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Chinese Religion: Mythic Themes


"Who was there to pass down the story of the beginning of things in the remote past? What means are there to examine what it was like before heaven above and earth below had taken shape?" (Hawkes, 1959, p. 46). These cryptic queries, the very first of the "Heavenly Questions" found in the Chuci anthology of the early third century bce, simultaneously suggest the significant presence and problematic nature of ancient Chinese mythology. The fact that mythsstories of the beginning of thingswere an important subject in the life and literature of ancient China is indicated by the tantalizing diversity of mythic episodes and personnel so familiarly alluded to in the Chuci and in other early Chinese literary and artistic works. At the same time, the interrogative format and enigmatic terseness of the "Heavenly Questions" aptly dramatize the overall riddle posed by ancient Chinese mythology.

The Problem of Chinese Myth

There are allusive mythological references in archaic Chinese literature but they are almost always fragmented and disguised in ways that make it very difficult to determine the character and import of specific myths. Moreover, while the rich zoomorphic iconography found on the Shang and Zhou dynasty bronze ritual vessels suggests a dualistic system of shamanistic symbolism, the highly stylized and formulaic nature of the evidence (e.g., the bipartite animal mask design known as the taotie ) and the lack of any consistent correlation between artistic and literary evidence allow for only very tentative conclusions as to the prevailing mythological universe of meaning. Instead of coherent stories of the gods, animal ancestors, and semi-divine sage-kings of the sacred time of the beginnings, there are only bits and pieces of various myths that pointedly raise the difficult methodological question of knowing what means there are to examine such an apparently unmythical deposit of myth.

This situation is compounded by the fact that, while China is not wholly unusual in possessing only fragmented and composite mythological materials from the ancient period, early sinological scholarship tended to portray China as uniquely deficient in mythology. Indeed, assumptions concerning the special poverty of Chinese mythology, especially in relation to creation myths, were generally used to support scholarly judgments concerning the essentially philosophical, humanistic, or historical nature of the ancient tradition. Such opinions about the largely nonmythological and nonreligious character of early China have a long pedigree in the history of scholarship that was reinforced by both orthodox Chinese scholiasts and enlightened Western academicians who equated ancient Chinese culture with the great tradition of the Confucian classics and agreed on the irrational and degenerate role of religion and myth in human culture.

This discussion will be limited to mythic materials and themes specifically related to the ancient origins, early cultural development, and ultimate political coalescence of Chinese traditionthat is, the formative historical period that extends from the Xia (tentatively identified with the preliterate Erlitou culture) and Shang dynasties of the late third and second millennia, down through the feudal conditions and intellectual ferment in the Zhou period (tenth through third centuries), and to the rise of the early Qin and Han imperial traditions during the last few centuries before the common era. In contrast to notions of a monolithic classical tradition going back to the prehistoric beginnings of sinitic civilization and as indicated by the southern provenance of the Chuci, cultural development during the foundational period is best viewed as a dynamic amalgamative process that gradually incorporated various local and barbarian cultures.

Broken Stories and Thematic Function

It may be possible to find a culture or religion without myths, or with very weakly developed mythological traditions, and it is true that ancient China did have a special preoccupation with ritual behavior. Be this as it may, the pioneering work of Henri Maspero, Marcel Granet, Gu Jiegang, Carl Hentze, and Edouard Erkes in the 1920s and 1930salong with the corroborating efforts of Bernhard Karlgren and Wolfram Eberhard in the 1940sshowed that the supposed absence or special poverty of Chinese mythic fabulation was a view that could not be sustained. As is seen in the clash between Karlgren's historicist perspective and the various comparative methods of some of the other scholars, there was no final agreement as to what could actually be known of the ancient myths, but it is demonstrably certain that mythological traditions played an important role in early Chinese culture.

The increased interdisciplinary study and appreciation of the early Chinese religion and mythology in contemporary scholarship (especially noteworthy is the work of Kwang-chih Chang, Sarah Allan, Rémi Mathieu, Jean Levi, Michael Loewe, and John Major) confirm the conclusions from the first part of this century. This work, together with the unavoidable judgment that recent archaeological discoveries (including epigraphical, textual, and extraliterary evidence) clearly document the centrality of cosmological and religious ideas in ancient China, collectively underscore the vital significance of mythic themes not only for nonorthodox materials like the Chuci, Shanhai jing, or Zhuangzi, but also for the classically standardized works espoused by Confucian and imperial tradition. In addition to this, and despite the caution that must be employed when analyzing ancient Chinese documents, there is a growing consensus that Karlgren's strictures against using the systematized Han dynasty materials for reconstructing ancient mythology, and his idea that much of Han mythology was an ad hoc product of that period, need to be amended. Thus, it is unreasonable to suppose that mythological materials found primarily in Han sources were a fabrication disconnected from earlier traditions. Furthermore, the very fact of a cosmological system of thought in the Han dynasty often indicates something important about the nature and function of earlier myths.

