Chinese Mythology

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Chinese mythology is a collection of cultural history, folktales, and religions that have been passed down in oral or written form. There are several aspects to Chinese mythology, including creation myths and legends and myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state. Like many mythologies, some people believe it to be at least in part a factual recording of history.

Historians have conjectured that the Chinese mythology began in 12th century B.C. The myths and the legends were passed down in oral format for over a thousand years, before being written down in early books such as Shui Jing Zhu and Shan Hai Jing. Other myths continued to be passed down through oral traditions such as theatre and song, before being recorded in the form of novels such as Fengshen Yanyi.


Records of Myths

A number of works record ancient Chinese mythology in their settled forms. Most myths extant today are derived from their recording in these works.

  • Shan Hai Jing - Literally Mountain and Sea Scroll, the Shan Hai Jing describes the myths, witchcraft, and religion of ancient China in great detail and also has a record of the geography, sea and mountains, history, medicine, customs, and ethnicities in ancient times. It has been called an early encyclopedia of China. In Wu Chinese, "talking about the Shan Hai Jing" is an idiom meaning gossip or idle chat.
  • Shui Jing Zhu - Literally Commentaries on the Water Scroll, this work began as commentaries on the briefer work of the Water Scroll, but became famous of its own accord because of its extensive record of geography, history, and associated legends.
  • Hei'an Zhuan - Epic of Darkness Literally Epic of the Darkness, this is the only collection of legends in epic form preserved by a community of the Han nationality of China, namely, inhabitants of the Shennongjia mountain area in Hubei, containing accounts from the birth of Pangu till the historical era.
  • Imperial historical documents and philosophical canons such as Shangshu, Shiji, Liji, Lüshi Chunqiu, and others.

Some myths survive in theatrical or literary formats, as plays or novels. Important mythological fiction which is seen as definitive records of these myths include:

Myths and Legends

Creation myths

A unique characteristic of Chinese culture is the relatively late appearance in Chinese literature of creation myths. Those that do exist appear well after the foundation of Confucianism, Taoism, and Folk Religions. The stories exist in several versions, often conflicting, with the creation of the first humans being variously ascribed to Shangdi, Yu Huang, Heaven, Nuwa, Pangu. The following presents common versions of the creation story in roughly chronological order.

  • Shangdi (上帝), appearing in literature probably earlier than 700 BC as Huangtian Dadi 皇天大帝 very occasionally as 皇天上帝, (the dating of these occurrences depends on the date of Oracle Bones and the Shujing, aka "Book of Documents"), is possibly an attempt to christianise Chinese god by religious advocates. When Huangtian Dadi was used it refers to Jade Emperor or Yu Huang, and Tian 天 and Jade Emperor were synonymous in Chinese prayers.
  • Yu Huang (玉皇, Yudi 玉帝 or Jade Emperor), appear in literature after the establishment of Taoism in China, but the position of Yu Huang dates back to beyond the times of Huangdi, Nuwa or Fuxi.
  • Tian (天, or Heaven), appearing in literature probably about 700 BC, or earlier (the dating of these occurrences depends on the date of the Shujing, aka "Book of Documents"). There are no "creation" oriented narratives for 'Heaven', although the role of a creator is a possible interperatation. The qualities of 'Heaven' and Shangdi appear to merge in later literature (and are worshipped as one entity ("皇天上帝") in, for example, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing). The extent of the distinction (if any) between them is debated. The sinologist Herrlee Creel proposes that an analysis of the Shang oracle bones shows Shangdi preceded 'tian' as a deity, and that Zhou Dynasty authors replaced the term Shangdi with tian to cement the claim of their influence. Again this is possible christianization of Jade Emperor into God in the Christian Bibles.
  • Nüwa (女媧), appearing in literature no earlier than about 350 BC. Her companion was Fuxi (伏羲), the brother and husband of Nuwa. These two beings are sometimes worshipped as the ultimate ancestor of all humankind. They are often represented as half-snake, half-human creatures. Nüwa was also responsible for repairing the sky after Gong Gong damaged the pillar supporting the heavens (see below).
  • Pangu (盤古), written about 200 AD by the Daoist author Xu Zheng, was a later myth claiming to describe the first sentient being & creator.

Three August Ones and Five Emperors

Following on from the age of Nuwa and Fuxi (or cotemporaneous in some versions) was an age known as the Three August Ones and Five Emperors (三皇五帝). This involves a collection of legendary rulers who ruled between c. 2850 BC to 2205 BC, the time preceding the Xia dynasty.

