Ximen Bao was a politician and philosopher who lived in the state of Wei between the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, during Ancient China’s Antiquity. He gained fame for two things: abolishing human sacrifices made in honor of Hebo (god of the Yellow River) and being considered the country’s first hydraulic engineer. He achieved the latter by damming a river to create a large reservoir for irrigation channels to supply an entire region.

China wasn’t always a united nation and had to undergo a long and tumultuous founding process. The Ancient phase, following the Period of the Three Augusts and Five Emperors, divided into two stages: the Xia dynasty (considered China’s first) and the Shang dynasty, spanning from 2020 BCE to 1046 BCE.

The third dynasty, Zhou, overlapped with the Spring and Autumn Period from 771 BCE to 476 BCE. The end of Zhou rule coincided with the rise of the Qin dynasty, which unified China through coalitions and civil wars from 476 BCE to 221 BCE, known as the Warring States period. The contending states were named after ruling families: Wei, Zhao, Han, and Zhi.

The first three, stemming from the disintegration of a larger previous state, Jin, allied against Zhei and divided Chinese territory among themselves. Ximen Bao, whose birthplace and date are unknown, entered the service of Marquis Wen of Wei, who ruled from 445 BCE to 396 BCE. Historian Sima Qian praised Marquis Wen for his eagerness to learn and hiring wise advisors, including philosophers like Bu Shang (better known as Zixia), a disciple of Confucius, and Li Kui, author of a legal code.

Li Kui played a crucial role because he was appointed chancellor with the task of implementing administrative reforms to improve people’s lives. Following his principles, such as “food requires labor, salary requires meritorious service” and “utility will be rewarded”, Li Kui aimed to enhance agricultural production by organizing a canal system for irrigation. For this task, he enlisted the help of Ximen Bao.

Ximen Bao’s military achievements seemed to endorse his capabilities, but he would not wage wars on the battlefield; instead, he focused on cultivation. Around 400 BCE, when appointed magistrate of the Ye region (with its capital in Yecheng, south of present-day Hebei province), Ximen Bao inspected the terrain and saw the potential to divert the Zhang River, then a tributary of the Yellow River, to create a reservoir supplying a network of canals. Thus, he initiated the project known as the Twelve Canals of the Zhangshui River (sometimes simply called the Zhangshui Canal or even the Ximen Canal).

Eregli Bob on Wikimedia Commons

The Lüshi Chunqiu, an encyclopedia compiled around 239 BCE under the sponsorship of Lü Buwei, chancellor of the Qin dynasty, states that this project was actually undertaken a century later at the initiative of Shi Chi, an efficient official of King Xiang of Wei. Shi Chi criticized Ximen Bao for not knowing how to divert the river’s course. However, many experts suspect that the text was later edited for propaganda purposes, and some attempt to reconcile the views by attributing different aspects of the work to each individual.

In a stretch of twenty kilometers, twelve dams were excavated, each with its corresponding canal, allowing the diversion of the river. Instead of flowing into the Yellow River at Anyang (north of Henan province), it now did so downstream, near the present-day city of Tianjin (overlooking the Bohai Sea or Gulf of Chihli). The Zhang River originates in the mountains of Shanxi province, flowing southwest to feed the Yellow River with a substantial, sediment-rich flow. Since then, part of its flow has been directed to the vast farmlands of Henei (over four hundred square kilometers).

The exact start date of the project is unknown, but it is estimated to have occurred between 403 BCE and 387 BCE, during the reigns of Marquis Wen and his successor, Wu. Unfortunately for Ximen Bao, he did not witness the project’s completion (which lasted a century) due to popular resistance, delaying the timeline. The workforce was compelled, not by slaves, but by the people, in a form of unpaid personal service to the state (resembling Western corvée or Inca mita).

Despite the challenges, the Twelve Canals allowed the region to achieve abundant harvests year after year, not only through irrigation but also by reducing the threat of river flooding. Much later, during the Han dynasty, there was a proposal to merge three of the canals, but people opposed it, fearing it would jeopardize Ximen Bao’s legacy. They invoked Li Kui’s Legal Code, which stated that a wise regulation should not be changed, and successfully convinced the governor to abandon the idea. This irrigation system lasted until 1959 when it was replaced by a large dam holding 1.3 billion cubic meters.

