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Myth: Chinese Mythology

Creation Stories

  • Everything began as formless chaos. The world was created when this chaos coalesced into the form of Pan Gu, the first being, in equal measures of Yin and Yang. Pan Gu then used his great axe to split the Yin and Yang into Earth and Heaven respectively, then kept them seperated by pushing up the sky. This took 18,000 years, after which Pan Gu died. His breath became the wind, his voice the thunder. His left eye became the Sun and his right the Moon, his hair the Stars and Milky Way. His body became the mountains, his blood the rivers, his muscles the fertile soil, his fur the plants, his bones the valuable minerals, his bone marrows the sacred diamonds. His sweat fell as rain, and the fleas on his fur became the fish and animals of the land. This is more or less the Taoist creation story, although scholars have suggested that the Pan Gu story is not Chinese in origin at all.
  • Alternately, the world was created and run by Shang-Di, variously understood either as God, a God of Gods, or Heaven itself, and literally meaning "High Sovereign". Shang-Di is a monotheistic or semi-monotheistic concept which predates Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, and works through the other various gods and spirits, who were regarded as either intermediaries (and thus comparable to angels), and/or lesser deities in their own right. Worship of Shang-Di faded out around the Zhou dynasty, in favour of Tian, which means 'sky' or 'heaven'. The modern or Abrahamic God is translated as Shangdi too.
  • Or: the world as it is now began when the Emperor of the Southern Sea and the Emperor of the Northern Sea found Chaos, an enormous sapient lump of flesh. Being obliging sorts, they drilled seven holes in it (because people have seven holes: nostril, nostril, mouth, ear, ear, anus, the other one), but it died shortly thereafter, and the world was formed from Chaos' corpse.

Chinese mythology is influenced by three sources: Buddhism, Taoism, and various popular deities and spirits, all mixed in together. Buddhist gods are Chinese versions of various figures associated with Buddhism, such as Buddha, Avalokiteśvara, or The Four Vajras. Taoist gods are the immortals and holy men of the Taoist religion, such as Laozi or the Jade Emperor. Traditional gods are the gods that have been around since before Buddhism or Taoism got a foothold, as well as legendary figures hailed as gods. All three systems are interwined in a complex Celestial Bureaucracy reflecting the ancient Chinese government. Naturally, this results in loads and loads of gods. Also, these systems are not seen as practically incompatible, so there is little point splitting them up here.

Modern-day Chinese rural and festival mythology is mostly based on the Jade Emperor system, with added Buddhism figures. Officially, they would be classified either as Buddhists or Taoists, but in practice they are mostly secular.

