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Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

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Have you noticed that in life that whenever, after heroic effort, you finally surmount some terrible problem, another problem promptly comes along?  Chinese mythology certainly reflects this truth (indeed, after millennia of continuous culture, the Chinese people are quite familiar with the way that one problem slides seamlessly into the next).   One of the most harrowing myths from ancient China is the story of Gonggong’s rebellion.  You can revisit the whole story here, but the quick version is that the evil water god Gonggong attempted to drown the world and was only prevented from doing so by the heroic last resort actions of the beneficent creator goddess Nüwa, who cut the legs off the cosmic turtle in order to set things to rights.

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible

Xiangliu, the nine-headed snake monster, first minister of Gonggong the terrible (not to be confused with Xiang Liu, the Olympic track star)

In the chaos of the climactic battle, however Gongong’s chief minister and partner in crime Xiangliu the nine-headed snake monster completely escaped.  Filled with bitterness about Gonggong’s failure, Xiangliu crawled away across the soggy lands of Szechuan (which were water-logged after the nearly world-ending floods).  Wherever he went, the snake monster left permanent fens and swamps which were toxic to life.  His very being had become steeped in poison, and his progress through the damp and moldy world had to be stopped.

Kaiki-choju_Xiang-liu

Yu the hero, the third of the three sage kings, finally caught up with the nine-headed monster and killed him in a pitched battle .  Yet still there was a problem: Xiangliu’s pestiferous blood has poisoned the whole region, which now stank of rot.  Crops would not grow and civilization began to falter.  Yu dug up the blood soaked soil again and again, but the corrupted blood of the monster just sank deeper into the ground.  Finally, Yu excavated a deep valley by Kunlun mountain and rid the world of Xiangliu’s toxins.  With all of the land he had excavated he built a great terraced mountain for the gods.  Yu then went forth to found the kingdom of Xiam the first civilized state in Chinese history.

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Proposed location of the Xia kingdom (ca. 2070 BC)

Of course some people say that Yu did none of this, that, it was the goddess Nüwa who once again came forth to battle the monster and undo the damage he had caused.  Then, with accustomed modesty she let Yu take the credit and begin his kingdom (for Nüwa cared not for empty praise and hollow glory but only for the well-being of her children).

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

A somewhat lurid contemporary sculpture of Yu the hero fighting Xiangliu

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