Chi (mythology)

Han Dynasty jade ring of a chi 螭 dragon
A chishou 螭首 gargoyle

Chi (Chinese: ; pinyin: chī; Wade–Giles: ch'ih) means either "a hornless dragon" or "a mountain demon" (namely, chimei 螭魅) in Chinese mythology. Hornless dragons were a common motif in ancient Chinese art, and the chiwen 螭吻 (lit. "hornless-dragon mouth") was an Imperial roof decoration in traditional Chinese architecture.


In Modern Standard Chinese usage, chi 螭 "hornless dragon" occurs in words such as:

Note that the following discussion of the word chi 螭's written forms and etymological origins requires using some jargon linguistics and sinology. See also 9 sons of the dragon.


Ancient Seal Script for chi 螭 "a dragon; a demon"

The Chinese character for chi "hornless dragon" combines the "bug radical" (typically signifying words for insect, reptiles, and dragons, e.g., shen 蜃) with a phonetic of chi or li "mountain demon; leave". This phonetic element 离 is pronounced either chi when used for chi 螭 "demon; dragon" or li when used for li ("with the "bird radical" 隹) "leave; part from; ☲ The Clinging bagua". The (ca. 3rd century BCE) Seal script character for 螭, which is the earliest known writing, has the same radical-phonetic combination.

This chi 螭 "hornless dragon" is also a variant Chinese character for chi (differentiated with the "ghost radical" ) "mountain demon", which only occurs in the compound chimei 魑魅 "mountain and forest demons; evil spirits; goblins". Chimei 魑魅 is sometimes written 螭魅 or 螭鬽 with chi 螭. Note the "ghost radical" in the mei characters 魅 (with a phonetic of wei ) and (with the "hair radical" representing the demon's hair, cf. chi 螭's variant ).

The (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi, which was the first Chinese dictionary of characters, gives chi 离, 螭, and 魑 definitions (tr. Carr 1990:137, cf. Visser 1913:101).

This dilou 地螻 "earth cricket" compares with the tulou 土螻 "earth cricket," which the Shanhaijing (2, tr. Birrell 2000:23) mentions on 昆侖邱 ("Kunlun Mound"), "There is an animal here [Mound of Offspringline] which looks like a ram, but has four horns. Its name is the earth-cricket. It devours humans."


The etymology of chi "dragon; demon" is obscure. Carr (1990:138-139) reviews three proposals by Peter A. Boodberg, Paul K. Benedict, and James Matisoff.

Boodberg (1935, 1979:165-7) proposed that chi 螭 or 魑 etymologically descends frolm a Sino-Tibetan root *brong-bri "wild oxen", from *brong "wild bull" and *bri or *brien "wild cow". He described this root as a "semantic atom, a referential complex with the meaning of 'wild' → 'wild animal' → 'couple'", and applied this etymon to many male and female animal couples, including *lywung < *blwong 龍 "male dragon" and *t'ia 魑 "female dragon". Compare how Yin and Yang cosmology dichotomized rainbow-dragons between Yang/male hong "primary rainbow" and Yin/female ni "secondary rainbow". Benedict (1976:190) noted how Bernhard Karlgren (1957:26) inconsistently reconstructed Old Chinese *t'lia for chi 离 "a mountain demon", 魑 "a kind of demon", and 螭 "a kind of dragon; a demon"; but *lia for all the other words in this phonetic series (e.g., li "drip", li "ornamental scarf"). Benedict reconstructed Old Chinese *xlia 魑 "a mountain demon", deriving from a Proto-Tibeto-Burman *sri(-n) "demon" root, also evident in Tibetan sri "a species of devil or demon; a vampire", srin-po "demons", and Lushai hri < *sri "the spirit believed to cause sickness". He additionally hypothesized the *xlia 离 phonetic was cognate with shen < *[ly]yěn "spirit; god" from Proto-Tibeto-Burman *[s-l]-rin < *[s-]rin.

Matisoff (1985:63) analyzes Benedict's *sri(-n) "demon" root as *s-r-i-n, and links Chinese *xlia 魑 with another Tibetan cognate hdre-srin "goblins and demons" (from hdre "goblin; demon; evil spirit").

