Suirenshi (燧人氏), the inventor of fire


By Elaine Dunn

Have you ever heard of Shangqiu City? Didn’t think so. I wager that no other China Insight reader has ever heard of this place either, let alone its native son, Suirenshi (燧人氏)! Should I be wrong on this score, do email me ([email protected]) and let me know. I’ll be glad to report how many emails I received in next month’s column.

The cradle of fire
Shangqiu (商丘) is at the junction of

Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan provinces, located in eastern Henan Province. It was the first capital of the Shang Dynasty and the birthplace of many important figures in Chinese culture, one of which is this month’s story.

Suirenshi was supposed to have lived approximately 10,000 years ago. He is neither an emperor nor a god, but a mythological demigod.

As the story goes, there was a forest in western China with a tree that “shone” throughout the day and night. Suirenshi visited that forest looking for the tree. He came to this big tree and saw many woodpeckers pecking away at it. Suirenshi noticed that as the woodpeckers’ beaks drilled into the trunk, sparks would fly, lighting up the tree. He decided to break off two branches and jabbed one stick against the other in quick succession. Eventually, he got the sticks to spark. As he added more and more sticks, he built a fire.

When he returned to Henan Province, he taught the people how to start a fire to keep warm. Also, at that time, people were eating raw meat and vegetables and getting sick. With fire, they learned to cook their food before eating, greatly reducing illness from eating raw food. In addition, cooked food was more delicious. The people were very appreciative of Suirenshi’s discovery/invention of how to make fire. Therefore, Shangqiu became known as the cradle of fire!

The cradle of Chinese civilization
Not only is Shangqiu the birth place of Suirenshi, it is also the birthplace of quite a few other important figures in Chinese culture:
• Canjie (倉頡), circa 2650 B.C., the legendary figure credited with inventing the Chinese writing system
• Mozi (墨子), circa 500-400 B.C., a philosopher whose fundamental doctrine (Mohism) challenged Confucianism
• Zhuangzi (莊子), circa 400-300 B.C., another influential philosopher of the Daoist vein
• Hua Mulan (花木蘭), circa A.D. 386–534, yes, the same “Mulan” of 1998 Disney animation fame! She dressed up as a boy and served in an all-male army in place of her aging father.

Famous foods from the city:
• Round rice dumplings found at local temple fairs here
• A sweet, crispy treat coated with sesame seeds
• Stewed noodles

Scientific claim to fame:
China’s first observatory (Ebo Tai) was situated in Shangqiu

Although Suirenshi’s name recognition, I hasten to bet, is as obscure as his birthplace, both the legend and his birthplace have added much to the quality of life to the Chinese people.

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