Ancient Chinese culture is not an example of an ancient religious or ritual tradition without mythology. The question one must ask is how and why the mythsor the particular recurrent and overlapping constellations of mythic themes, figures, and images from various local cultureswere preserved, combined, and transformed in certain patterned ways within different textual traditions. Given the compelling assumption that there were active oral traditions of myth-telling in both aristocratic and folk circles, it is probably the case that myths in a coherent storied form were present in ancient China. But the more addressable and interesting question is why the broken shards of mythic narratives were so often used in particular thematic ways in different written documents. The very fact that myths were written down in a fractured and composite way most likely indicates that individual mythic traditions were losing some of their original sacred, cultic, or religiously functional character. It still must be asked, however, whether or not the thematic glosses on myth, or the skeletal remains of mythic narratives, found in written sources may still function mythicallyeven when they appear in the profanized guise of history or philosophy.

In this sense, also, it may be questioned whether the oft-repeated claim that Chinese texts represent a curious instance of the reverse euhemerization of earlier mythic stories has any real significance. If reverse euhemerization refers to the false historicization of myth, making myths appear real, rather than the making of myths from actual historical events as the standard definition of euhemerization would have it, then it nevertheless seems that the intellectual and imaginative process involved was still primarily mythical in nature. In both cases history was fit to the demands of mythic form. Both types of euhemerization are made up yet are to some degree historically factual.

Ancient Chinese literature is basically nonnarrative in any extended sense and is not informed by myth in the overarching, dramatic, and epic way of some other ancient literatures. From a structural point of view, however, mythological thought may be seen primarily as an intellectual and imaginative strategy of bricolage that constantly juggles, rearranges, and transforms assorted mythological signsbits and piecesaccording to a deeper code of relational contrast and dynamic synthesis. The cultural function and communicative power of myth is to be found at the structural level that perdures beneath the shifting surface dimension of particular mythic images or narrative plot development. What is preserved, and what continues to function mythically in early Chinese literature, therefore, are the thematic structures of different myths that most generally stress formulas of order and disorder, qualities, relations, and states of being as opposed to an interconnected narrative flow of motivations, action, and consequences. It is this basic emphasis on mythic structure over mythic narrative in Chinese literature that may be related, as Andrew Plaks suggests, to the distinctive Chinese concern with ritual issues of correlative spatial relationship.

Thus understood, the bits and pieces of myth found in ancient Chinese texts betray a kind of slated thematic pattern, or repetitive static structure, that functions as an exemplary frame for determining the significance of the past for the present and future. In this way, the constantly changing reality of nature and social life only demonstrated to the ancient Chinese that history, like the Dao as the first principle of mythic transformation, always stays relatively and structurally the same. Aside from the different manipulations of selected mythical themes seen in particular textual traditions, the underlying abstract logic of mythical thoughtstressing binary structural opposition, tertiary synthesis, and numerically coded relational permutationdwells at the heart of the yinyang wuxing cosmological system that became universal in the Han dynasty.

These considerations concerning the thematic presence and structural function of myth in China are helpful in providing some means of answering the Chuci' s "Heavenly Questions," but they do not obviate the fact that formidable problems of content and method still complicate the study of ancient Chinese mythology. Suffice it to say that the basic thematic contours of archaic mythology may be known with reasonable confidence for periods as early as the Western and Eastern Zhou dynasties and that it is possible, and desirable, to work with this material inasmuch as it reflects on, and informs, the overall history of archaic Chinese religion; the differing visions of life seen among the various philosophical movements emerging during the Eastern Zhou period; the development of a shared tradition of correlative thought; and, most generally, the organismic Chinese worldview.

