Yu Shi: The Chinese God of Rain
In the legends of Chinese folklore, Yu Shi is a god of rain. He carries an earthenware jug that he spills over the land.
In contrast to many other Chinese deities, however, Yu Shi does not have the figure of a noble or virtuous man. Instead, he is animal-like and has snakes sprouting from his body.
This is one of many clues that show that Yu Shi is a primal god that likely predates Taoism in China. His story, too, shows that he is not associated with that philosophy.
While Yu Shi is recognized by many Taoists and followers of China’s other synchronist beliefs, he is not closely associated with China’s majority culture. Instead, he is a god who is most widely worshipped by ethnic minorities in modern China.
The stories associated with Yu Shi may offer a glimpse into the ancient history of these ethnic groups and their clashes with China’s majority population.
Yu Shi is a god who appears in Chinese folk religion.
He is usually depicted with a black face. In some illustrations, his body is similar to that of a dragon, while others show him as an animalistic, monkey-like figure.
Yu Shi is often associated with snakes, as well. He frequently has two snakes clutched in his hands and, at times, a snake coming out of each of his ears, as well.
In most stories, Yu Shi carries an earthenware vessel, usually interpreted as a jug, full of water. When he splashes even a single drop out of this jug rain falls from the sky.
Yu Shi is closely connected to another god called Chisongzi, or Chi Songzi. In some cases this is a separate deity who appears to be closely related, but in other cases it seems clear that Chi Songzi and Yu Shi are the same being under different names.
In some regions, Chi Songzi’s concubine takes the form traditionally associated with Yu Shi, with a red snake coming out of one of her ears and a black snake coming out of the other. In these representations, Chi Songzi himself is just a chrysalis.
Yu Shi is also closely connected to Feng Bo, also known as Feng Shi or Feng Popo, the god of the western wind. When the two appear together, they bring strong storms instead of gentle rains or winds.
They did so in Yu Shi’s most famous legend. According to an ancient story, they two joined forces to defeat Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor.
According to the Han Feizi, a philosophical and political text from the middle of the 3rd century BC, Chi You was a tribal king who lived during the ancient period of the Five Emperors. He led the Nine Li tribes against the Yellow Emperor in a war that lasted for ten years.
During the Battle of Zhuolo, Chi You summoned a thick yellow fog that obscured the battlefield. The Yellow Emperor’s forces grew lost and confused in the miasma and were nearly defeated.
The Emperor, however, created a chariot that always pointed to the south. He was able to find his way out of the fog and rejoin the fight.
With the Yellow Emperor recovering, Chi You prayed for divine assistance. Yu Shi and Feng Bo heard his prayer and sent a heavy storm.
Yu Shi appeared over the battlefield and tipped his jug, sending a torrential downpour that fell directly on the Emperor’s army.
Huangdi then called on his daughter Ba, who is also known as Nuba or Hanba. She was a drought demon.
Ba used her powers to dry the land and blow away the rain clouds that Yu Shi and Feng Bo had summoned. Chi You’s forces were soon defeated and he was killed.
Chi You became a war god and some people, including the Hmong, other Miao groups, and some Koreans, considered him their ancestor. The Yellow Emperor centralized power and became the founder of the Huaxia, the culture of the Han people.
The period of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors was traditionally considered historical, but today the events recorded are recognized as mythology. The story of the Yellow Emperor’s rise to power and the role Yu Shi played in the battle, however, may contain some grains of historical fact.
The Yellow Emperor was said to have been the forefather of the Huaxia. This was not a specific tribe, but the concept of Chinese culture itself.
Hauxia refers specifically to a confederation of tribes that lived along the Yellow River before the Qin Dynasty was founded in the 3rd century BC. They were the ancestors of the Han, the ethnic majority of China.
To the Han, the Huaxia is representative of both their culture and the nation. The shared culture of the Huaxia was the foundation for civilization and, ultimately, the growth of centralized power.
