It was a flood to rival that which Noah rode out. Up to 500,000 cubic metres of water per second from a wall some 38 metres above normal river levels.
And according to legend, 4000 years ago, an emperor known as Yu the Great successfully controlled it, laying the foundations for Chinese civilisation today.
Until now, though, there has been no solid evidence to suggest the great flood of the Yellow River basin ever happened.
But an international team of scientists has just had a paper published in Science detailing their evidence that indeed, around 1920 BCE, an earthquake burst the banks of the Yellow River.
There’s still some work to be done matching it up with Yu’s Xia dynasty – that occurred several centuries earlier – but it does match with the region’s transition from the Neolithic to Bronze Age.
And the legends say the flood continued for at least two generations, until Yu’s vision of dredging and channelling the river finally brought it under control.
“Great floods occupy a central place in some of the world’s oldest stories,” University of Washington geologist David Montgomery, wrote in a commentary on the Science article.
“Emperor Yu’s flood now stands as another such story potentially rooted in geologic events. … How many other ancient stories of intriguing disasters might just have more than a grain of truth to them?”
We can probably ignore the parts about Yu harnessing the power of dragons and giant turtles. The team instead relied on sediment testing and sadly, the remains of children who died in an earthquake nearby to show how it may have caused a landslide which initially dammed the Yellow River in Jishi Gorge.
In the course of the following year, the river built up behind before spilling over, then again collapsing the wall and causing the decades-long calamity.
It is suggested the flood caused havoc along 2000km of the river.
The emperor at the time, Yao, wrote of it in the Book of History:
Like endless boiling water, the flood is pouring forth destruction. Boundless and overwhelming, it overtops hills and mountains. Rising and ever rising, it threatens the very heavens. How the people must be groaning and suffering!
Yao tasked control of the river to a distant relative, Gun, the Prince of Chong, and eventually the task fell to Gun’s son Yu. Yu opted for a system of drainage rather than sticking with attempts to control the water with dams and dikes. That’s where the dragons (digging) and turtles (mud-hauling) parts come in.
“I opened passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the seas. I deepened the channels and conducted them to the streams,” Yu has been quoted.
Yu assumed the mantle of emperor and went on to found the Xia dynasty.
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