China, the land of mystery and enchantment, is filled with many images: religious gods and goddesses, mythical rules, historical beings, dragons, unicorns, what and what not. China passed through conflicting period of time, different religions and many opposing philosophies that appear and interact in many of the Chinese myths. When we go through some of the well-known Chinese tales, we find no clear distinction between what is real and what is mythical, what is earth and what is heaven, what is history and what early storytelling used to be. There is no clear distinction between what is present and what is past. China is a mosaic of diverge philosophies and traditions. And we must consider this reality about China while we try to talk about Ancient Chinese Mythology. Despite having many themes and variations throughout the history of China, most of the Chinese myths possess one common and central element—the survival of ordinary people against great adversities. Without any further ado, I would like to present you 10 ancient Chinese Mythologies.
10. The Pilgrimage Mythology
The Pilgrimage Mythology primarily talks about Kwan Yin, the Goddess of mercy and compassion. In most of the myths, she is portrayed as a lady holding an infant and dressed in white, with the seat of lotus. She was said to have murdered by her own father. As she arrived in hell, she used to recite holly books. In effect, the Hell king could not make the dead souls suffer. Angry with Kwan Yin, the god send her back to the world for living where she gained spiritual insights from Buddha and later on blessed with immortality. The temple of Kwan Yin, located at the summit of Wondrous Peak, was ever filled with a host of pilgrims to get her attention. The Pilgrimage Mythology also talks about how Buddhism was introduced and flourished in China. The mythology has it that the Monkey converts to Buddhism, but continues to use the Taoist knowledge and skills to combat evil.
9. Myth about the Monkey
A government official named Wu Ch’eng-en, in his popular novel called Journey to the West, tells this myth about the Monkey King named Sun Wukong. Sun Wukong is the most famous monkey in China. The monkey was said to have born out of a stone egg that came from a magic rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers. According to the mythology, Sun used to be very naughty, eager to take over the world and it even cost Buddha a lot of efforts to tame him. The Monkey King is characterized by his greedy, but joyful, curious, and extremely popular nature. Later in his life, he became a loyal companion to the monk Xaunzang on his adventurous journey from China to India and back again.
8. The Unicorn’s Prophecy
The myth of The Unicorn’s Prophecy sprang up around the Confucius’s life. This story introduces the unicorn, the Chi-lin, which is considered a sacred animal to the Chinese. It does not actually similar to the unicorn in European myths, but is a mix of many creatures, including the deer, ox, dragon, and horse. The nature of Chin-Lin has been depicted in myths as a peaceful and timid animal. The Chi-Lin left the innocent alone, but if angered, jabbed evil people with its horn. It is said that some dependable soldiers and fairy judges fabricated the emblem of the Chi-lin on their clothing to remind themselves how dutiful they were. During the fourteenth century, a real giraffe was sent to the imperial court and many observers claimed it was the reincarnation of the mythical Chi-Lin.
7. The Moon Goddess
Chang-O (or Chang’e)—the Chinese Goddess of the Moon, is the subject of several legends in Chinese mythology. The Moon Goddess mythology primarily incorporates elements like Houyi the archer, an elixir of life, a benevolent emperor, and the Moon. One very popular and interesting story about Chang-O takes you in the very distant past where the ten sons of the Jade Emperor were transformed into ten suns. The ten suns rose in the heaven and scorched the earth, causing it difficult for the people to live. The archer Yi shot down nine of them and left only one sun. Yi then was rewarded with the elixir of immortality. One day, when Yi was out for hunting, his apprentice Fengmeng broke into his house and forcefully tried to get the elixir from Yi’s wife, Chang’e. But Chang’e refused to give elixir to Fengmeng and drank it all herself. As she consumed the elixir, she became weightless and flew upwards towards the heavens and stay at the moon as a refugee.
6. The Grand Archer Yi
In many ancient Chinese mythologies, we can see gods helping the people. But the Grand Archer Yi is the one of the few mortals who helped the gods. He is characterized by having great skills of archery. Hou-Yi is believed to have lived between 2436-2255 B.C.E. Myths about him are linked to the people of the Southwestern part of China. Yi was one of the most famed archers of that time. It is believed that Yi saved the moon during an eclipse and rescued the country from the variety of outbreaks. Hou Yi is also said to have shot down 9 of 10 suns that were burning up the earth in the prehistoric times. There are many other stories about Yi that are popular among common people.
