Yubu, translated as Pace(s) of Yu or Step(s) of Yu, is the basic mystic dance step of religious Daoism. This ancient walking or dancing technique typically involves dragging one foot after another, and is explained in reference to the legendary Yu the Great, who became lame on one side of his body from exerting himself while establishing order in the world after the Great Flood. Daoist religions, especially during the Six Dynasties period (220–589), incorporated Yubu into rituals, such as the Bugang 步罡 “pace the Big Dipper”, in which a Taoist priest would symbolically walk the nine stars of the Beidou 北斗 “Big Dipper” in order to acquire that constellation’s supernatural energy.
The term Yubu 禹步, defined as boxing 跛行 “limp; walk lame” (Hanyu Da Cidian 1993 1.664), compounds two Chinese words.
Yu 禹 was the legendary founder of the Xia dynasty (c. 2070 BCE-c. 1600 BCE), and worked so long and hard fighting the mythical Great Flood that he became partially paralyzed. Yu was also called Dayu 大禹 (with 大 “big; great”) or Xiayu 夏禹 (with 夏 “Xia dynasty”).
The (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi gives the earliest Chinese dictionary definition of yu 禹: “a “bug; reptile”, from the “animal trampling tracks” radical, a “pictograph” (蟲也从厹象形). The bronzeware script for 禹 depicts a head, legs, and tail. Shuowen commentators interpret this as meaning qu 齲 (clarified with the 齒 “teeth” radical) “decayed and missing teeth; bad teeth”.
Axel Schuessler (2007:588) reconstructs Old Chinese *waʔ 禹 “insect; reptile”, and gives an etymology from Proto-Tibeto-Burman *was “bee; honey” or Mon-Khmer *wak “insect”.
Bu 步 means ” walk; step; stride; tread; pace (off)”. In this Chinese character 步, the top element is 止 “foot” and the bottom was originally 止 backwards. Early bronzeware and oracle script characters depicted bu 步 as a “left foot” and “right foot”.
Schuessler (2007:173) reconstructs Old Chinese *bâh 步, which has Sino-Tibetan cognates of Mru pak “go; walk” and Lushai vaakF / vaʔL “go; walk”. Thus, two millennia ago, the ancient Chinese pronounced Yubu something like *waʔbâh.
Yubu “Yu steps” is related to the words Yuxing 禹行 “Yu walk” and Wubu 巫步 “shaman steps” (see the Fayan below). The (3rd century BCE) Confucian classic Xunzi (6, tr. Knoblock 1998:229) uses the phrase Yuxing er Shunqu 禹行而舜趨 “Yu walk and Shun run” to mock the Confucian disciples of Zizhang 子張: “Their caps bent and twisted, their robes billowing and flowing, they move to and fro as thought they were a Yu or a Shun—such are the base Ru of Zizhang’s school.” The Korean Buddhist monk and scholar Honggi 洪基 (1822–1881) was also known as Yuxing 禹行.
Yu the Great is the subject of many mythological stories. Anne Birrell (1993:81) says, “The myth of Yü and the flood is the greatest in the Chinese tradition. This is not just because the narratives tell how he managed to control the flood, but also because numerous myths, legends, and folk tales became attached to his name. In every case, Yü is depicted as a hero, selflessly working on behalf of humankind, and succeeding in his task.”
According to early Chinese mythological and historical texts, a Great Flood inundated China during the reign of Emperor Yao (c. 2356 – c. 2255 BCE). Yao appointed Yu’s father Gun to control the flooding, and he spent nine years constructing dikes and dams, which collapsed and killed many people. After reigning for one century, Yao abdicated the throne to Shun, the last of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, who fired or killed (according to version) Gun and appointed Yu to replace his father. Yu the Great devised a successful flood control system through undamming rivers, dredging riverbeds, and constructing irrigation canals. In fighting the floods for thirteen years, Yu sacrificed his body, resulting in thick calluses on his hands and feet, and partial paralysis. Shun abdicated the throne to Yu, who founded the Xia dynasty.
The (c. 3rd century BCE) Daoist classic Zhuangzi quotes philosophical rival Mozi, founder of Mohism, to tell the myth of Yu controlling the flood.
Master Mo declared, “Long ago, when Yü was trying to stem the flood waters, he cut channels from the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers and opened communications with the four uncivilized tribes and the nine regions. There were three hundred famous rivers, three thousand branch rivers, and countless smaller ones. Yü personally handled the basket and the shovel, interconnecting the rivers of all under heaven, till there was no down on his calves and no hair on his shins. He was bathed by the pouring rains and combed by the gusting winds as he laid out the myriad states. Yü was a great sage, and he wearied his physical form on behalf of all under heaven like this.” (tr. Mair 1994:337)
Chinese origin myths have stories about two primordial sage-rulers being divinely inspired by patterns on turtle shells. Fu Xi devised the bagua “eight trigrams” of the Yijing from seeing the Hotu 河圖 “Yellow River Map” on a turtle (or a dragon-horse), and Yu devised the basic magic square from seeing the Luoshu 雒書 “Luo River writing” on a giant turtle shell (Pas 1998:294). “The Great Treatise” commentary to the Yijing has an early reference to the Luoshu.
Heaven creates divine things; the holy sage takes them as models. Heaven and earth change and transform; the holy sage imitates them. In the heavens hang images that reveal good fortune and misfortune; the holy sage reproduces these. The Yellow River brought forth a map and the Lo River brought forth a writing; the holy men took these as models. (tr. Wilhelm and Baynes 1967:320)
The Yijing sub-commentary (tr. Visser 1913:57) explains, “The water of the Ho sent forth a dragon horse; on its back there was curly hair, like a map of starry dots. The water of the Lo sent forth a divine tortoise; on its back there were riven veins, like writing of character pictures.”
The Luoshu is a 3×3 grid of dots representing the numbers 1-9, with the sum in each of the rows, columns, and diagonals equal to 15 (which is the number of days in each of the 24 solar terms in the traditional Chinese calendar). The Luoshu, also known as the Jiugongtu 九宮圖 “Nine Halls Diagram”, is central to Chinese fortune telling and Fengshui. Yu supposedly used the Luoshu to divide ancient China into Nine Provinces; Michael Saso (1972: 59) says the “Steps of Yu” dance is thought to ritually imitate Yu’s lamely walking throughout the Nine Provinces, stopping the floods, and restoring the order and blessing of nature.
Andersen describes the symbolic relation between Yubu, Steps of Yu, and legends about Yu.
In Chinese mythology Yu is known first of all as the one who regulated the waters after the great flood, a fact he accomplished by walking through the world. His steps provide the exemplary model for the ritual form of Yubu. The flood may be equated with primordial chaos or, in a more synchronic mode of thought, the chaos underlying the existing state of order. And the cosmic order established by Yu may be identified with the societal order instituted by the emperor in accordance with the patterns of the universe. (1989:21)
Thus, one explanation for the Yubu is as a ritual reenactment in imitation of Yu’s gait as the lamed flood-hero. An alternative origin myth for the Yu Pace is that Yu himself invented it, inspired by the movements of a divine bird; and, that when Yu assembled the gods together, he used this dance. (Yang, 2005:241)
Donald Harper (1999:872) says, “Forms of magic related to Yu 禹, the flood hero and legendary founder of Xia, indicate his importance in Warring States magico-religious and occult traditions. Yu’s legendary circumambulation and pacification of a world in chaos appear to have made Yu the archetypal pacifier of the spirit world that continued to exist alongside mankind.”