The story of Yu is based on a king of the same name who ruled in Chinese legend from 2205 to 2197 B.C. Like all demigods of ancient times, Yu changes into different shapes whenever necessary. Unlike the demigods of ancient times, Yu is the first to pass on his status as ruler to his descendants and thus create a dynasty, or ruling family. He named his dynasty the Xia Dynasty. It isn’t a mythical dynasty, the archaeological evidence has proven its existence.
The ruling king in this story is the Yellow Emperor, a good leader who struggled with the mighty rivers that flooded the country each year. According to ancient myths, the Yellow Emperor had a pile of magic dirt that could absorb water. His grandson Kun stole the magic earth and dropped little balls of dirt wherever he went. The dirtballs swelled into huge, fertile mounds of soil as they absorbed water. The peasants then scooped up the fertile soil and spread it over their sopping fields. Kun also built dams to control the flooding of the country’s unpredictable rivers. Unfortunately, the dams often burst and flooded the land again. When the emperor found out about the theft, he was furious and sent Zurong the fire god, now the chief executioner, to track down and kill his grandson Kun. Zurong chased Kun to the ice glaciers of the arctic and struck him dead with a flaming sword. Kun’s body lay trapped and frozen in the ice.
Three years later, the Yellow Emperor sent Zurong the fire god to check on his grandson Kun’s body. When he reached the spot where Kun was buried in the ice, the fire god was amazed to find that Kun’s body was perfectly preserved in the ice. As he hacked open the glacier with his sword, Zurong accidentally split open Kun’s body. A huge Loong flew out of the corpse. Terrified, Zurong fled to warn the Yellow Emperor. The huge Loong became Yu, son of Kun, who was born with all the memories and knowledge of his father.
Like his father, Yu was filled with compassion for the farmers. However, unlike his father, he did not wish to incur the wrath of the Yellow Emperor. Immediately, he hurried to the Yellow Emperor’s court. Bowing before the ruler, Yu pleaded for the lives of the farmers, “Your majesty, I beg you to pity the people for their suffering. Please help them restore their land.” The Yellow Emperor was not impressed with Yu’s pleas. He bellowed, “Do not forget that your father stole my magic earth and tried to restore the land without my permission!”
Yu replied, “Then give me some magic earth and your permission, and allow me to complete my father’s work.” Secretly, the Yellow Emperor agreed that the world was a big, muddy mess. None of his gods had any ideas about how to stop the raging rivers that flooded the country year after year. Kun had tried to divert the rivers with dams but had failed. Therefore, every spring, the rivers continued to burst their banks, drown innocent people, and destroy property. Furthermore, the emperor was pleased that Yu had asked for the magic earth, rather than attempt to steal it. At last, the emperor said to Yu, “Pile the magic dirt on the back of this tortoise and go forth to control the floodwaters. With the help of this tortoise and a winged dragon, rebuild the world in your father’s vision.”
Yu was curious about the size and shape of the earth. Therefore, before leaving the emperor’s court, he dispatched one of the lesser court gods to measure the country north/south and another god to measure the country east/west. Each returned to report exactly the same number: 233,500 li (three li make one mile) and 75 paces. Delighted, Yu created a map from the gods’ descriptions, which made the earth a perfect square. Then Yu divided the country into nine areas, or provinces. Only then did he begin his construction work.
Unlike his father, Yu was not content merely to build dams to control the rivers. Instead, he studied the shape of the land in each area. He observed the course of the rivers and planned their most natural route to the sea. To guide the rivers, Yu dug canals, carved tunnels, leveled hilltops, created dams, and formed lakes. In each area, Yu used the tail of the dragon to gouge out new channels for the rivers.
As he plodded across the country, Yu found 233,559 large holes in the earth. Year after year, water had bubbled up in these cavities and flooded the world. Now Yu plugged up the gaping holes with dirt and reeds, and dropped in magic dirt balls from the tortoise’s back to dry up the soggy earth caused by the floods.
When he worked, Yu often used the form of a human to avoid frightening the farmers. Even in his human form, he had an ugly face like an insect, with a mouth like the bottom of a crow’s beak and a long neck like a snake. The farmers did not care about his appearance, however. They loved him for his efforts on their behalf.
As Yu traveled across China, he named the tribal groups and recorded their customs: Leather-Skin people; Goat-Fur people; Oyster-and-Pearl people; Kingfisher¬Green-Silk people; Grass-Skirt people; Felt-Tent people; Mountains-of-Jewels people; Dew-Drinkers; Red-Grain-Growers; Lacquer-Makers; Winged people; Short people; Deep-Set-Eyes people. He charted their land and collected samples of their soil as he traveled across the fifty rivers and mountains of China.
Wherever he went, Yu found happy families. Their happiness only made him aware of his own loneliness. Although Yu was married briefly, his wife and son both abandoned him because they had no fondness for digging dirt. With neither wife nor son by his side, Yu continued his work alone, with only the tortoise and the dragon for company. His hands were covered with sores and calluses. His skin was blackened and blistered from the sun. One leg shriveled and twisted as Yu limped around the rough terrain. Wherever he traveled, farmers hailed him as the Great Yu.
Their widespread affection caused the ruling emperor to choose Yu as the next emperor. It was thus that Yu became the founder and ruler of the Xia [She ah] dynasty. Soon plentiful grain harvests blessed the land. The rivers ran peacefully to the sea and did not overflow. The people lived happily in their villages and blessed the name of Yu in their joy and contentment.