day in the eighth lunar month of each year sacrifices to this pantheon were offered. Ming court protocol also dictated that whenever a new emperor ascended the throne he must despatch an emissary to the mausoleum of Yu to make offerings. Eleven of the dynasty's seventeen emperors complied with this regulation.

Fig. 11
Fig. 11 Woodblock illustration of the mausoleum and temple of Da Yu at the foot of Guiji Mountain in Shaoxing, as depicted in the folio of sites visited by the Qianlong Emperor. Source: Nanxun shengdian, Taipei: Xinxing Shuju, 1979, pp.5928-9.

In the Qing dynasty, the rituals at the mausoleum of Yu were further dignified, and officials from the court were despatched as emissaries on thirty occasions to the mausoleum. In 1689, the Kangxi Emperor paid a personal visit to the mausoleum in the course of one of his southern expeditions, as did the Qianlong Emperor in 1751. (Fig.11) Poems, essays and couplets in the imperial hand provide written evidence of these visits. In 1877, and in 1900, the temple of Yu was again renovated and stelae record these acts. (Fig.12)

Fig. 12
Fig. 12 Views of the halls at the Temple of Yu in Shaoxing housing the stelae on which are recorded the compositions left by visiting emperors and prominent officials.

The official ceremonies did not end with the demise of the dynastic system in 1911. The political significance and popular appeal of the sacrifices were also appreciated by Republican leaders. In 1919, Sun Yat-sen, accompanied by Hu Hanmin, made an official visit to the mausoleum. In 1930, the governor of Zhejiang province, Zhang Zaiyang, advocated the re-institution of 'the worship of Yu' (si Yu), and the Zun Yu Xuehui (Study Association for Veneration of Yu) was established to 'promote the spirit of Da Yu'. As a result, extensive repairs were carried out at the temple and shrine of Da Yu in 1933 and 1934. On 16 October 1935, a large public ceremony honouring Da Yu was organised by the Zhejiang government. This ceremony was attended by personages from all walks of life and was presided over by the chairman of the Zhejiang provincial government, Huang Shaohong.

Enemies from all sides in the civil war also sought to align themselves with national icons. On 29 March 1939, Zhou Enlai paid a visit to the temple and mausoleum of Da Yu, where he delivered a speech citing Yu's spirit of struggle in the cause of the anti-Japanese resistance. On 20 April 1947, Chiang Kai-shek, together with his wife, son (Chiang Ching-kuo) and daughter-in-law, made an official visit to the mausoleum, accompanied by the new chairman of the Zhejiang provincial government, Shen Honglie. Chiang's party laid wreaths at Yu's shrine, as well as performing more traditional bows of obeisance. In that year, the Chinese Society of Engineers declared Da Yu's birthday, the 6th day of the 6th lunar month, to be Chinese Engineers' Day, and they celebrated the event at the mausoleum.

Fig. 13
Fig. 13 The Temple of Yu in Shaoxing viewed across the grove of ancient trees at the site.

After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, the mausoleum and temple were preserved (Fig.13) and, over time, county- and provincial-level conservation orders were issued. The sites were renovated on three occasions, and they managed to escape major destruction in the Cultural Revolution, but it was not until 20-21 April 1995 that the first large-scale commemoration was held at the mausoleum and shrine following the Communist takeover.

Fig. 14
Fig. 14 Attendants in 'primordial dress' pouring Shaoxing wine at the Da Yu sacrifice in Shaoxing, 2006. Source: Shaoxing Daily News, 3 April 2006.

Fig. 15
Fig. 15 Officials following attendants in 'primordial dress' at the Da Yu sacrifice in Shaoxing, 2006. Source: Shaoxing Daily News, 3 April 2006.

Fig. 16
Fig. 16 Officiant Zhang Jinru reading the libational address at the Da Yu sacrifice in Shaoxing, 2006. Source: Shaoxing Daily News, 3 April 2006.

