Myth and Legend

The Legends of Ancient Tribes

Tradition has it that in remote antiquity there were two famous tribes in the Huanghe River valley. One was Ji and had Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) as its chief. The other, Jiang, was headed by Yan Di. Being closely related, they formed a tribal alliance. They lived at first in the Weihe (Wei River) area and later moved eastwards along the Huanghe River to areas belonging to today’s Shanxi , Henan and Hebei provinces. In old Chinese books there are many legends and stories about Huang Di. He is described as a god, resourceful in inventions as well as war, and is credited with the invention of many things, such as carts and boats, clothes, houses, writing, and silkworm breeding and silk weaving.

Yao and Shun are two leaders who have been much praised in historical tradition and are supposed to be descendants of Huang Di. In Yao ‘s time disastrous floods occurred and he called together some tribal chiefs to discuss what should be done. Some suggested that a man called Gun be sent to deal with the flooding and Yao followed their advice. Later Shun succeeded to Yao’s posit!on and also summoned some of the tribal chiefs to discuss how their tasks should be assigned to different people. Shun agreed with the recommendation and only functioned as the chairman of the meeting. Stories like this give us an idea of the primitive democracy at meetings of tribal alliances.

Tribes originally occupying East China were called Yi. They were first active in southern Shandong and later expanded north to northern Shandong and southern Hebei , west to easten Henan , south to central Anhui , and east to the sea coast. They were famous for their workmanship in bows and arrows and the written character Yi (夷) was originally a picture of a man (人) carrying a bow (弓). Taihao, Shaohao and Chiyou were renowned leaders among the Yi people. Chiyou once engaged in a long and fierce battle against Huang Di on the outskirts of Zhuolu, which according to tradition was in present Hebei . Chiyou was very resourceful and could summon wind and rain. But Huang Di outdid him by sending goddesses to disperse the wind and rain and finally Chiyou was defeated. After he died, Chiyou ascended to Heaven, and became a constellation known as “the Banner of Chiyou”. Both Huang Di and Chiyou were worshipped later as gods of war.

Another chief of the Yi people, according to legend, was the celebrated archer Yi. In his days, there were ten suns in the sky, which burned all the crops, so that the people had nothing to eat. There were also many evil demons harming mankind. The archer Yi shot down nine suns, leaving only one in the sky, and killed all the demons. Because of his great exploits he became revered as a god.

Along the Changjiang River valley down south, in modem Hubei , Hunan and Jiangxi provinces the Miao and other tribes once lived. Among the leaders of these tribes, Fuxi and Ntiwa were the best known. Fuxi was said to be the first man who used ropes to make nets for hunting and fishing. In the days of Ntiwa, the four pillars support ing heaven collapsed and the earth cracked. So flames spread wildly, torrential waters flooded all the land, while fierce birds and beasts preyed on men. Ntiwa smelted rocks to make fivecoloured stones with which she patched up heaven. To replace the broken pillars she cut off the four legs of a huge turtle and used them to prop up the fallen sky. With water and land restored to order and the fierce ani mals killed, the people could once again live in peace and happiness. Ntiwa in return was regarded as a goddess for her great achievements.

Tribal Chiefs, Gods and Their Sons

According to myth and tradition, chiefs made important contributions to their tribes, especially in flood control, farming and animal husbandry. They were regarded as gods, the sons of gods or both.

There was once a tribe called Jintian living in areas belonging to modern Shanxi. Both its chief, Mei, and his son Taitai, were skilful in water control work. Taitai dredged the Fenshui (Fen River) and con structed the storage lake of Daze so the people in the Taiyuan area could live a stable life. And Taitai became the god of Fenshui, enjoying sacrifices offered by the four states established by his descendants. Xiu and Xi, chiefs of the Shaohao tribe in Shandong , were likewise known for being good at flood control. Their work was carried on by their sons and grandsons while they themselves became water gods. Gonggong in northern Henan was another tribe known for its success in water control work. The people of the tribe invented the method of building dikes to prevent floods. Due to overdependence on the dikes, however, they suffered severe losses when their dikes eventually failed them. Nevertheless their chief, Houtu, was respected as a god of the soil. Later, when helping Yu the Great with water control work, the Gonggong tribe adopted his method too with very good results. The above stories illustrate the fact that water conservation was of great importance in the lives of people in primitive societies. When the chiefs brought relief to the sufferings of the people, they were deified. However, their achievements were limited by a tribal nature, and it was only Yao ‘s and Shu’s contemporary, Yu the Great, who made contributions in water works construction that affected a larger number of tribal groups.

Yu was conceived by some mysterious force. According to one legend, Yu’s mother was called Xiuji, and bore her son after swallowing the Fiyi plant (Job’stears). According to another legend, Yu emerged into the world from the body of the abovementioned Gun, who had been dead for three years, when his body, which had not decayed, was cut open. Both accounts agree in making the birth of Yu the Great a miracle.