The list of names comprising the Three August Ones and Five Emperors vary widely between sources (see Three August Ones and Five Emperors for other versions of the list). The version in the widest circulation (and most popularly known) is:

  • The Three August Ones (Huang):
    • Fuxi (伏羲) - The companion of Nuwa.
    • Shennong (神農) - Shennong, literally meaning "Divine Farmer", reputedly taught the ancients agriculture and medicine.
    • Huang Di (黄帝) - Huang Di, literally meaning, and commonly known as, the "Yellow Emperor", is often regarded as the first sovereign of the Chinese nation.

(Source: Shangshu (尚書))

  • The Five Emperors (Di):
    • Shaohao (少昊) - Leader of the Dongyi or "Eastern Barbarians"; his pyramidal tomb is in present-day Shandong province.
    • Zhuanxu (顓頊) - Grandson of the Yellow Emperor
    • Emperor Ku (帝嚳) - Great grandson of the Yellow Emperor; nephew of Zhuanxu.
    • Yao (堯) - The son of Ku. His elder brother succeeded Ku, but abdicated when he was found to be an ineffective ruler.
    • Shun (舜) - Yao, passing over his own son, made Shun his successor because of Shun's ability and morality.

These rulers were generally regarded as extremely moral and benevolent rulers, examples to be emulated by latter day kings and emperors. When Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, he felt that his achievements had surpassed those of all the rulers who have gone before him. Hence, he combined the ancient titles of Huang (皇) and Di (帝) to create a new title, Huangdi (皇帝), usually translated as Emperor.

Great Flood

Shun passed his place as leader of the Huaxia tribe to Yu the Great (禹). According to legend, the Yellow River was prone to flooding, and erupted in a huge flood in the time of Yao. Yu's father, Gun, was put in charge of flood control by Yao, but failed to alleviate the problem after 9 years. He was executed by Shun, and Yu took his father's place, and led the people in building canals and levees. After thirteen years of toil, flooding problems were solved under Yu's command. Shun enfeoffed Yu in the place of Xia, in present-day Wan County in Henan. On his death, Shun passed the leadership to Yu. The main source for the story of Yu and the Great Flood comes from The Counsels of Yu the Great in the Classic of History (尚書·大禹謨).

Because of his achievement in resolving the Great Flood, Yu, alone among the mythological rulers, is usually called "Yu the Great" (大禹). Alternatively, he is called Emperor Yu (帝禹), like his predecessors.

Xia Dynasty

Upon Yu's death, his position as leader was passed not to his deputy, but was inherited by his son Qi. Various sources differ as to the process by which Qi rose to this position. Most versions agree that during his lifetime, Yu had designated his deputy, Gaotao (皋陶), to be his successor. When Gaotao died before him, Yu then selected Gaotao's son, Bo Yi (伯益) as successor. One version then says that all the peoples who had submitted to Yu admired Qi more than Boyi, and Yu passed power to Qi instead. Another version holds that Boyi ceremoniously offered the position to Qi, who accepted, against convention, because he had the support of other leaders. A third version says that Qi killed Boyi and usurped his position as leader.

A 4th version, the currently most accepted version in China says, Yu named Bo Yi as successor, because Bo Yi had achieve fame through teaching the People to use fire to drive animals during hunts. Bo Yi had the popular support of the People and Yu could not go against it easily. But Yu gave Bo Yi the empty successor title, without giving Bo Yi more responsibilities. Instead Yu gave his own son all the responsibilities of managing the country. After a few years, Bo Yi lose popularity without additional achievements, and Yu's son Qi became more popular among the People. Then Yu named Qi as the successor. Bo Yi, however, did not lose willingly. Bo Yi challenged Qi for leadership, and a civil war ensued. Qi with great support of the People, managed to defeat Bo Yi's forces, and killed Bo Yi, and solidified his rule.

In any case, Qi's succession broke the previous convention of meritorious succession, and began what is traditionally regarded as the first dynasty in Chinese history. The dynasty is called "Xia" after Yu's centre of power.

The Xia Dynasty is considered at least semi-mythological. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals record the names of 17 kings of the Xia Dynasty. However, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence of its capital or its existence as a state of any significant size. Archaeological evidence do not point towards a significant urban civilisation until the Shang Dynasty.

