An important treatise on “Archer Yi”, the “ten suns”, “three-legged sun-birds” and Mulberry Tree (World Tree) mythical stories

Sarah Allen’s “The shape of the turtle: myth, art, and cosmos in early China”  is one of the most important or possibly the most important treatise on the “ten suns”, “Archer Yi” and Mulberry Tree (World Tree) mythical legends of East Asia.

In her book, she argues that the crow is the symbol of the Shang kings of the Shang dynasty. The Shang believed that people continued to exist and therefore needed food after death was evident in the pottery vessels filled with grain and buried with the Shang dead. The spirits were important as they related to the living. In Shang times, the ‘high ancestors’ gao zu were distinguished from immediate ancestors.

Her 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 sassociated 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. At the popular level, people continued to believe in ten suns which rose in sequence from the branches of the Mulberry Tree in outlying regions. In the central states, this tradition was known but the ten suns were confined to the mythical past by the story that one day all of them came out at once and nine were shot by Archer Yi. The Shang continued to be associated with many of the motifs of this tradition and the myth of the origin of their 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”. ..

Myth though it was, and although it did not leave any trace upon the history of Chinese astronomy, the belief in ten alternating suns was a strongly competing tradition in ancient China, so much that in the first century A.D. Wang Chong launched a spirited denial of the possibility of ten suns perching on the branches of a tree without burning it to cinders.
Wang Chong’s account is drawn from two earlier texts, the Shanhaijing a corpus of myhtological geographies drawn together in the Han Dynasty from am variety of sources of different date and origin, and the Huainanzi, a syncretic philo text compiled at the court o Liu An, prince of Huaninan ..and presented to Han emperor Wu Di in 139 BC. .. Although this section is no older than the author Qu Yuan who lived in the 3rd century B.C., it draws upon a ore ancient oral tradition.
There appears to be an association between the ten-sun tradition and southern China. It might be argued that this was not a Shang tradition retained in the south during the Zhou, but one which originated in the state of Chu – a number of Shang sites in the Chu region and the connection between Shang and Chu culture has been confirmed by archaeological excavation. The most extensive finds were from Tianhu in Luoshan County, just south of the Huai River in southern Henan Province. well connected to the south. The Zhou ruler claimed this title “wang” or king exclusively for the son of heaven tianzi history, in the Shang Dynasty, the rulers of many states used this title and were recognized by the Shang ruler who was also called king (wang).

The According to the Shuowen the Fu Sang is a “spirit tree”, that from which the sun(s) go out. The mulberry with its red or white berries, depicted in oracle bone script as a tree with many mouths among its branches provides an apt metaphor for this tree on the branches of which many suns perched. Fu is usually interpreted as the name of the mulberry tree and it is simply sometimes called the Fu Tree (Fu mu). The tree is sometimes written with the character whcih means support – the support of the tree for the suns or that two trees supported one another. The Mulberry Tree is a tradition that is consistent in the Shanhaijing, Huainanzi and Chuci.
The most explicit descriptions of the tree are those in Shanhaijing: were branches of the Yellow Springs. The Mencius, Xunzi an d Huainanzi also record the belief that worms “eat soil and drink from the Yellow Springs”. Wang Chong observed in the Lun heng that people do not like to work in mines because they are “next to the Yellow Springs”.
Thus water ran beneath the earth, just as the sky surmounted it. This dualism is sometimes made explicit, as for example , in the Zhuangzi which speaks of “treading the Yellow Springs and clibing to the great sky”. The great flood was a problem of controlling these waters when they threatened to rise up to the sky and the Xia ancestors are regularly associated with the Ru o River, the color yellow, and the netherworld. The oracle bones inscriptions name a number of different springs and even today there are many natural springs bubbling up from the yellow loess in the Anyang region. Thus a belief that water ran everywhere beneath the earth would have been a natural assumption in thsi region. The Ruo Tree in the West was the place where the suns set and entered this watery underworld, that is the Ruo River, or , alternatively, the Yellow Springs, for yellow was the color of earth. Yellow or bright (hunag) and black or dark (xuan) are a natural primitive color system and they are the colors used for the anhimals sacrificed in the oracle bones inscriptions.

