Zhu Rong, Fire God


Credit: Philg88. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The atheists in Wisconsin think that Zhu Rong is a “dead god.” I decided to do some research and find out more about Zhu Rong. It turns out that Zhu Rong was worshiped in the ancient State of Chu as progenitor of the royal line. In the introduction to his 1985 book The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets, Oxford Chinese Professor David Hawkes examines the importance of Zhu Rong in Chu. The famous Chu poet Qu Yuan, incidentally, is associated in popular tradition with the Duanwu or Dragon Boat Festival.

First, some context: the State of Chu lay outside of the “southern limits of the old Shang and Zhou empires” during the time period known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which culminated in the appropriately-named Warring States Period. The State of Chu was “powerful enough to meddle with its Northern neighbours by the beginning of the sixth century B.C. and at the peak of its greatness in the fourth century B.C.” (17).

There were other southern kingdoms, of course, but by the time that Qin unified China, Chu had annexed the rest:

Chu was […] the sole Southern rival of Qin when Qin embarked on the policy of subversion and military conquest which culminated in […] the bestowal of its name on the empire it had thus created. The name survives to this day in our ‘China’, which is no more than a mispronunciation of ‘Qin’. (17)

Yet in a sense the ultimate victory was Chu’s. It was men of Chu who played a major part, as prophecy had said they would, in overthrowing the Qin empire*, and it was Chu poets and craftsmen who provided the new Han era with its art and letters when Qin was no more than a hated memory of harsh oppression and cruel, tyrannical laws. (18)

*’As long as three Chu households remain, Chu will be Qin’s undoing’. The prophecy, which became proverbial, was made during the period of national outrage following King Huai of Chu’s death in captivity in Qin in 296 B.C.

So if Chu is considered a “Southern kingdom,” what exactly does the division between Southern and Northern China entail? That topic could fill books, but let’s just start with the difference in agricultural practices. Hawkes quotes the historian Ban Gu, who wrote during the 1st century CE:

Watered by the Yangtze and the Han, Chu is a land of lakes and rivers, of well-forested mountains and of the wide lowlands of Jiangnan, where burning and flooding make the labours of ploughing and hoeing superfluous […] there is always enough to eat […] They believe in the power of shamans and spirits and are much addicted to lewd religious rites. (18)

Slash and Burn Agriculture, India. Credit: Prashanthns.

Slash-and-burn agriculture, India. Credit: Prashanthns.

Hawkes notes that slash-and-burn agriculture was still being practiced in rural areas in the 9th century CE when “observers from the metropolitan area visited” (18). Here, he speculates on a connection between Zhu Rong and that unique form of agriculture:

It is interesting to note that the kings of Chu and most of the Chu aristocracy traced their lineage from a fire god called Zhu Rong whom one ancient authority identified with Curly Sprout, the green god of springtime who pushed the green shoots up through the fertile, fire-blackened fields. To Northerners, whose ancestor was King Millet [Hou ji] and who cultivated the loess soil with ploughs, the connection between fire and agriculture would have been incomprehensible. (18-9)

Hawkes elaborates on Ban Gu’s mention of the indigenous religions of Chu-ruled areas, and discusses how imperial officials in the Tang Dynasty attempted to suppress them:

As for the men of Chu’s superstitious belief in spirits, their addiction to shamanism and fondness for ‘lewd rites’, these were already notorious when the Chu Ci poems were being written and remained so for centuries afterwards. Suppression of shamans and destruction of their holy places were part of the ‘civilizing’ policy vigorously prosecuted by Confucian administrators in this area in the early years of the Tang dynasty. To judge from the numerous poetical accounts of shaman shrines and shaman ceremonies dating from the eighth and ninth centuries, it did not look as if they were altogether successful.

