Much of what we think happened to found the Xia dynasty comes from the Legend of Yu. Settlements sprang up around the Yellow River, and it often flooded. This wasn’t a problem native to China, as you’ve learned in other sections of this book. Still, one of the early leaders, King Yao, gave a man named Gun the task of finding a way to control the flood waters. Gun failed many times at this task, seeking to build dams to trap the water. This did not stop the flooding from happening, and it wasn’t Gun who ended up solving the problem. It was his son, Yu. Yu was able to carefully study the river systems and learn from his father’s mistakes. Yu is credited as having created a system of irrigation canals which brought the flood waters into fields over the period of approximately thirteen years. Yu would eventually become ruler and the Xia dynasty continued for several hundred years.
It is with the start of the Shang dynasty that we have a lot of historical evidence that helps us figure out what happened in this area during this time. The Shang rose to power in Northern China and are said to have eventually conquered the Xia. During the Shang dynasty, China was ruled by a monarch who would appoint governors to rule small sections of the kingdom overall. It is also during the Shang dynasty that the Chinese began working with the metal bronze.
The people of the Shang dynasty continued to live off the land settled earlier and continued to guard against flooding by further developing complex irrigation and flood control methods. Social classes rose to prominence during this era - with the king at the top and warrior nobles near the top with him. At the bottom of this social pyramid were the peasants and farmers who lived in the many villages around the territory.