These suns, which bathed in a pool of water and dwelt on the branches of the Mulberry Tree, were thought to be birds, as these motifs suggest.

In a passage from the Shanhaijing, the suns were described as being inside the suns: “Inside the suns(s), there are jun raven(s); in the moon(s) toads. Similarly, in Han dynasty tomb art, the sun is frequently depicted with a bird inside it and the moon with a toad or a hard and cassia tree.

Han tomb murals most frequently include one sun and one moon , but there are some egs. in which the Mulberry Tree and its many suns are depicted. One example, is the funerary pendant excavated in 1972…

Mawangdui (Chinese: 馬王堆; pinyin: Mawangdu, lit. “King of Ma’s Mound”) is an archaeological site located in Changsha, China. The site consists of two saddle-shaped hills and contained the tombs of three people from the western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE). The tombs belonged to the first Marquis of Dai, his wife, and a male who is believed to be their son. Western Han painting on silk was found draped over the coffin in the grave of Lady Dai (c. 168 BC) at Mawangdui near Changsha in Hunan province.

The T-shaped silk funeral banner in the tomb of the Marquise (tomb no. 1) is called the “name banner” with the written name of the deceased replaced with their portrait. We know the name because the tomb’s original inventory is still intact, and this is what it is called on the inventory. The Marquise was buried in four coffins, the silk banner drapes the innermost of the coffins.[1]

On the T-shaped painted silk garment, the uppermost horizontal section of the T represents heaven. The bottom of the vertical section of the T represents the underworld. The middle (the top of the vertical) represents earth. In heaven we can see Chinese deities such as Nuwa and Chang’e, as well as Daoist symbols such as cranes (representing immortality). Between heaven and earth we can see heavenly messengers sent to bring Lady Dai to heaven. Underneath this are Lady Dai’s family offering sacrifices to help her journey to heaven. Underneath them is the underworld – two giant sea serpents intertwined.

Han tomb murals most frequently include one sun and one moon, but there are some examples in which the Mulberry Tree and its many suns are depicted. One example is the funerary pendant excavated in 1972 from the Han tomb number one at Mawangdui, near Changsha in Hunan Province–formerly within the boundaries of the state of Chu. The tomb dates to the early Western Han Dynasty. Here, nine suns are depicted on the branches of a tree, the twisting trunk of which is consistent with the form of a mulberry. Eight of the suns are simple orange discs but that at the top of the tree in the left-hand corner of the pendant contains a black bird, possibly a raven, standing on two legs. A moon in the opposite corner contains a toad. The absence of tenth sun has caused puzzlement, but since this is a depiction of the deceased journeying to the world of the dead, I suspect the tenth sun is travelling across the sky of the human world above.

In Han mural art, the Mulberry Tree is most often depicted as part of a scene which includes Archer Yi about to shoot at the sun-birds. The suns are depicted simply as birds, but the archer’s drawn bow identifies the scene. Where the bird carries the sun, is in the sun, or is the sun is thus ill-defined because the relationship is a mythical one. Mythically, the suns and birds are the same and this presents a problem for the Han illustrator.

In the Huainanzi passsage quoted above, the bird in the sun was called a jun-raven. According to the Eastern Han commnetator, Gao You, the jun-raven was three -legged and Wang Chong, writing in the first century A.D. substitutes ‘three-legged’ for jun. Gao You’s annotation is based on an identification of the name of the bird with the character meaning ‘to crouch’. I suspect, however, that the name of the bird is related to that of Ji Jun, the husband of Xihe in this same tradition and so, presumably, the father of the sun-birds. Thus we may suppose the origin of both was jun.

The earliest depiction of a three legged bird is on neolithic pottery of the Miaogdigou (YAngshao) culture in Henan Province. In Han Tomb art, however, sun-birds are depicted with either two legs, as in the Mawangdui pendant, 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 the roy in the early Han dyansty in which three was yang number and so that of the sun. Although the three legs of the sun-bird have been understood in this manner in the Han dynasty, 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.

Every morning when the sun-bird which was to fly that day across the sky arose in Sun Valley, it was bathed by its mother Xihe in the pool of water there:

“Beyond the South-eastern Sea amidst the Sweet Waters is the Tribe of Xihe. There is a woman named Xihe who regularly bathes the suns in the Sweet Springs. Xihe is the wife of Di Jun. It is she who gave birth to the tens suns.”
Shanhaijing (Dahuangnanjing) 15/7b.

