According to The Lunar Tao, today is the birthday of the Chinese Sun God, Taiyang Xingjun (太阳星君). Incidentally, “taiyang” is the Chinese word for sun; the “yang” (阳) part of it is the same as the well known “yin and yang,” and “tai” (太) means “supreme.”
Deng Ming-Dao writes: “The Sun God […] can be greeted at dawn with incense and ceremony wherever one happens to be, but a grand ceremony is also held on this day in his temple” (94). While his worship is clearly established, I don’t know a whole lot else about him.
I do know some stories about the sun that may or may not have anything to do with Taiyang Xingjun. In the Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Yang Lihui and An Deming describe an ancient association in Chinese culture between the sun and the crow:
The crow of the sun functions as the spirit of the sun or, in some versions, the bearer of the sun across the sky. […] It seems that the crows in the suns, which function as the suns’ spirits, are in some degree different from those who are the bearers of the suns, whose main function is to carry each sun across the sky while they are on duty. (95-6)
Don’t confuse the sun-crow(s) with ordinary crows though:
In some versions, especially in some texts during and after the Han dynasty, the crow of the sun is sometimes said to be three-legged. For example, both Huainanzi and Lunheng mention that there was a three legged crow in the sun (the texts could also be interpreted with a plural reading that there were three-legged crows in the suns).
There is an interesting story about the three-legged crow and its antics:
Another version recorded during the Six Dynasties era stated that two sorts of mythical grasses of immortality grew in the northeast and southwest […] The three-legged crow like eating these grasses very much. It descended from heaven to the earth several times in order to eat them. But Xihe, the mother of the ten suns, did not like it to do so. She wanted to control the crow, so she covered its eyes with her hands to stop it from flying down. (Yang and An, 96)
Xihe, Mother of the Suns
Xihe (羲和) is an important figure in any story about the suns, because she is their mother:
In myths in the Chinese language, the sun is commonly said to have been born by its mother Xihe and father Di Jun. However, similar to the myth of Changxi, who is the mother of the twelve moons and another wife of Di Jun, the Xihe myth is quite sparse in Chinese mythology texts in spite of Xihe’s high status.
Her accomplishment can mainly be found in the Shanhaijing. A text from that book (chapter 15) states that beyond the east sea in the Gan River area was the Xihe kingdom. A lady named Xihe, wife of Di Jun, gave birth to ten suns. She was bathing the ten suns in the Gan Gulf. (Yang and An 215)
The ten suns required a precise system for division of labor. One version includes their mother as a solar charioteer (an image found in various cultures):
Another text from the same book further describes how the ten suns work. The ten suns lived on the Fusang tree, which grew in the water of the Tang Valley. The ten suns stayed in the Fusang tree and bathed in the water there. Nine of the suns stayed on the tree’s lower branches while the one that was going to rise stayed on its top branch.
The ten suns rose from the Fusang tree one by one. As soon as one sun returned from crossing the sky, another sun went up. Each sun was carried by a crow (chapter 14). In another version in that book, Xihe is portrayed as the driver who steered a cart pulled by six dragons and sent her children out into the sky. (Yang and An 215-6)
Yang and An elaborate on the repeated references to Xihe bathing her children:
As in the Changxi myth about her bathing the twelve moons, the reason Xihe bathed the suns is unclear in these texts. Some myths spread in the Miao, Buyi, and Yi ethnic groups explain that the sun and the moon need to be washed in order to cleanse them from the dust they accumulate during their work to make them bright again. These versions may provide some help in understanding the myths about bathing the suns and the moons told among Han people. (216)
They also add that “Xihe is variously said to be the official who takes charge of the seasons and calendar. Xihe’s gender seems vague in this case” (216). While not terribly specific, this association does make sense, since the seasons and the farming calendar are based on the sun (though the festival calendar is lunar).
As stated above, there is not a lot of information even within the mythology about Xihe. I haven’t found anything saying whether or not she was worshiped in the past, though the statue in Hangzhou pictured above shows that she is still remembered and honored as a cultural/mythical figure, at least.
From Ten to One
The big story about the ten suns is that there are no longer ten of them. The basic story goes like this:
[…] the ten suns somehow rose up together and thus brought great disaster to the world. The hero who showed up at this time and cleared up the disaster is Yi. The early poem “Tianwen” clearly mentions Yi’s story by asking: “Why did Yi shoot down the suns? Why did the crows shed their feathers?”
Wang Yi (ca. Second century CE), the commentator of “Tianwen,” cites a paragraph from Huainanzi to explain these questions, stating that at the time of the sage king Yao, the ten suns rose together and burned up the woods and greass. Yao then ordered the hero Yi to shoot down the ten suns in the sky, and Yi shot down nine of them. The nine crows settling on these suns died, and their feathers fell out. (231)
However, there are elaborations on the story, some of them modern. A quick note on one of the main characters:
In many versions, especially in many living myths today, Yi is often identified as Houyi. Some scholars argue that […] Yi and Houyi are actually the same person […] Others believe that the two are originally two separate great archers but are confused in later traditions (232)
This story explains why roosters crow at dawn:
A myth collected in the 1980s in Ba County, Chongqing Municipality, formerly Sichuan Province, states that [after Yi shot down the nine suns] The last sun was so scared that it ran away and hid. The world was then cast into a long night. Humans could not live in this environment either, so they asked Houyi not to shoot the last remaining sun. Though Houyi did not shoot it, the last sun still did not dare to appear. So people shouted to it: “Come out, please!” But the sun did not reveal itself.
