Kui (Chinese mythology)

Kui (Chinese mythology)

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Kui is a polysemous figure in ancient Chinese mythology
Chinese mythology
Chinese mythology is a collection of cultural history, folktales, and religions that have been passed down in oral or written tradition. These include creation myths and legends and myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state...

. Classic texts use this name for the legendary musician Kui who invented music and dancing; for the one-legged mountain demon or rain-god Kui variously said to resemble a Chinese dragon
Chinese dragon
Chinese dragons are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology and folklore, with mythic counterparts among Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Western and Turkic dragons. In Chinese art, dragons are typically portrayed as long, scaled, serpentine creatures with four legs...

, a drum, or a monkey with a human face; and for the Kuiniu wild yak or buffalo.


While Kui 夔 originally named a mythic being, Modern Standard Chinese uses it in several other expressions. The reduplication
Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word is repeated exactly or with a slight change....

 kuikui 夔夔 means "awe-struck; fearful; grave" (see the Shujing below). The compounds
Compound (linguistics)
In linguistics, a compound is a lexeme that consists of more than one stem. Compounding or composition is the word formation that creates compound lexemes...

 kuilong 夔龍 (with "dragon") and kuiwen 夔紋 (with "pattern; design") name common motifs on Zhou Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou Dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang Dynasty and preceded the Qin Dynasty. Although the Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Ji family lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as...

 Chinese bronzes
Chinese bronzes
Bronzes are some of the most important pieces of Chinese art, warranting an entire separate catalogue in the Imperial art collections. The Chinese Bronze Age began in the Xia Dynasty, and bronze ritual containers form the bulk of the collection of Chinese antiques, reaching its zenith during the...

. The chengyu idiom yikuiyizu 一夔已足 (lit. one Kui already enough") means "one able person is enough for the job".

Kui is also a proper name
Proper name
"A proper name [is] a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about" writes John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic , "but not of telling anything about it"...

. It is an uncommon one of the Hundred Family Surnames
Hundred Family Surnames
The Hundred Family Surnames is a classic Chinese text composed of common surnames in ancient China. The book was composed in the early Song Dynasty. It originally contained 411 surnames, but was later expanded to 504. Of these, 444 are single-character surnames, and 60 are double-character surnames...

. Kuiguo 夔國 was a Warring States Period
Warring States Period
The Warring States Period , also known as the Era of Warring States, or the Warring Kingdoms period, covers the Iron Age period from about 475 BC to the reunification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC...

 state, located in present-day Zigui County (Hubei
' Hupeh) is a province in Central China. The name of the province means "north of the lake", referring to its position north of Lake Dongting...

), that Chu
Chu (state)
The State of Chu was a Zhou Dynasty vassal state in present-day central and southern China during the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States Period . Its ruling house had the surname Nai , and clan name Yan , later evolved to surname Mi , and clan name Xiong...

 annexed in 634 BCE. Kuizhou 夔州, located in present-day Fengjie County of Chongqing
Chongqing is a major city in Southwest China and one of the five national central cities of China. Administratively, it is one of the PRC's four direct-controlled municipalities , and the only such municipality in inland China.The municipality was created on 14 March 1997, succeeding the...

' , known formerly in the West by its postal map spellings of Szechwan or Szechuan is a province in Southwest China with its capital in Chengdu...

), was established in 619 CE as a Tang Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui Dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. It was founded by the Li family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire...


Kuiniu 夔牛 or 犪牛 is an old name for the "wild ox
An ox , also known as a bullock in Australia, New Zealand and India, is a bovine trained as a draft animal. Oxen are commonly castrated adult male cattle; castration makes the animals more tractable...

; wild yak". The (1578 CE) Bencao Gangmu (tr. Read 1931, no. 356) entry for maoniu 氂牛 "wild yak", which notes medicinal uses such as yak gallstones for "convulsions and delirium", lists kiuniu as a synonym for weiniu 犩牛, "Larger than a cow. From the hills of Szechuan, weighing several thousand catties." The biological classification
Biological classification
Biological classification, or scientific classification in biology, is a method to group and categorize organisms by biological type, such as genus or species. Biological classification is part of scientific taxonomy....

 Bos grunniens (lit. "grunting ox") corresponds with the roaring Kui "god of rain and thunder" (see the Shanhaijing below).
Translating kui 夔 as "walrus" exemplifies a ghost word
Ghost word
A ghost word is a meaningless word that came into existence or acceptance, not by being derived through long-standing usage, nor by being coined at need, but only as the result of an error. In the best-known examples such an error will have caused the word to be published in a dictionary or...

. The Wiktionary
Wiktionary is a multilingual, web-based project to create a free content dictionary, available in 158 languages...

 translation equivalent "1. one-legged monster, 2. walrus" was copied from the Unihan Database. However, Chinese kui does not mean "walrus
The walrus is a large flippered marine mammal with a discontinuous circumpolar distribution in the Arctic Ocean and sub-Arctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere. The walrus is the only living species in the Odobenidae family and Odobenus genus. It is subdivided into three subspecies: the Atlantic...