The Shanhaijing commentator Guo Pu quotes a similar passage from the Guizang.

“Behold their ascent to the sky! A time of brightness, then a time of darkness, as the sons of Xihe go out from Sun Valley.”

This text was traditionally thought to be the Shang equivalent of the Yijing and it may be significant that this text, which was associated with the Shang, records this myth complex and in language which is not derivative from other extant texts.

Besides Xihe, the Shanhaijing names two other women as wives of Di Jun. One is Chang Xi, the western counterpart of Xihe. She gave birth to the twelve moons whom she bathes in a pool of water in the West, just as Xihe bathes her sun-children in the East. The cult of Chang Xi is much less developed than that of Xihe, just as that of the Ruo Tree is less developed than that of the Mulberry Tree. However she has been also been identified with Chang E (or Heng E) the goddess who fled to the moon after having stolen the elixir of immortality from Archer Yi and Chang Yi, the second wife of Di Ku. Since Xi (xia), E (nga) and Yi (gnia) are closely related phonetcially (the smae word family in Karlgreen’s reconstruction) and their roles are similar, these figures are probably variants of the same original moon goddess.
The other wife, E Huang, is more directly connected with the human world for she gave birth to the ‘Tribe of Three-bodied People’ (the number recalls the three legs of the ravens). They in turn bore Yi Jun in a similar vein: ” I broke a branch from the Ruo Tree with which to screen the light”. And the poet-shaan in Ai shi ming: “I caught my left sleeve on the Fu Sang … In the “Summoning of the soul” song Zhao hun which presumably derives from a rite for the dead, a reference to the ten suns of the Mulberry Tree tradition is used to signify a region beyond that where men–or even the souls of the dead–may dwell: “Oh Soul, come back! In the East, you cannot dwell….From there the ten suns go out alternately. They melt metal and dissove stone…

They had ten Suns together, and lived near a mulberry tree. The child-Suns slept in the lower branches of the tree. However, every morning Xihe bathed one of her children in the river and then let him/her fly on the back a crow to the top of the mulberry tree. Then the child-Sun would fly up into the sky, and be the Sun for the day. Each of the child-Suns took turns doing this so that there would be light everyday.


“the Tian wen or ‘Heavenly questions’ … refers to the suns travelling from the Tang Valley to Meng Si the ‘Stream of Darkness’ (also mentioned in the Huainanzi as the resting place of the setting sun) and asks, “from brightness until darkness, how many miles is (the sun’s) journey?” Another, “When Xihe has not yet risen, how do the Ruo Flowers glow?” And also, in reference to the myth of Archer Yi shooting the suns, “Why did Yi shoot the suns? Why did the ravens shed their feathers?”


The tradition of the ten suns rising from the Mulberry Tree has been best known since Han times through the myth that once in the time of Yao the ten suns came out together, their heat threatening to destroy the world until Yao ordered Archer Yi to shoot nine of them. However, this myth presupposes the Mulberry Tree tradition and assumes the same motifs although Xihe plays no role in the story. There were ten suns. The suns were birds– as in the Tian wen question quoted above: “Why did Yi shoot the suns? Why did the ravens shed their feathers?” ” Why did Yi shoot the suns? Why did the ravens shed their feathers? And the sunbirds dwelt on the Mulberry Tree–Han tomb murals of Y shooting the suns show them as birdes in a tree. Because it assumes the same motifs it can only have arisen after the Mulberry Tree tradition perse, but it relegated the ten alternating suns to a distant era, thus explaining away the tradition (which I am hypothesizing was a Shagn tradition replaced in Zhou times by the belief in a single sun)without directly opposing it: once there were ten suns, but now there is only one.