The revamped ritual of 1995, orchestrated by provincial and local officials, began with the firing of a nine-gun salute, presumably to symbolize the Nine Prefectures over which Da Yu had once ruled (see Map). This was followed by 33 drum rolls, signifying the number of provinces of China, with the addition of Hong Kong and Macau (prior to the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over these two colonies), and a bell was then struck twelve times to signify the respect of the 1.2 billion strong population of China. During the drum rolls, those gathered at the temple bowed three times to the statues of Da Yu, and Shaoxing wine that had been aged for a century was offered to this venerated ancestor. (Fig.14) On the table of 'sacrificial offerings', pork, beef and lamb were laid out as offerings, as well rice, wheat, sorghum and millet, and black, white and yellow bolts of silk. Sixty-four young men and women, each presumably signifying one of the 64 hexagrams of The Book of Changes and carrying plough handles and willow fronds performed a ritual dance to the 'ancient' composition Chao tianzi (Facing the emperor). The drummers, as well as the eight strong tattooed men who carried the large urn of Shaoxing wine, all wore an approximation of 'archaic' clothing (Fig.15), a variation on urban tribal, while the other musicians strove for a more recognisably dynastic effect. Leaders from the central, provincial and municipal governments attended the gathering (Fig.16), as did members of the Hong Kong Shaoxing Association, Hsia Clan Society members from Taipei, and delegates from the Shaoxing Association of Taipei. Overseas Chinese visitors, as well as personnel from a number of foreign embassies in China (Italy, the USA, Republic of Korea, Poland, India and Iran), also attended the ceremony. Related to the events were award ceremonies for engineers and officials who had rendered services in provincial hydroelectric projects, rounded off with an evening concert. More than 20,000 people attended the central event. An academic symposium, an investment forum and a trade fair were all held to coincide with the commemorative ritual. The floodwaters of vernacular religion had been effectively channelled and controlled during the events which culminated on 15 May with a visit to the mausoleum and temple by President Jiang Zemin, (Fig.17) who praised the spirit of Da Yu and who prepared calligraphy for the holy sites after returning to Beijing. On 8 July, another ceremony was held in Shaoxing during which Jiang Zemin's calligraphy was unveiled in situ. (Fig.18)

Fig. 17
Fig. 17 President Jiang Zemin photographed at the Mausoleum of Da Yu in Shaoxing, 1995

Fig. 18
Fig. 18 The calligraphy of President Jiang Zemin prepared in 1995 for the memorial archway leading to the large park constructed around the site of the Mausoleum of Da Yu in Shaoxing.

In April 1996, the second annual ritual in the current round was held in Shaoxing, although this was described as a 'popular activity of sacrificial offerings' (min ji huodong). It was attended by Shaoxing locals and visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. A further ceremony for Da Yu, this time described as a 'public sacrifice' (gongji) under the auspices of the Shaoxing people's government, was held in April 2000, and in April 2001 popular rituals were organised by members of the Si, Xia and Yu clans who regard themselves as descendants of Da Yu. A regular format for the events melding popular religion and public celebration in Shaoxing had yet to be established.

Da Yu and the Shaoxing of Lu Xun

Fig. 19
Fig. 19 The pavilion housing the plinth or phallus (renzu) of Da Yu called Zhishi Ting.

In searching for references to his native Shaoxing in ancient Chinese literature, Lu Xun (1881-1936), indisputably one of 20th century China's foremost literary figures, edited a thin sheaf of works and excerpts which he titled Guiji-jun gushu zaji (A miscellany of ancient writings on Guiji prefecture), a reference to the town's ancient name. That volume includes Kong Lingfu's Guiji ji, a desultory account of the environs of Shaoxing running to no more than a single fascicle on ancient sites and landscape features in the city's environs. To these the name of Great Yu is often linked, even if it only consisted of a single phrase of connective narrative. Yet the constant repetition of the name of Yu in that work evokes a cultural landscape from the time when Shaoxing formed the centre of the ancient Yue kingdom and exerted control throughout the waterways of Zhejiang. The fundamental association of Da Yu and Shaoxing was forged through the existence of a tall rock, either phallus, pillar or plinth, called Zhishi, (Fig.19) and the nearby orifice in the rock, Yu Xue (Grotto of Yu), natural formations that have somehow come to designate the location of the cultural founding hero's 'mausoleum'.

Fig. 20
Fig. 20 The Shrine of Yu (Yu Ci) in Shaoxing.

