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YU , also known as Yu the Great; demiurge who rid China of a great flood, legendary founder of the Xia dynasty, and oldest pan-Chinese culture hero. (Huangdi, Yao, and Shun are in fact of later origin.) According to traditional accounts, Yu combated the flood by following the examples found in nature. Draining fields, dredging rivers, and cutting passes through the mountains, he thus succeeded where his father, Kun, who used dikes to restrain the floods and block their course, had failed (Shu jing, Yu gong ; Shi ji ). Credited with the shaping of China's waterways and irrigation systems, he became the patron saint of all hydraulic engineering (Shi zi, Huainanzi ). Yu also was a miner and a master of metals. He invented bronze weapons and cast the Nine Caldrons of Xia, symbols of his sovereignty, on which the various regions of his empire were pictured (Zuo zhuan ). The famous Shanhai jing (Book of Mountains and Seas) is said to be the text corresponding to these images. Founder of metal-working confraternities, Yu is the patron saint of esoteric and magical arts that are at the roots both of alchemy and of Daoist longevity techniques.

Yu is one of the legendary model sovereigns upon whom the Yellow River and the Luo River deities bestowed the mystical diagrams Hetu ("river chart") and Luoshu ("Lo writing"). In Daoist traditions, these sacred emblems were reinterpreted into the lingbao wufu ("five talismans of lingbao "), which Yu received from a god as a source of magical aid in his Herculean labors. He is said to have hidden them in a sacred mountain, whence they were rediscovered to become the nucleus of a Daoist corpus of sacred scriptures (Wu Yue chunqiu ; Lingbao wufu xu ).

One of the oldest rituals of Chinese culture, still practiced today by Daoist priests, is the Yubu, or "pace of Yu." Exhausted by his labors, Yu is said to have been stricken by hemiplegia, which gave him a limping gait (Shi zi ). Others say that spirits gave him control over men and nature by teaching him a hopping dance with one foot trailing behind the other. The ancient sovereigns danced in order to subdue rebels (Huainanzi ), and sorcerers performed this dance to enter into trance. The Daoists adopted the Pace of Yu both to gain access to supernatural powers such as those granted by plants that confer immortality and to overcome demonic forces (Baopuzi ). For them, it was not merely the gait that was important but also the labyrinthine pattern traced by the officiant's feet, the pattern of a hexagram, or, more often, the meander of the Big Dipper. The Pace of Yu or the "shaman's pace" (wubu ) is considered to contain the magic rhythm for creating cosmic order and for summoning and subduing gods and demons. It became the favorite gait for the daoshi 's liturgical procession through the heavens (Daozang 987, Taishang zongzhen biyao 8, 1116 ce). The Pace of Yu is still performed today as part of Daoist rituals in Taiwan.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes.


The myths of Yu the Great have been studied by Marcel Granet in his Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne (1929; reprint, Paris, 1959), pp. 466590. His role in Daoism is mentioned in Max Kaltenmark's "Ling-pao : Note sur un terme du taoïsme religieux," Mélanges publiés par l'Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises, vol. 2 (Paris, 1960), pp. 561565. Granet has used the Pace of Yu as an example demonstrating the roots of the Daoist religion in the rituals of high antiquity. See his "Remarques sur le taoïsme ancien," Asia Major 2 (1925): 146151, reprinted in Études sociologiques sur la Chine (Paris, 1953). Much information on Yu is to be found also in volumes 2, 3, and 4 of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, 19561971).

Anna Seidel (1987)

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A legendary Chinese emperor, Yu the Great was a hero who controlled the devastating floods that ravaged China in the past. Yu is also credited with founding the Hsia dynasty, China's oldest ruling family. Some of the earliest legends about Yu describe him as a dragon or as a half-dragon, half-human creature. Later myths portray him as wholly human but say that he could take the form of various creatures.

dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Yu's father, Kun, was placed in charge of keeping China's floods under control. After nine years of unsuccessful effort, Kun stole some magic soil from heaven to dam the waters. The theft angered the supreme god, who ordered Kun's execution. Three years later, Kun's miraculously preserved body was split open with a sword and Yu sprang forth.

Yu continued his father's work. According to some stories, he went to heaven and asked the supreme god for some earth, which he used to dam rivers and make channels. In other tales Yu discovered that the floods were caused by evil water monsters. He traveled the world, changing shape as necessary and battling the monsters. Meanwhile a winged dragon helped him drain the land by dragging its tail where channels were needed.

After 13 years of strenuous labor, Yu succeeded in controlling the floods. The channels he dug let water flow safely to the sea, and the drained marshlands became fit for farming. During all those years he never saw his wife and children, and he became worn out and lame from the hard labor. As a reward for his services, the ruler of China gave up the throne to Yu, who became the first emperor of the Hsia dynasty. According to Chinese tradition, Yu ruled from 2205 to 2197 b.c.

See also Chinese Mythology ; Dragons ; Floods ; Heroes.

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