Zoë Translates

Poems, original and translated.

Severance of the Earth from Heaven

This is done for a friend who wanted to know more about the Chinese myths in which the Earth was severed from Heaven. I translated three excerpts where this myth was attested, with the original texts attached.

I hesitated about where to put this post, and decided against placing it under the section “Translations”, because it would have read out-of-place alongside the literary works. But by writing a blog post, I am able to add some contexts and notes like this, so here it is.

Also included is an excerpt from a modern work, History of the Warring States, where the significance of this myth is re-assessed.

My own inline notes are marked by the brackets [ ] while those in the original appear in parentheses ( ). The long and truly peripheral stuff goes into the footnotes.

In these translations, proper names are rendered in modern, “Mandarinised” readings. These should not be taken to indicate their contemporaneous pronunciation.


Narrative from the Guoyu

The Guoyu 《國語》 is a compilation of historical records dated to the 10th–5th centuries BCE. The book itself was probably compiled around the 4th century BCE.


To Guan Yefu,1 King Zhao [of Chu]2 asks thus: “Such was written in the Annals of Zhou, ‘It was Chong3 and Li who severed the connection of Earth and Heaven.’ What does this mean? Had they not done so, would humans have been able to ascend Heaven?”

“It does not mean that,” replies Guan Yefu. “In days of yore, the Spirits did not mingle with the humankind.

“Whereas among people, some were bright, inspired, focused, and unwavering in spirit. If furthermore they could dedicate themselves to a life of purity, gravitas, truthfulness, and morality, if their intellect was capable of discerning proper action for members of all classes, if their wisdom was clear and far-seeing, if they were so perceptive as if light followed their vision and clarity followed their hearing — upon those individuals the luminous Spirits would descend. Such men were called Xi and women Wu [spiritual medium, seer].

“If those men and women were tasked with determining the priority of rituals and preparing the suitable offerings and garments, thereby keeping the ancestral light shining in the descendants; if they were chosen for their knowledge of the tutelary deities of the lands, of the progenitors of lineages, of the work in their temples, and of the order of sacrificial sequences according to the genealogies, of the duties in matters of gravity and reverence, of the meanings in the traditional ways, of dignified, awe-inspiring comportment, of what constituted a character of sincerity and truthfulness, of rules pertaining to purity; and if they approached the luminous Spirits with worshipful hearts — those would be made the Zhu [invoker, blesser].

“And if those men and women could furthermore impart [such knowledges]4 to heirs of ancient families, thereby keeping the traditions alive in their hearts, they would be appointed to the office of the Zong [familial priest].

“Such was the origin of the priestly offices of Heaven, Earth, Spirits, Humans, and the Diverse Beings. They exercised their authorities without interfering with each other. Owing to their services, honesty and truthfulness prevailed among the people, and the Spirits remained benevolent. The people, barred from the Spirits’ matters, stayed reverential to them and refrained from sacrilegious proximity. In return, the Spirits blessed them with abundance, and the people fulfilled their sacrificial obligations. Disasters did not befall, and resources were inexhaustible.

“When the rule of Shao Hao was in decline, the many tribes of Li fell into a state of decadence. Spirits and humans were made to intermingle, to the point they could no longer be told apart. Each person conducted sacrifices according to their own way, and each family became the Wu and Shi [record-keeper] unto themselves. But the critical substance of worship was missing, and the people were burdened with the material demands of offering without enjoying any benefit in return. The sacrifices became an excess where humans and Spirits occupied the same place. People violated the codes of purity and oaths, and they no longer inspired awe. The Spirits too became used to the ways of the people, and they committed impure acts. No more were the blessings of abundance, and therefore no more resources for the sacrifices either. Disasters befell one after another, and nothing could arrest those exhalations of malevolence.

“When Zhuan Xu took over, he charged Chong the Southern Chief with heavenly matters so as to mediate with the Spirits, and Li5 the Chief of Fire6 with earthly authorities for the intercourse with the people. Thus, the old norms were re-established. The Spirits and humans no longer infringed upon each other.

“And that is the meaning of ‘severing the connection of Earth from Heaven.’

“And after that, the Three Miaos reverted to the ways of the Li multitudes, but Yao, who ruled after them, fostered the descendants of Chong and Li. To the respective offices of Heaven and Earth, Yao appointed those who still kept the old ways in heart. And that was why, throughout the Xia and Shang eras, the clans of Chong and Li carried out the duty of separating the Heaven from the Earth in worship, one generation after another.

