Chinese Mythology in Context
The people of China have a rich and complicated mythology that dates back nearly four thousand years. Throughout Chinese history, myth and reality have been intertwined. Historical figures have been worshipped as gods, and ancient myths are sometimes treated as historical truths. In addition, three great religious traditions—Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism—have played a role in shaping the mythology. The result is a rich tapestry of characters and tales, both real and imagined, and a unique pantheon (collection of recognized gods and goddesses) organized very much like ancient Chinese society.
China can trace its historical roots in an unbroken line for more than four thousand years, and its mythological roots extend even farther back in time. From about 2000 to 1500 bce, a people known as the Xia dominated the northern regions of China. The Xia worshipped the snake, a creature that appears in some of the oldest Chinese myths. Eventually, the snake changed into the dragon, which became one of the most enduring symbols of Chinese culture and mythology.
New Religious Ideas From about 1500 to 1066 bce, China was ruled by the Shang dynasty. The people at this time worshipped many deities, including natural forces and elements, such as rain, clouds, rivers, mountains, the sun , the moon, and the earth. Their greatest deity, Shang Di, remains an important god in the Chinese pantheon.
When a new dynasty, the Zhou, came to power in China in 1066 bce, significant changes took place in religion. People still worshipped the old gods, but ancestor worship became increasingly important. Confucianism and Taoism appeared near the end of the Zhou dynasty. These two religious traditions had an enormous influence on the development of the most basic and lasting principles of Chinese culture.
Changing Old Beliefs In 213 bce, many of the original sources of Chinese mythology were lost when Emperor Shi Huangdi of the Qin dynasty ordered the burning of all books on subjects other than medicine, prophecy (predictions of the future), and farming. This order was reversed in 191 bce, and much of the literature was reconstructed. But works were rewritten to support ideas popular with the royal court at the time. These changes affected religious beliefs, producing a pantheon of deities that mirrored the political organization of the Chinese empire. Gods and spirits had different ranks and areas of responsibility, just like Chinese officials.
Shortly before 100 ce, Buddhism arrived in China from India and added another important influence to Chinese culture and mythology. Buddhist ideas gradually came to be merged with Taoism and Confucianism in the minds of many Chinese. The three traditions often were seen as different aspects of the same religion and as having basically the same goals. Buddhists and Taoists honored each other's deities in their temples, and both incorporated principles of Confucianism, such as ancestor worship, in their beliefs.
Core Deities and Characters
The deities and characters that make up the body of Chinese mythology originate in many different regions and from several unique belief systems. For this reason, Chinese mythology is less uniform and consistent in its legends than the mythologies of many other cultures, but offers a wide range of tales and mythological figures to appreciate.
Pan Gu was the first living creature and the creator of the world. Among his acts of creation were the separation of the earth and sky, the placement of the stars and planets in the heavens, and the shaping of the earth's surface. It is often said that his body became the world on which all things live.
For the Han people of ancient China, the supreme god was known as Shang Di. In later times, this same deity came to be known as Tian, also used as a word for heaven or sky. There are few details about Shang Di in Chinese mythology other than that he was male and his duties involved rewarding those who were deserving and punishing those who were not. Shang Di was not represented in art.
A similar deity is the Jade Emperor , also known as Yu Huang, revered by Taoists as the supreme ruler of heaven. According to legend, when Yu Huang was born as a prince the kingdom where he lived was flooded with light. As he grew, he showed a remarkable respect for all living things and devoted himself to helping the least fortunate members of the kingdom. After his father died, he ruled the region with greatness and eventually became immortal, or able to live forever. According to myth, it took Yu Huang millions of years to achieve the status of Jade Emperor, which was bestowed upon him by a group of deities.
Two groups of characters central to Chinese mythology are the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors. All of these figures were believed to rule ancient regions of China, and many are credited with uplifting humans to a state of advanced civilization through their leadership or their teachings. The Three Sovereigns are figures of the most ancient times. Two of the three, Fu Xi and Nuwa, were deities who helped humankind continue in the aftermath of a great flood. Fu Xi and Nuwa were brother and sister and were the only two to survive the flood; they prayed to the Jade Emperor, who gave them permission to become a couple and repopulate the land. In many versions of their tale they also teach humans essential skills, such as hunting, fishing with nets, and cooking food. The third of the Three Sovereigns, Shennong, is said to have taught people the arts of agriculture and medicinal herbs. According to legend, Shennong went to the trouble of tasting hundreds of plants and minerals in an effort to determine which could be helpful to humans and which could be harmful (poisonous).