" (haixiang 海象 lit. "sea elephant") and this ghost first appeared in early Chinese-English dictionaries by Robert Henry Mathews
Robert Henry Mathews
Robert Henry Mathews was an Australian missionary and Sinologist, best known for his 1931 Chinese-English Dictionary . Revised American edition . Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674123502.-References:...

 and Herbert Giles
Herbert Giles
Herbert Allen Giles was a British diplomat and sinologist, educated at Charterhouse. He modified a Mandarin Chinese Romanization system earlier established by Thomas Wade, resulting in the widely known Wade-Giles Chinese transliteration system...

. Mathews (1931:538) translates kui as "A one-legged monster; a walrus; Grave, respectful", which was adapted from Giles (1912:821) "A one-legged creature; a walrus. Grave; reverential". Giles's dictionary copied this "walrus" mistake from his translation (1889:211-2) of the Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi (book)
The Taoist book Zhuangzi was named after its purported author Zhuangzi, the philosopher. Since 742 CE, when Emperor Xuanzong of Tang mandated honorific titles for Taoist texts, it has also been known as the Nánhuá Zhēnjīng , literally meaning "True Classic of Southern Florescence," alluding to...

 (see below), "The walrus said to the centipede, 'I hop about on one leg, but not very successfully. How do you manage all these legs you have?'" He footnotes, "'Walrus' is of course an analogue. But for the one leg, the description given by a commentator of the creature mentioned in the text applies with significant exactitude."


The modern 21-stroke Chinese character
Chinese character
Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...

 夔 for kui combines five elements": shou 首 "head", zhi 止 "stop", si 巳 "6th (of 12 Earthly Branches
Earthly Branches
The Earthly Branches provide one Chinese system for reckoning time.This system was built from observations of the orbit of Jupiter. Chinese astronomers divided the celestial circle into 12 sections to follow the orbit of Suìxīng . Astronomers rounded the orbit of Suixing to 12 years...

)", ba 八 "8", and zhi 夂 "walk slowly". These enigmatic elements were graphically simplified from the ancient Oracle bone script
Oracle bone script
Oracle bone script refers to incised ancient Chinese characters found on oracle bones, which are animal bones or turtle shells used in divination in Bronze Age China...

 and Seal script
Seal script
Seal script is an ancient style of Chinese calligraphy. It evolved organically out of the Zhōu dynasty script , arising in the Warring State of Qin...

 pictographs for kui 夔 showing "a face of demon, two arms, a belly, a tail, and two feet" (Wieger 1927:255).

Excepting the top 丷 element (interpreted as "horns" on the ye 頁 "head"), kui 夔 is graphically identical with nao 夒 – an old variant
Variant Chinese character
Variant Chinese characters are Chinese characters that are homophones and synonyms. Almost all variants are allographs in most circumstances, such as casual handwriting...

 for nao 猱 "macaque; rhesus monkey". The Oracle and Seal script graphs for nao pictured a monkey, and some Oracle graphs are interpreted as either kui 夔 or nao 夒.

The (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi
Shuowen Jiezi
The Shuōwén Jiězì was an early 2nd century CE Chinese dictionary from the Han Dynasty. Although not the first comprehensive Chinese character dictionary , it was still the first to analyze the structure of the characters and to give the rationale behind them , as well as the first to use the...

, which was the first Chinese dictionary
Chinese dictionary
Chinese dictionaries date back over two millennia to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which is a significantly longer lexicographical history than any other language. There are hundreds of dictionaries for Chinese, and this article will introduce some of the most important...

 of characters, defines nao 夒 and kui 夔 (tr. Groot 1910:5:496).
  • Nao: "a greedy quadruped, generally stated to be a she-monkey resembling a man; it contains the component head 頁, with 巳, 止, and 夊 representing respectively the arms and the leg of the beast." 夒: 貪獸也一曰母猴似人 从頁巳止夊其手足。
  • Kui: "a [spirit] hü [魖 "a destructive, evil spectre" 1910:5:466] resembling a dragon with one leg represented by the component 夊, and that the character represents the beast with horns, hands, and a human face." 夔: 神魖也如龍一足 从夊象有角手人面之形。

Kui, concludes Groot, "were thought to be a class of one-legged beasts or dragons with human countenances."

Most Chinese characters are composed of "radicals
Radical (Chinese character)
A Chinese radical is a component of a Chinese character. The term may variously refer to the original semantic element of a character, or to any semantic element, or, loosely, to any element whatever its origin or purpose...

" or "significs" that suggest semantic field
Semantic field
A semantic field is a technical term in the discipline of linguistics to describe a set of words grouped by meaning in a certain way. The term is also used in other academic disciplines, such as anthropology and computational semiotics.-Definition and usage:...

s and "phonetic" elements that roughly suggest pronunciation. Both these 夔 and 夒 characters are classified under their bottom 夂 "walk slowly radical
Radical (Chinese character)
A Chinese radical is a component of a Chinese character. The term may variously refer to the original semantic element of a character, or to any semantic element, or, loosely, to any element whatever its origin or purpose...

