Historical Origins Exhibition at the WODCON: Yu the Great

Statue of a bronze Ox, commemorating Yu the Great.
Statue of a bronze Ox, commemorating Yu the Great.

Traveling all the way to the WODCON in Shanghai China1 presented an excellent opportunity to visit this wonderful country. So, after the congress, we travelled to Beijing, to visit the tourist highlights. However, as obsessed with dredging as I am, I can find inspiration for the stories on this website anywhere. Take for example this bronze ox. Quietly staring at the Summer Palace2, it might easily be overlooked by the innocent visitor. But it is very relevant for our dredging community. It is to commemorate the great Yu, who subdued the flood with the first dredging project in the world3.

Exhibit about Yu the Great at the historical origin show at the WODCON 2019.
Exhibit about Yu the Great at the historical origin show at the WODCON 2019.

Next to the interesting presentations and the conventional dredging exhibition, the WODCON organisation arranged a nice little exhibition on historic origins of dredging in China. Of course the first exhibit was about Yu. Intrigued by this little piece of information, I asked around and did some research on the internet to puzzle together, what the sign did not tell.

First of all, there are that many records4. It has been so long ago, there only remains oral tradition to consult. The facts are inconclusive, even claiming it is just a mythical tale. So, we will approach this Mythbuster style. Examine the myth and the facts. Test it. And if it does not provide the expected results, take it to the extreme. Unfortunately, we will not blow things up at this time. Maybe we will do that later on another topic.

Sign at the bronze ox at the Summer Palace, Beijing.
Sign at the bronze ox at the Summer Palace, Beijing.

The story depicted on the information sign is not completely in line with the historical data available. Let’s start with the ‘iron’ part of the ox. According to several sources, the adventures of the Great Yu may have happened 2000BCE. That is in the middle of the Stone Age5, at best early Bronze Age. Also, it was usually not ‘to ward of the floods’. Those were mitigated by a framework of dikes, dams and overflow weirs6. When an ox was mentioned, it is about protecting these civil works. But nowhere can I find a solid explanation about what an ox can do to protect a dike or how this procedure would contain the river in its human designed trajectory.

Water buffalo at the Li River, near Yangshuo.
Water buffalo at the Li River, near Yangshuo.

Even today, one can find bovine creatures standing in the river. And from a distance they might easily be mistaken for a field of boulders. Conversely, a field of boulders might also be mistaken for a herd of oxen…

Boulder field or rudimentary groyne in the Li River, near Yangshuo.
Boulder field (or rudimentary groyne?) in the Li River, near Yangshuo.

So, my hypothesis is: ‘the Great Yu constructed his dikes and protected them with groynes against erosion7. When the uninitiated had to describe what he constructed, they compared those with water buffalo and the oral tradition morphed this into iron oxen.’ This is only my opinion after just a little research and it is up to educated historians with their research to disprove it.

Discussing these civil works and the containment of rivers, made me think of my beloved home country through the famous Dutch poem ‘Memories of Holland’8.

Excellent masterpiece of hydraulic engineering to contain a river and example of modern groynes. (Credit: van den Herik-Sliedrecht).
Excellent masterpiece of hydraulic engineering to contain a river and example of modern groynes9. (Credit: van den Herik-Sliedrecht).


  1. WODCON, Damen
  2. Summer Palace, Wikipedia
  3. Great Flood (China), Wikipedia
  4. Yu the Great, Wikipedia
  5. History of China, Prehistory, Wikipedia
  6. Chinese Myth of the Deluge, China Heritage Quarterly
  7. Groyne, Wikipedia
  8. Herinnering aan Holland, David Reid Poetry Translation Prize
  9. Kribverlaging Waal Fase 3, Van den Herik-Sliedrecht

See also

What Dutch Dikes are Really Made of

Placing protecting basalt blocks on a dike by a stone setter (Credit: van den Herik-Sliedrecht)

The Netherlands coastline is, to a great extent, defined by unnatural sharp lines: dikes. Even when you zoom into a more human scale, the dikes are decorated by geometric patterns: hexagons. Just like the dikes are not a natural component in the environment, the hexagons are an invasive specie: basalt blocks imported from more rocky countries, as Germany, England and Norway. They are carefully placed by hand to protect these structure from waves and tides. This armoured lining is usually the final stage of a dredging project: protecting what just has been constructed.

My personal experience with these blocks, is that we used to play with them, when we were just little boys. We sailed to the newly constructed Pampushaven, where there was a stockpile of these basalt blocks leftover from the reclamation of the Flevopolder. We puzzled them together like a real dike, or built forts of them. Even after forty years, the stock pile is still there!

Playground stock pile of basalt blocks for dike and shore protection (Credit: Google street view)

What I remember was, that they are extremely heavy. And their perfect prismatic geometry intrigued me intensely. I thought they were made that way. By now they feel less heavy and I have learned that they are some kind of volcanic rock called ‘basalt’. But it puzzled me how molten basalt can solidify into these perfect jigsaw pieces. Until last week, I’ve read an article in the Guardian1 about a geological feature called ‘Giants Causeway’.

Recent article about the origin of the basalt blocks at the Giant’s Causeway (Credit: Guardian News & Media Ltd)

As it happens, I also visited this Giant’s Causeway. And it really feels like standing on a dike at home. But this ‘dike’ was laid down by mother nature. Molten lava flowed over chalk beds. As it was clamped between other layers during cooling, the internal stresses caused the cracks to be distributed evenly in a nice geometric pattern. So, Finn MacCool2 wasn’t involved after all!

The internal structure of dikes, dams, jetties and groynes is a bit different and purposefully designed for the intended application. Usually there is a body of sand, that is designed to take the load of the tide and waves. Next an internal lining with appropriate permeability. Either watertight for keeping the water out, or open structure for draining the wave run-up. Height, width and slopes depending on the requirements.

Example of an internal structure of typical dike

Evaluating all these requirement choices in a well-balanced design is an art by itself. Don’t cut corners, it’s all about safety of the people living behind the dike. It is best left to specialised companies that are familiar with the design and construction of these civil works. In the Netherlands, the trade was often handed over from father to son and whole families became intertwined in these specialist dredging companies.

So, now we know the origin of the stones for the dikes and how they are used. But the real resource used to protect our dikes and the land behind it are: all those unnamed men that have literally put their back into placing those stones. We owe them our land!

‘The stone setter’ by Ineke van Dijk placed in 1982, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Afsluitdijk (Credit: Wikipedia)


  1. Scientists solve mystery of how Giant’s Causeway was formed
  2. Finn MacCool

See also