Under the hermeneutic scrutiny of classical scholarship that at one and the same time renders ancient Chinese ritual texts generative and sexual texts as ritual, the stone is described as a renzu, variously translatable as a 'human ancestor', 'progenitor of all humankind', or simply a 'phallus'. The symbolism of Yu is woven through the Shaoxing area, regardless of which ancient textual sources we consult, and so much in Lu Xun's local history is an inventory of place names and their half-remembered and fleetingly recorded associations with Da Yu – Yu Ci (Shrine of Yu) (Fig.20), Goulin Bei (Fig.21), the Pond of Yu (Yu Chi) (Fig.22), and the spring called Feiyin Quan (Fig.23).

Fig. 21
Fig. 21 The small pavilion housing the Goulin Stele in the grounds of the Temple of Yu in Shaoxing.

The Pond of Yu is located beside the pavilion which contains the large stele inscribed Da Yu Ling (Mausoleum of Great Yu) in the hand of the Ming calligrapher Nan Daji. In 1979, the local government rebuilt the pavilion with its wild upturned eaves that is said to cover the tunnel that leads down to the mausoleum. The pavilion is surrounded by ancient locust and pine trees, as well as bamboo groves. To the south of the main pavilion are two others—one called Yu Xue Bian Ting (Pavilion for Determining the Grotto of Yu) and the other simply Yu Xue Ting (Pavilion of the Grotto of Yu).

Da Yu and the Shaoxing of Heritage Enterprise

Fig. 22
Fig. 22 The Pond of Yu (Yu Chi) in Shaoxing.

Fig. 23
Fig. 23 Feiyin Spring, a site within the grounds of the Temple of Yu, Shaoxing.

On the website devoted to the rituals of Da Yu posted by the Shaoxing municipal government, scientific authentication of the historical existence of Da Yu is sought in the final reports of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project and the section of Sima Qian's Historical records titled Xia benji (Annals of Xia). The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project is one of the more curious intellectual undertakings initiated by the Chinese government during the past decade. The extremely well-funded project was initiated during President Jiang Zemin's state visit to Egypt in May 1996. Standing before a massive plaque detailing ancient Egyptian chronology arranged by dynasties, Jiang remarked to State Councillor Song Jian, who was standing at his side, that China should have something as impressive and precise to show visiting dignitaries, little realising that there is very little that is watertight in the chronological schemes for ancient Egypt prepared by archaeologists and historians and that new discoveries are constantly challenging accepted chronological hypotheses.

The Chinese government subsequently lavished generous funding on assembling a team of the nation's leading archaeologists and other scientists to prepare a definitive chronology of the hazy period of the early Western Zhou and earlier. The project's published chronology was a compromise and many of its conclusions, including the use of carbon-14 technology to provide precise dates, were challenged, even by some participants in the project, but the Shaoxing government blithely cites the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project in stating that Da Yu ruled for ten years before his death and was buried in 2062 BCE on Mount Guiji.

Map of the Nine Prefectures (Jiuzhou) of Da Yu. The map extends from Yung Chow (Yongzhou, including Qinghai and Gansu) and Leang Chow (Liangzhou, including Sichuan) in the west to Ts'ing Chow (Qingzhou, modern-day Shandong) in the east. Source: James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol.III, 'The Shoo King or The Book of Historical Documents', SMC Reprint, Taipei, 2000.

Although various places in China have associations with Da Yu,[3] it is Shaoxing that has come to be elevated to national status and, as outlined above, the veneration of Da Yu in that southern city indicates how different aspects of Da Yu are emphasised to appeal to different groups. There is an ongoing process in China for organised religions and governments to co-opt elements of folk religion for other purposes. [4] According to some writers, Da Yu is the southern equivalent of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, but his role as a national progenitor is little emphasised at present, despite the existence of the primordial phallus (renzu) in Shaoxing. In genetic terms, he is remembered instead as a clan ancestor, although Yu, hailing from a mythic period when surnames had not acquired patriarchal significance, is variously claimed by the Si, Yu and Xia clans. The last of the three clan names is quite obviously an anachronism, unless Yu adopted the title of his own son.

In February 2007, the Si clan stole a march on the Yu and Xia clans by dint of better organisation. The deputy-director and secretary-general of the Shaoxing Si Clan Research Society, Si Daniu told reporters from Xinhua News Agency on 2 February that the society had determined to revive the ancient custom of sacrifices to Da Yu in the first lunar month, and that for thousands of years his clan had made sacrificial offerings to Da Yu both in the first lunar month and on the occasion of Da Yu's birthday in the sixth month. The clan can count on more than 200 family participants in this year's events, the first since the ceremonies at the Da Yu mausoleum were listed as a national intangible cultural heritage property by the central government.

