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Chinese Mythology 101: The Ultimate Guide

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The rich mythology of Greater China has captivated people for centuries. From tales of magic and wonder to stories of gods and goddesses, Chinese mythology is a diverse and fascinating collection of myths and legends. 

Some believe that these myths hold a kernel of truth, recording the history of the land in fantastical form.

At the heart of Chinese mythology are tales of creation and the gods who rule the universe. 

These stories tell of the origins of things, people, and culture, as well as the founding of the Chinese state. 

Other myths delve into the distant past, chronicling the deeds of culture heroes who taught humans the basics of survival.

But Chinese mythology is not just about ancient history – it is also closely tied to the rituals and practices of the Chinese people. Many myths are associated with ceremonial dances, sacrifices, and other sacred acts. 

Even today, these traditions continue to play a vital role in Chinese culture and religion.

So why not take a journey into this fascinating world and discover the legends of the Middle Kingdom? Whether you’re looking for thrilling adventures or profound wisdom, Chinese mythology has something for everyone.

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What is Chinese Mythology?

Chinese mythology is a rich and fascinating part of the culture of China. It is a collection of stories, legends, and beliefs that have been passed down through the generations, and it offers a unique glimpse into the religious beliefs and values of the Chinese people.

One of the most interesting things about Chinese mythology is the many gods and goddesses that appear in the stories. 

The Jade Emperor, for example, is the supreme god in Taoism, and he is often portrayed as a wise and benevolent ruler. 

The Monkey King, on the other hand, is a mischievous and cunning figure who is known for his trickery and his ability to shape-shift. 

These gods and goddesses play a central role in many of the myths and legends of Chinese culture, and they continue to capture the imagination of people around the world.

In addition to the gods and goddesses, Chinese mythology is also filled with other supernatural beings and events. 

Dragons, for instance, are a common feature of Chinese myths, and they are often depicted as powerful and wise creatures. 

The concept of Yin and Yang, which represents the balance of opposing forces in the universe, is also an important part of Chinese mythology. 

Overall, Chinese mythology is a rich and complex part of the culture of China, and it offers a unique window into the beliefs and values of the people.

Chinese Religion and Mythology

Chinese religion and mythology have a long history of interaction and exchange. Over time, elements of pre-existing mythology have been adapted into the major belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. 

These belief systems, in turn, have influenced the development of Chinese mythology.

For example, the Taoist belief in a spiritual paradise has been incorporated into Chinese mythology as the dwelling place of immortals and deities. 

Similarly, the Confucian emphasis on the benevolent rulers of the past has led to the glorification of the Three August Ones and Five Emperors in Chinese mythology.

Buddhism, which originated in India, was introduced to China in the 1st century CE and quickly became a major influence on Chinese culture and religion. 

Many elements of Buddhist mythology, such as the Jataka Tales, were assimilated into Chinese mythology.

Overall, the interaction between Chinese mythology and the major belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism has led to a rich and complex mythology that continues to evolve and influence Chinese culture.

Prominent Chinese Myths

Of the numerous tales that exist among Chinese mythology, some of the major ones are:

  • The Battle of the Gods and Demons: This myth describes how the gods and demons fought against each other in a great battle. The god Nüwa eventually used her powers to create a new order and end the chaos.
  • The Four Legendary Creatures: These tales describe four powerful creatures that were known to be the protectors of the four cardinal directions. The White Tiger of the West, the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, and the Black Turtle of the North were all said to have incredible strength and wisdom.
  • The Great Flood: The Great Flood of Gun-Yu, also known as the Gun-Yu myth, was a major flood in ancient China that allegedly continued for at least two generations, resulting in population displacements and other disasters such as storms and famine. It is traditionally dated to the third millennium BCE during the reign of Emperor Yao.
  • The Journey to the West: This tale describes the epic journey of the monk Xuanzang and his three disciples, who set out to retrieve the sacred scriptures from India. Along the way, they faced many dangers and challenges, including fighting against demons and monsters.
  • Pangu and Creation: According to Chinese mythology, the universe was created when the god Pangu cracked open the egg he was sleeping in, releasing Yin and Yang which then formed the sky and earth. Pangu used his hands and feet to hold them in place, creating the universe as we know it. This myth explains the duality of the universe and the balance of light and dark forces.

