Episode 14: The Eternal Work

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In our third episodes, we talked about stories of chasing the sun in Chinese mythology. There are kind of a lot of these stories that human try to fight against the nature and I always love them. Nature and man are in harmony and can be in conflicts making the stories so fascinating. Today we are talking about the stories of filling up the sea and removing the mountains. The stories are simple and literal as the titles. But I never get tired of hearing them again and again since I was a kid.

In the book Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, the chapter BeiCiSanJing北次三经, it says on the Mountain Fajiu发鸠山, there are many mulberry trees. There is a bird dwelling like a crow with a patterned head, white beak and red feet. Her name is Jingwei精卫 and her sound is like its name. She is the daughter of Yan Emperor 炎帝, who was a legendary ancient Chinese ruler in the pre-dynastic times. Her name was Nvwa女娃. I know the name sounds like the goddess who created the world. But they are different people and the goddess’s name is 女娲 and this bird name was 女娃. Anyways, Nvwa was swimming in the East Sea 东海, and drowned one day. She transformed in the the bird after the death. She never stops carrying wigs and stones from the West Mountain 西山 to fill up the East Sea. In the book ShuYiJi 述异记, it says Jingwei met HaiYan海燕, another bird, and they had babies. The girls looked like Jingwei and the boys looked like HaiYan. Their children keep filling up the sea like their parents. Jingwei never drank water from the stream where she drowned. Today we use the idiom “ Jingwei tries to fill the sea” 精卫 填海to describe people get revenge or do things in general with determination. When facing the natural disasters in the ancient time, people would imagine the spirits after death could still fulfill our hope or desire. Nevertheless, it is kind of a good way to get over the tragedies we suffer in this world. How long is eternity? It is when a bird flys past a mountain and flaps its wings against the granite and flakes spikes off, which happens every one thousand years. Once the mountain has been worn down completely, that would be the first day of eternity. Some researchers say this is a story about growth and feminism. Before drowning, Nvwa was the little daughter of the emperor and had a happy and naive life. After the death, she became the bird spirit JingWei, who tries to fill up the sea to prevent other tragedies from happening. The physical body deceased with the rebirth of new power.


If this story is about a girl conducting something epic, the next story is about an 90-year old man doing something equally epic. In the book LieZi列子, a Taoist text compiled around the 4th century CE, in the chapter Tangwen汤问, it says, the two mountains, Mountain Taihang太行山 and Mountain Wangwo王屋山 , covered an area of seven hundred square miles, and the height was around 7000~ 8000 zhang. Zhang is a unit of height in ancient China. One zhang is around 30cm or one foot. So 7000 zhang is around 2133 meter. The mountains originally located in the south of Jizhou冀州, north of the northern shore of the Yellow River 黄河. At foot of the north mountain, there lived a man called Yugong愚公. Yu means foolish and gong means man, so that’s making his name a foolish man. There must be a reason for the name right? He lived right facing the two mountains. Every time he wanted to go out, he had to suffer the long route of going around the mountains. What would you do in this kind of situation? Most people probably choose to move home. He had a meeting with all his families and discussed,” How about we tried to dig the mountains and build a road leading to the south of Yuzhou豫州 and reaching the southern shore of Hanshui汉水.” Everybody agreed (? wow) but his wife, who put forward the doubt and said, “with your strength, you are not able to dig the small hill named Kuifu魁夫, not to mention the mountains Taihang and Wangwo. And also where are you going to put away the soil and rocks from the mountains?” Other people said they could dump the soil and rocks next to Sea Bo 渤海, north of Yintu隠土. So Yugong brought his sons and grandsons went to the mountains with tools. They digged and moved soil and rocks next to the sea. Even the 7 year old orphan from the neighborhood came to help. They only returned home once a year. A smart guy living in Hequ河曲 laughed at Yugong and said, “ it is not very smart of you. During the time left in your life, you wouldn’t be able to move even a grass with your strength, not to say the soil and rocks.” Yugong sighed and said, “ you are so stubborn. You can’t even be compared to the orphan. Even I die, I have my sons. My sons have their sons. Their sons have their sons. Sons after sons, generations after generations. There will be endless generations, however, the mountains never grow. Why do we be worried?” He really thought through the project. The smart guy didn’t know how to reply. What’s the end of this story? Since this is a myth, in the end, the god who holds the snake heard about it and told the emperor in the heaven. Of course, the emperor was moved and let KuaeShi夸娥氏, a strong god’s two sons to remove the mountains to two different places Shuodong朔东 and Yongzhou雍州. From then on, there weren’t any obstacles between the south of Jizhou and the southern shore of Hanshui. When I was a kid I was confused about the name Yugong, the foolish man. Is he really a foolish old man? Is other person who stopped him really a smart man? For me, I still don’t know. I definitely don’t encourage everybody to remove the mountains. However, Yonggong is a person I truly admire like any people today who does small contributions every day. Today there are still a lot of “Yugong” doing small amount work every day to accomplish an impossible project.


Don’t you think these two stories are kind of like the Greek myth about Sisyphus but with a positive attitude? The punishment he suffers was to roll an immense boulder up a hill and it came back to hit him. This goes on for eternity. The difference is Jingwei and Yugong had the desire and hope for their lifelong mission.


山海经 Classic of Mountains and Seas- – 北次三经BeiCiSanJing

精卫 Jingwei

列子 LieZi– 汤问Tangwen

述异记 ShuYiJi



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