Header image courtesy of Chen Menglei (via Wikimedia Commons)
China’s mythological realm is home to a veritable zoo of outlandish creatures that shape the cultural identity and inspires celebrated customs like feng shui. While some beasts are considered noble, four, in particular, left quite a sticky record to contend with.
For over five millenniums, the Four Perils (四凶) endured in Chinese mythology as the most malevolent beings, remembered as hundun (混沌; “chaotic torrent”), qiongqi (窮奇; “distressingly strange”), taowu (檮杌; “block stump”), and taotie (饕餮; “greedy glutton”). How did they earn such a rotten reputation and what unforgiving crimes did they commit?
Rebels against Emperor Yao: According to Zuo Zhuan (左傳), before primordial China was united by the Yellow Emperor (黃帝), tribal rebellions ran rampant. During the fabled Emperor Yao’s (堯帝) reign, there arose four clan leaders who were particularly disobedient, namely Gonggong (共工), Huandou (驩兜), Gun (鯀), and Sanmiao (三苗). In order to punish their defiance, Yao banished all four barbaric communities. When the rebel leaders died, they continued to haunt the region as the “Four Perils.” Gonggong resurrected into the qiongqi; Huandou became the hundun; Gun reincarnated into the taowu; and Sanmiao took the form of the taotie. As for why they ravage the lands as who they are, it is speculated that the tribes used to carve these chimerical creatures on their totems to display reverence.
Blue bloods’ fall from grace: Records of the Grand Historian (史記) offers a second version of the monsters’ tale of depravity, narrating the regrettable discontinuation of the Yellow Emperor’s legacy. Befouling his lineage head-on is the Yellow Emperor’s own son, who wreaks havoc as the hundun. Next in line is the qiongqi, whose father is the legendary monarch of Shaohao (少皞), the Yellow Emperor’s eldest child. A few generations later, fictional sovereign Zhuanxu (顓頊)—grandson of the Yellow Emperor—raised the unruly taowu, who joined as the “Third Peril.” Finally, the Jinyun family (縉雲氏), who once served as the Yellow Emperor’s officials, bore the taotie, the last Peril.
While often considered an entity under the umbrella term of “Four Perils,” the infamous four surprisingly exist quite far apart from each other. Unlike the Four Symbols, the perilous four work independently, spawning a number of interesting backstories of their own.
Cosmology fans might find the hundun familiar, as it illustrates the condition of primordial chaos before Heaven and Earth separated. Hundun the beast is exactly like it—pure chaos. Based in West Kunlun, the faceless being is said to have eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, a torso with no organs, and an intestine that cannot digest. Its only undebatable trait is probably its resemblance to a dog—petite, coated in long fur, and on all fours.
Apart from its appearance, the hundun’s mind is also as messed-up as a muddled-up universe. As a creature that allegedly antagonises the upstanding and befriends the corrupt, it is likened to undiscerning individuals who fail to distinguish right from wrong. In a Confucius society that rewards moral ascension with sainthood and imperial office titles, it’s not hard to see why people like the hundun are considered beyond redemption.
Compared to the hundun, the qiongqi boasts a wider scope of activity, as records say it has been seen from Shaanxi all the way to Inner Mongolia. Funnily enough, the beast appears to have transformed physically on its journey, as the mythical encyclopaedia The Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經) documented two distinct profiles for the qiongqi.
Canonical sightings in the Shaanxi area suggests that the qiongqi is a winged tiger, whereas Mongolian versions claim the creature bears a cow’s physique and a hedgehog’s spikes. Shenyijing (神異經)—another mythological classic—asserts the qiongqi to look like a cow sporting a long fox’s tail, piercing fangs and claws, and a dog’s head and bark.
Armed with aggressive physical qualities, the qiongqi is no human’s best friend. Famed for being disloyal and belligerent, the creature is said to hover over places where disagreements reign and to eat the nose of the righteous party. Having ended the dispute bloody, it then proceeds to flatter the bullies with the game it caught. As a merciless and undiscerning people-pleaser, the qiongqi was associated with the entourage of despicable personalities. Rumours have it that the beast met a brutal end at the hands of Emperor Shun (舜帝).