Thematic Repertory: Beginnings and Return

Working with the remnants of myths, or more accurately, with composite mythic units found variously in the earliest texts, makes it possible to reconstruct what may be called a typological sacred history of the beginning of things in the remote past. It must be stressed that this typology is only a partial digest of some of the more representative and recurrent mythic themes and that the sequential movement from cosmic to civilizational origins is an artificial construct of a generalized structural logic or mythic grammar inherent in much of early Chinese thought.

By the time of the Han dynasty all of the basic typological themes were shared as a common inheritance of mythic lore, but it is never the case that the different units were fully articulated in the manner presented herealthough the eclectically Daoist compendium known as the Huainanzi (c. 100 bce) comes close to being a comprehensive synthetic handbook of Chinese mythic history. It is also important to note that the use or exclusion of particular mythic units is a salient factor for distinguishing different textual and ideological traditions. Myth to some extent always refers to the issue of beginnings or world foundation. Where the archetypal beginnings are located in the remote past with respect to a particular conception of world and order will, therefore, have a significant relation to the different understandings of human nature and social life seen in various ideological movements emerging in the Eastern Zhou period.

The typology developed here also does not suggest any actual historical priority in the sequential arrangement of thematic units since, for example, it seems from the documentary evidence that full-fledged cosmogonic themes only coincided with the rise of philosophical speculation during the Eastern Zhou period, whereas various clan origin myths and cosmic disaster themes can be reliably traced to the much earlier Western Zhou dynasty, or perhaps even to the Shang period. In fact, in relation to the datable appearance of individual mythic units and images in extant literary and extra-literary sources, and as a counterpoint to the typological sequence, there was an apparent movement from the earliest myths of clan origin, animal ancestors, and the closeness of heaven and earth to the later myths of the Eastern Zhou period, where an antagonistic relationship among humans, animals, and the gods was often emphasized. It was in this later period (roughly after the eighth century bce) that a diminished faith in an active sky or high god (Shangdi, Tian) and the appearance of nontheistic cosmogonic themes, hybrid human-animal mythological imagery, myths of the combat of cultural saviors with chaotic forces, and the accounts of sage-kings and model emperors as civilizational transformers came to the fore. There is an evident relation here with changes in the aristocratic religious tradition, social-political life, and kinship practices that may be linked with the emergence of philosophical and humanistic thought. It is, however, not so much a matter of philosophical or rational thought replacing mythic irrationality as a question of differing conceptualizations, still modeled on mythic structures and themes, as to what constitutes the fundamental principles of existential order.

With these various qualifications in mind, it is feasible to consider the overall typological repertory of mythic themes arranged under the four general headings of (1) cosmic and human beginnings, (2) cosmic disasters, beginning again, and cultural saviors, (3) civilizational beginnings, sage-kings, and model emperors, and (4) returning to the beginning as the cultivated renewal of individual and social life. This scheme of four phases of beginning has interrelated diachronic and synchronic implications. Diachronically, there is a progressive movement from the cosmic, natural, early cultural, and later civilizational orders or worlds, but structurally each stage represents a new beginning that recapitulates an earlier cosmic situation. The sacred history of the various human worlds as a series of new beginnings presupposes a constant return to some first condition of cosmic unity as the precondition for a new creation or renewal of life. In this way there is a kind of cosmogonic intentionality and cosmological methodology that, while not always stated, implicitly informs the ancient Chinese understanding of existence. While the literary use of myths may be broken from specific earlier cultic traditions, there is very much of a religiously salvational vision here that is designed to establish and maintain contact between humans and the cosmos. The idea of the sacred, as Mircea Eliade says, "does not necessarily imply belief in God or gods and spirits" (Ordeal by Labyrinth, Chicago, 1982, p. 154); rather, it is primarily the experience of existing in a world made meaningful and real by its connections with a greater cosmic order.

Cosmic and human beginnings

There are several clusters of mythic images and themes that are concerned with the question of existential origins and a kind of fall from the formative first order of things. From the standpoint of the mythic logic suggested by most of these materials, the primary structural category refers to the primordial, or very first, issue of world creation.

