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 StoriesWhat 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 seperated 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:
- The Almighty Dollar: China's mythology has a number of wealth gods: Caishen (also happiness), oldest god Fude Zhengshen was focused on virtues & rewards. Liu Haichan was an alchemy god symbolized by gold coins, possibly a face of Caishen. Tudigong 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.
- Ashes to Ashes: As part of the Eastern Elements, fire creates ash when it burns or earth, overlapping this trope with Dishing Out Dirt.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Great White Feline: The Baihu (the "White Tiger of the West") of Chinese Mythology 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, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise (also called "Black Warrior") of the North.
- 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 is a god with the power of healing, also known as "Great Immortal Wong (Huang)".
- Immortality Field: Mount Penglai 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.
- 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 folk religion), 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, especially those involving reign of immortals.
- Sacred Bow and Arrows: The Yellow Emperor is credited as inventing the bow.
- Sea Monster: Gong Gong, 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.
- 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.