An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Hou Yi 后羿

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Yi 羿, also called Hou Yi 后羿 "Lord Yi" or Yi Yi 夷羿, was a person in ancient Chinese mythology. He is known for his famous rescue of the world that was threatened to be burnt by the rise of ten suns. He shot down nine of the suns and so secured the survival of mankind and the earth. This is said to have happened during the reign of the mythical emperor Emperor Yao 堯.

The nine suns, when falling down from the sky, transformed into nine islands in the sea. As a formidable archer, Yi also killed all harmful animals to help mankind with the help of bow and arrow that were presented to him by Emperor Jun 帝俊.

Yet it is also told that the ten suns were children of Emperor Jun, but there is no word of punishment for Hou Yi for having killed Emperor Jun's sons. The book Huainanzi 淮南子 describes the fierce animals that threatened humans in all parts of the empire. In the southern swamps, there was an animal with a large mouth called Zaochi 鑿齒. In the north, nine gigantic children (jiuying 九嬰) spat water to extinguish the direly needed hearth fires. In the east, a terrible windstorm blew down the huts of the people. There was also a large snake in Lake Dongting 洞庭湖, and an animal called Xieyu 猰㺄 devouring the people in the Central Plain, and another animal called Fengxi 封狶 ate its cattle. All these monstrous creatures were killed by Yi.

Yi was not a "minister" of Emperor Yao, but an autonomous deity that was in the course of time downgraded to a superhuman hero. The fight with the Zaochi beast at Shouhua 壽華 is also narrated in the book Shanhaijing 山海經. The elegy Tianwen 天問 in the collection Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of the South" mentions Yi's shooting down the nine suns.

A third story of Lord Yi, mentioned in the Tianwen and Gao You's 高誘 (c. 200 CE) commentary to the Huainanzi, goes that he shot out the left eye of the Lord of the Yellow River 河伯 as a punishment for the turbulent waters that had killed countless people.

Because Yi was a god that had come down to earth for the sake of mankind, he had to ascend to Heaven again, which was only possible with the help of the drug of immortality that Hou Yi begged from the Queen Mother of the West 西王母, as told in the book Huainanzi. Yet Chang E 嫦娥, his wife, stole the drug, consumed it and ascended to the moon herself.

According to a story told in the book Mengzi 孟子, Hou Yi's nephew Feng Meng 逢蒙 is said to have killed his uncle in his greed for power. Hou Yi died in Taopou 桃棓 and was in old times presented offerings as a deity averting natural disasters.

There is yet another story telling that Yi was the head of the Qiong people 有窮氏 during the Xia period 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE). For his efforts in shooting down the suns he had been given the title of Lord of Yuju 于鉏 (modern Puyang 濮陽, Henan) and was allowed to become regent for King Tai Kang 太康. He moved his residence from Ju to Qiongshi 窮石 (modern Mengxian 孟縣 or Gongxian 鞏縣, Henan) so that he was closer to the capital Zhenxun 斟𨝻 (modern Gongxian, Henan). He deposed King Tai Kang and enthroned Zhong Kang 仲康, later Xiang 相. As a regent, Yi neglected his duties and engaged in hunting pleasures rather than in a benevolent style of government. Lord Yi entrusted regency to Han Zhuo 寒浞, by whom he was soon killed.

It is also said that a three-legged crow (sanzu niao 三足鳥) lived on the sun, as mentioned in the books Lunheng 論衡 and Huainanzi. The latter calls it qunniao 踆鳥. When archer Yi shot down the superfluous nine suns, all crows died. The book Dongmingji 洞冥記 says that the crows flew down to earth where they consumed a herb that rendered them immortality. The Queen Mother of the West used three-legged crows as messengers.

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 496.
Xiong Tieji 熊鐵基, Yang Youli 楊有禮, ed. (1994). Zhongguo diwang zaixiang cidian 中國帝王宰相辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 11.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 21, 303.
Zhongguo baike da cidian bainweihui 《中國百科大辭典》編委會, ed. (1999). Zhongguo baike da cidian 中國百科大辭典 (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe), 551.