Cosmogonic origins

Contrary to claims that ancient China was devoid of any kind of authentic creation mythology, there was certainly a genre of explicit cosmogonic speculation during the Eastern Zhou period that was thematically rooted in the mythic image of a primal chaotic monad or raviolo known as hundun (variously imagined as a cosmic egg, gourd, rock, sac, dumpling, etc.; also personified as a strangely faceless and Humpty-Dumpty-like emperor of the center in the Zhuangzi or as a divine bird in the Shanhai jing ). Hundun was that primordial condition or ancestral figure that gave rise to the multiplicity of the phenomenal world through a spontaneous process of separation (i.e., the splitting of the chaotic one into the dual cosmic structure of heaven and earth) or transformation (i.e., the metamorphosis of the one body of the primal animal ancestor into the multiple parts of the cosmos). The hundun theme also seems to have incorporated other mythic variants that told of the creative activites of world parents or some consanguineous male and female pair of deities (e.g., Fu Xi and Nügua) who generate the world through their incestuous sexual union. These themes, moreover, clearly represent the archaic prototype for the later (c. third to sixth century) depictions of Pangu as the primal man or chaos giant who was born from the embryonic hundun.

The theme of the primal unity and precivilizational innocence of the chaotic hundun is most prominent in the ancient Daoist texts as a metaphor for the chaotic order, untrammeled freedom, and wholeness of human nature and primitive society, which can be reattained by means of a kind of internalized mystical reversal of the cosmogony. In the guise of Pangu, the hundun theme is associated with the incarnate cosmic body of Laojun, the revealed savior in later sectarian Daoism. In the classics and other Confucian-inspired texts of the ancient period, on the other hand, the image of hundun is never presented in a cosmogonic context and is only rarely mentioned as a personified barbarian rebel (Hundun) who dangerously challenged the proper ritual order of civilizational life. The underlying structure and logic of the hundun creation scenario also may be related to the shared cosmological system of yinyang dualism and to the idea of a third term or mediating principle (i.e., the cosmological ether known as qi or the principle of man/shaman/emperor/priest) between the two things of heaven and earth. Most generally, the hundun theme of a self-generated creational process without a creator is most explicit in the early Daoist texts, but may be said to inform the cosmological metaphysics associated with the ubiquitous ultimate principle of the Dao.

Lay of the land

Themes associated with the creative fashioning, cosmetic arranging, or cartographic determining of the cosmos are found more often than actual cosmogonic accounts; they most often imply that a world inhabited by humankind already existed. Despite this overt fixation on a preexisting human world, it seems that a prior world populated by gods and animal spirits is often intended. Whatever the case may be, the major thematic emphasis is placed on the sacred patterns of space and time that are common to gods or humankind and, in this sense, many different mythic units may be grouped together as cosmographical accounts of the first order of material existence.

Throughout most of the earliest texts, and as displayed by iconographical symbolism, there are a number of basic recurrent images that collectively describe the original divine form of thingsfor example, the image of the heavens as round and the earth as square and the tripartite division of a lower, middle, and upper realm together with the idea of an axis or pillar(s) that connects what is above and below. Various other themes link patterns of space and time so that the solar cycle is said to involve the sequential daily passage of one of ten suns from a sacred mulberry tree in the east to another tree in the extreme west. In general, themes of the sun and moon, as well as those of other celestial bodies, were important in classical sources as indications of the regular cycles of cosmic life as related to the ritual calendar and social order.

Although specific ancient myths of an earth deity are hard to identify (Yu and Huangdi betray some traces of this kind of figure), the cosmic structure of the natural landscape of the earth is suggested by the prominence given to sacred mountains such as Tai or Kunlun (and certain gourd-shaped islands in the eastern sea) that may be taken as the Chinese equivalent to the universal idea of an axis mundi connecting the heaven and earth. This emphasis on what is above and below the human landscape and on the sacred lay of the land, especially on those distant and hidden places on the earth that give access to the heavens or otherworld of the ancestors, is also thematically connected with the common motif of a shamanic and initiatory journey between the heaven and earth, or to the mountains, paradise islands, and chaos regions beyond the conventional order of the middle kingdom. Traveling in space in this way symbolically represents a journey back in time to the pristine conditions of the freshly created cosmos.

