Follow TV Tropes


Myth / Chinese Mythology

Go To
The Eight Immortals Crossing The Eastern Sea.

China being one of the oldest civillizations in the world, has also produced a huge mythology that has changed over thousands of years and is home to just as many characters.

While obviously we can't list every single legend and person to have ever existed, here you can read about the most important deities and other beings of Chinese mythology.

Worth knowing is that the original religion before the introduction of Buddhism was Taoism, which itself emerged from shamanism, divination, and the worship of many local and regional gods. Please make sure to also read about Journey to the West, which is considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

Chinese history and culture as a whole should be placed under the main China page. This page deals with the myths and legends.

Creation Stories

What is interesting about Chinese mythology is that it does not have one creation myth, rather the Chinese classics record numerous and contradictory origin myths. The reason why the Chinese did not have a specific creation myth unlike other ancient civilizations is hotly debated as to what it means in terms of Chinese culture, philosophy, and history. Some scholars go as far to argue that China has no creation myth whatsoever with all myths being either imports or a simple Hand Wave while others will retort that it indeed does but are too hard to understand.

  • 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 separated by pushing up the sky. This took 18,000 years, after which Pan Gu died. His body was turned into our world: 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. The Pangu story was likely imported from a Hmong-Mienic people that the ancient Chinese encountered and many other deities and folklore were also incorporated from non-Han that were conquered and assimilated into China.
  • 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.

Chinese mythology is influenced by three sources: Buddhism, Taoism, and various popular deities and spirits (commonly known as "Chinese folk religion" or "Shendao" which is actually where Japan's "Shinto" gets its name), 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 Chinese gods that have been around since before Buddhism or Taoism got a foothold or deities absorbed from foreign sources, as well as legendary figures hailed as gods.

All three systems are intertwined in a complex Celestial Bureaucracy reflecting the ancient Chinese government. Worship of the gods and ancestors is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Confucianism...which also has religious elements to it. This is because the line between philosophy and religion in Chinese culture is extremely blurry. Many Chinese people who claim to not adhere to any religion are still very superstitious. The pre-historic Chinese were also a shamanistic culture which was common across Northeast Asian peoples and some shamanistic practises known as Wuism have been adopted by ethnic minorities living in China or have found their way into Chinese folk religion which in turn influenced Taoism and Confucianism, particularly ancestor veneration which is believed to have first developed within Chinese shamanism.

Naturally, this results in loads and loads of gods and an extremely complicated religious culture that requires years of study. These systems are not seen as practically incompatible (even if theologically they may be), 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.

Tropes featured include:

