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Kui from a 1786 edition of shanhaijing

Kui (Chinese: 夔; pinyin: kuí; Wade-Giles: k'uei) is a polysemous figure in ancient Chinese mythology. 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, a drum, or a monkey with a human face; and for the Kuiniu wild yak or buffalo.


  • The (ca. 3rd-2nd centuries BCE) Daoist Zhuangzi 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 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. 5th-4th centuries BCE) Guoyu uses kui 夔 as a surname and a demon name. The Discourses of Zheng(鄭語) discusses the origins of Chinese surnames and notes that Kui was the tribal ancestor of the Mi W羋|羋 (ram horns) clan. Since Kui was a legendary descendent of the fire god Zhu Rong 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, 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'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)

  • Ge Hong's (320 CE) Daoist Baopuzi 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), "Those who play the lute are many, but it is difficult to match the master of sounds of K'uei and Hsiang."

See also


  • Birrell, Anne, tr. 2000. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin.
  • Carr, Michael. 1990. Chinese Dragon Names, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 13.2:87-189.
  • De Groot, Jan Jakob Maria. 1892-1910. The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith. 6 volumes. Brill Publishers.
  • Eberhard, Wolfram. 1968. The Local Cultures of South and East China. E. J. Brill.
  • Hawkes, David, tr. 1985. The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. Penguin.
  • Karlgren, Bernhard. 1957. Grammata Serica Recensa. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
  • Knoblock, John and Jeffrey Riegel, trs. 2000. The Annals of Lü Buwei: A Complete Translation and Study. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Legge, James, tr. 1865. The Chinese Classics, Vol. III, The Shoo King. Oxford University Press.
  • Legge, James, tr. 1872. The Chinese Classics, Vol. V, The Ch'un Ts'ew with the Tso Chuen. Oxford University Press.
  • Legge, James, tr. 1885. The Li Ki, 2 vols. Oxford University Press.
  • Mathews, Robert H., ed. 1931. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary. Presbyterian Mission Press. Rev. American ed. 1943. Harvard University Press.
  • Read, Bernard. E. 1931. Chinese Materia Medica, Animal Drugs. Peking Natural History Bulletin.
  • Sailey, Jay, tr. 1978. The Master Who Embraces Simplicity: A study of the philosopher Ko Hung, A.D. 283-343. Chinese Materials Center.