As was told in ancient Chinese mythology, legend and folklore, the worldwide violent human proclivity for rebellion and war all began with a curious primordial figure named Chi You. His life occurred, so the stories tell, in the pre-history age of the ancient Chinese god-monarchs, such as the Five Heavenly Emperors (known as the Green, Red, White, Black, and Yellow Emperors). He was often associated with the court or followers of the Red Emperor, but some versions of the tale even claimed that Chi You might have been the revered Yellow Emperor’s half-brother. Despite the possible familial connection, Chi You became a great enemy of the godly Yellow Emperor.
Prior to Chi You’s ascendance, as was hinted above, the world allegedly knew little of revolt or warfare, and was at relative peace. As a result of such tranquil coexistence, there had also supposedly been little in the way of weapon development, for there had been no need for such weapons of bloodshed. Chi You’s ascendance, however, would change things. As the story goes, he began inventing weapons and used the new tools of destruction for his unique and new concept in that primordial time—the idea of war and rebellion.
After equipping his followers with weapons and teaching them in the ways of rebellion and war, Chi You began attacking the territories of rival factions that neighbored his own. Chi You’s introduction of the concept of rebellion was mentioned by the Shang Shu (variously translated as The Book of Documents or The Most Venerable Book), an intriguing text that originated in the days before Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE). The Shang Shu stated: “The ancient stories tell us that the first person to launch a rebellion was Chi You, chief of the Miao people, and that this had a deep impact on all the ordinary people” (Shang Shu, chapter 55).
Due to Chi You’s wars and the resulting waves of opportunistic crime and violence that emerged in the war-torn regions, the Yellow Emperor and his forces had to stoop to Chi You’s level and launch a war of their own. As told by the Shang Shu, “The Imperial Ruler was moved to pity by the suffering of the innocent masses who were being killed. In response, he brought down his wrath upon the Miao tribe [and Chi You]. Initially he curbed them, but ended by wiping out the entire tribe so that they would have no succeeding generations. They were exterminated for ever” (Shang Shu, chapter 55). With such a law and order conclusion to the tale, it is no surprise that the story of rebellious Chi You was also associated with the beginning of the so-called Five Punishments of ancient China—including branding, nose-slitting, amputation (of body parts such as ears and feet), castration, and, of course, execution (sometimes extending to three generations of the criminal’s family). Despite the Yellow Emperor’s crushing of Chi You’s rebellion, and the imposition of the Five Punishments, the concept of war and rebellion, nevertheless, could not be stamped out. Chi You, too, even after being killed, continued to hold influence. As a founding father of war and rebellion, he came to be known as something of a war deity.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Dish with three heroes from Water Margin, painted by an artist from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), specifically the Kangxi mark period (1662–1722), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu), translated by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay and Victoria Finlay. London: Penguin Classic, 2014.