Stories from Ancient China: Humbled by the Great Ocean

June 20, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

The might Yellow River at Jixian in Shanxi Province. (China Photos/Getty Images)
The might Yellow River at Jixian in Shanxi Province. (China Photos/Getty Images)
Ancient Chinese placed great importance on the Yellow River, considering it to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Farmers used its waters to irrigate their rice paddies. That is why they called this river “The River of God” or the “Heavenly River.”

According to legend, one fall season overabundant rainfall made all rivers run quite high. Many spilled over their banks into the Yellow River, which became ever broader, deeper and mightier. The Yellow River God was overjoyed and became cocky, imagining himself to be the mightiest body of water under heaven.

Traveling downriver, he came to the North China Sea. He looked east, but could not see the shoreline. From that moment on the River God was humbled and uttered to the God of the North China Sea, “I was boastful and overbearing, thinking I am greater than all others. Now I have seen the ocean's might and recognize my smugness. Had I not traveled here, I would have remained unaware.”

Nevertheless, the North China Sea God remained unassuming and replied, “Between heaven and earth I am a mere small space between huge land masses. All the seven oceans taken together are nothing more than a grain of dust in the universe. I am far from being mighty.”

This story is the source for the Chinese adage, “Humbled before the great ocean,” which indicates that a person has discovered his limitations and is content with them.