Emperor Yu’s Flood Control-大禹治水

It is said that during the time of Yao and Shun, it was the late period of the Ice Age, with a warming climate causing the melting of ice and snow, resulting in a rapid rise in sea levels and seawater surging backward. The ancient Yellow River changed its course, flowing into the sea from the northern plains of modern-day Jiangsu, causing sedimentation in the Huai River and flooding the Huai and Si river basins. The overwhelming floods spread across the region from west of Mount Tai to the south of the Yimeng Mountains, creating vast expanses of water where everything in heaven and earth floated and sank in the surging floods. Describing this scene, the “Shang Shu · Yao Dian” states, “The mighty flood waters cut through the land, sweeping across the mountains and valleys, vast and tumultuous.”

Farmlands were submerged, houses destroyed, and people displaced, forced to use wooden boats to move to high mountainous areas. Normal agricultural and daily activities became impossible, and the people could only lament their fate on isolated islands amidst the chaotic floods.

Yao convened a tribal alliance meeting, inviting leaders from various tribes to discuss effective flood control strategies. The leaders recommended Gun to address the water crisis. Gun, also known as Chongbo, was a minister of Emperor Yao and the father of Yu. While Yao considered Gun to be hot-tempered and not suitable for water management, there were no better alternatives at the time. Recognizing the urgency of addressing the flood crisis, Yao decided to allow Gun to attempt flood control.

Gun primarily used a method of obstruction, building high embankments with soil to contain the water. However, the fierce floods relentlessly broke through the embankments, and despite Gun’s efforts to patch them, he struggled to keep up. Frustrated, Gun resorted to stealing the divine treasure “Xirang” from the Heavenly Emperor, a self-growing and unlimited amount of precious soil. Gun hoped that by pouring Xirang into the floodwaters, the continuously growing soil would bury the floods. Unfortunately, this only intensified the flooding.

Committing a grave crime, Gun enraged the Heavenly Emperor, who commanded the fire god to execute him on the wild plains of Mount Yu.

At that time, humanity was still in the early stages of understanding flood control, with limited experience, leading to inevitable setbacks. Although Gun did not succeed in flood control, his mistakes provided valuable lessons and insights for future generations, guiding them in the right direction. Later, Yao passed the throne to Shun, who personally inspected the flood situation. Yu, Gun’s son, had grown into an adult by then. Recognizing Yu’s potential, Shun assigned him the task of continuing his father’s unfinished work on flood control, and appointed helpers such as Houyi, Boyi, and Gaotao.

Motivated by the plight of his father’s unfulfilled mission, Yu dedicated himself to finding solutions. With intelligence and resilience, he led his team and the people to survey terrains and water conditions, traversing mountains and rivers across the Nine Provinces. Facing tremendous challenges, including sudden storms and floods that claimed the lives of many of his companions, Yu remained undeterred.

Upon completing the survey, Yu studied the water conditions thoroughly and concluded that his father’s method of obstruction was ineffective. He decided to adopt a method of “dredging” instead. This involved deepening and widening the main channel of the Yellow River, allowing more water to flow freely. He also cleared the tributaries and streams, facilitating their convergence into the main channel. Additionally, Yu raised the existing embankments and removed sediment from low-lying areas, separating the land and lakes clearly. He also cleared various lakes and river channels, ensuring that, in case of rising water levels, they would flow smoothly into the main channel and towards the sea.

With the plan in place, Yu personally led his team and the people, armed with rudimentary tools such as stone axes, knives, shovels, and wooden plows, to embark on their mission to control the floods. Leading by example, Yu and the people worked tirelessly, facing adverse conditions with determination. They endured hardship, living on meager food and shelter, and braved the elements while traversing mountains and rivers.

During their efforts, they reached a high mountain south of Luoyang in Henan, a branch of the Qinling Mountains. This mountain, with its winding and narrow natural watercourse, posed a threat to the safety of the surrounding people when floods occurred. Yu decided to widen, deepen, and straighten this watercourse. The tough mountain stones wore down their tools, and the treacherous terrain resulted in injuries and casualties. Yet, they persevered, opening a wide watercourse through the mountain. The two sides of the channel stood as if in confrontation, allowing the raging floods to flow unimpeded downstream, no longer posing a threat to the nearby residents.

The Zhuangzi records Yu’s achievements with great reverence, praising his unwavering will and commending his efforts in leading the people to overcome adversity. Describing Yu personally wielding tools, it states, “He toiled with shovel and hoe, dredging the countless rivers under heaven, without resting his belly, without combing his hair, rain-soaked and wind-beaten. Yu, the Great Sage, exhausted himself for the world in this way.” This passage emphasizes Yu’s dedication, describing how his legs became swollen and his thighs emaciated from the labor. Yu, despite his hardships, successfully fulfilled his mission, saving the people from the devastating floods.

The legend highlights the diligence, courage, perseverance, and selflessness of the Chinese people in overcoming challenges, symbolized by Yu’s successful control of the floods. His dedication to public welfare, sacrifice, and ability to unite the people earned him the title of “Great Yu.” After the waters subsided, Yu gained knowledge about the land and its resources, leading to the establishment of administrative regions such as Qing, Yan, Xu, Yang, Liang, Yu, Ji, Jing, and Yong. These regions laid the foundation for the unity of the entire country.

The descendants praised Yu’s achievements in flood control and honored him with the title “Great Yu.” As Shun grew old, he, like Yao, convened a tribal alliance meeting to find a successor. Due to Yu’s significant contributions, he was widely recommended, and Shun willingly passed the leadership to Yu, acknowledging his role in consolidating the realms into a unified whole.