", and Carr (1990:142) notes the semantic similarity with Kui being "one-legged". Only a few uncommon characters have kui 夔 phonetics. For instance, kui 犪 (with the "ox radical" 牛) in kuiniu 犪牛 "wild ox; wild yak", and kui 躨 (with the "foot radical"足) in kuiluo 躨跜 "writhe like a dragon".


The etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 of kui 夔 relates with wei 犩 "yak; buffalo". Eberhard (1968:57-8) suggested Kui "mountain spirits that looked like a drum and had only one leg" was "without doubt phonetically related" to the variant name hui 暉; both were classified as shanxiao 山魈 "mountain demons" ("mandrill
The mandrill is a primate of the Old World monkey family, closely related to the baboons and even more closely to the drill. Both the mandrill and the drill were once classified as baboons in genus Papio, but recent research has determined they should be separated into their own genus, Mandrillus...

" in modern Chinese). He concludes there were two series of names for "one-legged mountain imps", xiao or chao in the southeastern languages of Yue and Yao
Yao people
The Yao nationality is a government classification for various minorities in China. They form one of the 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China, where they reside in the mountainous terrain of the southwest and south...

, and kui or hui "from a more western language".

Schuessler (2007:339) connects the etymologies of the word wei 犩 "wild buffalo" < Late Han ŋuɨ and the ancient word kui 夔 or 犪 "a large mythical animal of various descriptions … with one foot … as strong as an ox … a large buffalo" < Late Han guɨ < Old Chinese *grui or *gwrə. The Chinese mythical kui 夔 originated as a loanword
A loanword is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,...

 from a Kam–Tai source (cf. Proto-Tai
Tai languages
The Tai or Zhuang–Tai languages are a branch of the Tai–Kadai language family. The Tai languages include the most widely spoken of the Tai–Kadai languages, including standard Thai or Siamese, the national language of Thailand; Lao or Laotian, the national language of Laos; Burma's Shan language;...

 *γwai 'buffalo' and Sui
Sui language
The Sui language is a Tai–Kadai language spoken by the Sui people of Guizhou province, China. According to Ethnologue, the total number of speakers is around 200,000 as of 1999. Sui is also unique for its rich inventory of consonants, with the Sandong dialect having as many as 70 consonants...

 kwi < gwi 'buffalo'), comparable with Proto-Austronesian
Proto-Austronesian language
The Proto-Austronesian language is the reconstructed ancestor of the Austronesian languages, one of the world's major language families. However, Ross notes that what may be the most divergent languages, Tsou, Rukai, and Puyuma, are not addressed by the reconstructions, which therefore cannot...

 *kəbaw (cf. Tagalog
Tagalog language
Tagalog is an Austronesian language spoken as a first language by a third of the population of the Philippines and as a second language by most of the rest. It is the first language of the Philippine region IV and of Metro Manila...

 kalabao, Malay
Malay language
Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. It is the official language of Malaysia , Indonesia , Brunei and Singapore...

 kĕrbao, and Fiji
Fiji , officially the Republic of Fiji , is an island nation in Melanesia in the South Pacific Ocean about northeast of New Zealand's North Island...

 karavau). Chinese wei 犩 "wild buffalo" derives from "ultimately the same etymon as kui", but the source might have been a Tibeto-Burman
Tibeto-Burman languages
The Tibeto-Burman languages are the non-Chinese members of the Sino-Tibetan language family, over 400 of which are spoken thoughout the highlands of southeast Asia, as well as lowland areas in Burma ....

 language, compare Proto-Tibeto-Burman *Iwaay 'buffalo', Jinghpaw
The Singpho people of Arunachal Pradesh inhabit in the district of Lohit and Changlang and the Kachin State of Burma. Some are also found in the Tinsukia district of Assam. Comprising a population of at least 7,200 in India, they live in 13 villages, namely Bordumsa, Dibang, Ketetong, Pangna, Ulup,...

 ʼu-loi or ŋa-loi (ŋa 'bovine'), and Burmese
Burmese language
The Burmese language is the official language of Burma. Although the constitution officially recognizes it as the Myanmar language, most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese. Burmese is the native language of the Bamar and related sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, as well as...

 kywai < klway.

Classical usages

Kui frequently occurs in Chinese classic texts
Chinese classic texts
Chinese classic texts, or Chinese canonical texts, today often refer to the pre-Qin Chinese texts, especially the Neo-Confucian titles of Four Books and Five Classics , a selection of short books and chapters from the voluminous collection called the Thirteen Classics. All of these pre-Qin texts...

. Although some early texts are heterogeneous compositions of uncertain dates, the following discussion is presented in roughly chronological order.

