The Great Flood
Andrew Marr’s History of the World – Age of Survival
Farming and town-living had both brought new dangers but the trap had closed. There was no going back. Across the world, many of our ancestors were now living in independent settled communities.
But what would possibly bring them together into bigger groups?
Again, we have to look to nature – not simply its opportunities but also its threats. All around the world people have told stories about a great flood, and it really does seem that something happened about 4,000 years ago which caused devastation to many of the first civilisations, including China. But what makes China different is that they still tell stories, part myth but part, probably, history, too.
In China, it really does all start with the Flood. According to the ancient chronicles, there were nine years of heavy rain, causing the Yellow River to change its course with devastating effects.
The Yellow River is also known as “China’s Great Sorrow”. For thousands of years it regularly burst its banks, wiping out entire villages, destroying everything in its path. The 3000-mile-long river flooded an area greater than the entire United Kingdom.
The old legends say that one of the clan leaders appointed a man named Gun to devise a way to tame the river. The stakes were rather high. If Gun succeeded, he’d be richly rewarded. If he failed, he’d pay with his life. He built huge earth dams. But time and again, they were brushed aside by the floodwaters. Gun was unable to save his people… Or himself.
The father’s burden would now fall upon his son, Yu. After Gun’s execution the clan leader ordered Yu to come up with a new idea about how to control the floods, and Yu dedicated his life to the job. According to old Chinese legends, he said he wouldn’t return to his pregnant wife until the river was tamed.
The ancient chronicles say that Yu decided to begin by surveying the entire length of the river. On this epic trek he came up with a radically different plan. No more confrontations with nature, no more dams. Instead of trying to confront the raging waters like his father, he would divide them.
Yu planned to create a vast network of channels. During the flood season, they would divert the full force of the river and reduce its destructive flow, but that meant a colossal work of engineering… And a huge diplomatic challenge – because in order to succeed, he’d have to convince hundreds of rival clans to set aside centuries of hostility.
We’re going back to the old strength of pre-historic humanity, tribalism, which was now becoming a weakness, because only by working together could the clans possibly solve the problem of the Yellow River.
Yu’s epic engineering project began. Myth or not, there were major river-taming projects at this time. The story goes that over the next 13 years, Yu passed his home three times, but he remained true to his vow of self-sacrifice and never went inside.
Finally, his vast network of channels was complete. And the rains came again. Yu’s great feat of engineering would be put to the test. But the channels calmed the floods. Yu’s story tells us an important historical truth about how natural challenges brought River-dwelling people together.
Da Yu had united the clans of the Yellow River for the first time because only by coming together, under a single authority, could they solve this problem. As a reward, the clan leader made Yu his heir. Some people argue he founded the first Chinese dynasty, and certainly Chinese history begins on the banks of the Yellow River.
Yu is known to this day as Da Yu – the Great Yu – and it’s interesting that the first Chinese hero was a civil engineer and a civil servant.
All around the world history is shaped by the desire to shape nature to suit us. That means working together, but it’s also competitive and violent. Each move forward brings fresh problems. Farming brings more people, but it brings more disease, and in more complex societies, leaders and priests will emerge.
It’s all a shaggy-dog story of unexpected consequences. From the sweat and success of the first farmers, all the world’s hierarchies, from landlords and popes to emperors would grow, and they only thought they were planting next year’s porridge or trying to keep dry.