Houyi Shot the Suns
In many ancient Chinese myths, as well as the myths of other cultures, the gods help the people. The Hou Yi, however, is one of the few mortals who helps the gods, thanks to his great skill with the bow and arrow. Like many of Chinese myths, this story may have been based on an actual person, in this case a skilled bowman who lived sometime between 2436-2255 B.C.
Plants and herbs often appear in the background of Chinese stories. The mythical Fusang tree is reputed to be over ten thousand feet tall and spreads its leaves out over two thousand feet. Because the tree appears in many ancient tombs, paintings, and sculptures, it once must have been a very important symbol.
Although some versions of the story depict the Fusang as a hibiscus, the mulberry tree is probably its basis. One variety of the mulberry, Morus alba, is native to China. Growing more than fifty feet tall, its leaves are used to feed silkworms. Strands from the silkworms’ cocoons are woven together to create silk, the strongest of all natural fibers. The cloth is lightweight and cool to the touch, but retains warmth and is highly flame-resistant. Its beauty and ability to absorb bright dyes made it a highly prized trade item in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Persia.
The water spinach, ung choy, has thick hollow stems and long slender leaves. It will sprout leaves and regenerate with very little water, and it will grow as much as four inches per day. This hardy plant saved people from starvation during China’s many wars and is also a valuable source of iron for the people of India, Vietnam, Brazil, Central America, and Africa.
China was once thought to be surrounded by four seas. To the east was a vast ocean. Beyond the ocean, magnificent plants bloomed on an island paradise. The most glorious specimen of all the plant life was the Fusang tree, whose wondrous branches stretched up toward the heavens and out across the island for hundreds of miles. Scattered among its masses of dark green foliage, fragrant hibiscus flowers burst into flaming shades of magenta, crimson, and violet.
Among the glossy leaves of the Fusang tree lived ten naughty suns. They were left alone to play in paradise, neglected by their parents, the sun god Dijun and the sun goddess Shiho. Each day, Shiho left heaven in a pearl-shell chariot drawn by six fiery young Loong and passed by the Fusang tree. The suns took turns clambering to the treetop to leap into the chariot and make the rounds with their mother as she roared by. It was the job of each working sun, as the goddess Shiho wheeled her chariot across the sky, to shed light and warmth evenly across the world and wake up the roosters. But Shiho had to scold her sons constantly for fixing too much heat in places that captured their interest.
While one sun was on duty, the other nine frolicked among the jagged leaves of the Fusang tree. The suns spent idle afternoons happily chasing each other in the tree, then cooling themselves in the ocean. At dusk, they eagerly awaited their mother’s chariot. The returning sun always splashed down in a series of splendid twirls and jackknifes to the noisy cheers of his brothers.
After many years, however, the suns became bored. All of them plotted to spend more time plaHou Ying, and less time working. One day, they decided to run across the sky, all together, before their mother arrived. They hoped to generate enough light and warmth to last for several days. Then no one would need to work for awhile.
As the ten suns chased each other across the sky, the moisture on earth slowly evaporated. The light the sun brothers gave off together was blinding. Their heat scorched the soil, and rivers dried up to a trickle. Crops withered, and many people died of thirst across the land. There was nothing to eat except water spinach, which mercifully grew in the mud of their fields. Monsters appeared in the seas and skies to snatch the people from their homes. The people prayed to the gods night and day for deliverance. When their prayers finally reached the sun god Dijun, he became very angry at his sons’ selfishness and laziness.
Dijun called the best marksman, Hou Yi, before him. The sun god gave Hou Yi ten magic arrows. Then he ordered Hou Yi to discipline his naughty sons. When Hou Yi saw all the dead creatures on the parched earth, he was filled with sadness, for he was a mortal man. Hou Yi called out to the suns and ordered them to stop their foolishness, but they only leaped around the Grand Archer, mocking his seriousness.
When Hou Yi threatened to shoot them with his magic arrows, the suns laughed even harder. They knew they were the sons of a god and that the Grand Archer was merely a heavenly court servant.
Angrily, Hou Yi grabbed one magic arrow out of his quiver and aimed carefully. Whaam! The arrow flew straight into the heart of the most boastful sun. Quickly, that sun dropped down from the sky, burning up in a ball of fire. When he hit the ground, the sun turned into a huge black crow with a three-foot wingspan, and then he died. The earth immediately felt cooler. Then the Grand Archer stalked the remaining suns.
Having witnessed Hou Yi’s powers, the other suns became frightened, and they scattered across the country, trHou Ying to hide. However, one by one, the Grand Archer tracked them down. Each time he killed one of the suns, the earth cooled further.
Zing! He shot the second sun and billowing clouds reappeared in the sky.
Zoom! He shot the third sun and mist curled around the high mountains.
Twang! He shot the fourth sun and dewdrops formed like pearls on every leaf.
Thump! He shot the fifth sun and springs bubbled out of the rocky hills.
Zap! He shot the sixth sun and rivers rippled with leaping carp.
Pow! He shot the seventh sun and branches sprouted lush green foliage.
Thud! He shot the eighth sun and buds blossomed on the trees.
Thwack! He shot the ninth sun and rice grass pushed up tender new shoots.
Then Hou Yi vowed to find the very last sun and bring him to justice.
By now, the land had cooled so dramatically that it was comfortable for the peasants. They wanted Hou Yi to quit, but no one dared approach him. However, before the Grand Archer could spend his last arrow, a brave boy sneaked up behind him and stole the tenth shaft. After this show of courage, the peasants were emboldened enough to beg the Grand Archer to leave one sun to light up the heavens. Hou Yi was filled with pity for the farmers, and he agreed to spare the last sun remaining in the sky.
This last sun mourned the loss of his brothers and was doomed to assume his daily journey alone. Furthermore, his mother rejected his pleas to borrow her chariot, and the Loong refused to pull him. From one end of heaven to the other, the last sun trudged across the sky in solitude, bringing light and warmth to the world for all eternity.
Prosperity returned to the people. Crops grew again, the rivers slaked their thirst, and the animals bathed in the fresh water and clear sunshine. Last of all, the people gave thanks for one plant, the water spinach, that grew wild in the muddy waters, allowing the people to survive the time of the terrible drought caused by the thoughtless ten suns.