Human origins

Aside from a few minor references to Nügua, who was said to have created humankind by dragging a string in some mud, most of the accounts that deal with human origins recall clan origin myths that tell of the divine creation of the founding ancestor or first man of the ruling families of the early dynasties. Most of this material has been reworked and retrospectively systematized, but a general pattern that has some affinity with a kind of virgin birth motif related to the cosmogonic image of a primal egg, rock, or gourd can be detected (e.g., the fragmented origin accounts of the Si clan of the Xia dynasty and the Zi clan of the Shang dynasty). The most elaborate mythic remnants, as recounted in the Shi jing, tell of the descent of the Zhou dynasty from the "abandoned one" known as Hou Ji (Lord Millet) whose mother gave birth after she had stepped into the footprint left on earth by the heavenly supreme god (Tian, Shangdi?). Fragments of this nature thematically hint at very ancient totemic beliefs. As an assertion of the divine origins and chosen status of a particular ancestral grouping of humankind they were used to support the exclusivist political claims of aristocratic privilege. In this way they represent the contextual mythic prototype for the classical theory of the tianming ("mandate of Heaven") that from the Zhou period on was used by the tianzi ("son of Heaven") to sanction the legitimacy of dynastic authority.

Rupture and fall

In Chinese tradition there is no theme of the sinful fall of humankind or the intrinsic corruption of human nature comparable to what is seen in Western monotheistic traditions, but it is recognized that humans somehow do not enjoy the kind of regular harmony and spontaneous virtue that existed in some distantly past period. There is, therefore, a typical Chinese idea of a series of falls, some of which were not as inevitable, necessary, and permanent as others. Within a cosmic context there was the necessary separation of Heaven and earth that created the space that made both natural and human life possible. However, in the course of mythic time there was also a second separation, or rupture, of the ongoing communication between the divine world of the gods and ancestors and the earthly world of humankind. The best known example of this is seen in the two ancient accounts of Zhongli (or Zhong and Li as separate figures), who cut the cord binding Heaven and earth after Shangdi's displeasure over the disruption on earth caused by troublesome barbarian peoples. The issue here seems to be a clash between two rival ritual systems associated with different clan traditions, but the underlying implication is that a separation and distinction between two different orders, divine and human or civilized and barbarian, is inevitable and necessary. Aside from the passing reference to some divine unhappiness over the licentious practice of one rebellious group of humankind, the important point is that the incident was not interpreted as an act of wrathful divine retribution.

Another expression of the idea of a ruptured linkage between heaven and earth concerns the breaking of one of the cosmic pillars (Mount Buzhou to the northwest) by the chaos monster known as Gonggong (also associated with the deluge theme, and like Hundun often identified with rebels and barbarians that threaten the virtuous order of dynastic civilization). This rupture caused the tilt of the ecliptic (i.e., the orbital plane of the moving heavenly bodiessuggesting some affinity with pan-Eurasian astronomical origin myths) and required that rivers flow to the southeast. In one extant account Nügua is presented as a female fashioning deity who repairs the earth (after the disruption caused by Gonggong?) by smelting together multicolored stones and creating new heavenly props from a turtle's legs. Again, there is an acceptance of the necessarily flawed nature of things but no real suggestion that Gonggong's blundering actions were sinful in a way that utterly precludes any human access to the divine. It is always implied that in time there are ways to repair the breach, at least temporarily.

Philosophical expressions of this theme tend to describe humankind's alienation from the Dao as an almost inevitable process of losing an original innocence or faceless spontaneity (as in the face-giving operation on emperor Hundun in the Zhuangzi that is equated with death); as a matter of giving up primitive social life for the artificial ways of civilization (as in the Laozi ); or, in contrast to the Daoist position, as a forgetting of the proper rituals and virtue of civilized human intercourse (as in Confucian literature). For both Daoists and Confucians there are different salvational methods (ways of mystical, ritual, and moral wisdom that emulate the cosmic knowledge of the mythic ancestors) for returning to the conditions that originally linked humans to the Dao.

Cosmic disasters, beginning again, and cultural saviors

Worldwide mythologies concerning some great natural disaster or combat between the forces of chaos and order often allude to a kind of permanent structural tension between the divinely created world of nature that cyclically requires regenerative periods of chaotic regression and the world of human culture that is threatened by the fickleness and chaotic ambiguity of nature and the gods. Combat mythology in this sense refers to the theme of the establishment of a human cultural order after the creation of some previous natural and divine world. The secondary creation, or recreation, of the cultural order, moreover, often implies a challenge to, or usurpation of, the cosmic powers of the chthonic gods and ancestors. The agent responsible for fixing the permanent cultural order is, however, frequently depicted as an ambiguous figure: someone who is partially related to the gods and has beastly characteristics, yet at the same time, a semihuman savior who insures the renewal and continuation of the human order.