The idea of the Huaxia as a shared cultural identity became popular in the Warring States Period, which lasted from the mid-5th century BC until the Qin conquest in 221 BC. This was also when unifying characters like the Yellow Emperor grew in prominence.
Both the Yellow Emperor and the local kings associated with him were credited with developing agriculture and creating the bureaucratic style of rule that became a hallmark of Han culture. They were contrasted with figures like Chi You, who represented the tribal civilizations that were not part of the Huaxia.
One of the other major developments to come from pre-Qin China was a more unified and codified system of religion.
Taoism came into prominence in the 4th century BC, at the same time as the cult of the Yellow Emperor and the emphasis on the Huaxia. It was another force that unified the Chinese people.
Taoism is a philosophy that incorporated, rather than displaced, the animistic gods and cultural heroes of earlier cultures. The people of the Huaxia, therefore, still shared gods with their non-Han neighbors but sometimes saw them in different ways.
It seems likely that Yu Shi was one of the animistic gods who predated the Warring States period and was incorporated into Taoism as an enemy of the Huaxia.
His appearance certainly differs from the more human and regal figures that the Han associated with their own cultural identity. In contrast with many of the more prominent Taoist deities, he appears bestial and wild.
This is often an indication that a deity predated Taoism and the belief in deified mortals. He is not portrayed as a symbol of virtue, but as a more primal force that would have been revered in ancient history.
Although he is a god of rain, which would be an important role in the agricultural communities of the Huaxia, he sided against the Yellow Emperor. Ba, who would typically be considered a danger to farming people, defeated him.
A likely explanation is that Yu Shi, in the form he was remembered in at least, was not a god of the Han. While he was incorporated into their folk religion, he was a more important deity to one of the non-Han groups of China.
Which group originally worshipped Yu Shi, however, remains unclear.
Today the Miao, a minority ethnic group that includes the Hmong, often claim Chi You as their ancestor. While most Miao live in the mountains of southwest China, they believe that their ancestors once controlled parts of the river valleys that are home to the Han.
While this is not directly attested to in ancient sources, it does fit the myth that the remains of Chi You’s tribe was pushed off their lands by the Yellow Emperor and lived in the mountains, away from the Huaxia.
Archaeology also seems to back up the theory that the Miao once lived in the river valleys of China. Some archaeologists believe that Neolithic sites along the Yangtze River are more closely connected to traditional Miao artefacts than those of the Huaxia.
The figures associated with Chi You in the legend are also more closely linked to Miao cultures today. Yu Shi’s cult is very limited in most of China but is more prominent among the Hmong and related groups.
The story of Yu Shi and his support of Chi You may, therefore, be rooted in ancient history.
A possible origin for the myth could be that Yu Shi was a major rain god in one of the tribal groups of the region in ancient history. As the Han gained power, these people were defeated and pushed back into the mountains.
Yu Shi, however, was partially adopted by the Han and incorporated into their folk religion. By the time of the Warring States Period, he was still seen as potentially helpful for bringing rain, but remained more closely associated with the tribal groups that had been defeated by the Huaxia.
Yu Shi is a rain god in Chinese folklore. While recognized by many groups, he is most widely worshipped by ethnic minorities, including the Miao.
Most images show him as an animalistic, occasionally dragon-like, god. He is often shown with inhuman features including snakes growing from his ears.
Yu Shi is said to carry a jug of water that causes rain. He often joins with a god of wind to create storms.
Yu Shi is most well-known in the legend of how the Yellow Emperor defeated Chi You, a tribal leader. Although Yu Shi assisted Chi You to disable the Emperor’s army, he was driven away by the drought goddess and the tribes were defeated.
While this story is legendary, there may be some basis in history.
Chi You and Yu Shi are both most closely associated with China’s ethnic minorities. The Miao, in particular, claim Chi You as their cultural ancestor.
The story of Chi You’s battle against the Yellow Emperor may be an allegory for how some of these ethnic groups were marginalized by the Huaxia, the culture of the Han majority. Yu Shi, it would appear, was an ancient animist deity of those groups rather than the Han.