Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Y is for the lost epic of Yi (Epics from A to Z)

Stories, much like people, have a life cycle. Epics are created, told, and when people cease telling them, they slowly break apart and disappear. Some cultures pick up the pieces (like it happened with the Kalevala or the Kalevipoeg). For today, I will write about an epic that might or might not have ever existed.

In 1995, Mori Masako published an article in Asian Folklore Studies, suggesting that the many accounts and tales of Hou Yi, the most famous archer-hero of Chinese mythology, are actually the scattered fragments of what once was a coherent epic, much like the epic of Gilgamesh. She drew a parallel between Gilgamesh and Hou Yi, trying to arrange the fragments into their original order, from the hero's birth to his death. It is an intriguing article. I was familiar with the tales of Hou Yi before, but never thought of them as an epic; Mori Masako, however, makes a compelling argument.
It is an epic I would love to hear.

The Hero
Hou Yi is an archer. In his part of the world, he is THE archer, really. Some people suggest that Yi is not actually his name at all - it is a title that refers to archers. Hou Yi is known for one very famous feat: He shot nine suns out of the sky, saving the world from being scorched to ashes.
Other feats of his include killing various demons and monsters, and traveling to Kunlun Mountain in search of immortality (much like Gilgamesh did). He never became immortal, though; his wife, Chang'e, drank both bottles of the elixir he brought home, and flew away to live alone in the Moon forever.
Hou Yi is ambiguous in many sources; sometimes he is a hero, sometimes he is a tyrant. Mori Masako claims that those features are reconcilable in an epic; most heroes, like Gilgamesh, have both good and bad sides as well.

The Highlights
Instead of highlights, here are some versions of the story of Yi that you can read:

There is a nice and detailed version in Virginia Schomp's book of Ancient Chinese mythology.

There is also a detailed analysis in Sarah Allan's book The Shape of the Turtle.

In Treasure Mountain: Folktales from Southern China there is a Yao minority tale called Shooting the Moon, in which a brave archer and his wife work together to save the world from a scorching fiery moon. In the end they rise into the moon together as well. It is one of my favorite versions.

Here is a short animated video from the website of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

There is also the Mongolian version of the tale type where the hero Erkhii Mergen shoots seven suns.


  1. Fascinating. And this makes me realised you never talked about Gilgamesh, did you? That's one of my favourite sagas :-)

  2. I chuckled about his wife drinking all the elixir... and then she ran away! Thanks for the resources. I wish I could clone myself, who could then read all the books I want--which would, of course, somehow make its way into my brain. (Don't ask, just go with it...)

  3. Are you going to collect these all in a book? They are fascinating reading!

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog
    2015 A to Z of Vampires

  4. nine suns out of the sky... very cool, i want the visuals of that... it's been a great journey with you on your quest to share your history and what a cool history it is...

  5. Interesting theme, well done!
    Participating in
    Out of Africa - Topics from A to Z

  6. It so interesting how the same plot line or themes are seen over and over again in different societies. Were the same tales carried across continents and then adapted or do many societies make their heroes similar independently of outside influence?

  7. Oh, I am going to miss you and miss being introduced every day to a new epic and to your charming spin on it!! Please tell me this is your regular blog and you didn't just create it for A to Z!! DON'T GO!!!!

    1. It is my regular blog :) You can come back for more storytelling posts any time :)

  8. I wonder if some of these stories were transplanted from one culture to another. Look at the Greeks and Romans. There was some heavy duty mixing and matching there. Then there's China, Japan, and Korea. They all have some mixed myths going that go by different names. Tengu for example are found in all three.

  9. Interesting that this is your Y Day post. My story "My Name Is Alice" is based on this myth. It was just published in Beware The Little White Rabbit. I loved this myth, and it tied in with Alice in Wonderland's 150th birthday anthology very nicely.

    I so enjoyed my visits here. I've read many myths that I'd never heard of, so I learned a lot. Thanks for the great theme.

  10. Haven't spent much time exploring this second blog of yours... I am just so wrapped up in medieval Hungarian history that I haven't made it out here. I used to have a big book of Chinese folk tales. Actually, now that I recall, I had quite a collection of myths and legends growing up, and some of my favorites had these gorgeous old-style illustrations and none of those books would survive where I live on Maui!
    Maui Jungalow

  11. I don't know much about Asian history or tales. Thanks for writing about this today. It was fascinating, because all cultures seem to have tales like this... Lisa, co-host AtoZ 2015, @

  12. This has been such a delightful series. I've totally enjoyed your remarkable range of tales and today is no exception. I was familiar with a version of the Chang'e story which casts Hou Yi as a tyrannt, and so seeing another perspective is very expanding.

  13. Yes, I maravillososamente fantastic, I liked the bow to bring down the nine suns!

  14. Another fascinating book! :)

    Elizabeth Mueller
    AtoZ 2015
    My Little Pony

  15. Archers are badass :) Interesting that a story can breakdown and yet still be remembered in fragments - it's like memory on a grand scale.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)