Schuessler (2007:186) reconstructed Old Chinese *rhai for chi 离, 魑, and 螭 "mountain demon", and proposed a Sino-Tibetan etymology comparable with Tibetan ’dre < ɴdre "goblin; demon, evil spirit" and gre-bo "species of demon", Tangkhul rai "unclean spirit", Bodo ráj "devil", and possibly Proto-Kam–Sui la:l "devil; ghost" borrowed from Chinese.


Chinese classic texts use chi 螭 to mean both "a hornless dragon" and "a mountain demon". The following discussion focuses upon earliest recorded usages in pre-Han texts, some of which have uncertain dates of compilation.

Hornless dragon

The (ca. 239 BCE) Lüshi Chunqiu quotes Confucius comparing long 龍 "dragons", chi 螭 "hornless dragons", and yu 魚 "fish".

The dragon eats and swims in clear water; the one-footed dragon eats in clean water but swims in muddy water; fish eat and swim in muddy water. Now, I have not ascended to the level of a dragon but I have not descended to that of fish. I am perhaps a one-footed dragon!" (舉難, tr. Knoblock and Riegel 2000:505)

The reason for translating "one-footed dragon" is unclear, compare the legendary Kui "a one-footed dragon".

The (ca. 2nd century CE) Chuci uses chi 螭 five times, which is more than any other Chinese classic. Two contexts mention xuanchi 玄螭 "dark/black hornless-dragon"; (遠遊, tr. Hawkes 1985:198) "They lined water monsters up to join them in the dance"; and (思忠, tr. Hawkes 1985:275) , "Driving black dragons, I travel northwards." Another mentions qingqiu 青虯 "green horned-dragons" and 白螭 "white hornless-dragons"; (涉江, tr. Hawkes 1985:160) "With a team of azure dragons, white serpents in the traces." Two final contexts mention chi 螭 with long 龍 "dragons"; one describes a team of four dragons, (河伯, tr. Hawkes 1985:114) "I ride a water chariot with a canopy of lotus; Two dragons draw it, between two water-serpents"; the other uses the compound chilong 螭龍 "hornless dragon", (大招, tr. Hawkes 1985:233), "And water dragons swim side by side, swiftly darting above and below."

The (ca. 139 BCE) Huainanzi "Peering into the Obscure" chapter (覽冥訓) mentions chichi 赤螭 "red hornless-dragon" and baichi 白螭 "white hornless-dragon". The former occurs with qingqiu 青虯 "green horned-dragon"; (tr. Le Blanc 1987:144) "When the red hornless dragon and the green horned dragon roamed the land of Chi 冀, the sky was limpid and the earth undisturbed." The latter occurs with benshe 奔蛇 "fast snake", (tr. Le Blanc 1987:162), the chariot of Fu Xi and Nüwa was "preceded by white serpents and followed by speeding snakes."

The (ca. 100 BCE) Shiji "Records of the Grand Historian" biography of Sima Xiangru includes two of his fu 賦 poems (tr. Watson 1993:2:309, 312) that mention chichi 赤螭 "red hornless dragons." "The Shanglin Park" 上林賦 mentions them with jiaolong 蛟龍, "Here horned dragons and red hornless dragons"; "Sir Fantasy" 子虛賦 mentions them with qingqiu 青虯, "red hornless dragons and green horned dragons."

The above texts describe black, white, and red chi 螭 "hornless dragons", which contradicts the Shuowen Jiezi "like a dragon and yellow" definition. However, a possible explanation might be found in the Hanshu (揚雄傳) commentary of Wei Zhao, which describes the chi 螭 demon as "resembling a tiger with scales".

Many later dictionaries define a contrast between qiu 虯 "horned dragon" and chi 螭 "hornless", for instance, the (ca. 230 CE) Guangya, (997 CE) Longkan Shoujian, and (ca. 1080 CE) Piya.

Groot (1910:5:1141-2) provides a picture of a sepulchral stone tablet decorated with a chi and the Gujin Tushu Jicheng illustration of this hornless dragon.