The Five Emperors are believed to be based on historical leaders who brought great advancements to their people. None were emperors in the traditional, later use of the term; rather, they were tribal leaders who may have also been elected to be in charge of a larger group of tribes. The first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor , also known as Huang-Di. The Yellow Emperor was said to be the first to institute laws among the tribes he ruled, and he also brought the first music and art to his people. He became immortal, and eventually power passed to his grandson, Zhuanxu. Zhuanxu made his own contributions to Chinese culture, expanding his kingdom and unifying religious and marriage practices for all his subjects.
The kingdom was later ruled by his son, Ku, and by Ku's son, Yao. It is believed that Ku ruled for seventy years, while his son Yao ruled for over one hundred years. Yao, according to tradition, invented the Chinese board game Go, which was considered an essential way to learn strategy and planning. The last of the Five Emperors was Shun, son-in-law to Yao and ruler for nearly fifty years. He was originally a simple farmer, but his humility and dedication to religion won him a reputation that spread all the way to Yao's throne; since Yao was dissatisfied with his own son's behavior, he allowed Shun to marry two of his daughters and become the next in line to rule. Yao and Shun are often viewed together as the perfect leaders whose behavior rose above any possible hint of misdeed and whose popularity has been unmatched since.
Other important figures from Chinese history have developed their own unique legends that expand upon their true historical accomplishments. Two of the most important of these figures are the religious and philosophical leaders Confucius and Laozi. Born in 551 bce to a poor family of aristocratic background, Confucius began a teaching career after working as a minor government official. For Confucius, the goal of education and learning was self-knowledge and self-improvement, which would lead one to right conduct. Although his method of education was aimed at ensuring the smooth operation of a stable and well-ordered state, his teachings became a guide to living wisely as well.
Confucius attracted many followers who spread his ideas after his death in 479 bce. A number of legends grew up about Confucius, including one in which dragons guarded his mother when he was born. According to another story, a unicorn appeared at his birth and spit out a piece of jade with a prophecy written on it, saying that the infant would become “an uncrowned emperor.” Considering the immense impact of Confucius on Chinese culture, the prophecy came true.
Taoism, also known as Daoism, arose about the same time as Confucianism. This religious tradition had its roots in the nature worship of the earliest Chinese people. The word tao means “way,” and Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is a natural order or a “way of heaven” that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature. Through an understanding of natural laws, an individual can gain eternal life. The main Taoist work, the Tao Te Ching, was supposedly written by Laozi, a scholar at the Chinese royal court in the 500s bce. Little is known about Laozi. The main sources of information, written hundreds of years after he lived, are legendary in nature. One of the most popular stories about Laozi concerns a voyage to the west, during which he wrote the Tao Te Ching. Other tales claim that Laozi met Confucius and that he lived more than two hundred years. Although the true story of Laozi will probably never be known, he is widely respected in China. Confucianists consider him a great philosopher, while Taoists regard him as the embodiment of the tao and honor him as a saint or god.
According to Chinese mythology, at the beginning of time the universe consisted only of a giant egg. Within the egg lay a sleeping giant named Pan Gu. One day Pan Gu awoke and stretched, causing the egg to split open. After Pan Gu emerged, the light, pure parts of the egg became the sky, while the heavy parts formed the earth. This separation of the earth and sky marked the beginning of yin and yang, the two opposing forces of the universe.
Already gigantic in size, Pan Gu grew ten feet taller each day. This went on for eighteen thousand years, and as Pan Gu became taller, he pushed the earth and sky farther apart and shaped them with his tools until they reached their present position and appearance. Exhausted by his work, Pan Gu finally fell asleep and died.
When Pan Gu died, parts of his body were transformed into different features of the world. According to some stories, his head, arms, feet, and stomach became great mountains that help to anchor the world and mark its boundaries. Other stories say that Pan Gu's breath was transformed into wind and clouds; his voice became thunder; and his eyes became the sun and moon. Pan Gu's blood formed rivers and seas; his veins turned into roads and paths; his sweat became rain and dew; his bones and teeth turned into rock and metal; his flesh changed into soil; the hair on his head became the stars; and the hair on his body turned into vegetation.
Some myths say that humans developed from fleas and parasites that fell from Pan Gu's body and beard. Other stories, however, tell how Pan Gu created humans by shaping them from clay and leaving them in the sun to dry. When a sudden rain began to fall, Pan Gu hastily wrapped up the clay figures, damaging some in the process, which explains why some humans are crippled or disabled.
Another myth tells of the battle between two gods. Zhu Rong was the god of fire, while his son Gong Gong was a god of water. The ambitious young Gong Gong decided to attempt an overthrow of heaven so that he could be the ruler of all things. When Zhu Rong heard this, he battled his son for several days to stop him. The two fell down to earth during the fight, and ultimately Zhu Rong was triumphant over his son. However, Gong Gong was so upset that he smashed one of the mountains that held up the heavens. This is why the sun, the moon, and the stars travel through the sky at an angle.
