By Sara Olsen
Needle at Sea Bottom is not just the name of a posture in the Yang Form. It is an example of how myth and fact have blended throughout China’s long history to become accepted as history. Accounts of events and figures from the earliest Neolithic years were not recorded in writing until much later. The exploits of great mythical and historical figures preserved for centuries in spoken tales made their way into written records in many different versions. One of the earliest myths, the story of Great Yu concerns events over 4,000 year old.
The story of Yu is bound up with the history of the Yellow River, which watered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Sometimes called “China’s Sorrow”, the life-giving river also took lives, repeatedly bursting its banks in floods and changing course 26 times over 2000 years. “Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China”, said Yu. He is described as an engineer, a man of great virtue dedicated to serving the people and he is credited with the first “taming” of the river. The basis of his moral teachings were deciphered from a scroll of writing on the back of a “divine tortoise” which had presented itself to him while he was engaged in drawing off the floods. Because of his actions, he was made Emperor and is credited with founding the Xia Dynasty (2205-1767 BC).
Another version of Yu’s life relates that he and his father Gun were superhuman beings who attempted to help the ancient earth, which was covered by floods, Gun stole from heaven the magic “ever-swelling soil” to construct dams. When he failed and died, Yu took over and constructed channels for the water to drain to the sea. He fashioned the land into nine islands or provinces, which he gave to the humans.
In a much later story, Great Yu tamed floods with the help of Ying Dragon and a great iron chain, Ying Dragon’s tail would split in two blockages on the river, and Great Yu would leave a great iron chain to hang down to the river bottom. After taming the floods, Great Yu or Wondrous Yu chained up the dragon to prevent trouble. In both these versions, Great Yu accomplishes his work by not fighting the waters. Dams failed because earth cannot control water. Channeling the water worked after iron was used to stabilize the flow by making the water heavy.
Finally, Yu the Great is honored by inclusion in the well-known 16th century literary work Journey to the West. In Volume I, Chapter 3 of this epic, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, called a meeting on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. His followers had all trained diligently on weapons taken from the palace of the Prince of Aolai, but the Monkey King lacked a suitable weapon for himself. His advisers stated that a Divine Sage should not have to use an earthly weapon and urged the Monkey King to travel underwater to the Dragon palace of the Eastern Sea and ask for whatever weapon he would like. The Monkey King journeyed under the sea and was announced as an Exalted Immortal to Ao Guang, the Old Dragon King. The Monkey King made known his need and desire for a weapon. An increasingly anxious Ao Guang, the Old Dragon King offered him first a large sword, then a nine- pronged spear and last a patterned heavenly halberd, The Monkey King tried and rejected them all as “too light, far too light”, despite the Old Dragon King, Ao Guang’s cry that each weapon weighed thousands of pounds.
Seeing the Old Dragon King, Ao Guang’s terror, his Dragon wife and daughters spoke of a piece of iron shining with a rosy glow, “That piece of miraculous iron is one of the nails that Yu the Great used to fix the depth of rivers and seas when he brought the waters under control”, said the Dragon King. “What use could it be?” However, Ao Guang described the iron nail to The Monkey King who was eager to try it out. He found it to be an iron pillar 20 feet long and very thick. He voiced the wish that it be shorter and thinner, whereupon it immediately shrank. Tossing it into the air, he wished for it to be thinner still, and so it was. Examining it closely, he saw two gold bands around the black iron middle part with the line of writing “As You Will Gold Banded Cudgel: Weight 13,500 pounds.” Delighted with his new weapon, the Monkey King, the Heaven Born King, frightened the Old Dragon King into calling forth his brothers the Dragon Kings of Southern, Northern, and Western Seas so that he could obtain clothes worthy of his new weapon, the iron cudgel. The Dragon Kings vowed among themselves to file a protest with heaven about the Monkey King’s behavior. But fearing the powers of the Monkey King and his weapon, the Dragon Kings gifted him with lotus-root cloud-walking shoes, a suit of golden chain mail, and a phoenix-winged purple gold helmet.
The Monkey returned to his Mountain and awed his followers with his iron weapon and his glorious appearance. By chanting “shrink, shrink, shrink” the Monkey King’s great iron pillar could shrink to needle size and be hidden in his ear, Then when he chanted, “grow, grow, grow” the needle could grow back to twenty feet long and be as thick as a peck of grain. The Monkey King exclaimed to his followers that everything has its rightful owner. The iron piece had been lying in the sea treasury for thousand of years but it just started shining this year. None of the Dragon King’s men could move it, so he fetched it himself. And so he, the Monkey King, Heaven Born Sage, claimed the iron pillar as his personal weapon.
Engineer, ruler, superhuman being, and literary allusion are all fitting names for the Great Yu. There are other versions of his story not listed here, including one recorded in 4th century B.C.E. that seems to emphasize Confucian qualities of diligence and piety, And even though his name does not appear in its title, Great Yu’s story in all of its versions is the story of “Needle at Sea Bottom…”
“The Journal of the International Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Association”, Number 16. Spring 2005.
- Wu Cheng’en, Journey To The West. Translated by WJJ. Jenner
- Wu Cheng’en, Journey To The West. Translated by Anthony C.
- Yu Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature Lang-xian “Censor Xue Finds Immortality in the Guise of a Fish”