The Flood Myths of Early China

By Mark Edward Lewis. 2006. Albany: State University of New York Press. 248 pages. ISBN: 0-7914-6663-9 (hard cover), 0-7914-6664-7 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Xiaohong Chen, Indiana University

[Review length: 1013 words • Review posted on February 5, 2008]


Flood myths, explaining natural cosmic disasters and the re-creation of the world and human beings, commonly exist in many cultures as well as in China. The origin and transformation of flood myths reflect the conditions of early human life, cosmology, and the creation of human civilizations. The rich messages conveyed by flood myths have provoked many scholars to pursue them. Mark Edward Lewis’s recent book, The Flood Myths of Early China, is a new contribution to the study of this topic. The book provides readers with useful references for understanding the Chinese flood myths as well as early Chinese society.

The Flood Myths of Early China is distinctive in being the first English-language, Western monograph providing a comprehensive study of Han flood myths. In this study, the author collects and uses the rich resources of ancient texts and archeological findings. Through unique treatment of these resources, the author presents new insights for interpreting Han flood myths.

Lewis depicts and analyzes Han flood myths of early China within two contexts: the large context of the worldwide flood myths and the local historical context of early China, in the period of Warring States (481-221 B.C.) and the early empires (220 B.C.-A.D. 220). In his observation of Han flood myths from a broader background, the author explores the relations between Han flood myths and flood myths in other parts of the world and suggests that in this large context, Chinese flood myths exhibit all the features found in flood myths from other parts of the world and play a role similar to that of biblical and other flood accounts. For example, the common themes occurring in Han flood myths are these: they were tales of the re-creation of the world and the order of the world; water was an image for the dissolution of all distinctions; the taming of the flood was a process of the creation of the world through human action and was identified as a form of the punishment of criminals (16). In his comparative study, the author also indicates the differences between flood myths of China and those of other cultures. He states, for instance, that in other cultures the deluge is created and ended by a god, or begins and ends spontaneously through an unspecified natural process or fate, whereas the Chinese flood began through rebellion or some other crime and was ended through the successful actions of the ruler and his servants (19).

The more detailed discussion in this book is about the accounts of the flood myths in the local historical and social context of early China. In this context, the author shows how Han flood myths narrate the recreation of the world from a watery chaos and how an order of society was rebuilt through water control. These accounts reflect the relationships between nature and humanity, the social structures of the state, lineage, and the married couple in early China.

The author emphasizes that the myths of the flood provided a charter for the institutions of Warring States and early imperial China. The flood myths, as sanctions of political authority, as contemporary practices in hydrology, and as a means of discussing social order and criminality, were narrated, used, and transformed by Chinese intellectuals in early Chinese society, and cited in the written texts of the Warring States and the early empires. They reflected contemporary philosophers’ political ideas and social ideals. For instance, Mencius’s use of the flood myths was related to the contemporary debates on human nature. Mencius criticized a contemporary minister who dared to compare his own irrigation works to the achievements of Yu, who tamed the flood through dredging channels and allowing the waters to flow to the sea naturally (39). The author indicates that the idea of the natural tendency of water parallels the goodness of human nature. Yu’s hydrologic work had become a mythic ground of debate between rival visions of political action as well as moral philosophy.

The mythic figures associated with the flood are portrayed in this book. From the Warring States and early imperial texts such as Shang shu, Zuo zhuan, Mencius, Xunzi, Shan hai jing, and Huainanzi, the author draws up a series of remarkable mythic figures and further interprets their socio-cultural significance in the historical context of Chinese society. In the accounts of the early sage-kings, Shun appeared as a positive moral figure and as patron of the wilderness and embodiment of the flood; Yu played a central role in the work of taming the flood and bringing order to the world. The rebel or criminal figure Gong Gong was an embodiment of violence and the flood; Gun was the father of Yu. He played a failing role in using faulty techniques of water control. Nü Gua was a goodness of fertility associated with marriage, childbirth, creation, and regeneration. She joined Fu Xi to form a primal couple and restored and repopulated the earth after the flood. Their image in Han tomb art as hybrid beings embodied the tripartite division of the world’s structure. . Nü Gua also played a role as Yu’s wife and gave birth to Yu’s son Qi. By discussing these mythic figures, a set of relationships is constructed: men and beasts, social collapse and social order, father and son, husband and wife.

Through the case study of Han flood myths, Lewis illustrates his theoretical view of mythology: myths belong to and serve to define particular groups, and both their form and significance will entirely depend on the uses to which they are put by those groups (1). This view challenges a popular opinion that Chinese myths were distorted by later Chinese intellectuals and lost their original face. This study suggests that the flood myths were not distant, dead antiques, but living materials constantly adapted and rewritten. Thus, the life of these myths should be viewed as a whole process of transformation from their point of origin.

Overall, The Flood Myths of Early China is a readable and valuable book, for its unique interpretation of Han flood myths and its approaches to the theory of Chinese mythology.

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