Yu was entrusted by Shun with the task of conquering floods in cooperation with fraternal tribes. Having learned from previous failures, Yu studied the characteristics of flowing water, the direction of its flow and the topography, and adopted the method of dredging the waterways. Canals were dug to direct flood water into proper water courses. Furthermore, he led people in digging irrigation canals which were beneficial to farm production. Thanks to all these efforts, people could settle down peacefully on the plains without the constant threat of floods.

Yu was so devoted to his work that he did not visit his home for thirteen years, although he travelled nearby three times. He worked tirelessly, regardless of wind and rain, until his hands and feet were severely calloused. In order to open some water courses, he sum moned a divine winged dragon. Once, while cutting through a moun tain, he even turned himself into a bear so as to complete a task beyond man’s ability. His celebrated contributions won him the respect of the people who honoured him as “Yu the Great” and god of the soil. Stories about Yu’s exploits in water conservation spread far and wide beyond the boundaries of individual tribes.

Shennong was one of those tribes that were good at farming and it had a gifted man as its chief. Not only did he invent tools for turning over the soil and teach his men how to farm, but he also discovered many medicinal herbs by personal experimentation. Zhu, chief of the Lieshan tribe, became god of agriculture because of his miraculous talent in growing grain crops and vegetables.

Above all, Qi, chief of the Zhou tribe, was famous for his achievements in farming and was often compared to Yu the Great in fame. Qi was a son of god and a god himself. Once when walking in the wilderness, his mother, Jiang Yuan, stepped onto a huge footprint of a giant and her body was jolted. She had become pregnant and later bore a son. At first she dared not keep the child so she abandoned him in small lanes, in the woods, and on frozen waterways. But to her great surprise, the child always remained protected and did not die. So she took it back and named it “Qi”, meaning “abandoned”. The child proved to be very handy in farm work when he was still very small. The beans, millet, hemp, wheat, melons and fruit he cultivated all grew well, and the crops he helped others grow were so heavy they bent. He was also good at discovering better varieties of plants and ways of processing grain. The food he made was so good it even pleased the Lord on High. Later he became god of agriculture under the name of Houji, Lord of Agriculture.

Houji lived at the same time as Yu the Great and helped in the water control work together with Xie, Gaoyao, Boyi and Dafei. Gaoyao and Boyi were both from the Yi people in the east. Boyi invented the sinking of wells. Xie’s mother, Jiandi, was once standing on a high platform when she saw a swallow fly by. She swallowed an egg it had laid and later gave birth to Xie. Dafei, about whose birth a similar story is told, was an expert in animal husbandry and the animals under his care were very obedient. Shun married a woman from his clan to Dafei and said to him that his descendants would surely be promising. As it happened, descendants of Yu, Xie and Houji founded the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties respectively, while Dafei became the ancestor of the founder of the Qin Dynasty.

That the tribal chiefs were said to be sons of gods actually reflects the fact that in a society of matriarchal clans people knew only who their mothers were but not their fathers. Another reason for men becoming gods was that they had distinguished themselves by per forming the most important social function in a primitive society with a low productivity, namely, the organization of work in water conservation, farming and animal husbandry. Despite repeated changes made according to each storyteller’s imagination, these myths to some extent reflect the historical reality of primitive society.

As historical conditions changed, so did the role played by the tribal chief. He became less a public servant than a kind of power above society. History entered a new stage as classless primitive society changed into civilized society with its class distinctions.

The Hereditary Monarchy of the Xia Dynasty

The Xia Dynasty is traditionally supposed to have begun with the reign of Yu the Great and ended with the fall of Jie, lasting for more than 400 years, from approximately the 21st century B.C. or a little earlier to the 16th century B.C. There were altogether seventeen kings in fourteen generations. According to an ancient version of history, however, it was not Yu, but his son Qi, who founded the dynasty.

The Xia people lived on loess plains formed by alluvial deposits suitable for primitive farming. Their territory extended from western Henan and southern Shanxi eastwards along the Yellow River to the point where the borders of modern Henan, Hebei, and Shandong provinces meet and extended south to Hunan and north to Hebei next to the territory of other tribes living there. Since flooding had already been brought under control and people could settle down, we may suppose that animal husbandry and agriculture underwent further development.

Development of animal husbandry and agriculture required more knowledge of astronomy and a better calendar to mark seasonal changes. After carefully observing the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars, Yao is said to have worked out a calendar dividing a year into spring, summer, autumn and winter to coincide with the seasons of stockbreeding and farming. What was used in Yao ‘s time was a lunar calendar with the months determined by the phases of the moon. Since a year of twelve lunar months is shorter than the solar year, an intercalary month was inserted in certain years. At the time of Yao and Shun the solar year was thought to have 366 days which, of course, was not quite correct. It is not known whether the calendar of the Xia Dynasty repre sented an improvement upon that of Yao but the socalled Xia calendar was much praised by people of later generations.

