So many fantastical myths have grown up around the legendary archer Hou Yi (后羿) that it is easy to forget that he started out as a minor tribal chieftain who treacherously seized control of the Xia dynasty, only to be murdered by his most trusted minister who was perhaps working in league with Yi’s wife. How he became portrayed as a great hero who saved the world from incineration by ten suns and lovingly honored the sacrifice of his moon goddess wife is a mystery that will never be fully unraveled.
Most ancient historical sources agree that Hou Yi was the king or chieftain of a small state or tribe who was famous for his martial prowess with bow and arrow. Although Yi was purportedly allied with the Xia dynasty, the Bamboo Annals reports that he launched an attack against the Xia capital during the first year of the reign of Tai Kang (太康) while the young monarch was hunting and seized control of its government. Other sources claim that after being made regent of Tai Kang in recognition of his great martial feats, Yi usurped power for himself.
Preferring to spend his time on honing his archery skills, Hou Yi delegated his government responsibilities to an official called Han Zhuo (寒浞). Perhaps with the encouragement of Hou’s wife, Zhou arranged for his sovereign to be assassinated. Some particularly gruesome accounts of this incident claim that Han had Hou Yi’s flesh prepared for his sons to eat and to order their execution when they refused to partake of their father.
Having seized power for himself, Han Zhuo married Hou Yi’s widow and the happy couple had two sons. According to some sources one of these sons was called Ao (奡), who grew up to become famous for his boatbuilding and naval warfare abilities and succeeded his father after his death. Other sources claim that Ao was the son of one of Han Zhuo’s ministers and murdered Han Zhou to grab the throne for himself. Regardless of who his father was, Ao went on to meet the same fate as his two predecessors when he was assassinated by one of his own ministers!
The most obvious connection that the mythical version of Hou Yi has with the historical one is his great skill as an archer. Rather than a treacherous king, he is portrayed as a heroic, perhaps even divine, figure who descended from heaven to save the earth from being scorched by ten suns that appeared in the sky one day.
At first, Hou Yi is said to have tried to reason with the suns. But when they refused to listen to his warnings, he shot nine of them down – turning each one into a three-legged raven as it dropped from the sky. As he was about to fire at the final one, the sage king Yao and the mother of the sun stepped in, with the latter begging Yi to spare her solar progeny in return for ensuring that humanity would live in eternal peace and prosperity.
In addition to being made a king in recognition of his valorous deed, Hou Yi was, according to some more fantastical versions of the story, given the elixir of immortality by the gods as a reward for shooting down the nine suns. Unable to bear the thought of living forever without his wife Chang’e (嫦娥), however, the doting Yi refused to drink the potion.
When one of Yi’s apprentices broke into his house to seize the elixir, Chang’e drank it herself. As she ascended to the heavens, Chang’e chose to live on the moon so that she could remain close to her beloved husband. After Hou Yi discovered what had happened, he was so moved by his wife’s sacrifice that he made offerings of the fruit and delicacies that she enjoyed eating to show his enduring love for her. This act of mutual devotion is celebrated at the Mid-Autumn Festival, which occurs on the night of the full moon of the eighth lunar month. For her part in it, Chang’e is worshipped as the goddess of the moon.
Earlier versions of the tale, however, present a much darker picture of how the union between Hou Yi and Chang’e ended. Some go as far as to suggest that after Hou Yi was made king for shooting down the nine suns, his rule became so tyrannical that Chang’e gulped down the elixir to prevent her husband from oppressing the people forever. As she floated towards the moon, her enraged husband shot arrow after arrow at her to stop her from escaping, but for once his aim failed him. Viewed from this angle, it is for this great sacrifice that Chang’e is celebrated at the Mid-Autumn Festival while Hou Yi is relegated to the position of the villain of the piece.
Whether Confucius subscribed to any of the romantic myths that grew up around Hou Yi is doubtful. Like Nangong Kuo, the man he arranged for his niece to marry, Confucius was far more concerned about the immorality the archer showed in usurping the Xia throne than in his giving up his chance for immortality to remain with his wife.
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!”