East Asian Mythology: China and Japan

Chinese Heroes

Who were Gun and Yu?

Gun and Yu, father and son, were two of the most important culture heroes of ancient China. Their story is intricately associated with the flood myth. A descendant of the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, Gun was determined to put an end to the great flood which had inundated the land. To accomplish his mission, he followed in the tradition of several cultural heroes in world mythology—Prometheus in Greece, for example—by stealing a valuable asset. Here, Gun steals from the Supreme Being Tian Di. In the case of Prometheus the asset was fire; here it was the mysterious self-growing soil, Xirang. Gun planned to use the soil to block the flow of the waters. Furious at the theft, the Supreme Being ordered the fire god Zhurong to dispose of Gun.

It was out of the dead Gun’s belly that the flood hero Yu sprang, riding on a dragon, the miraculous birth already marking him as a hero. His sacred quest was to fulfill his father’s dream of stopping the flood. This time the Supreme Being, or some say the August Emperor, Yao, ordered Yu to continue with Gun’s use of Xirang. He also devised a plan by which the waters were diverted into the sea in channels dug by the dragging tail of the dragon Yinglong. It took Yu thirteen years to accomplish his great task. Along the way he followed another typically heroic pattern, the slaying of monsters, including Wuzhiqi, the evil spirit of the raging Huai River. When he was thirty, Yu married Tushanshi (The Tuschan Woman), who helped him with his work. Once, when he was about to dig through a mountain to form a channel to the sea, he instructed his wife to send him food when he beat on a drum. To work faster, Yu changed himself into a bear, and when he accidentally stepped on the drum, the sound attracted his wife, who arrived with food. Horrified by her husband’s having become a bear, she fled from the tunnel and changed herself into a rock. When Yu came out of the tunnel he begged the rock to give him the baby with which his wife had been pregnant. In this version of the myth, it was the rock that gave birth miraculously to the hero Qi. Later Yu became emperor, as did his son Qi.


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