The people in turn sent a magpie, a crow, and a night owl to shout to the sun as an invitation, but the sun still did not rise. Finally, the cock sincerely shouted to the sun: “Oh Brother, Brother [pronounced gege in Chinese], come out please!” The sun was touched, so it finally rose. From then on, every morning, the cock shouts to the sun: “Gege, Gege.” Hearing its voice, the sun gradually shows up and brings brightness to the world. (232)
And this one explains why earthworms avoid the sun and why the succulent purslane doesn’t wither in the sun:
In another myth collected in the 1980s in Henan Province, the ten suns are described as the grandsons of the God of Heaven. Every morning they came out together to play, which caused serious calamity: the crops withered and rivers dried up. To banish the disaster, Houyi shot down nine of them. When he was going to shoot the last one, the sun disappeared. The world became so dark that nothing could be seen.
Then an earthworm told Houyi that the sun was hiding in the earth, under a lush purslane. But Houyi could not find it because of the darkness. Later, since humans could not live without the sun, they invited the sun to rise again. When the sun rose up to the sky, to pay a debt of gratitude to the purslane for protecting it from being discovered by Houyi, the sun would never bask the purslane to death. But as soon as the earthworm showed itself, it would be basked to death. (232-3)
In The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China, Sarah Allen theorizes that the story of nine suns being shot down is related to the overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou (a historical moment we read some stories about previously):
My hypothesis is that the Shang had a myth of ten suns and that the Shang ruling group was organized in a totemic relationship to these suns. This myth was specific to the Shang and integrally associated with their rule. When the Zhou, who believed in one sun, conquered the Shang, the myth lost its earlier meaning, and the system its integrity, but the motifs were transformed and continued to occur in other contexts. (25)
Some stories that she fits into her theory include the Shang origin myth and a quote attributed to Confucius:
The myth of the origin of their [the Shang kings’] tribe from the egg of a black bird is a transformation of the myth of the birth of the ten suns which rose from the Mulberry Tree, but the belief in ten suns had been lost.
In the Zhou dynasty, the tradition that there was only one sun was so widely accepted that Mencius quoted Confucius as saying, “Heaven does not have two suns; the people do not have two kings”. (25)
She also discusses possible explanations for the three-legged nature of the sun-crows:
The earliest depiction of a three-legged bird is on neolithic pottery of the Miaodigou (Yangshao) culture in Henan Province […] In Han tomb art, however, sun-birds are depicted with either two legs […] or three […]
Izushi and M. Loewe have related the number of legs of the sun-bird to the development of yin-yang and five element theory in the early Han dynasty in which three was the yang number and so that of the sun. […]
There is another reason for linking the suns with the number three—the ten suns appear three times a month. The ten-day week and thirty-day month were the basic calendric units from Shang times on. (32-3)
Fusang is the name of the world-tree that the sun-crows roost in:
Fusang (literally meaning “Leaning Mulberry”) is a world-tree in the east. […] According to the texts from Shanhaijing […] The tree was very high; its trunk reached 300 li (100 miles) in height, and its leaves were like the leaves of the mustard plant. […]
In some later versions, Fusang is described as a large tree in the east. Its top reached heaven while its trunk curved down and reached the Three Springs of the earth. (Yang and An 117-8)
Alternately, Fusang has also been said to be a mythical landmass that contains Fusang trees:
However, according to the Shizhouji […] Fusang seemed to be not only a kind of tree but also a mythical place that was located in the middle of the Blue Sea. It was thousands of miles of miles in circumference with a palace for an immortal built on it. Fusang trees grew here. Their leaves were like those of the mulberry, and they also produced the same fruit. The biggest one of them was more than 100,000 feet high and 2,000 wei wide (one wei is equal to the diameter of a circle created by a person’s arms).
Since the trees grew in pairs, every pair of the shared the same root and their trunks leaned toward each other; therefore they received the name “Leaning Mulberry.” Though the trees were extremely large, their fruits were rare, because the trees produced fruit only once every 9,000 years. The fruit was red, and it tasted very sweet and savory. When the immortals ate the fruit, their bodies would turn a golden color, and they were able to fly and float in the air. (118)
Another awesome story about chickens/roosters interacting with the crows/suns:
Other legends state that there were Heaven Chickens on the Fusang tree. The chickens nested in the top of the mythical tree and crowed at midnight each night. Every time they crowed, the crows inside the suns followed them. And then all the chickens in the world would follow and crow loudly. (Yang and An 118)