Deities, Spirits and Creatures

  • The Jade Emperor: Ruler of Heaven in Daoist cosmology, and the head of the heavenly bureacracy.
  • Pangu: A massive giant whose birth heralded the creation of the universe and whose death created the world as we know it.
  • The Three Pure Ones: Three kings, one of which who ruled Heaven and Earth before giving the position to the Jade Emperor. They are the oldest beings in existence. They are more closely related to Taoism and do not play too much parts in rural Chinese belief.
  • Xi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West: Rules from the sacred Mount Kunlun. She is a guide to all Daoists, but in particular she guides women who wish to become immortals.
  • Nwa: The serpent goddess who created humanity and saved mankind from many a catastrophe. Nwa used yellow clay from a water bed to mould the first humans. These humans were very smart and successful since they were individually crafted. Nwa then became bored of individually making every human by hand so she improved by putting a rope in the water bed. The small drops of clay that fell from it became more humans, not as smart as the first, i.e. the lower classes.
  • Fuxi: Nuwa's husband, and sometimes twin brother. A god of agriculture and learning, he was also the First Sovereign of China who laid down laws for the new humans to live by.
  • The Eight Immortals: Eight people from across China's social make-up: beggars, nobles, men and women - who all became immortal and are known for celebrating raucously. They are an exception to the 'Celestial Bureaucracy' part of being deities: they hold no official positions.
  • Sun Wukong: Also known as the Monkey King; the star of Journey to the West, a tale (loosely) based on the journey of Xuanzang, a Tang dynasty Buddhist monk who went to India to get sacred scrolls.
  • Buddha: Chinese Buddhism is Mahayana Buddhism, and so is more related to gods and spirits than Therevada Buddhism.
  • Guan Shi Yin: The bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, originally based on the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. She is sometimes not conflated with Avalokitesvara, and Daoists also worship her as an Immortal. Her worship may be usefully compared to the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism.
  • Nezha: A Daoist deity that was born as a lump of flesh, which split open to reveal Nezha as a boy instead of an infant. He killed the third son of the Dragon King of the East Sea, who confronted Nezha and threatened to flood Chentang Pass and report Nezha to the Jade Emperor. To save his family, Nezha flayed and disemboweled himself to return his body to his parents. The Dragon King was moved by his filial piety and spared his family. Nezha was later brought back to life by his teacher, Taiyi Zhenren, who used lotus roots to construct a human body for his soul.
  • Chang-E: A goddess who lives on the moon, thanks to her eating a pill of immortality meant for her husband Houyi.
  • Houyi: Husband of Chang'e, the lord of the sun. He was responsible for slaying the sun-birds that were scorching the Earth. He also accomplished many heroic tasks while in the World slaying monsters and demons that threaten humanity.
  • Huang Di: The Yellow Emperor, and supposed ancestor of all modern ethnic Chinese. He was something of a Science Hero, teaching the people how to build shelters, tame wild animals and grow the five Chinese cereals. He also invented carts, boats, clothing, the guqin, the diadem, palace rooms, the bow sling, astronomy, the calendar, calculations, sound laws, football, and wrote the Inner Canon on internal medicine that all traditional Chinese medicine was based on. He commissioned Cang Jie to create the first Chinese characters, and his main wife Leizu taught people how to weave silk from silkworms and dye clothes.
  • Yan Emperor: The Flame (or "red") Emperor, also known as Shennong, literally "God farmer".
  • Guan Yu: The god of war and business, originally a general from the Three Kingdoms period. It is an interesting thing that both policemen and criminals pray to Guan Yu. Mainly because, among other things, Guan Yu is essentially the god of True Companions.

Tropes featured include:

  • Celestial Bureaucracy: The Trope Maker.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Humans were frequently promoted to godhood in the Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • Dragon Hoard: The fucanglong or "hidden treasure dragon" lives underground, guarding both man-made treasure as well as natural deposits of precious stone or metal. They are also held responsible for volcanism.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Hundun, the legendary faceless being. It or he was said to have been the chaos before the universe was formed.
  • Kids Prefer Boxes: There's a Chinese Buddhist parable about a shopkeeper that tried to sell a valuable pearl by putting it inside a pretty box. Unfortunately the person that bought it was only interested in buying the box and left the pearl. The Aesop to the story is not to ignore the deeper meanings of Buddhism in favor of the superficial.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Chinese mythology consists of three major religions, Shenism, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. Shenism elevates many mortals to godhood. The pantheon is even called the Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • Narnia Time: Used in a number of stories; see the trope page for details.
  • Sacred Bow and Arrows: The Yellow Emperor is credited as inventing the bow.
  • Sea Monster: Gong Gong, the Chinese dragon god of water who damaged the pillars of heaven and tilted the Earth's axis by headbutting against a sacred mountain
  • Top God: The Jade Emperor is a King Of Gods; occasionally (such as at the beginning of Journey to the West) the Buddha shows up as a God of Gods. Shang Di is either this or God himself, or possibly both.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Lan Caihe of the Eight Immortals may or may not be one. It depends on who you ask.

Classical MythologyMythology TropesConspiracy Theories
Celtic MythologyMythologyClassical Mythology
Chinese Sibling TerminologyUsefulNotes/ChinaChinese Names
Classical MythologyUseful NotesConspiracy Theories

alternative title(s): Chinese Mythology
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