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River God He-Bo

The god of the Yellow River is called Ho-po, which is his commonest name. This means River Elder or the Earl of Ho. He is also often called Ho-shên or Spirit of the River, or simply Ho, 'The River.'

River God’s Domain

Chuang Tzu tells a story in his The Autumn Flood that the Yellow River (the God's domain) is in flood. It is so wide that from one bank to the other one cannot distinguish a cow from a horse. In high glee the River God makes his way through glorious scenes of inundation till he comes to the sea. He looks eastward and can see no shore at all! In dismay he realizes that his own domain is insignificant compared with the limitless expanses of the great ocean.

The River God is Greedy

Ho-po was a greedy god, often taking a fancy to and abducting mortal men's daughters, to add to his harem, or carrying off their sons to marry to his daughters. Sometimes he merely took a fancy to people's clothes.
The River God had to be appeased by giving him 'wives.' At Yeh, in the extreme north of Honan, it was the custom to give the god a wife every year. The shamans went round from house to house looking for a particularly pretty girl. When they found her they gave her a good bath, dressed her in the finest silks and housed her in a special 'house of purification' on the river bank, where she lived in seclusion behind red curtains. After ten days or more they powdered her face and decked her out as a bride and set her afloat on a thing shaped like a bridal bed. After drifting some 10 li (five or six miles) downstream the bridal-raft sank and disappeared. 'People with handsome daughters,' we are told, 'fearing that the shaman would take them to "marry" to the River God, used to flee with their daughters to distant parts.'

The River God carries off man’s sons to marry to his daughters. A young man returning late at night to Hangchow meets a boy driving in a smart new carriage. The boy calls to him to come and get into the carriage, saying, 'My master wishes to see you.' The young man is then driven away into the darkness. Presently the road begins to be brilliantly lighted by long rows of torches, and they come to a great walled city. Above the main building there hangs a flag with the inscription 'Emblem of the River God.' The young man is taken in to see the god, who turns out to be very handsome, and does not look more than about thirty years old. The god tells him that he has a very studious and intelligent little daughter whom he intends the young man to marry. He does not dare to refuse, and a grand wedding ceremony is held, which lasts three days. The bride turns out to be a very attractive girl of about eighteen. On the fourth day the bridegroom is told that he will now be escorted back to the every-day world. His wife, parting with him tearfully, gives him a golden bowl and bag full of musk along with a large sum of money and three scrolls of medical recipes, telling him that he is to practise as a doctor for ten years and then come back to claim her. He has immense success as a doctor, but owing to his elder brother having died he feels he cannot leave his mother ; and so, instead of claiming his spirit-bride, he marries a human wife and takes a job in the Civil Service.
We are not told that the River God exacted any punishment from him for failing to turn up after ten years.

Sometimes these sacrifices were made to appease the god when his waters were tampered with. In 417 B.C. Duke Ling of Ch'in married a 'princess' (the god was given to understand that she was a princess, but in reality she was an ordinary commoner) to the god, when work was being done to deepen some rapids.

The River God may take a fancy to people's clothes. Before a great battle (Duke Hsi, 28th year) in which the people of Ch'u were defeated by their northern neighbours, the people of Chin, the Ch'u minister Tzu-yü dreamt that the River God (Ho-shên) came and said (pointing to Tzu-yü's very smart cap, with cap-strings of threaded jade), 'give me that cap, and you shall have the elks of Meng-ch'u,' meaning that Ch'u would conquer this district in Honan. Tzu-yü ignored the demand and in consequence the army of Ch'u suffered a great defeat.
Sometimes, The River God just takes things from people without asking. On the North River near Canton, there is a point at which timber being floated down from Hunan is invariably sucked down into the stream and lost. People say that the River God took timber for the building of his vast city.

The River God is not always inflexible

If we human stand up to manfully the River God is not always inexorable.

In Duke Ai 6th year, the King Chao of Ch'u fell ill. The diviners said his illness was due to a 'possession' by the River and that he would not recover unless he sacrificed to the River. The king protested that rulers only sacrificed to rivers in their own territory. 'The Yangtze, the Han, the Sui and the Chang are the rivers of Ch'u. They alone can affect our fortunes. My conduct has not been perfect; but against the Yellow River I have never committed any offence.'

The book Garden of Stories (Shuo Yüan, chapter 19) records that a certain Han Ho-tzu, coming from the north, was about to cross the Yellow River when the boatman reminded him that everyone who crossed the River had to make an offering to the River God. Han Ho-tzu refused, on the ground that only the Emperor sacrificed to spirits wherever they might be; a stranger like himself had no obligation towards local deities. The boatman reluctantly put out from shore, but in mid-stream the boat began to turn round and round. The boatman said : 'There is no time to lose. We had better adjust our clothes and make ready to swim.' But Han Ho-tzu said he would rather die than provide gratification to the River God’s desire that were illegitimate. Whereupon the boat stopped revolving and safely reached the other shore.

The governor of Tung-chun, in the South-West corner of Hopeh, when there was a danger of the Yellow River breaking through an embankment, first threw a white horse into the river as a sacrifice, and then got a shaman to inform the god that the Governor intended, if the embankment was breached, to fill the gap with his own body. Soon, however, the embankment began to crumble. Everyone fled in terror except the Governor and one of his clerks who remained weeping by his side. Suddenly the waters began to recede, and the situation was saved.

The River God Recruits Dead Man

Dead men sometimes take service with the River God. A certain Wei P'u meets at an inn with a curious-looking individual who offers himself as a groom. Wei P'u is sorry for him and decides to give him a trial, but on their further journey strange and disquieting things happen. For example, an innkeeper's little son is playing near the gate. The groom walks up to him and prods his back with his fingers. The child is terrified and faints. The innkeeper sends at once for Miss Two, the best local shaman. To summon her familiar spirit, to whom she refers as 'Mr. Three,' the shaman plays on her pipa. Presently she stretches herself, sneezes, and announces that the spirit has come. She then has a conversation with the spirit, who tells her that the child is 'possessed' by a 'stranger-ghost.' The god describes the ghost, and the description is evidently that of the mysterious groom. The Spirit, speaking through the shaman, recommends that the child should be washed with a decoction of orchid (Ian). This is duly done, and the child recovers. The groom then confesses that he is indeed a stranger ghost (a displaced ghost, as we might say). Previously, he says, he was in the service of the River God, but they fell out, and now he is desperately searching for a new position.


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