Shang Dynasty

Jie, the last king of the Xia Dynasty, is said to be a bloodthirsty despot. Tang of Shang, a tribal leader, revolted against Xia rule and eventually overthrew Jie and established the Shang Dynasty, based in Anyang. The Shang Dynasty ruled from ca. 1766 BC to ca. 1050 BC. It came to an end when the last despotic ruler, Zhou of Shang, was overthrown by the new Zhou Dynasty. The end of the Shang Dynasty and the establishment of the Zhou is the subject of the influential mythological fiction, Investitute of the Gods (封神演義).

Unlike the preceding Xia Dynasty, there is clear archaeological evidence of a government centre at Yinxu in Anyang, and of an urban civilisation in the Shang Dynasty. However, the chronology of the first three dynasties remains an area of active research and controversy.

Creation and the Pantheon

The hierarchy of heaven according to Tiantang Yiuchi and The Feast of Immortal Peaches starts broadly with the primodial unity Xuanxuan Shangren (玄玄上人), transformed into the Three Pure Ones the Daoist Trinity (三清:玉清元始天尊、上清靈寶天尊、太清道德天尊) who reigned on matters related to Tao and De. The primordial unity then manifested as the Five Elders or Five Supremes (五老) made up of five supra-beings at the cardinal south Chi Jingzi (赤精子) , at the cardinal north Shui Jingzi (水精子), cardinal east Mu Gong (木公), cardinal west Jin Mu (金母) and in the cardinal center Huang Lao (黃老).

Together these eight supra-beings form the core advisory elders, counsel the administration of heaven on the principles of absolute morality. Underneath these elders the administration operation arm of heaven is presided over by the Jade Emperor, Yudi, Yu Huang or the divine sovereign, who has a tenure of sixty years, and the current Jade Emperor is Guan Shengdi or Guan Yu. The Jade Emperor is charged with running of the three realms heaven, hell and that of the living. The Jade Emperor adjudicates and metes out rewards and remedies to actions of saints, the living and the deceased according to a merit system loosely called the Jade Principles Golden Script 玉律金篇, see external links. When judgments proposed were objected to, usually by other saints, the administration would occasionally resort to the counsels of the advisory elders.


The Chinese dragon is one of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology. The Chinese dragon is considered to be the most powerful and divine creature and is believed to be the controller of all waters. The dragon symbolised great power and was very supportive of heroes and gods. One of the most famous dragons in Chinese mythology is Ying Long, or "Responding Dragon". He is said to be the god of rain. Many people in different places pray to him in order to receive rain. In Chinese mythology, dragons are believed to be able to create clouds with their breath. Chinese people often use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" as a sign of ethnic identity.

For the most part, Chinese myths involve moral issues which inform people of their culture and values. There are many stories that can be studied or excavated in China.

Religion and mythology

There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and the major belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

On the one hand, elements of pre-existing mythology were adapted into these belief systems as they developed (in the case of Taoism), or were assimilated into Chinese culture (in the case of Buddhism). On the other hand, elements from the teachings and beliefs of these systems became incorporated into Chinese mythology. For example, the Taoist belief of a spiritual paradise became incorporated into mythology, as the place where immortals and deities dwell.

One possible explanation available is that there is no distinction between the religion factions in heaven, whether it is Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam or Catholicism, according to the text of Pantao Yen Log or The Feast of the Immortal Peaches, Tiantang Yiuchi both of which alleged the five religions shared the same origin or source. These distinctions were made on earth, originally due to geography. Appellations to the purified and enlightened yuanling do contain distinctions, collectively these are known as Sheng Fok Xian Zhen (聖佛仙真).

  • Sheng (聖) is the honorary title for a deity from the Confucian school or mortal worthy of canonization due to deeds Confucian in nature. Guan Yu for his unwavering loyalty to the two brothers and to his king was a deified as Sheng. This term is also used for deity in the west.
  • Fok (佛 or budda) is the appellation for the enlightened Buddhist mortal. Ji Gong started out as a monk and thus became Fok. The correct way to address him is Ji Fok.
  • Xian (仙 or immortal) would be immortalised Taoist or adherents, like the famous Eight Immortals were all Taoist
  • Zhen (真) is a general title applicable to all schools including the occidental saints.
  • Xian (賢) used in conjunction with Sheng, as in Shengxian (聖賢), a general title applicable to all saints.

All mortals including the likes of kings e.g. Three August Ones and Five Emperors or commoners like Ji Gong, Zhong Kui, Mulian, with deeds worthy of commendation, using yardstick similar to the Taoist Jade Principles Golden Script 玉律金篇, would eventually be considered as enlightened being, or as a yuanling. To be a deity or god in the pantheon these enlightened would need to further carry out work or deeds on behalf of heaven, and eventually additional titles added.