Hawkes says that these kind of belief systems were the “Old Religion” of the entirety of China, not just of the South:

The impression given by Confucian historians that the shamanism of Chu was an outlandish regional aberration is misleading. Shamanism was the Old Religion of China, dethroned when Confucianism became a state orthodoxy and driven into the countryside, where it fared much as paganism did in Christian Europe […]

Under Shang kings shamans were sometimes great officers of state. Zhou society was more secular and its religious impulses more restrained. To give only two examples of this: human and even animal sacrifices on a scale that was common throughout the Shang dynasty were quite unknown under the Zhou; and divination seems to have played nothing like as important a part in the day-to-day running of affairs as it manifestly did under the Shang. (19)

Considering that lengthy papers have been written on sacral kingship during the Zhou Dynasty, that Hawkes sees the Zhou Dynasty as “more secular” than the Shang says something about the religiosity of the Shang!

Shang Dynasty oracle bone. Credit: BabelStone.

Shang Dynasty oracle bone. Credit: BabelStone.

Hawkes reiterates the connection he sees between Chu and Northern China, and its implications if true:

Far from being a ‘foreign’ culture from the South as European sinologists used sometimes to imagine, Chu was much more likely an offshoot of a Northern culture which, with the conservatism commonly found in colonial societies, had retained some of its ancient features long after the metropolitan culture had discarded them. It is for this reason that we are, I think, justified in looking for the ancient sources of Chinese poetry as much in the poems Chu ci as in the songs of the very much earlier Shi jing. (19-20)

Among the evidence he cites for that belief is the very claim of descent from Zhu Rong that I am interested in!

The Chu royal surname was Mi, and Shang oracle bone inscriptions mention campaigns against a rebellious tributary people called Mi on the souther or southwestern borders of the Shang empire – a people who have plausibly been identified with the ancestors of the ruling class of Chi.

According to tradition this Mi clan to which the kings of Chu belonged was one of eight clans called the Eight Lineages of Zhu Rong. Both the Zhou aristocracy and their Southern neighbours believed that before the Shang kings there had been a Xia empire founded by a semi-divine being called Yu who, by indefatigable travelling and heroic feats of engineering, controlled a great flood and created the Chinese landscape as it is today. (20)

He compares Zhu Rong to the royal ancestors of other Dynasties:

King Millet, the First Ancestor of the Zhou kings, the Shang First Ancestor, Xie, and Zhu Rong, the fire god from whom the kings and nobles of Chu were descended, were all great contemporaries of Yu in the sense that they all belonged to the same timeless period in which everyone’s genealogy began.

Yu’s father, Gun, seems originally to have been a water god, and in one version of the flood myth it was Zhu Rong the fire god who ‘killed’ Gun (being a demigod he did not really die but merely changed his shape). Gun and Zhu Rong were both sons of the sky god Gao Yang, from whom the kings of Qin also were descended. […]

Whether or not these latter-day interpretations are to be believed, it is a fact that the Chu aristocracy were extremely tenacious of what they believed to be their Xia connection. (21)

Then, after examining Zhu Rong’s possible connection to agriculture and the royal family, Hawkes explores the possibility of a connection to pottery:

The most characteristic pottery form found among the remains of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze cultures in North China is a curious hollow-legged tripod called a li which looks rather like three conical pots that have fused together. Now, it so happens that the names of the fire god Zhu Rong, who was the First Ancestor of the Chu kings, and of the early king Yu Xiong, who in the royal ancestral cult of Chu was an object of almost equal veneration, are both written with characters which include the symbol for li – an easily recognizable representation of the vessel.

The same symbol is found in the name of one of the Eight Lineages of Zhu Rong. The ‘Book of Seas and Mountains’ […] contains a quaint genealogy which makes Zhu Rong the son of Play-with-Pots and the grandfather of Skilful Pot, ‘whose head had a square top to it’. It is as if the write had wished to give allegorical expression to the important part played by firing in the evolution of a new and sophisticated kind of pottery.

When we are told elsewhere in the same book that God sent down the fire god Zhu Rong to punish the water god Gun for stealing his magic earth to soak up the flood-water with, we can perhaps detect another allegory of the part that fire plays in the manufacture of pottery. (23)

Finally, in his glossary, Hawkes mentions that Zhu Rong is sometimes associated with “the guardian spirit of the south, whose theriomorphic avatar was the Scarlet Bird” (343).