The spokesman for the Si clan, whose observances honouring their ancestor ceased in the 1950s, also made it clear that the clan's sacrifices would fulfil the requirements of the tailao sacrifice and exceed them, by including three local types of tea and six local types of wine among the offerings. The mausoleum of Da Yu is now undergoing major renovations in preparation for the next ceremonies, scheduled for 20 April this year. [BGD/ © Bruce Gordon Doar]


[1] Wuhan Shuili Dianli Xueyuan (Wuhan Hydroelectric College) ed., Ru-Fa douzheng yu woguo gudai shuili shiye de fazhan (The Confucian-Legalist struggle and the development of the ancient Chinese hydraulic enterprise), Beijing: People's Publishing House, 1974, pp.1-2. The two quotations from Mencius in this passage draw essentially on Legge's translation.

[2] Doar, Bruce, ' Approaching the past: Preparing an inventory of intangible cultural properties', at; 'List of 518 intangible cultural heritage properties',

[3] The worship and veneration of Da Yu are by no means limited to Shaoxing and its environs. Temples and shrines where offerings to Da Yu are made can also be found in various parts of Sichuan, Henan and Shandong. Many sites bearing the same names as Yu-related places in Shaoxing are found across China. In the dynastic period, temples to Da Yu were established in Sichuan province in Kuimen, Tushan and Chengdu, but the main mythic site was in Shiquan (today's Beichuan county) at the foot of Shiniu mountain, which was celebrated in some accounts as the birthplace of Yu. A temple was established there in the Tang dynasty, and offerings were made to Yu at the spring and autumn equinox and on the birthday of Yu. During the Ming dynasty, in 1561, a stele inscribed Goulou bei was erected under the cover of a pavilion in the grounds of Yu Temple. The temple was restored on two occasions, once during the reign of Kangxi and again during the reign of Qianlong. As part of the latter refurbishment in 1768, a stone memorial gateway was erected at the foot of Shiniu mountain. The plinth above the gate was inscribed, 'Home Village of Divine Yu' (Shen Yu guli). On the completion of this project, Jiang Bingzhang, the county magistrate who had overseen the renovation and extensions, led the guard of honour of officials at the head of a procession of more than one hundred villagers carrying offerings: oxen, sheep, pigs, silks and libation vessels filled with grains and wine. They then performed for Yu the tailao sacrifice, the name for rituals at which the three large sacrificial beasts (ox, sheep and pig) are slaughtered. The ceremonies in Beichuan fell into decline in the Republican period, but in 1991 there were calls to revive the local heritage of Yu. A number of sites associated with Yu were refurbished for anticipated tourists, and a memorial hall for Da Yu was built there. In 1994, celebrations on Yu's birthday were revived in Beichuan with official blessing, and in 2002 on the site of Dongyue Miao on the side of Shiniu mountain, King Yu Temple was built and a statue of Yu more than 10 m in height was installed. Folk festivities are now organised annually in Beichuan.

The city government of Dujiangyan, the site of an ancient irrigation and reticulation project outside Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, reached a decision in October 1991 to develop the tourism potential of the site. Here in 1995 a cluster of new temples to the Dragon King was erected, and on 20 April of that year a festival was held to celebrate the completion of this complex and venerate Da Yu. A number of local celebrities and political figures attended, and since then the birthday of Da Yu is celebrated annually with various local activities, although Dujiangyan has also incorporated dragon boat races in these events.

Officials in other localities across China have followed suit – Songpan county in Sichuan, Harbin in Heilongjiang, and, most significantly, Yuzhou in Henan province. Moreover, a large memorial hall for Da Yu has been set up in Mianyang city, Sichuan, and a memorial park honouring Da Yu has been laid out in Yucheng, Shandong province. Statues of Da Yu continue to proliferate across China.

[4] Tsai, Julius N., 'The transformations of myths concerning Yu the Great into Daoist narrative and ritual', draft prepared for the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for Asian Studies. This paper is freely available online and can be downloaded in word format.