Science bolsters the tale of China’s Great Flood

King Yu (禹) as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (馬麟). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A new study offers evidence to support stories that a huge flood took place in China about 4,000 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Yu.

The study in Science, led by Chinese researcher Qinglong Wu, finds evidence for a massive landslide dam break that could have redirected the course of the Yellow River, giving rise to the legendary flood that Emperor Yu is credited with controlling.

An accompanying commentary by David Montgomery, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, discusses how this finding supports the historical basis for traditional tales about China’s Great Flood. It even explains some details of the classic folk story.

“A telling aspect of the story—that it took Yu and his followers decades to control the floodwaters—makes sense in light of geological evidence that Wu et al. present,” Montgomery writes.

Floods: Religion and science don’t always clash

The study shows that an ancient landslide dammed the Yellow River on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. When the dam broke in about 1922 BCE, the authors find, it created an enormous flood that coincided with a period of major social disruption, suggesting that the Yellow River overflowed its banks and had to set a new course.

“It would have taken considerable time for a large river to adjust to such a change and the associated sustained flooding would fall in the right time and place to account for Yu’s story—including the long time it took to control the floodwaters,” Montgomery says.

The discovery is the latest in a series of efforts to link geologic and oral histories, including the biblical tale of Noah’s flood.

“Great floods figure prominently in some of humanity’s oldest stories,” Montgomery says. “In researching my book, The Rocks Don’t Lie, I found that while the idea of a global flood was soundly refuted almost 200 years ago, many of the world’s flood stories have their roots in real catastrophic events—like tsunamis, glacial dam-break floods, and disastrous flooding of lowland valleys and areas along major rivers.”

The Pacific Northwest is home to one prominent example. Montgomery says research has linked Native American tales about shaking and flooding to the 1700 earthquake and tsunami along Washington’s coast, for which no written records exist.

“Now it appears that we can add China’s story of a great flood to the growing list of legends of ancient catastrophes that may be rooted in real events,” Montgomery says.

Source: University of Washington