Similar Backward Characters in Ancient Chinese, Native American Cultures
Similar Backward Characters in Ancient Chinese, Native American Cultures

Are you moving forward or backward in life? Some ancient cultures had figures that literally moved backward to remind the people around them to pay attention to their own figurative progression or regression. 

Zhang Guo Lao

A depiction of Zhang Guo Lao riding backward on his donkey. (Yeuan Fang/Epoch Times)
A depiction of Zhang Guo Lao riding backward on his donkey. (Yeuan Fang/Epoch Times)

Zhang Guo Lao, a Taoist hermit of China’s Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), rode backward on his donkey to show people how backward their ways were. According to this Taoist, what most people think of as moving forward (gaining wealth, satisfying various desires) is actually moving backward, away from how humans are truly supposed to be. He showed people that principles are often reversed when one follows a spiritual path.

Though Zhang is a grand figure in Chinese legends, historical records suggest he was a real person.

It is said that powerful figures tried to learn from him the secret of immortality, which he possessed. He was supposedly born around 2,200 B.C. He would not meet with them to give them the secret, but he did agree to meet with one emperor whose heart was sincere and who sought the wisdom of the Tao, an ancient Chinese spiritual tradition.

Another lesson is contained in the story of Zhang’s backward motion. Zhang was summoned to the imperial palace to demonstrate his donkey moving backward. The donkey moved so steadily, the emperor rewarded it with wine. The donkey turned to paper. Zhang said it was a paper donkey animated with magic, but wine made it revert to its paper form.

He said, “What’s true stands and the fake won’t last.”

Heyoka 

A ledger drawing by Lakota artist and Chief Black Hawk, born ca. 1832, who was also of the Heyoka. (Public Domain)
A ledger drawing by Lakota artist and Chief Black Hawk, born ca. 1832, who was also of the Heyoka. (Public Domain)

Similarly, among the Lakota Native Americans was a figure known as the heyoka who rode backward on a horse, wore his clothes inside-out, and generally did everything backward.

The heyoka wasn’t a single person, but multiple real people chosen to fulfill this spiritual role in the community.

Dr. Steven Mizrak, an adjunct lecturer in the department of global and sociocultural studies at Florida International University, explained in a paper titled “Thunderbird and the Trickster”: “The heyoka, or sacred clowns, were usually few in number, but were found in almost every clan [of the Lakota]. Heyoka were contraries, often speaking and walking backward. They acted in ridiculous, obscene, and comical ways, especially during sacred ceremonies. They were thought to be fearless and painless, able to seize a piece of meat out of a pot of boiling water.”

A ledger drawing by Lakota Chief Black Hawk, depicting a horned Thunder Being (Heyoka). It was said whoever saw it in a vision would become one of the Heyoka. (Public Domain)
A ledger drawing by Lakota Chief Black Hawk, depicting a horned Thunder Being (Heyoka). It was said whoever saw it in a vision would become one of the Heyoka, ca. mid-1800s. (Public Domain)

The heyoka were thought to be beyond human concepts, and to be in touch with the divine. Their backward actions were meant to shock people into evaluating their preconceived ideas. Dr. Mizrak said, “The heyoka plays pranks on others in his culture not to make them feel embarrassed and stupid, but to show them ways they could start being more smart.”

“Whenever they interrupted the solemnity of a ceremony, people took it as an admonition to see beyond the literalness of the ritual and into the deeper mysteries of the sacred.”

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*Image of a Lakota camp via Shutterstock

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