Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Xihe (Glossary)

According to the Mulberry Tree Tradition written during the Zhou Dynasty, Xihe is the wife of Jun, and the mother of the Ten Suns of the Fusang Tree.

The Yaodian section of the Shangshu also recorded during the Zhou Dynasty splits Xihe into four persons, the younger brothers of Emperor Yao all known as Xi and He (Xi Zhong, Xi Shu, He Zhong and He Shu).

The brothers are asked to venture to the four quadrants of the earth to 'calculate and delineate' the movement of the Sun and other astronomical bodies, and the times of the seasons. In latter tradition, Xihe is sometimes said to be the mother of the four brothers. Xi Zhong is sent to Yanggu "Valley of the Sun," which is the same place known as Tanggu "Hot Water Valley" where the Fusang Tree is found.

Xihe here is then associated with the delineation of the seasons starting in the region of the Fusang Tree. This legend probably explains the origin of the latter concept of the four seasonal palaces of the Chinese zodiac: the Blue Dragon of the East (beginning with Spica), the Vermillion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West and the Black Turtle of the North.

Yu the Great was also said to have marked the seasons starting with the Sun's journey from the Fusang Tree in the East to the Ruo Tree in the West and back again through an underground passage, in the Huainanzi, written during the Han Dynasty.


The role of Spica, or the "Horn," as marking the start of spring is explained in the "Heavenly Questions" from the Huainanzi:

Dark as it closes, bright when it opens [what is it?]
Before the Horn rises, the Great Light hides [where?]

The verses indicate that the Full Moon when the Sun was opposite Spica, which was thus conjunct with the Moon, indicated the start of spring. Mid-spring according to the Yaodian was when the vernal equinox occurred and this was signified by the star Alphard (alpha Hydrae) known as Niao meaning "Bird." The Oracle Bone Inscriptions mention both the star Niao and Huo (Antares), the determining star for the Vermilion Bird Palace.

The Shang Dynasty, as we have seen in previous blog entries, was closely connected with birds, as were the Dongyi or "Eastern Yi." The Zhou Dynasty knew the Shang as Dongyi people. It has been suggested that some of the earliest examples of pictographic writing in China are found in combined solar and bird motifs on Liangzhu jades that could read Yang Niao "Sun Bird," the name of a Dongyi tribe that settled in the Lower Yangtze region according to early texts.

Bird and sun-moon motif on jade ring from Liangzhu Culture (3500 BCE-2250 BCE), left, bird on cartouche and sun-moon on bi disc, Liangzhu. The sun-moon motif, in one case combined with what could be a 'fire mountain' motif appear also on Ling-yang-ho vases (4300 BCE-1900 BCE) from Shangdong, source: Wu Hung, "Bird Motifs in Eastern Yi Art."

Given Xihe's connection with the birth of the Suns, bathing and hanging of the Suns in the Fusang Tree, and the four quadrants, it would be reasonable to think that Xihe has some celestial form herself. Some verses appear to portray here as rising over the horizon like a star.

The Ruo Tree shines before Xihe has risen [how?]

--- Huananzi

As such it would be reasonable to think of her as represented by the star that stands in the zenith of the Fusang Tree. Spica, the Horn, would certainly be one prime candidate as it delineates the start of spring and the Sun's yearly journey.

This leads us again to the location of the Fusang Tree. According to the Shanhaijing, attributed to Yu (3rd millennium BCE) and definitely not later than the Han Dynasty, the Fusang Tree was located near and north of the "Black Teeth Country." The History of the Eastern Barbarians, dating to the Eastern Han Dynasty, locates this country southeast of Japan, the journey taking one year by ship.

Sung Dynasty ethnographer Ma Tuan-lin mentions in connection with these countries an archipelago of 2,000 kingdoms called Tong ti-jin (Eastern Fish People) located beyond the Sea of Kwei-ki, which is another name for the Southeastern Sea extending from the mouth of the Yangtze to the Strait of Formosa. He relates that this was the same area where explorers searched for the fabled Penglai.

Although he gives conflicting accounts, in one instance he suggests the Black Teeth Kingdom and Naked People Kingdom are located 4,000 leagues (li) to the south of Japan. The Pygmy Kingdom, where people stand only three of four Chinese feet tall, is located south of the Black Teeth Kingdom and is said to be one year's ship journey to the southwest of Japan. In another instance, the author states the Black Teeth Country was another year's journey by ship to the southeast of the Naked People Kingdom.

The Shanhaijing places the Wugao Mountain more than 1600 li (3 li is about 1 mile) south of Shaanxi, and to the east of Wugao is the Fusang Tree. It describes the people of Black Teeth Country as black, or having black teeth or hands. The practice of blackening the teeth was, at one time, quite common in Southeast Asia. Other peoples nearby are also described as black or having black hips, thighs or lower bodies. Some are said to go around naked, so there is a general sense that the climate was warm. Pygmies called "Yao" are also mentioned as living in the country. The people in the region eat rice, and those of the valley where the Sun rises are said to be inclined toward piracy.

