Sketchbook Page 59: X is for Xing Tian

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Xing Tian (thorax)

Xing Tian (thorax)

Bones from a Bestiary part 24: X is for Xing Tian

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

Xing Tian from the Qing edition Shanhaijing

Xing Tian from the Qing edition Shanhaijing

Xing Tian (Chinese: 刑天; pinyin: Xíngtiān) is a notable deity of Chinese mythology who fights against the Supreme Divinity, (sometimes known as Tian), not giving up even after the event of his decapitation. Losing the fight for supremacy, he was beheaded and his head buried in Changyang Mountain. Nevertheless, headless, with a shield in one hand and a battle ax in the other, he continues the fight; using his nipples for eyes and his bellybutton for a mouth.

Xing Tian is encountered in chapter 7 of the Shanhaijing (a Chinese classic text and a compilation of early geography and myth) as well as in subsequent works, such as a poem by Tao Yuanming (367-427 CE). In the history Lushi compiled by Luo Mi, Xing Tian is described as a minister of Yan Di, who composed music for farmers for plowing and harvesting, however this Xing Tian is written with a different character for Xing, so it is unclear whether the two represent the same figure.

The following excerpt is from the Shanhaijing:


Roughly translated:

Xing Tian fought against [Huang] Di. Di cut off his head, and the head was buried in the Changyang Mountains. But Xing Tian, with his breasts as eyes, and his navel as mouth, continued to fight with his axe and shield.

According to oracle bones, during ancient times the giant Xíng Tiān was originally a follower of the Emperor Yán. After the victory of the Yellow Emperor over Yán at the Battle of Banquan, Xíng Tiān followed his master to exile in the south. At this time, the giant had no name.

After the Yellow Emperor defeated and executed Chi You, Xíng Tiān went forth with an axe and shield (some descriptions gave a blade instead) against the Yellow Emperor. He forced his way to the southern Gate of the Celestial Court and issued a challenge to the Yellow Emperor for a duel.

The Yellow Emperor came forth and the two engaged in a ferocious combat, sword (昆吾剑) against axe, all the way down to earth to ChángYáng Mountain (常羊之山). In a final blow, the Yellow Emperor distracted his opponent with a trick and lunged … and in a flash decapitated Xíng Tiān, whose head rolled all the way to the foot of the mountain and created a thunderous roar.

Instead of dying, Xíng Tiān was able to continue moving and began groping about for his head. The Yellow Emperor raised his sword to strike the mountain. The mountain split open, the head rolled within and the mountain closed again.

Xíng Tiān gave up looking for his head, and instead used his nipples as eyes that could not see, and navel as a mouth that could not open. He began striking about wildly, giving rise to the saying “刑天舞干戚,猛志固常在” (undying resolution). Thereafter, the headless giant got his name, which meant “He whose head was chopped off”.

Xingtian symbolizes the indomitable spirit which never surrenders and maintains the will to resist no matter what tribulations one may undergo or what troubles one may face (if the word face can be used in this case).

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