Yu the Great - China's Legend

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Water in China: from Yu the Great’s legend to the Chinese water crisis

Francesco Maria Filotto (飞龙)
Id. 106235

In this report I would like to underline the importance of Yu the Great’s legend, linking it to the construction of the Grand Canal during the Sui Dynasty and finally to the ambitious plan of Chinese Government of diverting water from Yangtze river to Yellow river, in order to fight the north lack of water. In all of this examples we can see the human willing to control water, but also the importance that Chinese people give to water. This element has in fact a central role in agricultural (like rice harvest) and also in industrial matters: water brings life and work, so controlling the water would determine a huge progress for most people in China. China has a lot of canals, that provide most part of water in the mainland: channels are very important in Chinese history and tradition, because they are linked to harvesting, to surviving and life. So there are many legends and stories about river and canals: one of these is Yu’s, the legend of a Chinese hero.

Great Yu Controls the Waters
|“ |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! | |

In this way the Great Flood was described by Emperor Yao, according to the “Book of History”: the Great Flood is one of the major flood events in the history of China, and it has also an huge importance in Chinese culture, tradition and mythological issue due to the consequences that it brought. Indeed this event underlines an historical and also mythological character as Yu the Great (大禹), the man who found out in building channels the solution of that natural catastrophe.

The Great Flood
In almost all the mythological traditions there is at least one great flood: since water has an huge power, it can be seen as a way of nature overcoming human kind. In this situation there is often a man -an hero- that saves his people. In the Bible this man is Noah, for Chinese myth is Yu the Great. Traditionally dated to the third millennium BCE, the Great Flood continued for at least two generations. The water, going out the most of river, brought famine, disaster and storms.

Yu’s father: Gun
Solving this problem had high priority and was attempted by a lot of person. At the beginning Emperor Yao appointed Gun, the Prince of Chong and his distant relative, to handle the flood. Gun used old methods like dams and dikes, stealing Xirang from the Supreme Divinity. Xirang was a magical soil that could reproduce itself, so that if the level of the water would have risen, even the dikes would have risen. He tried for nine years, but all his attempts were vain: water was even more powerful and his failure provoked even more disaster and deaths. Because of that the administration of the empire became difficult and Emperor Yao was advised to resign the throne to Shun, another distant relatives. His accession to power was not seen well by Gun, so this started questioning about the legitimacy of Shun’s power. For his intransigence and for his failure in controlling the flood, finally Gun was banished: his death is unknown, some accounts tell about an execution, some others narrate about a transformation in a yellow dragon.

Yu
Despite the fact he was Gun’s son, Yu was highly trusted by Shun. For this reason he was appointed to control the flood. He continued his father's work and made a deep study in order to understand why his father had failed. Yu decided to use another approach in handling the problem: instead of blocking the water, he would channeled it. Thanks to the help of all people of every tribe he built canals from the major rivers that were flooding and lead them to the sea. This ambitious plan...
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