What, or Who, Are the Four Perils?

The Four Perils, the title of the fourth book in The Geomancer’s Apprentice series, refers to four of the most evil entities in Chinese mythology.

“Si Xiong,” their name in Mandarin, literally means “four ferocious.”

According to some classical texts, the Four Perils were the hideous reincarnations of four clan leaders who lived in ancient China. This was before China was unified by Shi Huangdi (who brought the country’s seven warring states under one rule in 221 BCE).

One ancient Chinese literary classic described the clan leaders as the “Four Criminals.” They lived at a time when there were frequent tribal rebellions against the Chinese rulers. The clansmen were so troublesome that the emperor of that period, Yudi Shun (23rd century BCE), banished all four and their tribes.

When the leaders died, they were resurrected as four malevolent monsters—the hundun, the qiongqi, the taowu and the taotie. The monsters were associated with certain vices, and considered the evil counterparts of the Feng Shui Guardians.

The ancient books describing the monsters don’t agree on how they look. The descriptions also differ depending on which region of China it is, and the period in question. Very generally:

  • The hundun represents chaos. It has been described as a faceless creature, but also said to resemble a dog or a bear.
  • The qiongqi represents deviousness. Some describe it as a winged tiger, while others say it looks like a cow with a dog's head and a fox’s tail.
  • The taowu represents ignorance. It supposedly looks like a tiger, but has a boar’s tusks, a dog’s fur and a very long tail.
  • The taotie represents gluttony. It’s said to have a human face and a sheep's body. Its eyes are below its armpits.

The taotie is perhaps the best-known of the monsters. The taotie mask motif can be found on Chinese bronze and stone artifacts from the first millennium BCE. The taotie was depicted as a large green carnivorous creature in the 2016 movie The Great Wall starring Matt Damon.