Was there a Xià Dynasty?
Victor H. Mair
Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May 2013)
As part of a larger study on the role of northern peoples in the foundation of states in the East Asian Heartland (EAH) throughout history (see Victor H. Mair, “The North[west]ern Peoples and the Recurrent Origins of the ‘Chinese’ State,” in Joshua A. Fogel, ed., The Teleology of the Modern Nation-State: Japan and China [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 46– 84, 205–217]), I have prepared a summary of what we currently know about the Xià.
I The graph for the word Xià has still not been securely identified on the Oracle Shell and Bone Inscriptions (OSBIs; they may also be called simply Oracle Bone Inscriptions [OBIs]). (For more recent paleographical evidence and discussions on this subject, see the notes by Matthew Anderson in the Addendum [section XXXIII] at the end of this paper.) David Keightley has kindly called my attention to the following remarks of Herrlee Glessner Creel in his Studies in Early Chinese Culture. First Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1938), p. 107:
In the opinion of many, perhaps of most Chinese scholars working in the oracle bone material, the character hsia has not been identified with any certainty in the Shang bone inscriptions. There is nothing which has even been held to be a reference to the Hsia state or dynasty on the oracle bones, but this is no evidence whatever against its existence. The bone inscriptions deal almost exclusively with questions of immediate practical action, whether to make war, whether to offer certain sacrifices and when, whether the gods will smile or frown on certain undertakings, etc. Unless there had been, at the time when the inscriptions were made, a contemporary state called Hsia, it is extremely unlikely that the name would have appeared on the oracle bones. Evidently there was not. But this can not be used as any kind of evidence against the previous existence of a Hsia state or even dynasty.
As Keightley has said in a private communication to me (August 7, 2002), the situation has not changed much since Creel wrote these words.
Fair enough, but it is worth noting that later dynasties were aware of their predecessors.
Since the Shāng is supposed to have defeated the alleged Xià, one might think that there would at
least be enough latent recognition of that fact that a graph for the fallen dynasty would have
entered the lexicon — even if the alleged Xià were not a topic of current conversation in the
twelfth century BC. And it bears repeating that the graph for Xià has not been found on the
OSBIs at all. This suggests that the memory of a Xià Dynasty did not remain in the Shāng
consciousness even in a residual manner, nor — apparently — was there a late Shāng etymon for
Xià in any of its other senses. That is to say, Xià was not sufficiently a part of the late Shāng
lexicon in any of its four main Zhōu and later senses (large, summer, variegated, epithet of the
inhabitants of the EAH) to have warranted being recorded in a late Shāng graph............................