Yu The Great, the best loved and best known of several legendary rulers, is now considered to have been an actual person, the first King of the Xia dynasty (c 21st -16th centuries BC). He is best remembered for his battle against flooding.
As the story goes, a great flood inundated the valley of the Huanghe (Yellow) River. It covered even the hills, so that the people could find no food. King Shun ordered the official Yu to control it. Yu organised the princes who ruled various localities and the people in them to cut channels and build other projects to drain the waters away to the sea. He worked for 13 years before bringing the flood under control.
His betrothed was Nu Jiao, described as a quiet and beautiful maiden. While he was busy with his flood controlling work she sent her maid every day to the southern foot of Tushan Hill to wait for him to pass, but he did not appear. So dedicated was he that, though in 13 years he passed her door three times, he did not stop. Nu Jiao, so the story goes, wrote a song which ran:
Waiting for you, the time seems so long...
At least an ancient song exists with these words, and people attribute it to her. Finally he came home and they were married. But four days later he left again for his engineering projects.
The first written account of the story of Yu appears in The Book of History, which is made up of a number of ancient pieces supposedly collected and edited by Confucius in the fourth century BC.
Some people feel that the Confucian stress on devotion to duty, taught by Yu's example down through the ages, had been a force in moulding the Chinese character.
Before Yu's efforts, his father, Gun, had been in charge of flood control. The Book of History account says that rather than draining, Gun had tried to contain the waters with dikes, but the water rose higher and higher, creating even greater havoc. After nine years Gun had not succeeded in controlling them, so he was executed on Mount Yu (said to be in Shandong province).
The famous poet Qu Yuan (c.340-278 BC) in his poem Questions to Heaven, however, implies that Gun was killed because he was an upright man, and other ancient poems and legends also picture him as a hero. One has him stealing from Heaven a kind of magic earth which could grow by itself. A handful of it grew into a dike which blocked the flood and absorbed the water. Refugees who had climbed up into the trees to escape the water came down and rebuilt their homes. They were most grateful to him. However, just as the flood was about to be brought under control, the Emperor of Heaven found out about the theft. In fury he sent the God of Fire down to the world to kill Gun on cold, dark Mount Yu and take back the magic earth. So the flood returned and swallowed up the people's new homes. Some versions say Gun became a yellow bear after his death, others, a dragon-like fish. The most popular is that he went on fighting the flood after his death.
A great many legends have grown up around Yu and Gun. One is that after Gun was killed his body did not decay for three years and Yu grew inside it. Another says that Yu asked a dragon named Yinglong to draw a line with its tail, and along that line he dug channels which guided the waters eastward to the sea. Still another has it that Yu received from the God of Rivers a map of the rivers which helped him draw up his flood-control plan. This suggests that rudimentary scientific knowledge was being applied by that time.
The Yu story has become attached to several natural sites, even some far afield form the original Huanghe valley. Near Sanmen (Three Gates) Gorge on the Huanghe in Henan province there are seven pits resembling wells which people like to say were dug by Yu. A large stone formation with a print like a great horseshoe nearby, they say, was left when Yu leaped over the Sanmen Gorge on horseback. On the Changjiang (Yangtze) River in Sichuan's Wushan county above the famous gorges there is an inlet leading off the river valley to nowhere. About this it is said a stupid dragon started digging a wrong watercourse, and Yu killed it. There one finds places named Cuokai (Wrongly Opened) and Dragon-killing Terrace.
Yu's outstanding service won him the trust of the people. After the death of King Shun, Yu became chief of the tribal confederation on the central plains. Archaeologists are excavating what may be Yu's capital south of Zhengzhou in Henan province. Yu died in what is today's Shanxing in the coastal Zhejiang province, where there is a tomb said to be his.
Legend adapted from original material reproduced courtesy of Shanghai on Internet