Early authors agreed that the mountain dragon-demon Kui had yizu 一足 "one foot" but disagreed whether this also applied to Shun's music master Kui. Since the Chinese word zu 足 ambiguously means "foot; leg" or "enough; sufficient; fully; as much as", yizu can mean "one foot; one leg" or "one is enough". "The Confucianists," explains Eberhard (1968:58), "who personified K'ui and made him into a 'master of music', detested the idea that K'ui had only one leg and they discussed it 'away'" (e.g., Hanfeizi, Lüshi Chunqiu, and Xunzi below). Instead of straightforwardly reading Kui yi zu 夔一足 as "Kui [had] one foot", Confucianist revisionism (Carr 1990:143) construes it as "Kui, one [person like him] was enough." There is further uncertainty whether the mythical Kui was "one footed" or "one legged". Compare the English "one-footed" words uniped "a creature having only one foot (or leg)" and monopod "a creature having only one foot (or leg); a one-legged stand".


The Shujing uses kui 夔 in three chapters; two authentic (ca. 10th-6th centuries BCE) chapters mention Shun's legendary Music Minister named Kui, and one forged (ca. 4th century CE) "Old Text
Old Texts
In Chinese philology, the Old Texts refer to some versions of the Five Classics discovered during the Han Dynasty, written in archaic characters and supposedly produced before the burning of the books, as opposed to the Modern Texts or New Texts in the new orthography.The last half of the 2nd...

" chapter has kuikui "grave; dignified".

First, the "Canon of Shun" (舜典, tr. Legge 1865:47-8) says the prehistoric ruler Shun appointed Kui as Music Minister and Long 龍 "Dragon" as Communication Minister.
The Di [Emperor Shun] said, 'Kui, I appoint you to be Director of Music, and to teach our sons, so that the straightforward shall yet be mild; the gentle, dignified: the strong, not tyrannical: and the impetuous, not arrogant. Poetry is the expression of earnest thought; singing is the prolonged utterance of that expression; the notes accompany that utterance, and they are harmonized themselves by the standard tubes. (In this way) the eight different kinds of musical instruments can be adjusted so that one shall not take from or interfere with another; and spirits and men are brought into harmony.' Kui said, 'I smite the (sounding-) stone, I gently strike it, and the various animals lead on one another to dance.'

Second, "Yi and Ji" (益稷, tr. Legge 1865:87-9) elaborates the first account.
Kui said, 'When the sounding-stone is tapped or struck with force, and the lutes are strongly swept or gently touched, to accompany the singing, the progenitors (of the Di) come (to the service), the guest of Yu is in his place, and all the princes show their virtue in giving place to one another. (In the court) below (the hall) there are the flutes and hand-drums, which join in at the sound of the rattle, and cease at that of the stopper, when the organ and bells take their place. (This makes) birds and beasts fall moving. When the nine parts of the service, as arranged by the Di, have all been performed, the male and female phœnix come with their measured gambolings (into the court).' Kui said, 'Oh! when I smite the (sounding-) stone, or gently strike it, the various animals lead on one another to dance, and all the chiefs of the official departments become truly harmonious.'

Third, "The Counsels of the Great Yu" (大禹謨, tr. Legge 1865:66) uses kuikui 夔夔 "grave; dignified; awestruck" to praise Shun's filial piety
Filial piety
In Confucian ideals, filial piety is one of the virtues to be held above all else: a respect for the parents and ancestors. The Confucian classic Xiao Jing or Classic of Xiào, thought to be written around 470 BCE, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of xiào /...

 for his father Gusou 瞽叟 (lit. "Blind Old Man"); "with respectful service he appeared before Gu-sou, looking grave and awe-struck, till Gu also became transformed by his example. Entire sincerity moves spiritual beings."

Chunqiu and Zuozhuan

The (ca. 6th-5th centuries BCE) Chunqiu and (early 4th century BCE) Zuozhuan use Kui as the name of a feudal state and of the legendary Music Master.

The Chunqiu history records that in 634 BCE (僖公26, tr. Legge 1872:198) the army of Chu
Chu (state)
The State of Chu was a Zhou Dynasty vassal state in present-day central and southern China during the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States Period . Its ruling house had the surname Nai , and clan name Yan , later evolved to surname Mi , and clan name Xiong...

 destroyed Kui 夔; "In autumn, an officer of Ts'oo extinguished K'wei, and carried the viscount of K'wei back with them." Zuo's commentary notes the viscount of Kui, also written Kui 隗, was spared because the ruling families of both Chu and Kui had the same surname (see Guoyu below).

The Zuozhuan for 514 BCE (昭公28, tr. Legge1872:726-7) provides details about Kui's raven-haired wife Xuanqi 玄妻 "Dark Consort" and their swinish son Bifeng 伯封.
In ancient times the prince of Jing had a daughter, with splendid black hair and very beautiful, so that her brightness cast a light around her, and she was named 'the dark Lady'. The prince K'wei [Shun's] minister of Music, married her, and she bore to him Pih-fung, who in truth had the heart of a pig, insatiably covetous and gluttonous, quarrelsome and perverse without measure, so that men called him 'the great Pig'.


