Houji (Chinese: 后稷, p. Hòujì) was a legendary Chinese culture hero credited with introducing millet to humanity during the time of the Xia dynasty. Millet was the original staple grain of northern China, prior to the introduction of wheat. His name translates as Lord of Millet and was a posthumous name bestowed on him by King Tang, the first of the Shang dynasty.
Houji was credited with developing the philosophy of Agriculturalism and with service during the Great Flood in the reign of Yao; he was also claimed as the ancestor of the Ji clan that became the ruling family of the Zhou dynasty.
Houji's original name was Qi (棄, lit. "the Abandoned One").
Two separate versions of his origin were common. In one version of Chinese mythology, he was said to have been supernaturally conceived when his mother Jiang Yuan, a previously barren wife of the emperor Ku, stepped into a footprint left by Shangdi, the supreme sky god of the early Chinese pantheon. Another account simply make him one of Ku's four sons, each prophesied to father a family of emperors over China. This origin allowed his descendents to claim a lineage from the Yellow Emperor as well. The Jiang clan that mothered Houji are possibly related to the Qiang, a group of people believed to have been of Tibeto-Burman origins. The American scholar Christopher I. Beckwith has however recently argued for an Indo-European origin for the Jiang clan.
He was held to have been repeatedly abandoned by his mother, but saved each time – in the street, by draft animals; in the forest, by woodcutters; on the ice, by a great bird. He later became famous for his luxuriant crops of beans, rice, hemp, gourds, and several kinds of millet and was credited with the introduction of the spring ritual sacrifice of fermented millet beer, roasted sheep, and the herb southernwood.
In his own lifetime, he was restored to high office and honored by the Xia king with an ancestral name: in his case, Ji (姬, after the name of a river). He was granted or confirmed in his dominion over Tai. His son Buzhu inherited his position at court but abandoned it and possibly agriculture as well to live among the Rong and Di barbarians around Xia.
As mentioned above, he was later granted a posthumous name as well by the first Shang king Tang. Houji was also claimed as the ancestor of the Zhou royal family and honored in their Book of Songs: the Sheng Min ("Birth of Our People") is counted as one of the work's Great Hymns. The Zhou ministers of agriculture were also titled "Houji" in his honor.
Although historians such as Sima Qian took a more rationalist approach to his life, making him a natural son of Emperor Ku and a regular official of the Xia court, Houji was honored not just as a culture hero but also as a patron god of abundant harvests.
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- Shijing III.2.1. – "Birth of Our People".