Chinese mythology refers to those myths found in the historical geographic area of China: these include myths in Chinese and other languages, as transmitted by Han Chinese as well as other ethnic groups (of which fifty-six are officially recognized by the current administration of China). Chinese mythology includes creation myths and legends, such as myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state. As in many cultures' mythologies, Chinese mythology has in the past been believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of history. Thus, in the study of historical Chinese culture, many of the stories that have been told regarding characters and events which have been written or told of the distant past have a double tradition: one which presents a more historicized and one which presents a more mythological version.
The dozens of ethnic minority groups of the country of China have their own languages and their own folklore, and many have their own writing: much of which contains valuable historical and cultural information as well as many unique myths. Some myths are widely shared across multiple ethnic groups, but may exist as versions with some differences.
Historians have written evidence of Chinese mythological symbolism from the 12th century BC in the Oracle bone script. Legends were passed down for over a thousand years before being written in books such as Classic of Mountains and Seas. Other myths continued to be passed down through oral traditions like theater and song before being recorded as novels such as Epic of Darkness.
Some myths survive in theatrical or literary formats as plays or novels. Books in the shenmo genre of vernacular fiction revolve around gods and monsters. Important mythological fiction, seen as definitive records of these myths, include:
Baishe Zhuan, a romantic tale set in Hangzhou involving a female snake who attained human form and fell in love with a man
Nüwa and Fuxi represented as half-snake, half-human creatures.
The concept of a principal or presiding deity has fluctuated over time in Chinese mythology. Examples include:
Shangdi, also sometimes Huángtiān Dàdì (皇天大帝), appeared as early as the Shang dynasty. In later eras, he was more commonly referred to as Huángtiān Shàngdì (皇天上帝). The use of Huángtiān Dàdì refers to the Jade Emperor andTian.
Yu Di (the Jade Emperor) appeared in literature after the establishment of Taoism in China; his appearance as Yu Huang dates back to beyond the times of Huangdi, Nüwa, or Fuxi.
Tian (Heaven) appeared in literature c. 700 BC, possibly earlier as dating depends on the date of the Shujing (Book of Documents). There are no creation-oriented narratives for Tian. The qualities of Tian and Shangdi appear to have merged in later literature and are now worshiped as one entity ("皇天上帝", Huángtiān Shàngdì) in, for example, the Beijing's Temple of Heaven. The extent of the distinction between Tian and Shangdi is debated. The sinologist Herrlee Creel claims that an analysis of the Shang oracle bones reveals Shangdi to have preceded Tian as a deity, and that Zhou dynasty authors replaced the term "Shangdi" with "Tian" to cement the claims of their influence.
Nüwa (also referred to as Nü Kwa) appeared in literature no earlier than c. 350 BC. Her companion, Fuxi, (also called Fu Hsi) was her brother and husband. They are sometimes worshiped as the ultimate ancestor of all humankind, and are often represented as half-snake, half-humans. It is sometimes believed that Nüwa molded humans from clay for companionship. She repaired the sky after Gong Gong damaged the pillar supporting the heavens.
Pangu, written about by Taoist author Xu Zheng c. 200 AD, was claimed to be the first sentient being and creator, “making the heavens and the earth.”
Emperor Ku: great-grandson of the Huang Emperor and nephew of Zhuanxu.
Yao: son of Ku; Yao's elder brother succeeded Ku, but he abdicated when found to be an ineffective ruler.
Shun: successor of Yao, who passed over his own son and made Shun his successor because of Shun's ability and morality.
These rulers are generally regarded as morally upright and benevolent, examples to be emulated by latter day kings and emperors. Historically, when Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, he felt that his achievements had surpassed those of all the rulers who had gone before him. He combined the ancient titles of Huáng (皇) and Dì (帝) to create a new title, Huángdì (皇帝), which is usually translated as Emperor.
Shun passed on his place as emperor to Yu the Great. The Yellow River, prone to flooding, 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 nine years. He was executed by Shun, and Yu took his father's place, leading the people to build canals and levees. After thirteen years of toil, flooding problems were ameliorated under Yu's command. Shun enfeoffed Yu as ruler of the geographic region of origin of the Xia, in present-day Henan. Upon his death, Shun passed the leadership to Yu. A main textual source for the story of Yu and the Great Flood comes from "The Counsels of Yu the Great" in Classic of History.
