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Yu the Great

Few ancient Chinese rulers have been posthumously referred to with the honorific appellation “the Great”. And Yu (popularly called “Da-Yu”, “Da 大” meaning “great”) is one of the few.

Like his predecessors Yao and Shun, stories of Yu the Great has been much legendized, too. Information about his life had mostly come from oral traditions before being put into historical records (such as the Records of the Grand Historian).

Yu the Great is remembered for his outstanding achievement in bringing under control floods that frequently plagued the Chinese heartland. His father, Gun, had spent nine years attempting to harness the Yellow River, but without success, causing himself to be executed. Yu carried on with the work after his father’s death, but approached the problem in a quite different way. While Gun’s strategy was to build dikes and dams along the riverbanks to hold the river-flow, Yu devised a system of irrigation canals that helped channel the water into fields, and dredged the riverbeds of silt. The grand engineering project went on for 13 years, and proved effective in taming the floods. The Yellow River valley regions were turned into a most prosperous area of China.

Yu the Great at the worksite.


Yu’s contribution to Chinese civilization was matched by his virtues and morals. Yu was to be constantly referred to for his exemplary diligence in the flood-control project. During the works, he passed his own home three times without ever stepping in to see his family even when his wife was in labor, saying he could not rest while the flood was still ravaging the land.

Emperor Shun got impressed with Yu’s work, and made him the heir to the throne, instead of Shun’s own son. Yu declined the offer initially, but accepted later due to his now immense popularity with the chiefs and lords.


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