In Chinese mythology, Hou Yi (后羿) is considered to be the greatest archer of all time. He is best known for marrying the moon goddess, Chang’e (嫦娥), and for shooting down nine out of ten suns. Once an immortal who lived in the Jade Emperor’s palace, Hou Yi made the decision to become human so that he could help humanity in times of need.
Hou Yi’s name is comprised of the Chinese word for “monarch” hòu (后), and yì (羿), a character unique to Hou Yi’s name. In other styles of romanization, his name is written as Hou I. In more ancient texts, Hou Yi is simply referred to as Yi (羿).
Hou Yi is described as being an inhumanly strong, young man. He carries a large bow made of tiger bones that only he is able to pull. His arrows are crafted from dragon tendons. In art, Hou Yi is usually depicted dressed in a traditional soldier’s outfit and animal skins.
Little is known about Hou Yi’s family other than the fact that he’s married to the moon goddess, Chang’e (嫦娥).
One verse in the famous ancient Chinese poem, “Heavenly Questions” or Tianwen (天問) begins by asking the question, “Why did Yi shoot down the suns?” The answer that follows? One of the most famous myths in Chinese mythology.
Hou Yi and the Ten Suns
One day when the earth was still very young and the mythical Emperor Yao (帝堯) ruled China, there were ten suns who took turns illuminating the planet. They were told by their grandfather, the Jade Emperor (玉皇), that they must follow a strict schedule and only leave the palace one at a time to go play in the sky or they would destroy the earth. But, being young children, they decided that going out all together would be much more fun than going out alone.
When all ten suns appeared in the sky, the temperature on earth became unbearably hot. Mass chaos ensued. All the crops on the planet began to shrivel up and the very earth began to scorch. People were overcome by heat stroke and fainted in the streets. Wild monsters took advantage of the situation and emerged from the shadows to begin preying on humanity.
Hou Yi, a skilled archer, saw the destruction the suns were causing and immediately went to the Jade Emperor. He told the Emperor that if the suns wouldn’t behave, he would have no choice but to shoot them down to save the planet.
Fearing for the lives of his grandchildren, the Jade Emperor scolded them and begged them to come back home, but the suns were having so much fun that they couldn’t hear the Emperor over their laughter. The Jade Emperor loved his grandchildren very much, but reluctantly gave Hou Yi permission to do what was necessary.
Armed with a massive bow made of tiger bones and with arrows made of dragon tendons, Hou Yi first killed all of the monsters terrorizing the countryside. Then, he climbed to the top of a tall mountain to confront the suns directly.
Before he began to shoot, he asked the children once more to be good and go back inside the Emperor’s palace like they should. But they just stuck their tongues out at Hou Yi and told him to mind his own business. Feeling he was left with no choice, he drew back his bow and let loose nine arrows. Nine suns immediately fell from the sky. The tenth sun was so scared that he ran away and hid in a cave.
Now, the earth was plunged into unbearable darkness and cold. Every living thing on the planet begged the last sun to come out, but he was so scared of Hou Yi that he covered his ears and ignored them. After everyone else had tried to coax the sun out, the rooster climbed to the top of his roost and shouted, “Gēgē! Gēgē!” (哥哥) or “Brother!” Only the rooster’s loud, shrill voice was able to reach the sun and he finally decided to emerge from his cave. To this day when roosters crow “brother” in the morning, the sun rises, too.
Chang’e Drinks the Elixir of Immortality
To reward him for his valiant deeds, Xiwangmu (西王母) gave Hou Yi a bottle of her elixir of immortality so that he could return to the Jade Emperor’s palace as a god. However, Hou Yi was unsure if he wanted to become immortal if his wife, Chang’e (嫦娥), couldn’t achieve immortality with him.
But before he was able to decide, Chang’e stole the vial from him, drank it down and fled to the moon to escape her husband’s wrath. Hou Yi was so upset that he aimed an arrow at his wife to shoot her down, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. After some time passed and he was no longer angry at her, Hou Yi started leaving out her favorite desserts and fruits every night, to show that he had forgiven her. Today, people will still leave out annual offerings to Chang’e during the Mid-Autumn Festival to commemorate her.
Hou Yi and Chang’e’s myth is one of the most famous myths in Chinese mythology and is an integral part of the Mid-Autumn Festival. They’re considered to be the original, Chinese star-crossed lovers. Since their story has been retold so many times, there’s countless variations of their myth.
Hou Yi and Chang’e’s myth has been adapted into a number of songs, plays, dances, movies and TV dramas. The Chinese TV drama series “Moon Fairy” is based off of their whirlwind romance and the popular Shen Yun Performing Arts dance troupe has a routine dedicated to them. Hou Yi is also featured as a character in the game SMITE.
- China Knowledge - http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Myth/personshouyi.html
- Encyclopedia Britannica - https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hou-Yi
- The Smithsonian Institute - https://festival.si.edu/blog/2014/hou-yi-and-the-ten-suns-a-chinese-folktale/
- Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hou_Yi
- Jan and Yvonne Walls (Ed. And trans.), Classical Chinese Myths. Hongkong: Joint Publishing Co. 1984, pp. 68-69.
- Yang, Lihui, and Deming An. 2005. Handbook of Chinese mythology. Handbooks of world mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576078068 ISBN 9781576078075