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Chinese mythology is as varied and multi-levelled as the country from which it springs. China contains many different cultural groupings, who speak a number of different languages. However, it has had a literate cultural élite for thousands of years, and myths which were originally regional have spread by means of a pictographic script which transcended language barriers. Their evolution has not been entirely oral.

Much Chinese mythology is based on animism, which sees the land itself as alive. It contains many therianthropic creatures, who are both animal and human, and demonstrates the playfulness of the gods.

Chinese dragonStrands of Chinese belief

Chinese mythology has been influenced by a fear of outsiders. It has also been shaped, sometimes deliberately, by religious faiths and philosophies. Some myths even demonstrate the conflict between them, as in the story of the Monkey King, which reflects the conflict between Taoists and Buddhists.


Taoism

A central quest within Taoist practices is the search for immortality - literal, physical immortality. The sense of an interplay between natural law and the abstract laws prevailing in the cosmos, is held in common by shamanism and Taoism. Taoism searched for balance within these forces and enshrined the concept that change cannot be forced, only experienced and assimilated.

Confucianism

Confucius lived in the sixth century BCE, a time of considerable political unrest and feuding. He taught the virtues of order, structure and correct behaviour, which was underpinned by a rigid notion of hierarchy, involving strict filial devotion. Confucian notions of hierarchy are evident in the bureaucratic pantheon of Chinese myths.

Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century CE and has been adapted by the Chinese so that the mythologies of the indigenous faiths and the imported are intertwined. Early Buddhism consciously created a mythology to give meaning to its practices and beliefs.

Even the advent of Buddhism is mythologized in the tale of the Emperor Ming. His dream of a golden man who could fly led him to dispatch messengers to Afghanistan to bring back the Buddhist scriptures.


Cover image

Pangu and the Creation of the World

This myth is similar to many creation myths worldwide, in which the world is formed out of the body of a primal being.

In the beginning there was darkness everywhere, and Chaos ruled. PanguWithin the darkness there formed an egg, and inside the egg the giant Pangu came into being. For aeons, safely inside the egg, Pangu slept and grew. When he had grown to gigantic size he stretched his huge limbs and in so doing broke the egg. The lighter parts of the egg floated upwards to form the heavens and the denser parts sank downwards, to become the earth. And so was formed earth and sky, Yin and Yang.

Pangu saw what had happened and he was pleased. But he feared that heaven and earth might meld together again, so he placed himself between them, his head holding up the sky and his feet firmly upon the earth. Pangu continued to grow at a rate of ten feet a day for 18,000 years, so increasing the distance between heaven and earth, until they seemed fixed and secure, 30,000 miles apart. Now exhausted, Pangu went back to sleep and never woke up.

Pangu died, and his body went to make the world and all its elements. The wind and clouds were formed from his breath, his voice was thunder and lightning, his eyes became the sun and moon, his arms and his legs became the four directions of the compass and his trunk became the mountains. His flesh turned into the soil and the trees that grow on it, his blood into the rivers that flow and his veins into paths men travel. His body hair became the grass and herbs, and his skin the same, while precious stones and minerals were formed from his bones and teeth. His sweat became the dew and the hair of his head became the stars that trail throughout heaven. As for the parasites on his body, these became the divers races of humankind.

Although Pangu is dead, some say he is still responsible for the weather, which fluctuates according to his moods.

Commentary

Despite the fact that this tale is accepted as a legacy of ancient China, it is probable that is was imported from South East Asia However, it is usually ascribed to Ko Hung, Taoist writer of the fourth century CE, who also wrote on the preparation of an elixir of life, and similar subjects. He also wrote Biographies of Spirits and Immortals, which is a prime source of mythological material.

The Cosmic Egg

Myths of a ‘cosmic egg’ are common to many cultures, signifying the origins of conscious life. In some versions the egg is produced by a mother figure of some description, and even where this is absent, it is present by implication. At one level it merely dramatizes the experience of every individual, starting existence in the egg-shape of the womb, which is at first a container and a totality. Conscious, separate existence is achieved when the container is breached, but ends at death, when the constituents of the body return to the earth to become part of the cycle of life.

Rock BuddhaThe myth of Pangu on this small level gives meaning to each individual life, and may be a way of processing the idea that the world existed long before we did and will continue long after death. Creation myths embody the internal process of increasing consciousness of the world.

A Buddha showing Chinese influence (actually a rock painting on a Scottish island)

 

The creation motif

On a larger scale, creation myths are a way for the conscious mind to attempt to explain the infinite and to make sense of a boundless universe. The conscious mind cannot truly conceive of something that has no beginning. However, creation myths of this sort have factors in common with modern scientific theory. The cracking open of the egg itself echoes the theme of the Big Bang, while the shape of the egg connects with Einstein's theory of curved space.

According to the Big Bang theory, all matter was at first compressed into an unimaginably dense single point. A reaction took place which caused this to explode and expand into the stars and galaxies. Steve Eddy and Nicholas Campion in The New Astrology (Bloomsbury, 1999) write:

On the physical level [the primal waters] are analogous to the state of the universe immediately after the Big Bang … composed largely of hydrogen (the H in H2O, or water) in a vast ocean of unformed potential.

The myth of Pangu also reflects an animistic view of the world, prevalent in so-called primitive cultures, in which everything is seen as alive, even rocks and soil. It is a vibrant view of creation, and conveys an instinctual respect, a willingness to work with a living earth, rather than an intention to subdue inert matter.

Human beings, in the myth, have a fairly lowly position. Rather than standing at the centre of the cosmos they are fairly insignificant, taking their place in the natural order. This perspective is echoed in Chinese paintings, where tiny figures are dwarfed by the sweeping vistas of natural features, mountains and waterfalls on varying levels. The development of a spiritual consciousness confers humility and balance.

Adapted from Teach Yourself Chinese Myths