The most explicit early reference to this myth is in the Huainanzi. Here the myth of Yi shooting the ten suns in placed in the context of a larger cosmogony myth which has certian structural parallels to the Yao dian as will be discussed as will be discussed below. The passage begins with the description of a time of perfect peace in which “people entrusted their infants to the safety of nests and placed their excess grain at the head of the fields. Tigers and leopards could be pulled by the tail; vipers and snakes could be trod upon…” But the peace was broken: “When it came to the time of Yao, the ten suns came out together, withering the crops of grain and killing the grasses, so that the people had nothign to eat …” Various monsters also appeared, but Yao sent Yi to punish them and “shoot the ten suns”. Because of Yao’s success, he became the first ruler.

The time of Yao in which the ten suns appeared was followed by the time of Shun in which the waters were fanned by the evil Gong Gong until they “reached the Hollow Mulberry” (kong sang) but Shun appointed Yu to dig the river channels and open up passages so that the water could run into the sea. In this passage, then, the time of Yao was the era in which perfect harmony was lost ot the world and heaven and earth separated (because of a ritual breach implied by the disobedience of the ten suns? The appearance of the ten suns in the sky also contrasts with the following era in which water flooded the earth: a time of fire, then a time of water. The story of Yi shooting the ten suns has a further mythical dimension for an Yi is associated with the west and the moon in other myths. He was given the elixir of immortality by Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, but it was stolen by his wife Chang E (that is Chang Yi, see p. 33) who fled with it to the moon. Yi in shooting the suns may have represented the forces of the west and the moon in battle with those of hte east and the sun. This myth is usually interpreted to mean that Yi shot down nine of the ten suns, destroying them so that afterwards there was only one sun left which came out every day. Wang Yi so interprets the Tian wen question quoted above:

“The nine birds inside [the suns] all died, dropping their feathers and wigs, so that one sun from among them was left.” This interpretation accepts the tradition of ten suns arising from the Mulberry Tree, but assigns it to an era in the mythological past. Thus, where the belief in ten suns was heterodox in Zhou times, the myth of Archer Yo could still be accepted.

The coexistence of the two beliefs is evident in three related passages, two from the Zhuangzi (fifth century B.C.) and one from the Lushi chunqiu (third century B.C.) all of which refer to the light of the sun or suns as a metaphor for virtue and refer to the time of the Yao. These passages appear to have a common source, but the Zhuangzi, at least in its present form, rejects the ten sun tradition. In the Lushi chunqiu, Yao, who wishes to cede the throne to Xu You, explains, “If the ten suns arise, and the beacon fires are not [let to]expire, is this not too troublesome!” But in the equivalent passage in the Zhuangzi, Yao says to Xu You “If the sun and moon rise….” This can correlated to another passage in the Zhuangzi which the commentators relate to the Huaninanzi passage discussed above. Here Shun in reply ot a question from Yao about whether to force the submission of certain tribes says, “Formerly, the ten suns came out together and ten thousand things were all illuminated …”

How, the myth of Archer Yi was not always interpreted to mean that the nine were destroyed. They may merely have been frightened into better behaviour. Wang Chong who discusses this myth in the Lunheng says that Yi shot the ten suns and “therefore they were not seen together again on the same day”. Other texts also refer to the ten suns coming out together in later times. For exmaple, according to the Huainanzi, the ten suns appeared as an ill omen at the end of the Shang dynasty. Similarly, in the authentic Bamboo Annals, the ten suns appeared together as an ill omen near the end of the Xia dynasty.

Because of the ambiguity about whether the suns were destroyed when Archer Yi shot them, this myth allowed some people to continue to believe in ten suns which rose from the branches of the Mulberry Tree while others accepted that there was only one sun. Since the myth of Archer Yi assumes the motifs of the Mulberry Tree tradition, it could only have arisen after that tradition, although the two traditions coexisted in late Zhou and Han texts. The prevalence of the Mulberry Tree tradition in the Chuci and to a lesser extent in the Huainanzi, as well as the protrayal of the nine suns on the Mulberry Tree in the Mawangdui painting, indicate an association in Zhou and Han times with Southern China, but as discussed above, Shang influence had extended into what became the semi-independent state of Chu in Zhou times.
I have suggested that the Mulberry Tree tradition derived from a Shang tradition which lost its integrity when the Shang were conquered by the Zhou and a belief in a single sun replaced that in ten suns as the orthodox belief. However, the same motifs–with the exception of ten as the number of the suns–are intimately associated with the Shang in another tradition about the origin of the Shang people and their dynasty which is recorded in the broad range of Zhou texts. As I will discuss later, the Shang origin myth is a transformation deriving from the same source as the myth of Xihe giving birth to the ten suns. The Shang are also associated with the motifs of the Mulberry Tree tradition in the name of their altar, the story of the great drought at the beginning of the dynasty, the myth of the birth of of Yi Yin, and the name of the founder of the dynasty.