  • Alien Sky: In the beginning, there were ten suns, which manifested as three-legged crows. They took turns being the sole sun day after day, until they got fed up and rose all at once. This prompted the archer Houyi to shoot and kill nine of them, leaving a single sun left.
  • The Almighty Dollar: China's mythology has a number of wealth gods: Caishen (財神/财神, "God of Wealth"), the oldest god Fude Zhengshen (福德正神) was focused on virtues & rewards. Liu Haichan (劉海蟾) was an alchemy-associated immortal symbolized by gold coins, and is sometimes considered to be an embodiment of Caishen. Tudigong (土地公) is a wealthy god of the soil, farming, and landlords. This is due to China's very long history as one of the world's richest nations because of its sophisticated mercantile culture and expansive trade network.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Almost half of the gods were mortal people in a distant past—some myths tell that even the Jade Emperor was a mortal, and every one of the Eight Immortals was made xian ("immortal" or "god"), after a tragic life or death. In Buddhist lore, almost every bodhisattva (god-like Buddhist saints who obtained Nirvana but rejected it to help out suffering people) are proof of this trope.
  • Ashes to Ashes: As part of the Eastern Elements, fire creates ash when it burns or earth, overlapping this trope with Dishing Out Dirt.
  • Asian Fox Spirit: First appearing in the Shanhaijing (山海經/山海经, "The Classic of Mountains and Seas"), hulijing are supernatural foxes that cultivate their powers through Taoism, growing up to nine tails as a barometer of their age and/or power.
  • Bird People: According to the Huainanzi (淮南子) and the Shanhaijing (山海經/山海经, "The Classic of Mountains and Seas") texts, one of the "36 Overseas Nations" (海外三十六國/海外三十六国) is the Nation of Feathered People (羽民國/羽民国). They are described to have long and sharp heads with beaks, white hair, and red eyes, and are hatched from eggs. They are also said to have wings on their backs, but cannot fly far.
  • Cheer Them Up with Laughter: One tale has an emperor trying to make his concubine laugh via a Crying Wolf situation. That proved to be her last laugh as the guards failed to show up once the invaders stormed the palace.
  • Death Amnesia: In Chinese mythology, souls reincarnate, but before they enter their next body they have to drink the Soup/Tea of Oblivion (served by Grandmother Meng) that makes them forget their previous life. This memory/memories can be recovered through aid from some powerful beings (or by Enlightening yourself), as happened in Journey to the West.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Humans were frequently promoted to godhood in the Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • Divine Incest: Fuxi is an "original god" who takes his sister Nüwa as his bride.
  • Dragon Hoard: The fuzanglong (伏藏龍/伏藏龙, "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.
  • Dragons Are Divine: Chinese mythology is the Ur-Example, Trope Maker, and Trope Codifier. Dragons in general are seen as beings in charge of fundamental forces of nature. The Dragon Kings for instance represent each of the four seas of the world. They are capable of attaining a human form, and are believed to control all forms of moving water and the weather.
  • Eastern Zodiac: The Trope Maker. The myth most commonly associated it is "The Great Race", where the Jade Emperor organized a race across a wide river between all beasts, and the first twelve to cross the finish line on the other side would be honoured as the Zodiac in a cycle of 12 years. In Chinese mythology, the animals are, in order: the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Goat (or Sheep or Ram), the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Pig.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Hundun (Chaos), the legendary faceless being. In spite of this, it is actually so kind-hearted that the Emperor of the Southern Sea and the Emperor of the Northern Sea decided to drill seven holes in it as a return favor (because people have seven holes: nostril, nostril, mouth, ear, ear, eye, eye, and they wanted to make Hundun feel the world like humans did), but it died shortly thereafter.
  • Elixir of Life:
    • A white rabbit that lives on the Moon knows the secret to creating an elixir that grants eternal life, which it produces by grinding various ingredients together with a mortar and pestle.
    • The myth of Houyi and Chang'e has many different versions, but it always ends with Chang'e drinking one of these, willingly or not, and leaving Houyi behind to become the moon goddess.
    • On a more historical note, a common pursuit of Chinese alchemists during the imperial period was the attempted creation of an elixir which would grant eternal life if drunk.
  • Extra-ore-dinary: Metal is one of the five classical elements according to Chinese mythology, along with Fire, Water, Earth and Wood.
  • Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables: Chinese mythology has many stories that feature the Peaches of Immortality, which, as their name suggests, grant immortality to those who eat it. At one point, Sun Wukong was given the title of "Protector of the Peaches", but it was like letting a cat guard a canary...
