Hebo

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Hebo as depicted in the Nine Songs, imprint from presumably the 14th century

Hebo (Chinese: 河伯; literally: "Lord of the River") is the god of the Yellow River. The Yellow River (Huang He) is one of the world's major rivers and a river of great cultural importance in China. This is reflected in Chinese mythology by the tales surrounding the deity Hebo. The name, Hebo, means "Lord of the River", in this case "the River" referring to the main river of Northern China, the Huang He, or Yellow River, which takes its name from the vast amount of yellowish silt from the Loess plateau through which much of the river flows. However, the descriptive term, Hebo, is not this deity's only name, and worship is geographically widespread. Some of the character ascribed to Hebo is related to the character of the Yellow River itself: a river which has been described as one of China's greatest assets as well as one of the greatest sources of sorrow. Some of the world's greatest floods accompanied by tragic and stupendous loss of human life have been due to the Yellow River overflowing its banks, and even shifting course and establishing a new river bed. The Yellow River has also been one of the major agricultural sources for irrigation of farms which have provided for the dietary needs of the population at least from the cradle of Chinese civilization through the present day. To some extent, the deity Hebo is a personification of the character of this river. However, Hebo has also had an important role in the history of religious worship in China (especially North China), and also having a more general function in terms of Chinese culture, including literature and poetry.

Names[edit]

Hebo is also known as Bingyi (冰夷).[1][2] Today, the meaning of bo (伯) is generally considered to be that of an honorific title, of a martial or noble designation, similar to the European titles of nobility rendered in English as "count" or "earl". He (河) may be used somewhat generically to refer to rivers in general, or to various particular flowing bodies of water, but in this case is particularly and primarily associated with the Yellow River of China.

Character[edit]

Hebo as depicted in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, 1597 edition

Hebo is the god of the Yellow River,[2] one of the world's major rivers with close association to Chinese culture. Reflecting the personification of the Yellow River, Hebo has been regarded as benevolent, but also greedy, unpredictable, and dangerously destructive.[3]

The Jin scholar Guo Pu commented that early illustrations depicted Hebo on his chariot—pulled by two dragons through the clouds—riding in all directions.[4] In the "Nine Songs" from the Songs of Chu, the performer narrates a wedding journey with him in a chariot drawn by two dragons.[3] Some early accounts—such as the book Shizi wherein he bestowed the River Diagram to Yu the Great—describes Hebo as having a white face of a human with the body of a fish.[3]

The poem "Questions of Heaven" alludes to a myth about Houyi shooting Hebo.[3] The Han commentator Wang Yi annotated it with the following story:

The Huainanzi stated that Houyi had shot Hebo for the latter had drowned people.[5]

A chapter of the Zhuangzi mentions Hebo visiting the northern sea, where Ruo—the God of the Sea—resides, beginning with the following:

Historical worship[edit]

Hebo as depicted by Xiao Yuncong in the Lisao (離騷), imprint of 1645

The Yellow River is believed to have originated at the mythological Mount Kunlun, leading to a cult to Hebo within the ancient states of northwestern and central China before spreading southward.[3]

Hebo was worshiped at various times as an object of human sacrifice and as a figure in the imperial cult.[7] Hebo has been said to have helped Yu the Great to end the Great Flood of China, by providing a map of the Yellow River.[8] Animals as well as humans have been drowned in the river as sacrifices, including young women destined to become the god's wives.[3] The oracle bone inscriptions provide solid evidence of the sacrificial worship of Hebo during the Shang dynasty.[2][9] Human sacrifice seems to have continued into the Warring States period, prominently featuring the presentation of a virgin female human bride, floated on a bridal raft upon the surface of the river, as an offering to Hebo.[10] This practice was apparently ended (at the Ye shamanic college) by scholar-official Ximen Bao.[11] However, other bridal sacrifices continued elsewhere, until the time of Shi Huangdi, of Qin state.[12] The book Zhuangzi stated that the wu-shamans and zhu-priests—who were in charge of the rituals—considered oxen with white foreheads, pigs with turned-up snouts, and humans with piles as unsuitable for offerings.[3]

There were cases where people drowned horses and cast valuables into the river as sacrifices.[3] During the Han dynasty, occasional sacrifices of jade objects, together with a live horse are recorded.[13]

Culture[edit]

Hebo is one of the main characters in the cast of Jiu Ge, the Nine Songs, a work anthologized in the ancient poetic source Chu Ci. The Jiu Ge lyrics, including the "He Bo" section seem to have originally been a lyrical part an ancient religious dramatic performance which also included costuming, choreography, musical accompaniment and other features which unlike the lyrics themselves failed to survive the vicissitudes of history. Of the deities specified therein, Hebo is the one who has had the most mainstream cultural appeal.[14]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Christie, 79
  2. ^ a b c Strassberg 2002, 201
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Strassberg 2002, 202
  4. ^ Strassberg 2002, 201–202
  5. ^ a b Strassberg 2002, 203
  6. ^ Watson 2013, 126
  7. ^ Christie, 79 and 82-83
  8. ^ Yang, 131
  9. ^ Hawkes, 113
  10. ^ Hawkes, 113-114
  11. ^ Christie, 82, who refers to Ximen Bao as "Hsi-men Pao".
  12. ^ Christie, 82, who refers to the locale as "Lin-tsin".
  13. ^ Hawkes, 114
  14. ^ Hawkes, 113

References[edit]

  • Christie, Anthony (1968). Chinese Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing. ISBN 0600006379.
  • Hawkes, David, translator and introduction (2011 [1985]). Qu Yuan et al., The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-044375-2
  • Strassberg, Richard E. (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21844-2.
  • Watson, Burton (2013). The Complete works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231164740.
  • Yang, Lihui, et al. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533263-6