The earliest references to the origin of the Shang are in the Shang song section of the Shijing. The Xuan niao states:

“Heaven commanded that black bird (Xuan niao)
It descended and gave birth t oShang.
The land of Yin in which they dwelt was vast.
Therefore Di ordered martial Tang…

The Chang fa also states:
Wise and brilliant was Shang
And long-lived its fortune.
The flooding water spread forth,
And Yu brought order to the lands below.
Both small and large states were delineated.
And the border was long.
When the lady of You Rong was nubile,
Di appointed his son and gave birth to the Shang.”

The Shang songs are the hymns of the Shang rulers as they were passed down among their descendants who were enfeoffed in the state of Song during the Zhou dynasty. Their reference to Tian Heaven in the first line of Xuan niao may indicate Zhou influence. Later in the verse, however and in Chang fa, the high god is referred to as ‘Di’ Lord (that is the Lord on High) which accords with Shang usage. We may assume that these verses have suffered some chanages before being recorded. Nevertheless they are as close to authentic Shang tradition as is possible within the extant Zhou texts.

The Hollow Mulberry (qiong sang) is a dwelling place of the gods or cosmic tree which served as an axis mundi between heaven and earth. Its relationship wiht the Yellow Emperor and the high ancestors of the Xia will be discussed in the following chapter. The Cui zang describes it thus: “The Hollow Mulberry, luxuriant and vast ,extends to the eight extremes (of the world). There is Xihe who controls the comings and goings of the sun and moon to make light and darkness. The Gui zang also records that Chi You attacked the Hollow Mulberry in which Di lived. Di is understood a Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor and another fragment of the Gui ang tells of Huang Di killing Chi You. The tree in the west is called Kong Tong ‘Hollow Paulownia’ is the counterpart of the Hollow Mulberry in the East – and a dark place of death and disgrace as opposed to the Kong Sang, the seat of the gods, and it was to Kong Tang Yi Yin banished Tai jia when he was found unfit to rule. A number of auspicious births happened at the Hollow Mulberry including Confucius (also descendant of Shang). The Hollow Mulberry and Hollow Paulownia are thus an important part of the mythology surrounding the founding of the dynasty.” — Source  of extracts


An Archer Yi equivalent in Japan?

Archery legends and festivals are known from many shrines in Japan, and many date from the Yayoi Period.  Tomb wall petrogyphs, paintings, stone archer men steles are common in Kyushu, and archery haniwa terracotta are common all over Japan in the Kofun Period, suggesting the diffusion of an Archer Yi-type myth related to the Underworld cosmology, to Japan (as well as Korea) from the Eastern or Southeastern parts of the mainland continent during the Shang-Zhou-Han dynasty periods.

The Archer Yi is a key legend of the Hmong-Miao/Hmong-Mien people who are share with the Japanese not only genetic similarities of high frequencies of haplogroups D (Y-DNA) and o3a3, and haplogroup and subhaplogroups of B, F1 and M7(mtDNA) as well as sharing ancient mythical motifs of Archer Yi-sunbird-three-legged crows, pairing of male and female creator, sacrificial rooster and rooster announcing the arrival of the deceased at door of the lord of the Underworld symbolism, as well as emergence of the sun=Amaterasu sun goddess from a cave grotto.

Sacred quiver haniwa representation

2 thoughts on “An important treatise on “Archer Yi”, the “ten suns”, “three-legged sun-birds” and Mulberry Tree (World Tree) mythical stories

  1. […] ten suns-equals ten sun-birds roosting on the mulberry tree and archer Yi Chinese myths are given very full treatment by Sarah Allen. We return to this motif later in the section on […]

  2. […] ten suns-equals ten sun-birds roosting on the mulberry tree and archer Yi Chinese myths are given very full treatment by Sarah Allen. We return to this motif later in the section on […]

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