Bronze vessels came into use at the time of the Xia. There was little opportunity to use bronze directly in farming but it could have been useful in the making of farm tools. Some tribes are said to have presented bronze to the Xia as tribute, Yu is supposed to have cast bronze tripods, and the Xia used bronze to make weapons.

The Xia was an alliance formed by over a dozen closely related tribes of which the Xiahou tribe was the leading one. Included in the alliance were also some more distantly related tribes and some of the Yi tribes in the east. According to historical tradition, the leadership of the alliance originally alternated between the Yi and the Xia. Due to Yu’s great achievements in water control and his victories over the Sanmiao tribes, his personal prestige increased so much that the chief of the clan wielded ever greater authority over the other clan members. As Yu was getting old, the renowned chief Gaoyao of the Eastern Yi was elected to succeed him. But Gaoyao unexpectedly died before Yu, so Boyi of the Eastern Yi tribes was chosen to replace him. After Yu’s death, the Xia tribes, relying on their great strength and Yu’s prestige, promoted Yu’s son Qi to the position of king. They asked Qi to grant them audiences and mediate in disputes, and praised him to the sky. As a result the principle of electing leaders was violated and a new hereditary system came into being. In ancient times this was considered to be the beginning of a system whereby the ruler “takes all under Heaven as his family possession”. The founding of the Xia Dynasty is regarded as a major turning point in history.

One tribe named Youhu criticized Qi for having violated the old system. But Youhu was defeated by Xia in a battle at Gan in modern Huxian in Shaanxi. The defeated survivors were made into “mushu”, which m~y be a term for prisoners of war who became slaves collectively owned by the victorious tribe.

After attaining kingship, Qi turned out to be fond of drinking, hunting, singing and dancing. Qi’s successor, Taikang, cared nothing for state affairs but rather spent months on end hunting on the northern bank of the Luo River. This behaviour aroused strong resentment among the people. Houyi, known as a good archer from the Youqiong clan of the Eastern Yi, took the opportunity to attack Xia and made himself king. But the throne was again seized by Houyi’s trusted fol-lower Hanzhuo who bribed Houyi’s family servants to kill him.

Taikang, the overthrown ruler, had fled and died in exile, leaving as his heir his younger brother Zhongkang. Zhongkang’s son Xiang was attacked and killed by Hanzhuo while taking refuge with the Zhenguan and Zhenxun clans. But Xiang’s wife, already pregnant, climbed through a hole in the wall and escaped to her mother’s family of the Youreng tribe where she later bore her son Shaokang. When the son grew up, he was put in charge of stockbreeding in the clan, but being pursued again by Hanzhuo, he escaped to the Youyu clan which was descended from Shun. There he was made responsible for food preparation and the tribal chief Yusi married two daughters to him. Shaokang gathered together some other closely related tribes, defeated Hanzhuo, and restored the Xia Dynasty.

In order to counter the good marksmanship of the Yi people, Shaokang’s son Shu invented coats of mail which played an important role in the defeat of Hanzhuo. After he came to the throne, Shu went on a punitive expedition against the Eastern Yi and drove them back to the sea coast. Because of his great exploits, Shu was regarded by the Xia people as the only worthy heir of Yu, and they made magnificent sacrifices to him after his death. The Yi tribes were one by one brought under Xia’s control, and Yi chiefs even accepted noble titles and became officials of the Xia court offering tribute. After many long years of struggle, Xia’s ruling position was eventually recognized by the other tribes, and the new hereditary monarchy had in effect re-placed the traditional system of election.

The establishment of hereditary monarchy eliminated the func-tion of the tribe as an organization representing the will of its mem- bers and taking care of its own affairs. What was emerging instead was a state apparatus in which one class ruled over another. The Xia Dynasty by then had not only erected city walls with moats, but also established its own army, penal code and prisons. The tribes con-quered by Xia or forced to recognize its position were made to pay tribute which usually consisted of local products. But some defeated tribes were forced to offer their sons and daughters as tribute.

Towards the end of the Xia Dynasty, social conflict grew sharper. Tradition has it that in the 16th century B.C., the last ruler of Xia, Jie, abused his power and increased oppression. He exhausted the re- sources of the people to build palaces and pavilions for himself. The people were also forced to go to war frequently to exact children, as well as jade and silk, from neighbouring tribes. Filled with hatred for Jie, the people could no longer put up with his despotic rule and fled in large numbers. Even his court officials cursed him and wished his death, although that might mean that they themselves would perish. Jie, however, still thinking of restoring and strengthening his control over other tribes, gathered all the tribal chiefs together for a punitive expedition against the Youmin clan. But this made the existing con-flicts more acute and alienated the tribes further. Shang Tang took this opportunity to revolt and overthrew the Xia Dynasty.