The (ca. 5th-4th centuries BCE) Guoyu
Guoyu may mean or refer to:Language* the common term in Taiwan and Hong Kong for Standard Chinese, based on Mandarin Chinese* the Xianbei language during the Northern Wei Dynasty before its sinicization...

 uses kui 夔 as a surname and a demon name. The "Discourses of Zheng" (鄭語) discusses the origins of Chinese surname
Chinese surname
Chinese family names have been historically used by Han Chinese and Sinicized Chinese ethnic groups in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among overseas Chinese communities. In ancient times two types of surnames, family names and clan names , existed.The colloquial expressions laobaixing...

s and notes that Kui was the tribal ancestor of the Mi 羋 "ram horns" clan. Since Kui was a legendary descendent of the fire god Zhu Rong
Zhu Rong (god)
Zhu Rong is the Chinese god of fire and ruler of the southern hemisphere from pre-Qin mythology. He is depicted as a proud man clad in armor wielding a sword and riding on a large tiger. He was one of the gods that helped separate Heaven and Earth and set up Universal Order.He is most famous for...

 祝融 and a member of the Mi clan, Eberhard (1968:58) explains, he was a relative to the ruling clans of Chu and Yue.

The "Discourses of Lu" (魯語下, tr. Groot 1910:5:495) records Confucius explaining three categories of guai 怪 "strange being; monster; demon; evil spirit", including the Kui who supposedly resides in the 木石 "trees and rocks".
Ki Hwan-tszĕ, a grandee of the state of Lu, caused a well to be dug, when they fetched up something like an earthen pot with a goat in it. He had Chung-ni (Confucius) interrogated about it, in these words: "I dug a well, and got a dog; tell me what this is." On which the Sage answered: "According to what I have learned, it must be a goat; for I have heard that apparitions between trees and rocks are called khwei and wang-liang, while those in the water are lung or dragons, and wang-siang, and those in the ground are called fen-yang.

De Groot (1910:5:495) says later scholars accepted this "division of spectres into those living in mountains and forests, in the water, and in the ground", which is evidently "a folk-conception older, perhaps much older, than the time of Confucius." For instance, Wei Zhao
Wei Zhao
Wei Zhao , style name Hongsi , was a scholar and politician of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history....

's (3rd century CE) commentary on the Guoyu:
Some say that the khwei have one leg. The people of Yueh (Chehkiang and northern Fuhkien) style them 繅 (sao) of the hills, which character occurs also in the form 獟 (siao). They exist in Fu-yang (about the present Hang-cheu), have a human countenance and an ape-like body, and can speak. Some say that the one-legged wang-liang are spirits (tsing) of the hills, who by imitating human voices bewilder people. (tr. Groot 1910:5:498)


The (early 3rd century BCE) Confucianist Xunzi mentions Kui twice. "Dispelling Obsession" (解蔽, tr. Watson 2003:136) says, "Many men have loved music, but Kui alone is honored by later ages as its master, because he concentrated upon it. Many men have loved righteousness, but Shun alone is honored by later ages as its master, because he concentrated upon it." Another chapter (成相 [no translation available], 夔為樂正鳥獸服) says when Kui rectified music, the wild birds and animals submitted.


The (ca. 3rd century BCE) Hanfeizi (外儲說左下, tr. Groot 1910:5:497) gives two versions of Duke Ai 哀公 of Lu (r. 494-468 BCE) asking Confucius whether Kui had one leg.
The ruler Ngai of Lu asked Confucius, saying: "I have heard that there has lived in ancient times a certain Khwei with one leg; may we really believe in his one-leggedness?" Confucius answered: "No; he was no monopod; he was a choleric, perverse, ill-natured man, who raised much discontent; but he escaped being by reason of this killed by the hand of man on account of his trustworthiness, for everybody said: 'This is the only man of one piece and complete'. Thus Khwei was not one-legged, but he was a man of a piece and complete." The ruler Ngai now said: "Thus the fact is, that he was solid and complete".

According to another reading, the ruler Ngai asked Confucius, saying: "I have heard that Khwei had one leg; does this deserve belief?" The answer was: "Khwei was a man; why should he have had no more than one leg? He had no other peculiarity but that he was versed in music". Yao said: "Khwei is of a piece and complete!" and he made him his Director of Music, and therefore princely men have described him as a man of a piece and complete, but not with one leg (tr. Groot 1910:5:497).

Lüshi Chunqiu

The (ca. 239 BCE) Lüshi Chunqiu
Lüshi Chunqiu
The Lüshi Chunqiu is an encyclopedic Chinese classic text compiled around 239 BCE under the patronage of the Qin Dynasty Chancellor Lü Buwei...

 uses kui 夔 several times. "Scrutinizing Hearsay" (察傳, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:583) records another version of Duke Ai asking Confucius about Kui's alleged one-footedness, and it states that Kui came from the caomang 草莽 "thick underbrush; wilderness; wild jungle".
As a general principle, every statement that one hears must be maturely assessed. When they have to do with human affairs, they must be tested against reason.