If you are well-versed in Chinese characters, you can probably guess the taotie’s forte: eating. As far as legends go, the taotie is no joke when it comes to feeding itself. Zuo Zhuan described the creature as an ill-disciplined eater who is oblivious to surrounding agony.
In the taotie’s eyes, everything is eatable, including its own body, hence why it is said to have died after overeating and consuming oneself. The Classics of Mountains and Seas and Shenyijing later confirm the taotie’s greedy nature while supplementing details of its ungainly appearance: a human-faced, sheep-bodied species with eyes below the armpit and an infant’s voice. It is sometimes known as a paoxiao (狍鴞).
For its insatiable appetite, the taotie conveniently becomes the equivalent of gluttony, but how did it acquire such a colossal stomach? According to folklore, when Chiyou (蚩尤) lost to the Yellow Emperor in the epic tribal war, he was decapitated as retribution. His cruel, sudden death led him to accumulate so much dark energy that his head eventually grew into the taotie and it gained the superpower of swallowing everything in sight. As a war-bred creature, the taotie also emerged as a symbol of violence and military prowess and was extensively engraved into bronze vessels, especially in the Shang dynasty.
With a name that translates into “block stump,” the taowu seems more like a benign spirit than a beast. In fact, its name stems from the title of an authoritative ancient chronicle that compares history to wood grains on tree trunks! However, the Shenyijing nicknamed the beast “aohen” (傲狠; “arrogant and ferocious”) and “nanxun” (難訓; “hard to tame”).
Inhabiting the wilderness of western China, it is said that the creature bears the features of a tiger while covered in dog fur. A pair of protruding boar fangs and an extremely long tail make up the rest of its appearance. According to Zuo Zhuan, stubbornness is the taowu’s fatal flaw. It would growl at criticism or advice and remain ignorant of societal etiquette.
Mythical lives are unique in the sense that they are completely subjected to the imagination of the masses; therefore, it should come as no surprise that these creatures also had more than their fair share of redeemable qualities to balance out their rock-bottom reputations.
Hundun the mountain deity: The Classic of Mountains and Seas claims that the hundun—written in different Chinese logographs (渾敦)—ought to be a mountain deity called the di-jiang (帝江) instead. Still lacking distinguishable facial features, the patron god is depicted as a pouch-like bird flaunting four angel wings and six petite limbs. Dressed in brilliant red, the divine species appears to have a flair for singing and dancing.
Qiongqi the auspicious beast: Before The Classic of Mountains and Seas and Shenyijing assumed complete ownership of the mythological realm, the qiongqi was mentioned in the Book of the Later Han (後漢書) as part of a pest elimination practice on the eve of Laba Festival, the Buddha’s enlightenment day. Contrary to the folklore classics, the qiongqi was greatly lauded for its contribution to a Laba holiday free of hazardous insects.
Taotie the sacred symbol: Although the Four Perils are rumoured to show up on totems of primal societies, only the taotie bears rich archaeological evidence. A familiar face on bronze vessels before the Zhou dynasty, the taotie is perceived by academics as a prestigious messenger who bridges the tribal population and the supernatural, if not a reflection of a deity itself. In the Ming period, there was even a brief hype surrounding the relentless eater, claiming it was one of the nine children of the dragon (龍之九子)—although the former was soon proved to exist on totem poles much earlier than the dragons.
Of this, we are not quite sure. Perhaps they are both; some sources assert that the carnivorous qiongqi might have eventually embraced benevolence. Others perceive the matter from a historical standpoint, where a fallen faction’s animal representative is bound to be demonised by the triumphant party. Maybe people thought the four historical species look malevolent, so that is precisely what they have embodied in generations to come.
While Chinese mythology proclaims the Four Perils to be the most wretched creatures to ever grace human consciousness, it is exactly they who serve as a solid cautionary word for many who struggle to contend with a world of ambivalent values. Sometimes, all you need is a black-and-white tale that puts forth a simple lesson: Never be like the Four Perils.