Yu is regarded with legendary status as Yu the Great (2059 - 2149 BCE), and he is considered one of The Three Sovereigns of China. King Yao ordered Yu's father, Gun, to tame the annual floods. Gun built earthen dikes, but they collapsed, and the project failed miserably. Gun was executed by King Shun, Yao's successor. Shun ordered Yu to complete his father's work. Instead of building more dikes, Yu began to dredge new river channels, to serve both as outlets for the torrential waters, and as irrigation conduits to distant farm lands. Yu spent a backbreaking thirteen years at this task, with the help of some 20,000 workers. Passing his own door three times is a tale of Yu's dedication:

"When Yu was given the task of fighting the flood, he had been married only five days. He left his wife saying that he did not know when he would return. In his 13 years of fighting the flood Yu passed by his own home three times. The first time he passed, he heard that his wife was in labor. The second time he passed his son was learning his first steps. The third time his son greeted him and asked him to come in and rest. Each time Yu refused to go in the door, saying that while the floods were rendering people homeless, he could not rest in his own."

For his engineering feat, Yu is remembered as an exemplar of public service. King Shun was so impressed by Yu's engineering work and diligence that he passed the throne to Yu instead of to his own son. According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu established a capital city in the second year of his reign and ruled China for 45 years.