Duke Ai of Lu asked Confucius, "The rectifier of music, Kui, is said to have had one foot. Is that true?"

Confucius answered, "Long ago, Shun wanted to use music to transmit his teachings to the whole world, so he ordered Zhong Li to select Kui from among the 'jungle' people and promote him. Shun made him rectifier of music. Kui thereupon rectified the six pitch-standards and tuned harmoniously the five tones, circulating the winds of the eight directions and thus caused the whole world to submit generally to Shun's rule. Zhong Li wanted to find more men like Kui, but Shun said, 'Music is the vital essence of Heaven and Earth and the key to success and failure. Hence, only the sage is capable of creating harmony. Harmony is the root of all music. Kui is capable of making music harmonious and thereby of making the whole world peaceful. There is only one like Kui, and that is enough. Therefore, the statement traditionally taken to mean 'Kui has one foot,' really means 'with Kui, one is enough' [enough and foot being written the same way]."

One or two of "The Almanacs" in Lüshi Chunqiu mention kui. "On the Proper Kind of Dyeing" (當染, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:90) mentions a teacher named Meng Sukui 孟蘇夔: "It is not only the state that is subject to influences, for scholar-knights as well are subject to influences. Confucius studied under Lao Dan, Meng Sukui, and Jingshu." "Music of the Ancients" (古樂, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:149) has two passages with zhi 質 "matter; substance" that commentators read as Kui 夔.
When the Sovereign Yao ascended the throne he commanded Kui to create musical performances. Kui thereupon made songs in imitation of the sounds of the forests and valleys, he covered earthenware tubs with fresh hides and beat on them, and he slapped stones and hit rocks to imitate the sounds of the jade stone chimes of the Supreme Sovereign, with which he made the hundred wild beasts dance. … [After Shun ascended] The Sovereign Shun than ordered Kui to perform "Nine Summonings," "Six Orderings," and "Six Flowers," through which he illuminated the Power of the Sovereign.

Note that the Lüshi Chunqiu says Kui was music master for both Yao and Shun, instead of only Shun.


The (ca. 3rd-2nd centuries BCE) Daoist Zhuangzi
Zhuangzi (book)
The Taoist book Zhuangzi was named after its purported author Zhuangzi, the philosopher. Since 742 CE, when Emperor Xuanzong of Tang mandated honorific titles for Taoist texts, it has also been known as the Nánhuá Zhēnjīng , literally meaning "True Classic of Southern Florescence," alluding to...

 mentions Kui in two chapters. "Autumn Floods" (秋水, tr. Watson 1968:183) describes Kui as a one-legged creature.
The K'uei envies the millipede, the millipede envies the snake, the snake envies the wind, the wind envies the eye, and the eye envies the mind. The K'uei said to the millipede, "I have this one leg that I hop along on, though I make little progress. Now how in the world do you manage to work all those ten thousand legs of yours?" The millipede said, "You don't understand. Haven't you ever watched a man spit? He just gives a hawk and out it comes, some drops as big as pearls, some as fine as mist, raining down in a jumble of countless particles. Now all I do is put in motion the heavenly mechanism in me ‑ I'm not aware of how the thing works."

Burton Watson
Burton Watson
Burton Watson is an accomplished translator of Chinese and Japanese literature and poetry. He has received awards including the Gold Medal Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University in 1979, the PEN Translation Prize in 1981 for his translation with Hiroaki Sato of From the Country of...

 glosses Kui as "A being with only one leg. Sometimes it is described as a spirit or a strange beast, sometimes as a historical personage – the Music Master K'uei."

"Mastering Life" (達生, tr. Watson 1968:203) describes Kui as a hill demon in a story about Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685-643 BCE) seeing a ghost and becoming ill.
Duke Huan said, "But do ghosts really exist?" "Indeed they do. There is the Li on the hearth and the Chi in the stove. The heap of clutter and trash just inside the gate is where the Lei‑t'ing lives. In the northeast corner the Pei‑a and Kuei‑lung leap about, and the northwest corner is where the I‑yang lives. In the water is the Kang‑hsiang; on the hills, the Hsin; in the mountains, the K'uei; in the meadows, the P’ang‑huang; and in the marshes, the Wei‑t'o."


The (ca. 3rd century BCE-1st century CE) Shanhaijing mentions both Kui 夔 "a one-legged god of thunder and rain" and kuiniu 夔牛 "a wild yak".

The 14th chapter of the Shanhaijing, known as "The Classic of the Great Wilderness: The East" (大荒東經, tr. Birrell 1999:162) describes the mythical Kui "Awestruck", and says the Yellow Emperor
Yellow Emperor
The Yellow Emperor or Huangdi1 is a legendary Chinese sovereign and culture hero, included among the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Tradition holds that he reigned from 2697–2597 or 2696–2598 BC...

 made a drum from its hide and a drumstick from a bone of Leishen 雷神 "Thunder God" (cf. Japanese Raijin
is a god of lightning, thunder and storms in the Shinto religion and in Japanese mythology.His name is derived from the Japanese words rai and shin . He is typically depicted as a demon beating drums to create thunder, usually with the symbol tomoe drawn on the drums...

