Reign of China’s Legendary First Ruler, Fu Xi Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Fu Xi, China’s mythical first ruler, is said to have developed animal husbandry, musical instruments, the calendar, and the eight trigrams of the Yijing divination text as well as to have made marriage an institution.

Summary of Event

According to Chinese mythology, the creator of the universe, Pangu (P’an-ku), lived during the Creation and Prehistory period, and during the Legendary period (c. 3000-2700 b.c.e.), the three first emperors of China (the San Huang) ruled. Fu Xi was the first of these emperors and the founder of China. The others were Shen Nong (Shen Nung, known as the divine farmer) and Sui Ren (Sui Jen, the fire starter), or alternatively Huangdi (Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor), and the three of them developed early Chinese civilization. Fu Xi

The only sources of information from this prehistorical period are fragments and various versions of myths or stories preserved through oral traditions. These generally credit Fu Xi with numerous accomplishments. The archaeological evidence suggests Fu Xi might have been a great tribal leader of the Yangshao, a neolithic culture that flourished in the Yellow River region in north China. The discoveries at Banpo (Panp’o), near the present city of Xi’an (Hsien), Shaanxi, show a people who used fishhooks and arrowheads, made pottery, wove cloth, grew crops, and raised animals.

In the historical records, Fu Xi was originally a god. Classical sources from the Zhou Dynasty (1066-256 b.c.e.) mention him as the earliest primeval god and the first of the three cosmogonical gods. However, by the late Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), Fu Xi the god had been reinvented as a historical, part-human king. Wang Yi (89-158 c.e.), in Chu ci zhang ju (2d century c.e.; Ch’u tz’u: The Songs of the South, 1959), described Fu Xi as an ancient king and composer who created the zither. Wang Jia (fourth century c.e.), in Shi yi ji (4th century c.e.; researches into lost records), described him as a god on an earthly throne.

According to legend, Fu Xi had a miraculous conception. In a mythical earthly paradise called Huaxu, a maiden stepped in the giant footprint of the thunder god who lived in Thunder Marsh, then saw a shooting star. She became pregnant and later gave birth to Fu Xi.

Fu Xi became a great tribal ruler and inventor. He discovered how to domesticate wild animals, herd livestock, breed silkworms, hunt wild game, fish for food, cook food over fire, and smelt iron. He invented fishing nets after observing spiders and a knotted cord for measuring distance and computing time. The emperor also established China’s first social and political systems. He set up imperial government, different ranks within a state, and a social order using clan names for taxation. He is said to have created the one hundred Chinese family names. Furthermore, Fu Xi established marriage laws, such as the decree that two people must have different family names in order to get married.

During the Han Dynasty, Fu Xi was paired with the popular, mythical creation goddess, Nu Wa (also Nü-kua, Nu Kwa, and Nuwa). Before the Han Dynasty, Nu Wa was a major, independent deity. She was named Jiu Tian Xuannu, the Dark Lady of the Ninth Heaven, before she descended to earth. According to Daoist canon, she created humanity from yellow earth and mud, and she later saved humankind after a disaster.

Han Dynasty pictorial representations of Fu Xi and Nu Wa show the divine couple with human heads and upper torsos and dragon or serpentine lower bodies. They are linked together by intertwined dragon tails. He holds a carpenter’s square, representing earth, and she carries compasses, symbolizing sky, so that together they represent order and proper conduct. Early murals from the Eastern Han show a child between them.

According to Du yi zhi (ninth century c.e.; records of strange events) by Li Rong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 c.e.), Fu Xi and Nu Wa were brother and sister, living on Mount Kunlun. Because a devastating flood had destroyed humanity, there were no other people in the world. They wanted to become husband and wife but were ashamed. Therefore, they prayed and asked for a sign from heaven: If all the misty vapor or clouds gathered, they would become husband and wife. The vapor gathered, so they united in a yin-yang (male-female) relationship and created a new race of people. A variation on this is a myth from the southern Yao and Miao peoples. In this story, Fu Xi and Nu Wa are peasant siblings who stayed inside a giant calabash fruit and thus survived a great flood that had drowned everyone else on earth.