Important mythologies and deities

  • Three Pure Ones (三清) the Daoist trinity, beings first transformed from the primodial unity
    • 元始天尊
    • 靈寶天尊
    • 道德天尊
  • Five Supremes 五老, are composed of
    • Chi Jingzi 赤精子
    • Shui Jingzi 水精子
    • Mu Gong 木公
    • Jin Mu 金母
    • Huang Lao 黃老
  • Eight Immortals (八仙)Daoist
    • He Xiangu (何仙姑)
    • Cao Guojiu (曹國舅)
    • Tie Guaili (鐵拐李)
    • Lan Caihe (藍采和)
    • Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓)
    • Han Xiangzi (韓湘子)
    • Zhang Guolao (張果老)
    • Han Zhongli (漢鍾離)

Mythical creatures

  • Bai She (巴蛇 ba1she2) a snake reputed to swallow elephants
  • Birds:
    • Fenghuang (Chinese Phoenix)
    • Ji Guang (吉光 ji2guang1)
    • Jian (鶼 jian1) A mythical bird supposed to have only one eye and one wing: 鶼鶼 a pair of such birds dependent on each other, inseparable, hence, represent husband and wife.
    • Jingwei (精衛) a mythical bird which tries to fill up the ocean with twigs and pebbles.
    • Shang-Yang (a rainbird)
    • Nine-headed Bird Used to scare children.
    • Su Shuang (鷫鵊 su4shuang3) a mythical bird, also variously described as a water bird, like the crane.
    • Peng (鵬, a mythical bird of giant size and terrific flying power) Also known as Chinese roc.
    • Qing Niao (青鳥 qing1niao3) a mythical bird, the messenger of Xi Wangmu.
    • Zhu (a bad omen)
  • Chinese dragon
  • Qilin, chimeric animal with several variations. The first giraffe sent as a gift to a Chinese emperor was believed to be the Qilin. An early Chinese painting depicts this giraffe replete with the fish scales of the Qilin.
  • Long Ma (龍馬) Similar to the Qilin- the dragon-horse.
  • Kui (夔 kui2) a mythical one legged monster.
  • Kun, also known as Peng (鯤 kun1) a mythical giant monstrous fish.
  • Jiang Shi
  • Luduan can detect truth.
  • Yaoguai — demons.
  • Huli jing — fox spirits.
  • Nian, the beast
  • Ox heads & horse faces 牛頭馬面 messenger boy in Hell.
  • Pixiu (貔貅)
  • Rui Shi (瑞獅)
  • Qīng Lóng, Azure dragon of the east.
  • Xuán Wǔ, black warrior of the north.
  • Bái Hǔ, white tiger of the west.
  • Zhū Què, vermillion bird of the south.
  • Tao Tie (饕餮 tao1tie4) a mythical gargoyle like figure, often found on ancient bronze vessels, representing greed. It is said to be the fifth son of dragon and has such an appetite that it even eats its head.
  • Xiao (魈 xiao1) A mythical mountain spirit or demon.
  • Xiezhi (獬豸) a unicorn beast
  • The Xing Tian (刑天 "punished one" or "he who was punished by heaven") is a headless giant. He was decapitated by the Yellow Emperor as punishment for challenging him. Because he has no head, his face is in his torso. He wanders around fields and roads and is often depicted carrying a shield and an axe and doing a fierce war dance.
  • Chinese Monkey Warded off evil spirits and was highly respected and loved by all Chinese people.
  • Yifan Zhang - Cat goddess, lead a legion of cats to uphold righteousness before the Shang Era. Descendant of Huang Di.

Mythical places

  • Xuanpu (玄圃 xuan2pu3), a mythical fairyland on Kunlun Mountain (崑崙).
  • Yaochi (瑤池 yao2chi2), abode of immortals where Xi Wang Mu lives.
  • Fusang (扶桑 fu2sang1), a mythical island, interpreted as Japan or the Americas.
  • Queqiao (鵲橋 que4qiao2) the bridge formed by birds across the Milky Way.
  • Penglai (蓬萊 peng2lai2) the paradise, a fabled Fairy Isle on the China Sea.
  • Longmen (龍門 long2men2) the dragon gate where a carp can transform into a dragon.
  • Di Yu (地獄 di4yu4) the Chinese hell

Literary sources of Chinese mythology

See also

External links

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