5. Yu Rebuilds the Earth
The myth about Yu the Great is based on Chinese legend from 2205 to 2197 B.C.E. Like all demigods of the ancient times, Yu the Great could change himself into different shapes whenever necessary. He could transform himself into the bears, dragons and humans. Yu is considered the first one to pass his status as ruler to his descendants and thus create a dynasty called Xia. But due to lack of any archaeological evidences about Xia, it still remains to be a mythical dynasty. One legend among many recounts Da Yu’s (Yu the Great) extraordinary birth wherein a man called Gun was given charge of controlling a great flood. He stole a piece of magic soil from heaven, to dam the water. Furious with him, the Shangdi (the Lord on High) issued an order for his execution. After about 3 years, the miraculously preserved body of the gun was slit open and a son brought forth. He was Da Yu and he was the one who, after years of hard work, provided outlets to the sea through dredging, with the help of dragons. He is the one who made the earth suitable for human habitation.
4. Water War
Gong Gong (aka Kanghui), a Chinese water god, is one of the frequently described characters in ancient Chinese Mythology. He is depicted in stories as having red hair and the tail of a serpent. Gong Gong was credited in various mythological contexts as being responsible for destructive floods. He wrestled to get the control of the earth shortly after the creation of people. Before Gong, Zurong the fire god ruled the world peacefully. But when Gong became the ruler, he wanted to expand his influence by increasing the amount of water in the universe—in the seven tenths of water to three-tenths dry land. So, he sent heavy rains and came close to destroying the world in a fierce power struggle with the Zurong. To counteract the destructive forces of both Gong and Zurong, Nuwa the creator of people appears in this myth. Gong is often seen as an ancient destroyer god and is blamed for many other cosmic catastrophes. And in all accounts, Gong Gong ends up being killed or sent into exile.
3. Fushi Teaches the people
The most ancient myths involve the Ten Legendary Kings, gods who guided people through their prehistoric beginnings (around 3000-2197 B.C.E). They were demigods (half god and half human), who lived among the people and taught them the rules of civilization. Fushi was the first ruler of this magical period. Many scholars believe that his story is based on actual monarch who lived sometime between 2953-2736 B.C.E. Despite having different variations of the stories, Fushi has been depicted as a beloved figure in all of the mythology who taught survival skills to the early humans. He taught people how to use fire, how to cook, how to write and many other skills like hunting, fishing and fortune-telling. Some myths depict Fushi as having the body of human while others depict him as having the head of a human and the body of a snake. In many stories, he is regarded as the husband of Nuwa and they are the bearers of civilization.
2. Nuwa Creates People
Nuwa (aka Nugua), the goddess in humankind is one of the most popular characters in ancient Chinese mythology. As per the mythologies, Nuwa created the mankind and repaired the pillar of heaven and broken the corners of earth, which the Gong Gong had destroyed in a fit of anger. In Chinese mythologies, Nugua is regarded as the patroness of matchmakers. As a wife of Fushi, she helped establish the norms for marriage and regulated the conduct between sexes. Nuwa is also said to have built a lovely palace that became the prototype for the later walled cities of China. The materials of the palace were said to have prepared overnight by mountain spirits.
1. Panku (Pangu) Creates the World
The earliest Chinese mythologies contain many stories of many wondrous rulers of ancient times; however there are no creation stories. The story of Panku (aks Pangu) is probably the closest Chinese version of a creation myth. Pangu is the central figure in Chinese Daoist legends of creation. Pangu—the first man, is said to have created out of the cosmic egg, with two horns, two tusks, and a hairy body. According to the ancient myths, Pangu is said to have shaped the earth by chiseling out valleys and stacking up mountains. All this was accompanied from his knowledge of yin yang—the inescapable principle of duality in all things.
When we trace back to the history of the ancient Chinese mythologies, the writing of mythological stories seems to have begun in the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420 A.D.). Influenced by the alchemist’s ideas and Taoists and Buddhist superstitions, various writers were interested in inventing tales of gods and demons. When we go through their tales, we see they have shown their unusual imagination and mastery of the written language. And the practice was continued in the generations that follow. Like many other cultures, Chinese mythical tales too are entwined with history. Most of the ancient myths date back to the legends of ancient times, even before the recorded history of mankind. Myths do exist in many forms, even till the date. This article is a compilation of various ancient Chinese myths that are frequently mentioned in the popular folktales various many scholars.