is a collection of cultural history
, and religions
that have been passed down in oral or written tradition.
include creation myths and legends and
myths concerning the founding of Chinese
culture and the Chinese
Like many mythologies, it has in the past
been believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of
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
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
A unique characteristic of Chinese culture is the 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
. 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"). When Huangtian Dadi was used it refers to Jade Emperor
or Yu Huang, and Tian 天 and Jade Emperor were synonymous in Chinese
- Yu Di (玉皇 or 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.
- 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 &
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
The list of names comprising the Three August Ones and Five
Emperors vary widely between sources (see Three August Ones and Five
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
- 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.
- The Five Emperors (Di):
- Shaohao (少昊) - Leader
of the Dongyi or "Eastern Barbarians"; his
pyramidal tomb is in present-day Shandong
- Zhuanxu (顓頊) - Grandson of the Yellow
- 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
- Shun (舜) - Yao, passing
over his own son, made Shun his successor because of Shun's ability
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
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
, 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.
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
(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.
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
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
and the Bamboo
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
, 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.
Book 5 of 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.
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
and the establishment of
is the subject of the
influential mythological fiction, Investitute of the Gods
(封神演義). Book 5
also described the shift. During the reign of
, 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,
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
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.
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
However, the chronology of the first three
remains an area of active research and
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.
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.
Religion and mythology
There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and
the major belief systems of Confucianism
. (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
a spiritual paradise
became incorporated into
mythology, as the place where immortals and deities dwell.
Important mythologies and deities
- Three Pure Ones (三清) the Daoist
trinity, beings first transformed from the primodial unity
- Bashe (巴蛇 ba1she2) a snake reputed to
- Fenghuang (Chinese Phoenix)
- 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.
- Jiguang (吉光 ji2guang1)
- Jingwei (精衛) a mythical bird which tries
to fill up the ocean with twigs and pebbles.
- Jiufeng A nine headed bird used
to scare children.
- Peng (鵬, a mythical bird of
giant size and awesome flying power) Also known as the Chinese
- Qing Niao (青鳥 qing1niao3) a mythical
bird, the messenger of Xi Wangmu.
- Sanzuniao (三足鳥) a three-legged crow.
Represented the sun birds shot down by Houyi.
- Shang-Yang (a rainbird)
- Su Shuang (鷫鵊 su4shuang3) a mythical
bird, also variously described as a water bird, like the
- Zhen (鴆) a poisonous bird
- Zhu (a bad omen)
- Chinese dragon
- Chinese "Unicorns":
- Qilin - a 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. In legend, it is believed to have perfect good will,
gentleness and benevolence to all living creatures.
- Xiezhi (獬豸) - Also called Xie Cai, is a
creature of justice said to be able to tell lies from truths. It
has a single long straight horn that it uses to gorge liars. Often
depicted as a goat unicorn.
- Bai Ze (白澤) - literally meaning "white
marsh", is a legendary creature said to have been encountered by
the Yellow Emperor and to have given him a compendium listing all the demons in the
- Xiniu (犀牛) - or the rhinoceros, started to become mythical creatures
when they became extinct in China. Their depictions changed to a
more bovine appearance with a single short
curved horn on its head that was used to communicate with the
- The Four Symbols (四象)
- The Four Fiends (四凶):
- 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
- Jiang Shi
- Luduan can detect truth.
- Yaoguai — demons.
- Huli jing — fox spirits.
- Nian, the beast
- Ox heads & horse
faces 牛頭馬面 devils in animal forms.
- Pixiu (貔貅)
- Rui Shi (瑞獅)
- Xiao (魈 xiao1) A mythical mountain spirit
- 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
- Chinese Monkey Warded off evil
spirits and was highly respected and loved by all Chinese
- Yifan Zhang - Cat goddess, led a
legion of cats to uphold righteousness before the Shang Era.
Descendant of Huang Di.
- Zhayu (诈窳) - a creature of pure yin said
to devour evil humans.
- Iphot - a creature of light that brings
light to the universe
- 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
Literary sources of Chinese mythology