Mountain demon

Chimi-mōryō 魑魅魍魎 illustration from the 1802 CE Japanese Hyakkiyako-Bakemonogatari 百鬼夜講化物語

The chi 螭 "dragon" variant for chimei 螭魅 or 魑魅 "demon; evil spirit" only occurs as a bound morpheme in chimei, but mei 魅 occurs in other expressions such as meili 魅力 (with "power") "enchantment; fascination; charm". Both modern Chinese and Japanese normally use "ghost radical" 鬼 characters to write chimei or chimi 魑魅 and wangliang or mōryō 魍魎, but these were not regularly used in classical texts. The (111 CE) Hanshu first wrote chimei as 魑魅, but earlier texts (e.g., Zuozhuan below, and [91 BCE] Shiji) wrote it as 螭魅, with the "hornless dragon" variant. The (ca. 4th century BCE Guoyu) first wrote wangliang as 魍魎, but more classics (e.g., Shuoyuan, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, and Chuci) phonetically wrote it as 罔兩, without the "ghost radical".

Chimei 螭魅 is joined with wangliang in the expression chimei-wangliang 魑魅魍魎 "demons and monsters; evil spirits". Since some commentators differentiate between chimei "demons of the mountains and forests" and wangliang "demons of the rivers and marshes", notes Carr (1990:137), chimei-wangliang can mean either "'demons, monsters' generally or 'mountain and water demons' separately". Groot (1910:5:505) describes chimei as "another demon-tribe" because the "Chinese place in their great class of hill-spirits certain quadrumana, besides actual human beings, mountaineers alien to Chinese culture, perhaps a dying race of aborigines."

The (ca. 389 BCE) Zuozhuan commentary to the Chunqiu has the earliest textual usages of both chimei 螭魅 and chimei-wangliang 螭魅罔兩.

Both the chimei contexts concern banishing evildoers into dangerous wilderness regions. The former (文公18; tr. Legge 1872:283) refers to the Sixiong 四凶 "Four Fiends" (Hundun 渾敦, Qiongqi 窮奇, Taowu 檮杌, and Taotie 饕餮); the legendary ruler Shun, "banished these four wicked ones, Chaos, Monster, Block, and Glutton, casting them out into the four distant regions, to meet the spite of the sprites and evil things". Du Yu's commentary glosses chimei demons as "born in the strange qi of mountains and forests, harmful to humans". The latter context (昭公 9, tr. Legge 1872:625) only mentions the villainous Taowu; "The ancient kings located T'aou-wuh in [one of] the four distant regions, to encounter the sprites and other evil things."

The chimei-wangliang 螭魅罔兩 context (宣公3 , tr. Legge 1872:293) records how Yu the Great, legendary founder of the Xia Dynasty, cast nine instructional bronze ding "tripod cauldrons" to acquant people with all the dangerous creatures in China's Nine Provinces.

Anciently, when Hea was distinguished for its virtue, the distant regions sent pictures of the [remarkable] objects in them. The nine pastors sent in the metal of their provinces, and the tripods were cast, with representations on them of those objects. All the objects were represented, and [instructions were given] of the preparations to be made in reference to them, so that the people might know the sprites and evil things. Thus the people, when they went among the rivers, marshes, hills, and forests, did not meet with the injurious things, and the hill-sprites, monstrous things, and water-sprites, did not meet with them [to do them injury].

Note how Legge translates each chimei-wangliang "demons; monsters" syllable individually: chimei "injurious things, and the hill-sprites" and wangliang "monstrous things, and water-sprites".

Wang Chong's (late 1st century CE) Lunheng 論衡 (tr. Groot 1910:5:506) considers the chimei as a dragon hybrid, "Those who give their opinion on the ch‘i, state that they are dragon-like beings; therefore, as the word mei is copulated to (the name of) a dragon, the mei must be a congener of this animal."

Mythic parallels

Horned dragon roof decoration in Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai

In Chinese folklore and art, most dragons, including the long 龍, are represented with two horns. Besides the chi 螭, only a few dragons supposedly lacked horns, for instance, jiaolong 蛟龍 "aquatic dragon; hornless dragon; crocodile" or qiulong 虯龍 "horned dragon; hornless dragon".

In comparative mythology as well, horned dragons are generally more common than hornless ones. Based upon the chishou 螭首 "hornless-dragon head" roof adornment, Kroll (1989:329) translates chi as wyvern, "a footed winged dragon with a serpent's tail, becoming in medieval times an oft-pictured heraldic beast."


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