In ancient China there are muted indications of this kind of combat mythology seen in the fragmented tales of Yu and Yi, but they are never accentuated in the epically dramatic, or heroic, fashion seen in Indo-European traditions. As with the Zhongli fragments and the clan origin myths, Yu and Yi were most commonly associated with the systematized sage-king and model emperor lore that recounted the establishment and progressive manifestation of the aristocratic order of dynastic civilization. Regardless of these transformations, the overall thematic pattern of the Yu and Yi fragments strongly suggest a more universal scenario of creation and cultural genesis that is not necessarily identified with a particular civilizational order.

The deluge and Yu the Great

The references to Yu, his taming of a great flood and the definitive organization of the human world, are attested in the earliest written sources (i.e., in the oldest sections of the classical Shu jing and Shi jing, as well as in the Mengzi and numerous other Eastern Zhou and Han dynasty documents). In extant sources the deluge is set in the predynastic time of Yao and tells of the diluvian labors of the semi-beastial figures known as Gun and Yu (both names etymologically reveal traces of their totemic status as aquatic, reptilian, or avian animal ancestors). The unexplained occasion of the flood causes the sage emperor Yao (or the sky deity Shangdi) to charge his minister Gun with the task of controlling the wanton waters that were "swelling up to heaven." After laboring unsuccessfully for nine years, Gun was summarily executed and Shun replaced him with Yu, miraculously born after three years from the split open body of Gun (in some accounts the body had been transformed into a rock). Yu wisely did not try to employ his father's method of damming up the waters, but sought out the hidden channels in the earth and allowed the waters to drain away naturally. Yu then erected mountains, adjusted the flow of the rivers, made the earth suitable for agriculture, conquered various barbarian rebels, and divided up the landscape according to a ninefold plan. In recognition of these accomplishments, Shun established Yu as the founder of the Xia dynasty, traditionally the first civilized state in ancient China.

There are other random details that can be culled from various sources, but in general terms the story of Yu stresses not the actual flood, or its causes, but the necessary methods of ordering the human world in a way that maintains a harmonious relationship with the secret structure of the cosmos. It is said that Yu assumed the form of an animal, limped from his titanic labors (the so-called step or dance of Yu), received the sacred Luoshu (Luo River Writing) and Hetu (Yellow River Chart) cosmic diagrams, and cast the nine ding cauldrons; these are all symbolic details that suggest Yu's shamanic function and his use of an esoteric methodology. In this way, the theme of Yu's mastery of the techniques of the creative reordering of the world may be associated with the sacred duties of the king and emperor who was responsible for insuring the continuation of the human order. In later liturgical Daoism this same mythic theme, with its emphasis on the hidden methods of recreating the world, was assimilated into the figure and ritual of the Daoist priest.

The method of Yu, his way or dao, was taken as a model for the fundamental moral principle that human nature (xing) can only be effectively cultivated by following the inborn channels of humans' natural, or original, dispositions. In fact, the theme of Yu's cosmological methods and cosmogonic power constitutes a paradigmatic reference point for political, religious, and moral techniques designed to renew corporate social life and the human body. From this perspective, then, it may be said that the theme of Yu the Great is not just the classical mythos of the origins of dynastic civilization; rather, it most basically tells of the semidivine technological prowess of human culture. By reading the blueprint of the world correctly as a kind of cosmic engineer, and by going with the flow of things, a meaningful cultural and personal order can be created out of the experience of chaos.

The ten suns and the archer Yi

The extremely meager plot of the sun theme tells of the unexplained simultaneous appearance of ten suns during the reign of Yao, and of the resulting conditions of a life-destroying drought. Nine of the suns were shot out of the sky with arrows by the ambivalent salvational figure known as Yi (or Hou Yi; there is some confusion between a good and evil Yi). Further details given in the Huainanzi relate that Yi, besides shooting the suns, killed and tamed various wild beasts that were disrupting the world. In a manner akin to the labors of Yu, Yi therefore established the conditions that allowed for the flourishing of human civilization.