The countries around the Fusang Tree are described many times in early works to be approached by sailing in a southerly direction from Japan. Furthermore, the land is repeatedly said to be located in or beyond the "Southeastern Sea" i.e. off the southeast coast of China.

Connecting the mountain of the Fusang Tree, the home and resting-place of the Suns, with the volcanoes of Pinatubo and Arayat, the Sun would set nearly directly to the West, with the Full Moon nearly directly to the East when the Moon conjoined Spica. This would apply to the traditional dates of Yao and Yu, when Spica stood nearly directly over Pinatubo and Arayat when passing near the zenith.

Babylonian echoes

The clay astronomical tablet known as the Mulapin dating to about 700 BCE appears to use Spica (Nebiru station) to delineate the heavens into bands of declination from the celestial equator.

It's difficult to date this practice of using Spica to map the heavens. The Akkadian goddess Sala, wife of the weather god Adad, began taking on some aspects of the constellation Virgo, which is determined by Spica, around the second half of the second millennium. She is portrayed as nude with a ear of barley over her shoulder. By the second half of the first millennium, she becomes the fully-dressed constellation with Spica shown as a "spike" of corn in her hand.

I have suggested earlier that Spica can be identified with the station of Nebiru that was used to determine the bands of declination in Mesopotamian star charts. This star was linked with a celestial "crossing," a divine boatman and a ferry. These can be interpreted as indicating that this star was used as a zenith and bearing star. It was suggested earlier that it provided the latitude and bearing for Dilmun and Mt. Mashu of Sumerian lore.

In India, the constellation Virgo was portrayed by the astronomer Varahamihira as a woman or girl with a grain of corn in one hand and a lamp in the other standing in a boat. The lamp or a pearl of light is also suggested by the Indian name of Virgo's determining star Chitra (Spica).

As in legendary China, the new year in India was also determined by the Full Moon closest to the Sun's opposition to Chitra.

The image of a woman with a lamp standing in a boat is one of a seafarer's goddess. The "spike" of grain also matches well with the "Horn" of the Chinese Spica.

The constellation Virgo became associated with Isis Pelagia, a goddess of seafarers and the sea in Greco-Egyptian religion who later gets absorbed into the Virgin Mary cult as Stella Maria or Stella Maris.

Isis is the mother of Horus, who is a patron god of the Sun, and fused with the Sun god Ra becomes the patron deity of Egyptian royalty. He also had many other forms associated with the winged Sun disk, the morning Sun, the noon Sun, etc.

Whether it is coincidence or not is impossible to say, but Isis Pelagia and by association Maria Stella become mothers of a bird, Horus is a falcon god, that is associated with the Sun, which resembles the myths of Xihe as the mother of the Ten Suns or Sun Crows.

Southern Interaction Sphere

The eastern coastal peoples of northern China known as Dongyi were one of the Yi peoples often described as "maritime" and as having large ships ('tower boats').

Coastal Yi people inhabited the area southward to the mouth of the Yangtze and had trade relations extending further south. K.C. Chang used the term "interaction sphere" to describe these relations which often involved direct or indirect trade.

Dongyi culture is associated archaeologically most often with the Lungshanoid horizon and also to some extent with the earlier Dawenkou culture of Shandong. A relationship has been shown to exist between these traditions and the Liangzhu to the south, and even further south to the Neolithic coastal traditions near Hong Kong, which Solheim links directly with the Nusantao.

Shang civilization brought trade contacts with the South to a new high. So famed where the Shang as traders that in latter times the word "shang" came to mean "trader, merchant." The term "yi shang" combining the words "Yi" (as in Dong-Yi) and "Shang" came to mean "Barbarian Trader."

Copper, tin and lead used to fuel the Shang bronze industry came from the South, from Yunnan and probably from countries further south like Thailand and Malaysia. Tortoise shell, including that from sea turtles, used for divination and other purposes often came from tropical species.

Cowries used as money came at least from the South China Sea, and some cowries and other shells may have originated in the Indian Ocean. Elephant ivory and rhinoceros were imported from the Southeast Asian rainforests.

Cinnabar dye came mostly from Szechwan and other southern locations, and jade may have come from as far as Burma. Whalebone, on the other hand, likely originated in the northern seas. Nephrite could have come from Vietnam, Taiwan or Lanyu Island, or even from the Tarim Basin.

Generally though, the Shang and Dongyi operated in the eastern coastal and southern interaction spheres. It was the Lungshanoid-Dongyi who first begin exploring rice agriculture to a full extent for example.

These southern impulses verified by archaeology may explain the legends of Xihe of the Southeastern Ocean and the Hot Water Valley associated closely with the founding of the Shang clan and dynasty.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Chang, K.C. "Chinese prehistory in the Pacific perspective: Some hypotheses and problems," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, No. 22, 1959, 100-149

Major, John S. Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: : Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi, SUNY Press, 1993.

Senner, Wayne M. The Origins of Writing, U of Nebraska Press, 1991, pgs. 192, 198.

Vining, E. P. An Inglorious Columbus, D. Appleton and Co., 1885, pp. 681-683.

Wu Hung. "Bird Motifs in Eastern Yi Art," Orientations, 16.10 (Oct. 1985), 34-36.