Thunder god worship found in Huashan rock art

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-01-02

A photo of the Huashan rock art depicting a squatting human figure above a dog Photo: Courtesy of Shi Lanying & Tang Huisheng

The main images of the Huashan rock paintings are squatting human figures surrounded by geometric images such as animals (mainly dogs) and circles (bronze drums, the sun, etc.). This paper regards the motifs of squatting human figures, animals, and circles as the three major themes or elements of the Huashan rock art.

Thunder Wheel

Geometric images such as circles belong to one of the three elements of the Huashan rock art, mainly composed of a circle with pentagrams, radial lines, concentric circles, the sun, and other patterns inside. Most experts identify those circles as symbolizing bronze drums, man [trowel], or rattan shields, while some believe that they represent ancient sun worship. This paper tends to interpret these circles as the symbolic pattern of a bronze drum, or more particularly, the thunder wheel.

In fact, this wheel-shaped circular symbol, known as the “thunder wheel,” is considered to be the symbol of the thunder god in shamanism throughout Southeast Asia and even the Pacific Rim. The most common thunder wheel is depicted as a circle divided into five or eight equal parts. The thunder wheel currently familiar to the public is a throwing weapon from the Indian subcontinent, which is called “chakram” in Sanskrit. Named for its wheel-like shape, the chakram is a circular metal weapon. Legend says that it is the weapon of the god Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism. The chakram later evolved into the dharmachakra in Buddhism, which is more familiar to the public. Both the chakram and the dharmachakra are symbols of gods, and can be classified as thunder wheels. The thunder wheel most familiar to Chinese people is a bronze wheel unearthed in Sanxingdui, Sichuan Province, with a pentagram in the center, 85 cm in diameter. In addition to the Huashan rock paintings, this kind of thunder wheel symbol is widespread in the rock paintings of the other areas in southwest China, including Guizhou and Sichuan provinces.

Although there are only piecemeal accounts of the thunder god in Chinese ancient archives, a basic understanding is still possible. Since the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), the image of the thunder god has been basically clear. He has been mostly depicted as riding a chariot on which there is a drum. The thunder god beats the drum with a mallet [to produce thunder].

Squatting figure motifs

Squatting figure motifs are the most renowned themes and elements of the Huashan rock art. They are depicted as human figures with hands raised and legs in a squatting position. These motifs account for more than 90% of the Huashan rock paintings. According to the research by Andreas Lommel (1912–2005), a German anthropologist, the geographical distribution of the squatting figure motifs roughly coincides with that of the thunder wheel mentioned above, which is also the geographic region covered by Austronesian language culture. If the wheel-shaped circular motifs illustrate the thunder wheel, the squatting figure motifs should represent the thunder god, also the frog god for the Zhuang ethnic people. The squatting figure is an abstraction of a frog.

The close connection between frogs and rain can be found in folklore throughout the world. In his work, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, James George Frazer wrote: “The intimate association of frogs and toads with water has earned for these creatures a widespread reputation as custodians of rain; and hence they often play a part in charms designed to draw needed showers from the sky. Some of the Indians of the Orinoco held the toad to be the god or lord of the waters, and for that reason feared to kill the creature, even when they were ordered to do so.”

Similar beliefs also exist in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The Zhuang people call frogs “ma-guai.” They believe that frogs are the children of the thunder god. Each year, for the first 30 days of the first lunar month, the Zhuang people around the Donglan County [in the northwest of Guangxi] hold a religious ceremony to pray for good weather and bumper harvests throughout the year. The locals call the ceremony the “Maguai Festival.” The reason why frogs are connected with thunder is probably because frogs often croak cheerfully after thunderstorms. The “Maguai Festival” originated from this belief about frogs, and their worship spread to wherever the Zhuang people are found.

In addition to praying for rain and practicing sacrificial ceremonies for the thunder god, scholars have conducted in-depth investigations and research on the social functions and cultural significance of the Maguai Festival. For example, the Chinese archaeologist Qin Yisheng believes that the core significance of the Maguai Festival is to hold a memorial ceremony for the [dead] ma-guai, the rituals of which are similar to that of mourning the deceased. Painting the image of the frog god on cliff faces also embodies the sense of communicating with Heaven. The Zhuang people believe that cliffs are not only the habitat of the soul, but also the soul’s path to Heaven.

Moreover, the bronze drums used by the Zhuang people are also cultural relics used while praying for rain and worshipping the thunder god. In addition to the Chinese classic Lunheng, other ancient documents also clearly depict the thunder god as a drummer. According to the Classic of Mountains and Seas, “In the Thunder Marsh there is the Thunder God, who has a dragon’s body, a human head, and often drums on his belly.”

In the Lingnan region [the lands covering the modern Chinese subdivisions of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hong Kong, Macau, etc.], bronze drums are used to pray for rain and worship the thunder god. In his work titled Karen Bronze Drums, Harry Ignatius Marshall, a leading authority on the Karen people, noted that the function of bronze drums is to pray for rain. He wrote that some primitive people believed that it was not the rain that drew frogs out of hiding, but the croaking of frogs that caused the rain; They could also imagine that the deep boom of a drum sound like the croaking of gigantic bullfrogs, which would attract the god of rain to send refreshing downpours to their parched lands. The frog-shaped bronze drum reveals the intention of praying for rain and worshipping the thunder god in a more intuitive way. Therefore, the circular wheel-shaped motifs in the Huashan rock paintings can be regarded as symbols of bronze drums as well as the thunder god.

Based on the current archaeological documents, the squatting figure motifs in the Huashan rock art are probably the earliest and best-preserved images of the thunder god in China. Documentary records, archaeological discoveries, and folklore prove that the image of the thunder god in China has evolved in a clear and changeable way since the 8th century BCE. The rock paintings recently discovered in Guangxi and Sichuan provinces demonstrate this speculation convincingly. On the Nayang Hill, Tiandeng County, Guangxi, there are rock paintings illustrating the rituals of worshipping the thunder god dated to the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. At the Fen Jingzi Rock Art Site [Uranium-series dating suggests that this site dated to the reign of the Jiajing Emperor between 1522 and 1566], Gong County, Sichuan Province, there are inscriptions meaning “By the side of the thunder god, all the other gods are cautious and intimidated.” These rock paintings, together with the various forms of cultural relics related to the thunder god worship, such as the Maguai Festival, temples of the thunder god, and the bronze drums, show that the cultural traditions of thunder god worship originating from the Huashan rock art have undergone diversified development in different eras over thousands of years.


Shi Lanying is a lecturer from the School of History and Culture at Hebei Normal University. Tang Huisheng is a professor of archaeology from Hebei Normal University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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