Chinese mythology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
"Nine Dragons" handscroll section, by Chen Rong, 1244 AD, Chinese Song Dynasty, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Chinese mythology is a collection of cultural history, folktales, and religions that have been passed down in oral or written are several aspects to Chinese mythology, including creation myths and legends and myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state. Like most mythologies, some people believed 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 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 * 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.

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:


[edit] Myths and Legends

[edit] 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.

Nuwa and Fuxi represented as half-snake, half-human creatures.
  • Shangdi (上帝), appears 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), appears 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), appears 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), appears 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 sometimes believe that Nuwa molded humans from clay for companionship. 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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] 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 achieved 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 lost 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.

[edit] 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. In Book 5 of Mozi, Mozi described the end of Xia dynasty and the new Shang dynasty. During the reign of King Jie of Xia, there was a great climactic change. The paths of the sun and moon were different, the seasons were confused and the five grains were dried up. Ghouls were crying in the country and cranes shrieked for ten nights. Heaven ordered Shang Tang to receive the heavenly commission from Xia dynasty. The Xia dynasty have failed morally and Heaven has determined her end. Therefore, Shang Tang was commanded to destroy Xia with the promise of Heaven's help. In the dark, Heaven destroyed the fortress' pool. Shang Tang then gained victory easily.[1]

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). Book 5 of Mozi also described the shift. During the reign of Shang Zhou, Heaven could not endure his morality and his neglect of timely sacrifices. It rained mud for ten days and nights, the nine cauldrons (presumably used in either astronomy or to measure earth movements) shifted positions, pontianaks appeared and ghosts cried at night. There were women who became men, the heaven rained flesh and thorny brambles covered the national highways. A red bird brought a message "Heaven decrees King Wen of Zhou to punish Yin and possess its empire". The Yellow River formed charts and the earth brought forth mythical horses. When King Wu became king, three gods appeared to him in a dream, telling him that they have drowned Shang Zhou in wine and that King Wu was to attack him. On the way back from victory, the heavens gave him the emblem of a yellow bird.

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

[edit] Creation and the Pantheon

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.

[edit] Dragon

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 Yinglong "Responding Dragon", said to be the god of rain. Many people in different places pray to Yinglong in order to receive rain. In Chinese mythology, dragons are believed to be able to create clouds with their breath. Chinese people sometimes 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.

Dragon-gods, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner

[edit] Religion and mythology

There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and the major belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. (see Religion in China)

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.

[edit] Important mythologies and deities

Wen Chang, Chinese God of Literature, carved in ivory, c. 1550–1644, Ming Dynasty.
Spirit of the well, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner

[edit] Mythical creatures

  • Bashe (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.
  • Longma (龍馬), the "dragon horse", similar to the Qilin.
  • Kui 夔, a one-legged mountain demon or dragon, also Shun's musical master who invented music and dance.
  • 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.

[edit] 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.
  • 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), Chinese term for hell.

[edit] Literary sources of Chinese mythology

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^

[edit] External links

Personal tools