Fu Xi is said to have developed the eight trigrams (bagua), which were the origin of Chinese writing or calligraphy. His trigrams became the basis of the early Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), possibly the most significant ancient Chinese classic that has survived. Fu Xi’s discovery of the eight trigrams is documented in the “Great Treatise,” which was originally oral instructions developed during the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.) on how to use the Yijing and later appended to the work itself. According to the treatise, Fu Xi was standing on the banks of the Yellow River when a dragon-horse (a creature with a dragon’s head and a horse’s body) suddenly emerged from the water. In another version, the river creature is a tortoise, which was a sacred creature known for its longevity. This dragon steed or tortoise had a series of symbols or markings on its back that formed a meaningful pattern. Fu Xi drew the markings in the sand and interpreted these symbols as a key to understanding the universal laws of existence. Then he wrote these markings, the eight trigrams, in what later became known as the Yellow River map.

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The eight trigrams were eight groups, each a different combination of three lines, broken and solid, arranged in ranks. These line groupings represented and classified all naturally occurring phenomena: heaven or sky, earth, water, fire (lightning and the sun), mountains, wind and wood, lake, and thunder. Later the trigrams were developed into sixty-four hexagrams (sixty-four six-line symbols). The trigrams became the first part of the Yijing and a system of fortune telling and formed the basis of the Chinese writing system. In Daoist temples, Fu Xi is usually depicted carrying a panel with inscriptions of the eight trigrams. In a Song Dynasty portrait by Ma Lin, he has the long nails typical of scholars, and the eight trigrams are shown on the floor. Looking up at Fu Xi is a tortoise, the animal whose shells were used as oracle bones.

Another essential element in traditional cosmology, feng shui, is said to have developed from Fu Xi’s discoveries. Feng means wind, and shui means water, basic elements of the environment. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, these elements, and indeed all aspects of nature, are held in a complex, subtle, but absolutely symmetrical balance, on which life itself depends. By aligning oneself and one’s environment through careful positioning with regard to these opposing forces, one can promote the flow of energy and therefore maintain health and prosperity. From comprehensive observations of nature, Fu Xi reportedly became aware of the powerful but invisible forces of life. His idea of qi (chi), or flowing energy, and the cosmic yin-yang duality (female-male, dark-light, and so on) are at the core of many traditional Chinese sciences (including medicine), aesthetics, and ritual practices. Because the concepts are ancient enough to have been attributed to Fu Xi, it can be seen that progenitors of the earliest Chinese dynasties were quite sophisticated and had already established a consistent philosophical system that would form the intellectual cornerstone of an entire civilization.

Significance

Fu Xi is one of the most significant mythological and legendary gods or heroes in China. According to the many legends, he was a deity, the first legendary emperor of China, and the brother and husband of Nu Wa. Their union created a new race of humanity. His inventions had an impact in all areas of life. Finally, as a scholar, Fu Xi was the first to observe heavenly and earthly phenomena and conclude that there were universal laws of existence and that everything was composed of qi, or energy. His conclusion that everything was subject to change, to the balance and imbalances of yin and yang forces and to symmetries and reactions, became the basis of major Chinese philosophical and intellectual systems.

Further Reading
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    xlink:type="simple">Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Includes a well-researched discussion of the early sources of information on Fu Xi. Contains a bibliography, illustrations, and glossary.
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    xlink:type="simple">Christie, Anthony. Chinese Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985. Contains many color plates and illustrations, including the famous Song Dynasty portrait of Fu Xi by Ma Lin. Includes information on the Yangshao culture and the association of Fu Xi and Nu Wa.
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    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Roy. The Fu Hsi I Ching. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993. Illustrated, with an analysis of Fu Xi’s original trigrams and the later changes.
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    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Brian. Deities and Demons of the Far East. New York: Metro Books, 1995. Discusses Fu Xi in the context of the Yijing, Nu Wa, and the ten legendary rulers. Illustrated, with a bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ke, Yuan. Dragons and Dynasties. Selected and translated by Kim Echlin and Nie Zhixiong. New York: Penguin, 1993. Illustrated. Describes Fu Xi in a story about creation.
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    xlink:type="simple">MacKenzie, Donald A. China and Japan: Myths and Legends. London: Studio Editions, 1994. Discusses Fu Xi’s accomplishments and the Daoists’ view of Fu Xi.
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    xlink:type="simple">Stevens, Keith G. Chinese Mythological Gods. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001. Discusses Fu Xi and other mythical founders and legendary gods and heroes. Includes color photos, chronology, and bibliography.

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