  • Foul Fox: Huli-jing are vampiric shapeshifting foxes composed of yin who need to seduce men to drain their yang.
  • Frazetta Man: The Chinese have their own remarkably similar spin on the trope in the red-haired "Yeren" (野人, lit. "wild man". Nowadays, it's often considered to be a cryptid in the same vein as Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti.
  • God Couple: Fuxi and Nüwa, who are godly siblings married to each other, and the creators of modern humans.
  • Godhood Seeker: The goal of many Taoist immortals was to cultivate enough spiritual power to become a Deity of Human Origin.
  • God of the Dead: Yanluo Wang plays this role. Often syncretized with Yama.
  • The Great Flood: Instead of the flood wiping out humanity (or civilization or whatever), Yu the Great directed the construction of great canals and redirected rivers to control the flood and provide better irrigation for farming. Yu learned his lesson after Emperor Yao executed his father, Gun, whose attempt to control the flood by damming the rivers and seas with gargantuan dykes only made the floods worse when the dykes inevitably broke. Instead of being a story about the sin of man, the Chinese flood myth is a Taoist parable about cooperating with nature instead of futilely fighting against it.
  • Great White Feline: The White Tiger of the West is the Trope Codifier for white tigers of importance or mysticism. It is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellation alongside the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, and the Black Tortoise (also called "Black Warrior") of the North.
  • A Head at Each End: Some depictions of the Black Tortoise of The Four Gods depicts the snake that entwines the tortoise coming from where the tortoise's tail is.
  • Healer God:
    • Most of the Eight Immortals are associated with healing. They carry items, such as a lotus flower, gourd, or wine, which create medicine.
    • In Shenism (Chinese folk religion), Shennong was the venerated Father of Medicine, the mythical Yan Emperor who spread knowledge of herbs and medicine. Shennong supposedly died from too much herbal experimentation on his own body.
    • Wong Tai Sin or Huang Daxian (黃大仙, the "Great Immortal Wong/Huang") is a deified Taoist hermit with the divine power of healing, and is primarily worshipped in Hong Kong (a temple dedicated to him gave its name to an entire region and District of the city) and Jinhua, Zhejiang (his place of origin).
  • Immortality Inducer: The Peaches of Immortality grow in the garden of the Jade Emperor of Heaven and are given to gods, sages and others deemed worthy of them. Additionally, a variety of other elixirs, flowers, fruits, and other substances exist that can extend people's lives by thousands of years.
  • Immortality Field: Mount Penglai (蓬萊仙島) has no pain and no winter. There are rice bowls and wine glasses that never stay empty no matter how much people eat or drink from them and there are also magical fruits growing in there that can heal any disease, grant eternal youth, and even raise the dead.
  • Judgement of the Dead: The soul of the departed, obviously the defendant, is tried up against a mirror that plays instances of specific actions in his life. The defendant gets a supernatural lawyer who knows the laws of heaven. Unlike in most religions, you can argue your way out of a sentence in Chinese Hell. Chinese Hell resembles an Old Chinese torture chamber/prison, whereby you serve your punishment for a given amount of time (not unlike the mortal penal system), and then you're released either in the afterlife or you get reborn.
  • "Just So" Story: In some versions of the Great Race myth, the Cat and the Rat used to be friends, but the Rat betrayed his friend during the Race by pushing him off the Ox's back (since neither of them could swim but still wanted to win the Race) into the river to drown. When the Cat emerged from the river, sopping wet, the Jade Emperor told him the twelve animals of the Zodiac were already chosen, and upon finding out the Rat was one of them, the Cat was furious and pounced at him. This, according to the myth, is why cats chase rats.
  • 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.
  • Ki Manipulation: The cultivation, balancing, and manipulation of qi or chi through meditation, training, and a variety of other practises is central to Taoism, and can lead to practitioners extending their lives by millennia, learning to manipulate the Five Elements, and even attaining immortality and/or godhood.
  • Lord of the Ocean: Chinese mythology has four Lords of the Ocean in the Dragon Kings, each of whom presents one of the Four Seas of ancient Chinese geography: Ao Guang of the Eastern Sea, Ao Qin of the Southern Sea, Ao Shun of the Northern Sea, and Ao Jun of the Western Sea. They are also charged with controlling the weather, particularly rain.
  • Magical Floating Shawl: Many deities — particularly Buddhist ones — are depicted with floating scarf-like garments partially wrapped around their arms, serving to emphasize their immense supernatural power.
  • Male Sun, Female Moon: In the story of Houyi and Chang'e, the husband is the god of archery whose most prominent feat is shooting down 9 of the 10 suns that were scorching the Earth, while his wife is the lunar deity who flew to the moon after taking the whole of the Elixir of Life (either in the form of a potion or pills) that was supposed to be shared between the couple.note 
