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The Xiezhi in Chinese Mythology

Everybody knows how the xièzhì was a goat-like animal with a shiny black coat, who lived near water courses. Lambs and goats, bulls and cows have two horns but, the xièzhì had only one, long, spiraling horn protruding from its forehead.

All mythical animals have their unique temperament. The xièzhì was loyal and dependable. But, being a wild animal, it also had an instinctive ability to tell the righteous from the wrongdoers, and the sincere from the obsequious. So fierce was its nature, and so uncanny its ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, that whenever Minister Gao Yao was in doubt about the innocence of a person, he would call on to the xièzhì. The xièzhì would gallop through the hills and the rivers, and storm through the court gates. Once there, he would gore the guilty to death. Therefore, Gao Yao held the xièzhì in the highest esteem and respect, considering him an auspicious animal.

Historical records tell us that from the highest antiquity until the modern era, legal officials would have the image of the xièzhì embroidered on their blue and golden robes, and on their hats. Statues of the xièzhì graced the entrance to magistrates’ yamens, and the walls of the residence of imperial censors. Today, judges no longer wear elaborate robes and hats but, the xièzhì is carved on their gavels, and statues of the xièzhì greet visitors to law courts.

Some believe that the gavels and the statues make a mockery of the xièzhì’s true nature but, this belief could not be further from the truth.

The spirit of xièzhì is still with us, and it survives in the written word.
Not everyone sees how fa 法 is just one of the many different guises under which the xièzhì presents itself to those who, as Gao Yao, wrestle with doubt.

Few realize how the three drops of water radical on the left symbolize the waters close to which the xièzhì once lived, waters which were later imagined to be as even as the judgment of the xièzhì. Waters which, once stirred up, could kill as implacably as the xièzhì’s horn.

Even less are those who can recognize the horn of the xièzhì, and its supernatural ability to drive off (qu 屈) lies and insincerity in the right part of fa 法.

No one knows how we lost the ability to see what our fathers saw. And so the spirit of the xièzhì lies in wait, crouched in the thicket of the word.


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