An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

He Bo 河伯, the Earl of the Yellow River

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

He Bo 河伯, the "Earl of the Yellow River", was a deity in ancient China. He is also called Feng Yi 馮夷, Bing Yi 冰夷 or Wu Yi 無夷 and is said to have been a real person that drowned when fording the Yellow River. The Celestial Emperor (Tiandi 天帝) had pity with him and made him a water god in the shape of a white dragon (bailong 白龍) or a fish, but with a human face. The famous archer Hou Yi 后羿 once shot out his left eye as a punishment for the many devastating floods he had caused, as a story in the book Huainanzi 淮南子 says.

The Earl of the River is often mentioned in ancient sources, the earliest of which are the Zhuangzi 莊子 and the poetry collection Chuci 楚辭, as well as some apocryphal books like the Shangshu zhonghou kao heming 尚書中侯考河命. In the latter it is told that Yu the Great 大禹, when he tamed the floods of the various rivers of China, was given a chart of the Yellow River (Hetu 河圖) by the Earl that helped him about the exact geography of the river.

A similar story is told in the book Shizi 尸子 and mentioned in the brief encyclopaedia Bowuzhi 博物志. In both stories, the Earl of the River calls himself "spirit of the River" (hejing 河精).

The Earl of the River is also venerated in Daoist writings, like the Qinglingzhuan 清冷傳, where it is said that Feng Yi, courtesy name Gongzi 公子, came from Huayin 華陰 in Shaanxi, and later became an immortal after consuming the herb of longevity.

At least since the Shang period 商 (17th to 11th cent. BCE) offerings to the Lord of the Yellow River and his wife were regularly brought to appease the floods, or to the souls of people that had drowned in the floods. The name of the Earl's wife is given as Luo Pin 雒嬪 "Lady of the River Luo" (see Luoshen 洛神), or Mi Fei 宓妃 "Consort Mi".

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 367.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 253.