The theme of the ten suns and the archer Yi has, like the deluge theme, many worldwide parallels. In the context of the standarized dynastic tradition, the deluge and sun themes can be linked respectively with the Xia and Shang cultural orders in a way that suggests a fundamental antagonistic pairing, or cyclic contrast, between the primal forces of water, flood, earth, west, aquatic ancestors (Xia associations) and the forces of fire, sun, drought, heaven, east, and avian ancestors (Shang associations). There is a hint of the standardized wuxing cosmological system here (the five phases that were aspects of the dual cycle of yinyang ), but this kind of emblematic symbolism also points at more archaic traditions of totemic classification related to different clan origin mythologies. Thus, there is some possibility that the ten suns theme represents a dim remnant of early clan mythology connected with the founding ancestors and ritual calendar of the Shang tradition. This kind of analysis is most appealing, but the broader structural implications of the ten suns and deluge theme should not be overlooked: that dynasties, like nature and human nature, follow a dualistic cyclic pattern, and that moments of the overaccentuated presence of any one duality must be combated to ensure the continuation and harmony of the total cycle.

Civilizational beginnings, sage-kings, and model emperors

The sun and flood myths were incorporated into the sequence of civilizational development classically associated with the sage-kings and model emperors of antiquity. There is an important thematic difference, however, between the more demiurgic salvational struggles of Yi and Yu and the relatively placid unfolding of the civilizational order. Even though they are artificially presented as bureaucrats under Yao and Shun, Yu and Yi may be said to represent cultural creators. The sage-kings and model emperors, on the other hand (and despite their original mythological identities), are more prosaic examples of what might be called civilizational transformers whose accomplishments depend to some degree on the prior establishment of a foundational cosmic landscape and cultural methodology.

In the evolving classical interpretation of the beginnings there is a tendency to incorporate increasingly remote periods of mythical time into a single process of civilizational development. Thus Confucius especially honors the foundational figures of the early Zhou period (the kings Wen and Wu, and the sage-minister Zhou Gong), but by the Han period the semistandard grouping included three sage-kings (the San Huang) and five model emperors (the Wu Di) who were held to be the direct predynastic precursors of the founders of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. Different figures, all revealing animal traits and other mythic characteristics, were included in these cosmologically coded groupings of three and five, but one fairly typical list would designate Fu Xi, Suiren/Zhurong, and Shen Nong (the inventor of agriculture) as the San Huang; and Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, and Shun as the Wu Di.

These figures were used to trace out a pseudo-historical pattern of cultural development and genealogical inheritance that can be said to have run from the Mesolithic (especially Fu Xi, Nügua, and Suiren, who domesticated animals, established marriage ritual, invented fire, and contributed other basic cultural technologies), to the neolithic (Shen Nong, who as the Divine Farmer invented the plow and cleared the land), down to the late Neolithic threshold of city-state civilization (the Wu Di, who are responsible for creating the ritual principles of state governance). Thus the Yellow Emperor, among his other achievements, is said to have arranged the sixty-year cycle of the calendar and to have instituted the cult of state sacrifice. It should be noted that the Yellow Emperor, as the first of the Wu Di, often assumes a paradigmatic, though ambivalent, role similar to Yu's function as a primordial cultural creator and, like Yu, the Yellow Emperor became a model for salvational techniques found in both Daoist and Confucian tradition.

The scheme of the San Huang and Wu Di is largely the result of the confucianized attempt to charter a particular vision of the cosmic regularity of the dynastic cycle and the sacral implications of aristocratic rule (the Confucian implications are especially seen in the role given to founding ministers; both Shun and Yu were said to have started their careers as virtuous bureaucrats). One of the basic structural applications of the predynastic cycle (and its dynastic extension to the rise and fall of Xia, Shang, and Zhou) is to mediate the tension surrounding the problem of political succession. The crucial issue, therefore, often concerns the conflict between a hereditary principle of rule (associated with dynastic continuity) and rule by meritorious virtue (associated with dynastic change). This structural pattern and the use of model kings and emperors as a transformative set of myths is, however, not limited to Confucian tradition. The fundamental question of the meaning of virtue (de) as a principle of creativity could, for example, be evaluated in different ways based on which aspects of the mythic cycle were emphasized. In this way, references to the sage-kings and model emperors are found throughout both classical and nonclassical literature of the Eastern Zhou and Han dynasties and, depending on how certain figures were treated or ignored, can be used to characterize a particular ideological position.