  • Master of Threads:
    • The Goddess Weaver, daughter of the Celestial Queen Mother and Jade Emperor, is said to have woven the stars.
    • Leizu (嫘祖), wife of the Yellow Emperor, is believed to have been the inventor of sericulture and the silk loom after figuring out that silkworm cocoons unravel when boiled.
  • Mystical Jade: Because it was extracted from mountains and riverbeds, jade was associated with both Heaven and Earth and so was used to link together both elements and symbolize nature. As such, jade items can be found in ancient graves, and some were even buried in jade clothes. The Top God and King of All Cosmos in Taoism is the Jade Emperor.
  • Narnia Time: Used in a number of stories, especially those involving reign of immortals.
  • Odd Job Gods: Being a Celestial Bureaucracy, Chinese mythology has plenty of these, including:
    • The god of oil lamps, who nearly caused The End of the World as We Know It because he wasn't being well cared for or worshipped.
    • The god of ovens, who has the secondary job of spying on the household to report good and bad deeds (and would thus have to be bribed often with sweeties to keep his mouth shut). This is the Chinese kitchen god made well-known in the West through several literary works (such as the Amy Tan novel, Kitchen God's Wife) and other media. He is somewhat of a Santa Claus figure, as he is supposed to bring gifts for good families (or good children) on the night before Chinese New Year's Day.
    • The god(s) of doorways, occasionally said to be the spirits of ancient fearsome warriors. Specifically, the tradition started with two famous generals of the Tang Dynasty, Weichi Jingde and Qin Qiong, who served as physical gate guardians for Emperor Taizong. Supposedly, when the actual generals could not serve as the guardians for whatever reason, the emperor put up their pictures instead, which started the tradition.
    • Guan Yu, the god of war, legendary hero, protector of all of China, champion against demons, and once one of the most popular gods among all the classes. He is also the patron god of tofu since before he became a warrior, he was a tofu merchant. It's more important than it sounds since tofu has traditionally been an important food in China. Another interesting aspect of Guan Yu is the fact that he is the patron of both law enforcement and organized crime, since both are activities that emphasize loyalty and being a badass.
    • Wenchang, Taoist god of literature, writing, and education and the god you pray to for help passing your exams. Given the importance of the imperial examinations, which determined who got a government job and basically were the only means of social mobility most of the time, it's not that surprising that there was a specific god for it. (In modern times, where he is invoked respecting the National Higher Education Entrance Examination—a.k.a. "the Big Test", as it decides which university, if any, you will attend—scallions seem to be a popular offering.)
    • The god of rice scoops is often cited as an example of extremely minor and extremely unimportant Chinese deities.
  • Our Minotaurs Are Different: Ox Head is a minotaur-like monster who, alongside Horse Face, serves as a lackey in the Hells. They're not malevolent though—they escort the newly dead to the Underworld, and also act as messengers for Yanluo Wang.
  • Pegasus: The longma (龍馬, lit. "dragon horse") is a kind of winged horse with dragon scales that typically appears an omen for the arrival of a legendary sage-ruler. The flying horse Tianma (天馬, lit. "heavenly horse") is also often translated as a pegasus, though it lacks wings and instead flies via magic.
  • Primordial Chaos: One explanation for the creation of the world in Chinese mythology (yes, there are multiple creation myths) is that the universe was once a formless chaotic thing called Hundun. Two Emperors came across Hundun (somehow) and decided that Hundun should have seven holes in its body, since people have seven holes (nostril, nostril, mouth, ear, ear, anus, the other one). They drilled the seven holes, and Hundun died, creating the universe.
  • Sacred Bow and Arrows: The Yellow Emperor is credited as inventing the bow.
  • Sea Monster: Gong Gong (共工 or 龔工), the Chinese dragon god of water who tilted the Earth's axis by headbutting against a sacred mountain, which is the pillar of heaven supporting the sky.
  • Spirit Cultivation Genre: One way for a human to be promoted to Godhood was undergoing this, as a way for the Celestial Bureaucracy to promote a human to godhood if one Cultivates enough.
  • 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. Shangdi is either this or God himself, or possibly both.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Lan Caihe (藍采和) of the Eight Immortals may or may not be one. It depends on who you ask.
  • Wise Serpent: Chinese Dragons (lóng) are traditionally depicted as snake-like (even sometimes being called "serpents") and are generally as long-lived wise sages who give advice to scholars. Many stories feature them as Mentors. These depictions are likewise very common in Korean Mythology.