In the East Sea there is Mount Flowwave, 7000 leagues onto the sea. On its summit there is an animal. Its shape is like that of an ox, it has a bright blue body, and it has no horns, and only one foot. When it comes out of the water and goes back in, there is wind and it rains, and its glare is like that of the sun and the moon, it makes a sound like thunder. Its name is Awestruck. The Yellow Emperor captured Awestruck and made a drum out of its hide. He used a bone from the Thunder beast to hit it with. The sound of the drumming was heard for 500 leagues, and so it made all beneath heaven full of dread.

Groot (1910:5:496) infers that the in "one-legged dragon" Kui, which was "fancied to be amphibious, and to cause wind and rain", "we immediately recognize the lung or Dragon, China’s god of Water and Rain". Carr (1990:143) interprets this cang 蒼 "dark green; blue" color "as a crocodile-dragon (e.g., Jiaolong
Jiaolong or jiao is a polysemous aquatic dragon in Chinese mythology. Edward H. Schafer describes the jiao.Spiritually akin to the crocodile, and perhaps originally the same reptile, was a mysterious creature capable of many forms called the chiao . Most often it was regarded as a kind of lung – a...

) with its tail seen as 'one leg'", and cites Marcel Granet
Marcel Granet
Marcel Granet was a French sociologist, ethnologist and sinologist. As a follower of Émile Durkheim and Édouard Chavannes, Granet was one of the first to bring sociological methods to the study of China...

 that the Kui's resemblance to a drum "is owing to drumming in music and dancing".

The account of Minshan Mountain (岷山, 崌山) in the 5th chapter of the Shanhaijing, the "Classic of the Central Mountains" (tr. Birrell 1999:88-89) describes kuiniu "huge buffalo" living on two mountains near the source of the Yangtze River
Yangtze River
The Yangtze, Yangzi or Cháng Jiāng is the longest river in Asia, and the third-longest in the world. It flows for from the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai eastward across southwest, central and eastern China before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai. It is also one of the...

 長江 (lit. "long river").
Three hundred leagues further northeast is the mountain called Mount Gem. The Long River rises here and flows northeast to empty into the sea. Excellent turtles are plentiful in the Long River, and there are many alligators. Gold and jade are abundant on the summit, and on the lower slopes are quantities of white jade. The trees on the mountain are mostly plum and pear. Its animals are mostly rhinoceros, elephant, and the huge buffalo.

A hundred and fifty leagues further east is a mountain called Mount Lair. The Long River rises here and flows east to empty into the Great Long River. The Long River contains numerous strange snakes and many force-fish. The trees on this mountain are mostly hardwood oak and holmoak, and there are many plum and catalpa trees. Its animals are mostly the huge buffalo, antelope, hoofed hare, and rhinoceros.

The Shanhaijing commentary of Guo Pu
Guo Pu
Guo Pu , courtesy name Jingchun , born in Yuncheng, Shanxi, was a Chinese writer.-Biography:Guo Pu was a Taoist mystic, geomancer, collector of strange tales, editor of old texts, and erudite commentator...

 describes kuiniu 夔牛 as a large yak found in Shu
Shu (state)
The State of Shu was an ancient state in what is now Sichuan, China. It was conquered by Qin in 316 BC. Shu was based on the Chengdu Plain, in the western Sichuan basin with some extension northeast to the upper Han River valley. To the east was the Ba tribal confederation. Further east down the...

 (present-day Sichuan
' , known formerly in the West by its postal map spellings of Szechwan or Szechuan is a province in Southwest China with its capital in Chengdu...



The (ca. 2nd-1st century BCE) Liji mentions the music master Kui in two chapters. The "Record of Music" (樂記, tr. Legge 1885:2:105) explains. "Anciently, Shun made the lute with five strings, and used it in singing the Nan Fang. Khwei was the first who composed (the pieces of) music to be employed by the feudal lords as an expression of (the royal) approbation of them." The "Confucius at Home at Ease" (仲尼燕居, tr. Legge 1885:2:275-6) has Zi-gong ask whether Kui mastered li
Li (Confucian)
Li is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Li encompasses not a definitive object but rather a somewhat abstract idea; as such, it is translated in a number of different ways...

 禮 "ceremony; ritual; rites".
Ze-kung crossed over the mat and replied, 'Allow me to ask whether even Khwei was ignorant (of the ceremonial usages)?' The Master said, 'Was he not one of the ancients? Yes, he was one of them. To be versed in music, we call being poorly furnished. To be versed in the usages and not versed in music, we call being one-sided. Now Khwei was noted for his acquaintance with music, and not for his acquaintance with ceremonies, and therefore his name has been transmitted with that account of him (which your question implies). But he was one of the men of antiquity'.


