Episode 5: River Sacrifice

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Before Chinese people knew too much about nature or science, they had a lot of imagination that there were always some gods or ghosts in charge of the nature like the seas, mountains and forests. Hebo河伯, Lord of the River. means rivers andis an honorific title of a male adult. In a lot of early Chinese myths, the river is referred to Yellow River 黄河, the main river of Northern China, a river which has nourished the earliest civilization as well as caused the greatest sorrow by overflowing the banks. Hebo is a personification of the character of the river. Later, he is considered as the general Lord of the River and is worshipped other places of China. Hebo’s original names are BingYi冰夷,FengYi冯夷,WuYi无夷. In the book ShanHaiJing山海经, which we mentioned before. Hebo has a human face with a fish body like a siren or merman. It says in the book ChuCi楚辞, a man called FengYi冯夷drowned when he crossed the river and became the lord. I don’t know how it worked that getting drowned made him into the lord of river?!


Like I said, Hebo is like the river, not always nice. When the Yellow River was flooding, people thought Hebo got angry and fericous. How to prevent him from getting raged? Sacrifice young beautiful girls to Hebo. Sounds extremely ridiculous today right? Historians even found the word HeQie河妾, which means River’s concubines even on BoCi卜辞, which are bones or turtle shells witches used for divination around the year 1600 BC ~1000 BC. This bad custom at least had been around for hundreds of years.

There is an interesting story about this bad custom in the history. There was a county executive called XimenBao西门豹, from Warring States period 战国时期, which was around 400 BC ~200 BC. He was very earnest with his work and cared about his people’s lives. During his inspection, he discovered this bad custom in his region that every year of raining season, when the river overflowing caused tragedies, witches told officials and the locals that if Hebo had a wife every year, he would be happy and stop flooding. People were crowded on the day of the sacrifice. XimenBao saw the girl who would be the bride of Hebo crying and he told the witches that this girl was not pretty enough. Please tell Hebo they would find a more suitable girl to him. When he finished, his assistants threw the witches into the river in order to tell Hebo they needed some time. After a while, since the witches didn’t come back from the river, he said “why did it take so long?” So the witches’ followers were thrown into the river in order to check on the witches. Officials plead for their life after seeing this. The girl was saved and the witches paid for what they deserved. Since then, nobody ever mentioned this custom in that county.



河伯 Hebo

山海经Classic of mountains and seas

黄河 Yellow River

楚辞 ChuCi

卜辞 BoCi

西门豹 XimenBao

战国时期 Warring States period

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