Another popular myth concerns the daughter of the Jade Emperor, a princess who was responsible for weaving the clouds in the sky. She had a magic robe that allowed her to descend to the land of mortals—Earth— in order to bathe each day. On one occasion, a poor cowherd saw her bathing in a stream and fell in love with her. While she was in the water, he took her robe; this kept her from being able to return to the heavens. Trapped with the cowherd, the princess eventually came to love him, and the couple got married. Later, when the princess was feeling homesick and missing her father, she discovered the magic robe that her husband had hidden from her. She used the robe to travel back to the heavens, and her father—not wanting her to return to Earth—created an enormous river across the sky that the princess could not cross. The river is visible in the night sky as the Milky Way. Seeing how upset his daughter became, however, the Jade Emperor decided to allow the couple to meet on a bridge over the river for one day each year. (In one version of the tale, the bridge is made of magpies—birds who have taken pity on the couple.)
A famous literary work that incorporates many elements of Chinese folklore—including animals as main characters—is the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West. The novel tells the story of a famous Buddhist monk named Xuanzang who travels west on a journey to India, where he is tasked with obtaining some sacred Buddhist scriptures. Along the way he encounters several unique characters who join him on his quest, including Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who had been punished by Buddha centuries before when he attempted to take control of heaven. Xuanzang is able to control Sun Wukong's violent outbursts by uttering some magic words. Another companion—the half-human, half-pig Zhu Bajie—was also punished by the gods for his disrespectful behavior. Xuanzang is also joined by a demon named Sha Wujing, a former general in heaven who was punished for breaking a valuable crystal vessel. The group encounters eighty-one different disasters that they must overcome, mostly orchestrated by Buddha himself as a test for the adventurers. What begins as a search for scriptures turns out to be a quest for salvation; Xuanzang and Sun Wukong both achieve the highest level of enlightenment, while the other characters earn the ability to return to heaven.
Key Themes and Symbols
Several common themes appear throughout much of Chinese mythology. Among the most significant are the creation of the world out of chaos or disorder, the importance of nature, and reverence for ancestors. The importance of nature is stressed in legends, such as that of the Five Sacred Mountains that represent the main points of the compass and the axis of the world. The most sacred mountain, T'ai Shan, has Shang Di, the greatest earthly power, as its deity. Mount Kunlun, home of immortals, became the focus of various cults. Many Chinese myths deal with natural disasters, especially floods . Others deal with heavenly bodies, such as the sun and moon. Animals, including dragons, pigs, and monkeys, are also important figures in Chinese mythology.
Reverence for ancestors is another common theme in Chinese mythology. Long life is viewed as a sign of the gods' favor, and for many centuries the Chinese have sought the secret of long life and immortality. In the past, Taoists believed that magic potions could be created that bestowed eternal life on people who drank them and that beings known as hsien gained immortality in this way. Age is also closely associated with wisdom and enlightenment in many myths. Both Taoism and Confucianism stress the importance of paying proper respect to elders, especially parents and grandparents, and deceased ancestors are honored with various ceremonies and rituals.
Chinese Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Mythology has been one of the richest sources for Chinese artists and writers to draw upon over the centuries, fourney to the West is considered to be one of the most important books in Chinese history, and traditional artwork commonly features legendary figures, such as the Five Emperors or the Eight Immortals. In modern times, even with the increasing presence of Western cultural traditions, Chinese mythology remains an integral part of life and art in China.
fourney to the West has appeared in many forms and remains the best-known tale of Chinese mythology to those outside China. The Japanese television series Monkey (1978), which also aired in a translated version for British and Australian audiences, was based on the book, and the 2008 English-language film The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Chinese cinema legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li, was inspired by the same legendary characters.
Other mythological characters also appear in different aspects of art and culture. Pan Gu is usually portrayed as a little person clothed in a bearskin or leaves, holding a hammer and chisel or the egg of creation. Fu Xi and Nuwa are sometimes depicted in half-human, half-snake form; the two have appeared in several video games, including the popular Dynasty Warriors series. In modern times, Shang Di is one name given to God among Chinese Christians. As interest in Asian culture expands throughout the Western world, characters such as these—and the tales that accompany them—will no doubt continue to grow in awareness and popularity.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was (1984), by Barry Hughart, is a fantasy tale built largely on the myth of the princess and the cowherd, though it also weaves many other Chinese myths into its adventure. Master Li Kao and his sidekick, Number Ten Ox, venture across a mythical, seventh-century landscape in an attempt to find the Great Root of Power—the only cure for the ailing children of their small village. The book won the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, as well as the 1986 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and spawned two sequels: The Story of the Stone (1988), and Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1990).