Returning to the beginning

The sacred history of the beginnings traced above has already indicated that in ancient China (making some exception for the Fa jia, or Legalists) the ways of cultivating human life in the present depend on the different cosmic methods of remembering and emulating the mythic models from the remote past. This refers especially to the ways or methods of returning to the Dao that are modeled on cosmogonic and cosmological notions concerning the creatio continua of natural and human life, and the cyclic waxing and waning of dynasties. The inner structure of all forms of existence, it seems, is mythic in nature since change is fundamentally understood as a constant series of new beginnings or sets of structural permutations, that return to the recapitulate the first processes of creation. The problem of living after the mythic age is from this perspective primarily a problem of forgetting one's mythical ancestry and continuing linkages with cosmic life. The possibility of living a creatively virtuous life, one that is in tune with the rhythm of regeneration, depends therefore on humankind's interpretive ability to detect the cosmic signs left in the world by the mythic ancestors. Living a meaningful life, it may be said, hinges on the imaginative perception of the traces of cosmic structure hidden amidst the flux of experience.

Connected with the general principle of return are various golden age or paradise themes that serve as both individual and social ideals. In the Han dynasty utopian visions of the time of the Datong (great unity) and Taiping (great peace) were common phenomena that, upon the collapse of the dynasty, became associated with a messianic and apocalyptic future. In the ancient period, however, such utopian realms were firmly located in the past and early Confucian and Daoist longings can be differentiated in terms of where the golden age is located in mythic time and how it is characterized in relation to the prevailing social order. Thus, in contrast to the Confucian nostalgia for the perfect ritual propriety of the earliest dynastic states, the early Daoists tended to stress the sacredness of an egalitarian rural society.

Another expression of the theme of return is seen in the ancient ideas of the afterlife and the destiny of the dead. By the Han dynasty, one basic aristocratic view imagined death as a kind of journey back into mythic space and time. This is most impressively and graphically illustrated by the Mawangdui funerary banners dating to the second century bce. The iconography of this silk painting generally shows that death was understood as a kind of voyage of the dead through a mediating cosmic realm shaped like a vase (or, perhaps calabash; a possible allusion to the paradise of Kunlun Mountain or Penglai Island), accompanied by a host of mythical animal spirits and servants. The dead person's final destination was reached by entering gates that led to the celestial regions associated with the mythical imagery of the ten suns and other mythical creatures and heavenly deities. Death was seen, in other words, as a navigation of a sacred landscape that led back to the heavenly bliss of mythic time when humans, animals, and gods lived in total harmony. Finally, it may simply be noted here that the salvational possibility of "no-death" or "long life," as related to the development of immortality cults in the Han period (such as those associated with the goddess Xi Wang Mu) most often implied the use of methods that would allow for this kind of mythic journey before one's natural death.

Myth as the Divination of Structure

To return to the beginning of this essay, it would appear that the Chuci' s "Heavenly Questions" can only be answered in the spirit that they were asked: as a puzzling out of an underlying code of meaning known only through the relative shape and fit of individual bits and pieces of myths. Although most of the pieces have been lost, it can still be said that much of the fascination and significance associated with the enigma of Chinese myth is exactly that, as more of the facts of the Chinese past are accumulated and comparatively analyzed, the more it seems that the cultural configuration of those very facts depends on the forms of life imagined mythically and enacted ritually.

At the very outset of Chinese civilization, the Shang dynasty oracle bones suggest that human life was fundamentally perceived as a riddle that could only be deciphered by a method that attended to the pattern of cracks, the divine signs of hidden structure in existence, made manifest on the skeletal remains of animals. In relation to the inscribed form of both the human question and heavenly answer, emphasis was placed on a structural methodology that allowed the technically proficient to divine the holy writ that was secretly traced in the bare bones of animals from the very beginning. In ancient China, it seems, knowing the past or future was not a matter of telling a story; rather, it involved a divination of the mythical structure of meaning. If China does not offer us a heady narrative broth to feast on, it certainly provides us with bones and marrow to gnaw.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Axis Mundi; Chaos; Confucianism; Dao and De; Historiography, overview article; Huangdi; Liu An; Myth, article on Myth and History; Shangdi; Structuralism; Taiping; Tian; Xi Wang Mu; Yao and Shun; Yinyang Wuxing; Yu.


General Studies

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Studies on Particular Thematic Topics

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New Sources

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Cahill, Suzanne. "The Goddess, the Emperor, and the Adept: The Queen Mother of the West as Bestower of Legitimacy and Immortality." In Goddesses Who Rule, edited by Elisabeth Benard and Beverly Moon, pp. 197214. New York, 2000.

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Norman J. Girardot (1987)

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