Great Flood of Gun-Yu


The Great Flood of Gun-Yu (Chinese: 鯀禹治水), also known as the Gun-Yu myth, was a major flood in ancient China that continued for two generations.  This resulted in great population displacements and famine. People left their homes to live on the high hills and mountains, or nest on the trees. According to mythological and historical sources, it is traditionally dated to the third millennium BCE, or about 2300-2200 BCE, during the reign of Emperor Yao.

According to one narrative of the Great Flood, Emperor Yao faced a significant challenge as floodwaters engulfed the land. Seeking counsel from his advisors, known as the Four Mountains, he received a suggestion to appoint his distant relative Gun as the controller of the floods. Gun, accepting the responsibility, resorted to acquiring Xirang, a miraculous self-expanding soil, from the supreme deity through theft. He employed this soil to construct dams and embankments in an attempt to combat the advancing floodwaters, but unfortunately, they proved insufficient and often collapsed. The ensuing nine years were marked by Emperor Yao’s resignation due to a sense of disgrace, leading him to appoint another distant relative recommended by the Four Mountains, named Shun, as co-emperor. Shun took charge and restructured the kingdom to better confront the ongoing flood crisis. Despite Shun’s efforts, the floodwaters continued to rise even after four years. Gun persistently labored, maintaining that diligent construction of dams, dikes, and embankments by the people would eventually succeed in gaining control over the floods. However, Shun eventually had to exile Gun due to his repeated failures. Subsequently, Gun’s son, Yu, assumed the responsibility and implemented innovative drainage systems that enabled him to achieve what his father had been unable to accomplish.

In the account of the Yellow Emperor, attributed to the Xia Dynasty (2205-2197 BCE), a different perspective on the Great Flood emerges. During this time, the Yellow Emperor possessed a pile of extraordinary dirt with the power to absorb water. Gun, the emperor’s grandson, decided to steal this magical dirt and distribute it among the people to alleviate the troubles caused by the flooding rivers. Despite Gun’s efforts to build dams and other structures, the water proved uncontrollable. Upon discovering the theft, the Yellow Emperor ordered Gun’s execution at the hands of the fire god, Zurong. In the wake of this tragedy, Gun’s son, Yu, assumed the responsibility. Seeking the aid of the Yellow Emperor, Yu pledged his loyalty and requested the magical dirt to assist in rescuing the people. Pleased with Yu’s devotion, the emperor granted him the dirt and advised him to seek the assistance of a tortoise and a dragon. With the help of these legendary creatures, Yu successfully redirected river waters to the sea, excavated canals and tunnels, erected dams, and created lakes. Some versions of the tale even mention the involvement of mythological creatures, notably a dragon.

Source: Yang, Lihui; An, Deming; Turner, Jessica Anderson (2005), Handbook of Chinese mythology, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, ISBN 9780195332636

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