Upon Yu's death, his position as leader was passed not to his deputy, but rather to his son Qi. Sources differ regarding the process by which Qi rose to this position. Most versions agree that Yu designated his deputy, Gaotao, to be his successor. When Gaotao died before him, Yu then selected Gaotao's son, Bo Yi as his successor. One version holds that all those who had submitted to Yu admired Qi more than Bo Yi, leading Yu to pass his power to Qi instead. Another version holds that Bo Yi ceremoniously offered the position to Qi, who accepted, against convention, because he had the support of other leaders. Yet another version claims that Qi killed Bo Yi and usurped his position as leader.
The version currently most accepted in China has Yu name Bo Yi as successor because of the fame Bo Yi had achieved teaching people to drive animals with fire during hunts. Bo Yi had the support of the people, which Yu could not easily stand against. However, the title Yu had given Bo Yi came without power; Yu gave his own son all the power in managing the country. After a few years, Bo Yi lost popularity, and Yu's son Qi became favored. Yu then named Qi as successor. Bo Yi did not go willingly and challenged Qi for the leadership. A civil war ensued. Qi, with strong support from the people, defeated Bo Yi's forces, killed Bo Yi, and solidified his own rule.
Qi's succession broke the previous convention of meritorious succession, and began what is traditionally regarded as the first dynasty of Chinese history. The dynasty is called "Xia" after Yu's center of power.
The Xia dynasty is 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 significant size. Some archaeological evidence for a significant urban civilization before the Shang Dynasty exists.
Jie, the last king of the Xia dynasty, was supposedly a bloodthirsty despot. Tribal leader Tang of Shang revolted against Xia rule and eventually overthrew Jie, establishing the Shang dynasty, based in Anyang. Book 5 of the philosopher Mozi described the end of the Xia dynasty and the beginning of the Shang. During the reign of King Jie of Xia, there was a great climatic change. Legends hold that the paths of the sun and moon changed, the seasons became confused, and the five grains dried up. Ghouls cried in the country and cranes shrieked for ten nights. Heaven ordered Shang Tang to receive the heavenly commission from the Xia dynasty, which had failed morally and which Heaven was determined to end. Shang Tang was commanded to destroy Xia with the promise of Heaven's help. In the dark, Heaven destroyed the fortress' pool, and Shang Tang then gained victory easily.
The Shang dynasty ruled from c. 1766 BC to c. 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 Investiture of the Gods. Book 5 of Mozi also described the shift. During the reign of Shang Zhou, Heaven could not endure Zhou's morality and 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 while it rained flesh and thorny brambles, covering 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 had 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 center 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.
Creation and the pantheon
Chinese mythology holds that the Jade Emperor was charged with running of the three realms: heaven, hell, and the realm of the living. The Jade Emperor adjudicated and meted out rewards and remedies to saints, the living, and the deceased according to a merit system loosely called the Jade Principles Golden Script (玉律金篇, Yù lǜ jīn piān). When proposed judgments were objected to, usually by other saints, the administration would occasionally resort to the counsels of advisory elders.
The Chinese dragon is one of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, considered to be the most powerful and divine creature as well as controller of all waters. They were believed to be able to create clouds with their breath. The dragon symbolized great power and was very supportive of heroes and gods.
One of the most famous dragons in Chinese mythology is Yinglong, said to be the god of rain. Many people in different places pray to Yinglong in order to receive rain. Chinese people sometimes use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" as a sign of their ethnic identity.
There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Elements of pre-Han dynasty mythology such as those in Shan Hai Jing 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). 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 dwelt.
Important deities and mythological figures
Wen Chang, Chinese God of literature, carved in ivory, c. 1550–1644, Ming dynasty.
Xiezhi (also Xie Cai): creature of justice said to be able to distinguish lies from truths; it had a long, straight horn used to gore liars
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. Qilin was believed to show perfect good will, gentleness, and benevolence to all righteous creatures.
Xīniú (犀牛): a rhinoceros; became mythologized when rhinoceroses became extinct in China. Depictions later changed to a more bovine appearance, with a short, curved horn on its head used to communicate with the sky
Bai Ze: legendary creature said to have been encountered by the Yellow Emperor and to have given him a compendium listing all the demons in the world
Chinese Monkey: warded off evil spirits; highly respected and loved