Zhu Rong blocking the way in the poem

Zhu Rong blocking the way in the poem, artist: Bai Yunli.

Finally, Iðasfóstri of Caught in Loki’s Harrow and the Madison, WI Sigewif Kindred has put out a request for prayers to any of the gods “buried” in the atheists’ so-called “god graveyard:”

We will be hosting, in the nebulous near-future, a prayer and offering ritual for the 200 gods “buried”, as well. If anyone reading this would like to send in a prayer to be read, to any of the gods you happen to be close to, please do!

I could only find one mention of Zhu Rong within the poems of the Songs of the South (Chu Ci). It is in the poem “Yuan You,” or “Far-off Journey,” which describes a Daoist metaphysical journey in the company of numerous Gods. The poem is traditionally attributed to Qu Yuan, but David Hawkes believes that it was actually composed at a later date.

At any rate, if that wasn’t complicated enough, I have before me two different translations of the poem. There is a tricky bit of interpretation here: Zhu Rong’s name is explicitly mentioned, but so is an entity called the “Fiery God” (Yán Shen, 炎 神). It is not clear whether the “Fiery God” is a title of Zhu Rong’s, or another entity. In his/her translation Elegies of the South (published in 2009), Professor Xu Yuanchong of Peking University simply conflates both of them as “Fiery God,” suggesting that they are one and the same.

Anyways, here are the two translations. First, Hawkes’s:

Pointing to the Fiery God, I made a straight line towards him:I wished to journey onwards to the world’s southern shore.
I gazed into the emptiness there, beyond the world’s end;
Then onwards still I floated, over that watery vastness.

But Zhu Rong stood in my way, warning me to turn back.
I sent word by the phoenix to invite the lady Fu Fei.
I made the Xiang goddesses play on their zithers,
And I bade the Sea God dance with the River God. (198)

And now, Professor Xu Yuanchong’s translation:

To Fiery God I gallop straight, oh!
Then to Mount Mysteries of Southern State.
I see the wilds beyond the main, oh!
I float over the watery plain.

The Fiery God warns me not to go, oh!
I send for the Goddess of River Luo.
She plays music to Cloud and Lake, oh!
Two princesses sing the nine songs they make. (211)

As you can see, Xu Yuanchong’s translation is in rhyme. In the introduction to Elegies of the South, Xu explains: “[Hawkes’s] version is perhaps more accurate than others, but […] it is as void of literary merit as other prosaic translations […] Therefore, I offer this rhymed version, which I hope will bring out the original beauty in sense, in sound and in form” (32).

The accuracy of Hawkes’s translation is nice for understanding what is actually happening, but it is possible that Xu’s is easier to speak aloud. I’ll leave it up to you and your Kindred, Idasfostri, which version you think is better suited for your ritual.


3 responses to “Zhu Rong, Fire God

  • Iðasfóstri

    Thank you for this.

    I … ugh, the conversation around this event is so messy, I don’t know how to move forward. I feel like yes, sure, gods “die” in a sense – records lost to time, cults so local they /can’t/ be rejuvenated, the natural ebb and flow of cultures… but ugh I don’t know. I don’t know how a group of people can just flat out refuse to empathize with the lives and convictions of others, whether they’re from the past or in not.)

    (the part that gets me mad is how the display seemed to flaunt the fact that the group hasn’t done a thing themselves, as a political or activist group, worth showing off. They didn’t get on my radar for opposing Christian definitions of marriage, or using places of worship as polling places, or the Christian understanding of the universe that drives mining and animal harvesting in this region… it was this smug superior “we’re so awesome you’re so dumb” stuff. I’m on exactly the same side as Atheists on pretty much every “religion leaking into legal/civic matters”/”religion being forced on people” issue. Thanks for no help, guys. D:<)

  • Iðasfóstri

    Posting here to avoid getting dogpiled by belligerent atheists on the original post – if you’d like to spread the word, the ritual will be November 30 at noon central time, on Bascom Hill. 🙂
    ( https://www.facebook.com/events/176830102515377/ )

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