As evident, Ximen Bao had gained great popularity and left a magnificent legacy. A temple was built in his honor in the village of Beifeng, and a popular song was composed. However, this was not solely due to the construction of the Twelve Canals but also to an episode known as “Hebo’s Bride”, where he abolished the ancient custom of sacrificing a human to prevent river floods that could ruin crops and property.

Hebo was the god of the Huang He, the Yellow River. As one of the world’s largest rivers, it brought great benefits but also significant catastrophes. It irrigated vast agricultural areas, playing a key role in China’s civilization development, akin to the Nile in Egypt or the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia. However, its unpredictable floods also caused material and human disasters, sometimes leading to the creation of new riverbeds. Hence, it’s not surprising that Hebo was attributed his own divinity.

Chronologically, this attribution aligns with the times of Fu Xi, a mythical ruler of the Period of the Three Augusts and Five Emperors (also credited as the inventor of writing, hunting, and fishing). The worship’s origin was believed to be in Kunlun, a Chinese mythological mountain filled with fantastical creatures and immortal beings, considered an axis mundi and the source of the four main rivers flowing towards the four cardinal points. Incidentally, Kunlun was also where Fu Xi supposedly married his sister Nüwa, with divine approval, as they were the only surviving humans after an apocalyptic flood.

Hebo, also called Bingyi (etymologically, He translates to river, and bo as lord or count), was often depicted as a hybrid of man and fish, sometimes riding a chariot pulled by two dragons. The issue was that, like the river, he embodied both benevolence and unpredictability, leading to destruction. To appease him, human sacrifices, as evidenced by oracle bone inscriptions, were a common practice.

The first documented sacrifices occurred during the Shang dynasty and persisted into the Warring States period. These sacrifices often involved animals, mainly white-fronted cattle, snub-nosed pigs, and occasionally even horses, thrown into the water alive to drown, accompanied by other material offerings, including valuable jade objects. However, human sacrifices, especially young and virgin girls with long hair intended for marriage to Hebo, also took place.

They were placed on a raft pushed to the river’s center, where it sank, drowning the occupant (as swimming was uncommon at that time). This ceremony was known as “Hebo’s Bride”, and Ximen Bao stumbled upon it by chance. When he asked the locals of Yi about their most significant problem, expecting answers related to floods, he was surprised to hear about this ritual that imposed burdensome taxes and the tragedy of endangering their young daughters if they couldn’t pay (wealthy families were exempt).

But the situation was even worse. Only a small part of that tax went toward funding the ceremony; the rest went into the pockets of the local Three Elders, called San Lao, Tingbu, and Wu Zhu. They were responsible for education and wielded significant influence over the peasants. In collaboration with other traditional-minded elders, an old shaman, her disciples, and several administrators, they had set up a lucrative business. In essence, there was an infamous combination of human sacrifice, blackmail, and corruption that not only impacted people’s economy but also demographics, as many parents chose to send their daughters to other regions without this ritual.

Ximen Bao tackled the issue astutely and indirectly. He feigned interest in attending one of these events in a village. Once everyone was gathered, several thousand locals, he demanded to examine the chosen maiden first. He then claimed that she didn’t meet the beauty requirements, and sacrificing her would displease Hebo. It was necessary to postpone everything until a suitable maiden was found. In the meantime, he had the shaman thrown into the river, feigning ignorance of her absence afterward. She had drowned, and Bao ordered the same fate for his disciples first and the Three Elders later, all of whom perished.

He then summoned the other elders and administrators to continue in the same manner. The summoned individuals understood what was happening, as it was an open secret: they had been discovered and were being executed. They knelt, begging for forgiveness. This way, Ximen Bao gained the trust of the people of Ye and their cooperation in initiating the Twelve Canals project. The custom of bridal sacrifice was abolished (except sporadic cases with animals, as mentioned), although in other regions, it persisted with human victims until the time of Qin Shi Huang, the unifier and first emperor of China, who reigned from 221 BCE to 210 BCE. The one who lost out was Hebo, who was left without a supply of wives.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 23, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Ximen Bao, el ingeniero hidráulico que creó el primer sistema de canales de riego en China y suprimió los sacrificios humanos


Gregorio Doval Huecas, Breve historia de la China milenaria | Romer Cornejo (coord.), China. Estudios y ensayos en honor a Flora Botton Beja | Joseph Needham, Science & Civilisation in China | Richard E. Strassberg, A Chinese bestiary. Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas | Anthony Christie, Chinese mitology | Wikipedia

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