Hou Ji (后稷) is not only renowned for introducing the cultivation of millet and other new farming techniques that led to the explosive growth of agricultural production during the Xia dynasty. He is also celebrated as the ancestral founder of the illustrious Ji clan that went on to establish the Zhou dynasty in 1045 BCE.
Hou Ji was originally known by the name of Qi (棄), meaning “the abandoned one” thanks to a popular legend concerning his birth. The name of Hou Ji was posthumously bestowed upon him by Tang (湯), the founder of the Shang dynasty. It literally means Lord Millet.
According to the legend, Ji was immaculately conceived when his childless mother Jiang Yuan (姜嫄), a wife of the mythical God-Emperor Ku (帝嚳), stepped into a footprint left by the supreme deity Shangdi (上帝). To conceal the birth of her illegitimate son, Jiang Yuan is said to have made three attempts to abandon the baby boy, but he was protected against danger by livestock in the street, woodcutters in the forest, and a bird on ice. Perhaps his guardians also imparted the knowledge of plants and animals that Ji needed to develop his agricultural innovations that led to bumper harvests not just of millet but also beans, rice, gourds, and other staples.
In the Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian strips the supernatural elements from the story of Hou Ji’s birth, describing Jiang Yuan as the primary consort of Emperor Ku and Qi as one of his sons. Given Sima Qian’s love for a great story, it is likely that he did this to emphasize Hou Ji’s status as the ancestral founder of the Zhou dynasty rather than to carry out a principled pursuit of historical accuracy.
Regardless of how Hou Ji acquired his knowledge, such was the success of his agricultural innovations that he rose to become an important official in the Xia court. In recognition of his great achievement, he was also granted the ancestral name of Ji (姬) and the dominion of Tai (斄) in modern-day Shaanxi province by his grateful emperor.
When Hou Ji died, his eldest son Buzhu (不窋) inherited his position as minister of agriculture – only to resign later in protest at the corruption of the Xia court. After stepping down, Buzhu ordered all the members of the Ji clan to leave the capital and move to the settlement at Tai. This migration marked the first step in the emergence of the clan as a major political power in China – culminating in the founding of the Zhou dynasty hundreds of years later by Hou Ji’s descendants Ji Chang (姬昌) and Ji Fa (姬發) – far better known as King Wen (周文王) and King Wu (周武王).
Thanks to his reputation for agricultural expertise, Hou Ji also took on divine status among the common people as the god of plentiful harvests. Quite a set of achievements for a man who is said to have been abandoned three times by his mother as a baby boy!
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 14, Chapter 5
Nangong Kuo asked Confucius, saying: “Yi was a great archer and Ao was a great sailor, but neither died a natural death. Yu and Ji toiled on the land, but they came to own the world.” Confucius made no reply. Nangong Kuo left. Confucius said: “He’s a true leader! This man truly prizes virtue!”