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The Great Flood of Gun-Yu

Photo by Jasper van der Meij on Unsplash

When it comes to myths about great floods, it’s likely that most people in the Western world will be familiar with the biblical story of Noah. With how well-known this myth is, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are many other myths about great floods from various cultures across the world, such as the Great Flood of Gun-Yu from Chinese mythology.

The Four Flood Myth Traditions

In Chinese mythology, there are several flood myths that exist, a total of four. These flood myths are the Nü Kua, Kung Kung, Kun, and Yu traditions. Out of the four traditions, the Yu flood myth tradition is the most well-known. In “The Four Flood Myth Traditions” by Anne Birrell, she explains that the Yu flood myth is probably better known because:

“Apart from the authority of antiquity, numerous traits mark Yu out as the stereotypical hero: miraculous birth, a father wrongfully killed, mission sanctioned (in some versions) by God, heroic labours involving extreme physical hardship, a public sense of duty greater than private concerns, bravery, virtuous conduct, and selfless endeavor on behalf of humankind.”

Yu’s story is presented as a heroic tale and is so popular that there are many versions of the same myth.

Since there are many versions of the Chinese flood myth, it’s difficult to determine which is the “correct” one. Among the differences that exist are “the length of time Yu took to control the flood, the distances he traveled, and his sense of mission, which overrode family obligations and domestic pleasures” (Birrell). For the most part, though, the Great Flood of Gun-Yu generally focuses on the main character Yu and his task of stopping a flood so great that it lasted for many years. In most versions of the myth, Yu takes over for his father Gun, who is unsuccessful in his attempts to stop the flood. Each version of the myth mentions various gods, monsters, and other supernatural elements from Chinese mythology. Another element that appears in most versions of the myth is the heroics that Yu performs in his attempts to stop the flood. Yu is often considered a great hero for his strong character and work in stopping the flood, and in one version, is the founder of the Xia Dynasty.

Considering the many versions that exist of the Yu tradition, it’s also difficult to determine how exactly Yu stopped the flooding. There are several versions of the Yu tradition that agree that Yu was able to stop the flooding “through a divine agency, by using God’s divine cosmos-restoring soil, and by receiving God’s blessing, thus becoming the chosen one of God” (Birrell). There’s another version, however, that claims that Yu stopped the flood “through his own resourcefulness, heroic endeavor, and devoted commitment, relying on human qualities rather than a divine agency” (Birrell). Then there’s one version where Yu was able to stop the flooding because he had an intimate knowledge of water control. One final version worth mentioning is that Yu “devised a method which took into consideration the necessary balance between human society and the animal kingdom” (Birrell). Yu was mindful of the environment in this version and his method to control the flood here ensured that animals and the natural world would remain undisturbed.

While the gods from Chinese mythology don’t appear to be responsible for the flooding, Yu still encounters them during his work to stop the floods. In some versions, “Yu was commanded by the Supreme Divinity to spread Xirang to control the floodwaters and stabilize the world” (Yang et al.). Xirang is a magic soil that Yu used to control the flooding in one version of the myth by using it to create dams and other barriers to stop the flood, with one version noting “that he was given a detailed map for controlling the flood by He Bo, the god of the Yellow River” (Yang et al.). Yu also met and defeated many monsters, which became a necessity as they helped him in controlling the flood. Since Yu was also capable of defeating and executing “demons or gods who disobeyed his orders but also govern all the gods” (Yang et al.), some scholars consider him to be a god (or demi-god) himself. One version of the flood myth refers to Yu as an agricultural god who set the limits on “all the earth’s land, the god of tilling, and the god who regulated water courses and so ended the world deluge” (Birrell). While some versions of the Chinese flood myth would dispute Yu’s status as a god, there is no doubt that there are supernatural elements present.

Yu’s dedication to stopping the flood shows off his moral character and why he would become celebrated as a hero. It is said “that Yu was occupied in flood control work for eight years, and although he passed by the gates of his home, he did not enter because he had not completed his task” (Birrell). This would take a physical toll on Yu’s physical health, as “no nails grew on his hands, no hair grew on his shanks. He caught an illness that made his body shrivel in half so that when he walked he could not [lift one leg] past the other” (Birrell). Even the fact that Yu was married didn’t prevent him from performing his duties to continue working to stop the flooding.

Yu’s Family

Yu’s wife is given some importance in several versions of the Chinese flood myth. It’s explained that originally, Yu chose not to get married because he “was afraid that he would transgress the moral rite of passage that required a man to marry by the age of thirty” (Yang et al.). Through prayer, and the appearance of a white fox with nine tails, Yu concluded that he would marry a girl from the Tusha clan. This comes true, and he marries a woman named Tushanshi, who helps Yu by bringing him food while he was working on the flood. There’s also an unusual story told of how Yu’s wife (while pregnant) turned into stone out of shame after finding out by accident that Yu had turned into a deer. Seeing his wife turned to stone, Yu asked if he could have the baby that his wife was carrying, which is done. Yu’s son was named Qi, who “later inherited his father’s throne and became the first emperor of Xia, the first civilized state in China” (Yang et al.). There is a sense of legacy among Yu’s family, with Yu taking over for his father Gun after he was unable to stop the flood, and Yu’s son Qi would go on to inherit his throne.

Could It Have Happened?

It is said that after Yu helped stop the flood that would have sunk all of China, he was rewarded by being given the title of king and is said to be the founder of the Xia dynasty. If a major flood really did occur in ancient China, then it would add some historical value, as the Xia dynasty relates to the flood myth. It’s considered to be China’s first dynasty, even though there is no actual proof of its existence outside of mentions in written stories. According to an article by Michael Greshko in National Geographic:

“Nearly 4,000 years ago, a landslide sent boulders and sediment tumbling into a valley of the Yellow River. The carnage created a massive earthen dam some 660 feet tall, cutting off the river for months. When the dam finally burst and the river broke free, a massive flood raged across the countryside.”

If a major flood really did occur, it would help to prove that the Xia dynasty did exist. As of now, though, most scholars are quick to leave Yu’s story as a myth, stating that it “is best understood as a creation myth that later dynasties used to legitimize their rules” (Greshko). While new evidence isn’t enough to prove that the flood in this myth is based on true events, it still stands as a testament to how important it has become to Chinese culture and history.

Works Cited

Birrell, Anne. “The Four Flood Myth Traditions of Classical China.” T’oung Pao, vol. 83, 1997, Brill, pp. 213–259. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4528727.

Greshko, Michael. “Geologic Evidence May Support Chinese Flood Legend.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 4 Aug. 2016, news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/china-yellow-river-great-flood-xia-dynasty-yu/.

Yang, Lihui, et al. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 237- 240.

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Jesse Perez

Jesse Perez

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I am an alumni of CSN and UNLV with a Bachelor’s degree in English.