Ge Hong
Ge Hong
Ge Hong , courtesy name Zhichuan , was a minor southern official during the Jìn Dynasty of China, best known for his interest in Daoism, alchemy, and techniques of longevity...

's (320 CE) Daoist Baopuzi
The Baopuzi , written by the Jin Dynasty scholar Ge Hong 葛洪 , is divided into esoteric Neipian 內篇 "Inner Chapters" and exoteric Waipian 外篇 "Outer Chapters". The Daoist Inner Chapters discuss topics such as techniques for xian 仙 "immortality; transcendence", Chinese alchemy, elixirs, and demonology...

 抱樸子 mentions kui 夔 in an "Inner Chapter" and an "Outer Chapter". "Into Mountains: Over Streams" (登涉, tr. Ware 1966:287) warns about several demons found in hills and mountains, including Kui 夔 with the variant name hui 暉 'light, brightness' (or hui 揮 'shake; wave' in some texts), "There is another mountain power, this one in the shape of a drum, colored red, and also with only one foot. Its name is Hui." "Breadth of Learning" (尚博, tr. Sailey 1978:178) mentions two music masters, Kui 夔 and Xiang 襄 (from Qin
Qin (state)
The State of Qin was a Chinese feudal state that existed during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods of Chinese history...

), "Those who play the lute are many, but it is difficult to match the master of sounds of K'uei and Hsiang."

Mythic parallels

In addition to the Kui 夔, Chinese mythology has other uniped creatures. Based on "one-legged" descriptions, Carr (1990:143) compares kui with chi
Chi (mythology)
Chi means either "a hornless dragon" or "a mountain demon" in Chinese mythology. Hornless dragons were a common motif in ancient Chinese art, and the chiwen 螭吻 Chi means either "a hornless dragon" or "a mountain demon" (namely, chimei 螭魅) in Chinese mythology. Hornless dragons were a common...

 螭 "hornless dragon; mountain demon" and hui 虺 "snake; python". The Shanhaijing (tr. Birrell 1999:15, 25, 121) mentions three one-footed creatures. The "Bellow-pot" bird "which looks like an owl; it has a human face but only one foot"; the "Endsquare" bird "which looks like a crane; it has one foot, scarlet markings on a green background, and a white beak"; and
Softsharp Country lies east of the Country of Oneeye. Its people have only one hand and only one foot. Their knees turn backwards so that their foot sticks up in the air. One author states that this is Keepsharp Country, and that the single foot of the people there turns backwards because it is broken.

Two other personages named Kui in Chinese folklore
Chinese folklore
Chinese folklore includes songs, dances, puppetry, and tales. It often tells stories of human nature, historical or legendary events, love, and the supernatural, or stories explaining natural phenomena and distinctive landmarks.-Folktales:...

 are Kui Xing
Kui Xing
Kui Xing , originally called 奎星 , also known as 大魁夫子 "Great Master Kui" or 大魁星君 "Great Kui the Star Prince", is a character in Chinese mythology, the god of examinations, and an associate or servant of the god of literature, Wen Chang....

 魁星 "the dwarfish god of examinations" and Zhong Kui
Zhong Kui
Zhong Kui is a figure of Chinese mythology. Traditionally regarded as a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings, and reputedly able to command 80,000 demons, his image is often painted on household gates as a guardian spirit, as well as in places of business where high-value goods are...

 鍾馗 "the vanquisher of ghosts and demons".

One-footed or one-legged Kui has further parallels in comparative mythology
Comparative mythology
Comparative mythology is the comparison of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify shared themes and characteristics. Comparative mythology has served a variety of academic purposes...

. For instance:
  • Empusa
    Empusa is a demigoddess of Greek mythology. In later incarnations she appeared as a species of monsters commanded by Hecate ....

     "one-footed", a demigoddess in Greek mythology
    Greek mythology
    Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

  • Monocoli "one foot" or Sciapod "shadow foot", a fabled race of people with one large foot and one center leg in Greek mythology
  • Ippon-datara 一本踏鞴 "one foot-bellows", a one-legged mountain spirit in Japanese mythology
    Japanese mythology
    Japanese mythology is a system of beliefs that embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculturally based folk religion. The Shinto pantheon comprises innumerable kami...

     (cf. Nūbē Characters)
  • Patasola
    The Patasola or "one foot" is one of many myths in South American folklore about female monsters from the jungle, appearing to male hunters or loggers in the middle of the wilderness when they think about women...

     "one foot", a vampire-like humanoid in Columbian
    Columbian is the adjective form of Columbia.Columbian can refer to:* Columbian High School * The Columbian, the U.S...

  • Saci
    Saci (Brazilian folklore)
    The Saci is considered the most popular character in Brazilian folklore. He is a one-legged black or mulatto youngster with holes in the palms of his hands, who smokes a pipe and wears a magical red cap that enables him to disappear and reappear wherever he wishes...

    , a one-legged nature-spirit in Brazilian folklore

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