“In the era of Zhou, Xiufu the Lord of Cheng7 was a scion of the Chong—Li lineages. During the reign of King Xuan [of Zhou], his family lost the traditional roles when they became known as the Sima [literally, “constable”],8 a clan of soldiers. To intimidate the people for the sake of their own authority, they were keen to aggrandise and deify their lineage, saying, ‘Verily Chong and Li, by upraising the Heaven and pressing down the Earth, tore them asunder.’

“In the ensuing chaotic era of ours, such claim met with little opposition. A false one nonetheless: for Heaven and Earth, once created, stayed where they were. How could they have ever been close?”




「是使制神之處位次主,而為之牲器時服,而後使先聖之後之有光烈,而能知山川之號、高祖之主、宗廟之事、昭穆之世、齊敬之勤、禮節之宜、威儀之則、容貌之崇、忠信之質、禋絜之服,而敬恭明神者,以為之祝。使名姓之後,能知 [四時之生、犧牲之物、玉帛之類、采服之儀、彝器之量、次主之度、屏攝之位、壇場之所、上下之神、氏姓之出,] 而心率舊典者為之宗。於是乎有天地神民類物之官,是謂五官,各司其序,不相亂也。民是以能有忠信,神是以能有明德,民神異業,敬而不瀆,故神降之嘉生,民以物享,禍災不至,求用不匱。


《國語 · 楚語下》

Narrative from the Shangshu

The quotation mentioned in the King of Chu’s question in the previous text can be read in parallel to the following passage from the Shangshu 《尚書》. It is from the part titled Annals of Zhou, although this may be a later designation.


The illustrious sovereign,9 pitying the multitude of innocent people being cruelly persecuted, retaliated against tyranny with terrible force. He subjugated the Miao and extirpated their progeny. He then ordered Chong and Li to sever the connection of the Earth and Heaven, which terminated the descent of Spirits.


《尚書 · 呂刑》

Narrative from the Shan Hai Jing

The Shan Hai Jing 《山海經》, an intriguing book of mythologies and curiosities, was probably written around the Western Han era. The words and in the context of this passage have eluded a clear interpretation since the classical times.


Zhuan Xu begat Lao Tong [literally, “Old Child” or “Old Bald One”], and Lao Tong begat Chong and Li. The sovereign10 ordered Chong [possibly “to make offerings to”?] Heaven above [or “upwards”] and Li [possibly “to administer”?] Earth below [or “downwards”]. The Earth below [verily begat?] Yi who resided in the western extreme, conducting the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and Planets through the stations along their orbits.


《山海經 · 大荒西經》

Excerpt from History of the Warring States

The historian Yang Kuan was a noted scholar of mythological narratives. From this angle, he produced a reading quite unlike the rationalising narrative of Guan Yefu. The following passage was excerpted from his discussion about the Chu Silk Manuscript 楚帛書.


In ancient mythologies, the Heaven and the Earth were said to have been conjoined at one time, and the passage to Heaven was located in the Chong [literally, “exalted”] Mountain (i.e. the Song Mountain). It was only because of “the severance of Earth and Heaven” by Chong and Li (i.e. Zhurong) that the two worlds came apart and lost their connection.


杨宽, 2003,《战国史》p. 589, LCCN 2004386455.

  1. The character in the style-name 射父 has had multiple readings. The Tang-era glossary book Jingdian Shiwen 《經典釋文》 recorded two pronunciations for this character in exactly the same context, i.e. Guan’s name. It did so because the name appeared in the commentary to 《禮記 · 大學》, one of the sources of the Shiwen’s lexicon. The two fanqie⁠s are 食亦反 and 食夜反 respectively. Here, more or less arbitrarily, I am opting for the first one (Middle Chinese /*ʑiɛk̚/) and using the “Mandarinised” reading as its romanisation. ↩︎

  2. Reigned 516–489 BCE. ↩︎

  3. This reading of follows the annotation to the Shangshu passage in the Jingdian Shiwen. The fanqie is 直龍反↩︎

  4. For brevity, I excised a list similar in meaning to the long enumeration of knowledges in the previous paragraph. ↩︎

  5. Not to be confused with the “Li multitudes” 九黎↩︎

  6. There has been endless debate, since the classical times, about the textual provenance of this word 火正, especially whether it was a corruption of 北正, “Northern Chief”. ↩︎

  7. The existence of this person was also attested in the Shijing 《詩經》↩︎

  8. The lineage produced Sima Qian 司馬遷, a pioneer historian, ethnographer, and one of the finest literary minds in the history of China. The myth of Chong–Li was behind his motivation to complete the Shiji 《史記》, as narrated in its final chapter. ↩︎

  9. A rather literal translation of 皇帝, here most likely referring to Zhuan Xu. Later, the word was co-opted by the Emperors of China as their own designation. ↩︎

  10. Here, it is possible that the word referred to a deity, a secular ruler, or both. ↩︎