Chinese Mythology Characters

Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in Chinese mythology:

  • Shangdi: The supreme god of the Chinese pantheon, Shangdi is the creator and ruler of the universe. He is sometimes referred to as the “Emperor of Heaven” and is said to control the elements and the movements of the stars and planets.
  • Shun: A legendary Chinese ruler and one of the Five Emperors, Shun is famous for his virtues and wisdom. He is said to have been chosen to rule over China after the previous emperor, Yao, passed away.
  • Nüwa: A goddess and one of the earliest rulers of China, Nüwa is known for her creation of humanity and her role in repairing the damage done to the world by the great flood. She is also associated with the color red and is sometimes depicted as a snake or dragon.
  • Yan Emperor: The Yan Emperor, also known as the Flame Emperor, was a legendary ancient Chinese ruler who is said to have originated from the Sheep’s Head Mountains in Shaanxi Province. Some believe that he may have been the same person as the legendary Shennong, and that the term “flame emperor” was a title held by dynastic succession of tribal lords.
  • Fuxi: Fuxi is a culture hero in Chinese mythology credited with creating humanity and inventing important skills and technologies. He is considered the first of the Three Sovereigns at the beginning of the Chinese dynastic period. Together with his sister and wife, Nüwa, he is said to have introduced music, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking, as well as the Cangjie system of writing Chinese characters.
  • Shennong: A god of agriculture and medicine, Shennong is said to have taught the Chinese people how to cultivate crops and use herbs for medicinal purposes. He is sometimes depicted as a man with a human upper body and the legs of a dragon.
  • Pangu: A creation deity in Chinese mythology, Pangu is said to have created the universe from chaos. He is often depicted as a giant man with a feathered headdress and horns, and is said to have used a magical axe to shape the earth and the heavens.

Chinese Mythology Sources

Chinese mythology is preserved in literature and has been adapted into popular culture in modern times. The earliest textual materials about Chinese mythology date from the later Zhou dynasty, and the mythology continued to evolve through the Qin, Han, and subsequent dynasties. Here are some big ones: 

  • The Classic of Mountains and Seas: This is one of the oldest Chinese texts, and it contains a collection of ancient myths and legends. It describes the geography and creatures of ancient China, and includes many stories about the gods and goddesses of the time.
  • The Book of Changes (I Ching): This ancient text is a divination manual that also contains many references to Chinese mythology. It describes the interaction between the forces of nature and human beings, and includes stories about the gods and goddesses who control these forces.
  • The Journey to the West: This is a classic Chinese novel that tells the story of the Monkey King and his journey to India in search of immortality. It includes many mythical creatures and gods, and is considered one of the great works of Chinese literature.
  • The Water Margin: This is another classic Chinese novel that tells the story of a group of outlaws who band together to fight against corrupt officials and villains. It includes many mythical creatures and gods, and is considered one of the great works of Chinese literature.
  • The Three Kingdoms: This is a classic Chinese novel that tells the story of the three states of Wei, Shu, and Wu during the Three Kingdoms period. It includes many mythical creatures and gods, and is considered one of the great works of Chinese literature.
  • The Records of the Grand Historian: This is a historical text written by the famous Chinese historian Sima Qian. It contains many references to Chinese mythology, including stories about the gods and goddesses of ancient China.
  • The Book of Rites: This is a collection of ancient Chinese texts that describe the rituals, ceremonies, and customs of ancient China. It includes many references to Chinese mythology, including stories about the gods and goddesses of the time.

Chinese Mythology Artifacts and Weapons

Chinese mythology is full of artifacts and weapons that are connected to the gods and goddesses of the Chinese pantheon. Here are some of the most famous ones:

  • Marquis of Sui’s Pearl: The Marquis of Sui’s pearl is a famous gemstone from a Warring States period folktale and is the earliest known example of the “Grateful Animals” motif. It has become a literary Chinese metaphor for underestimating a valuable person or thing.
  • The Sword of Goujian: The Sword of Goujian is a tin bronze sword known for its sharpness and resistance to tarnish. It is attributed to Goujian, one of the last kings of Yue, and is currently in the possession of the Hubei Provincial Museum.
  • Green Dragon Crescent Blade: The Green Dragon Crescent Blade is a legendary weapon wielded by the Chinese general Guan Yu in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is a guandao, a type of traditional Chinese weapon. It is also known as the Frost Fair Blade.
  • Han Feizi’s shield: Han Feizi’s shield is a parable that tells of a man trying to sell a spear and a shield. He claims that his spear can pierce any shield and that his shield can defend from all spear attacks, leading to the idiom of “zìxīang máodùn” or “self-contradictory”.

Chinese Mythology Creatures

Chinese mythology features a wide array of interesting and unique creatures. Here are a few:

  • Qinglong: This mythical creature was a dragon with the body of a snake, the head of a horse, and the tail of a fish. It was said to control the elements of water and weather, and was often depicted as a symbol of good fortune and wisdom.
  • Xiezhi: This creature was a powerful, horned beast that was said to be able to distinguish between good and evil. If it sensed injustice, it would attack the perpetrator with its sharp horns.
  • Nian: The nian is a beast in Chinese mythology that is associated with the Chinese New Year. It is unclear whether the nian is an authentic part of traditional folklore or a local oral tradition that was recorded in the early 20th century.

Chinese Mythology in Popular Culture

Chinese mythology has also been a popular source of inspiration in modern pop culture. Here are a few examples:

  • Mulan: Released in 1998, this Disney movie is based on a Chinese legend about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army.
  • Journey to the West: A Chinese novel written in the 16th century, it has been adapted into multiple TV series, movies, and video games. It follows the story of a Buddhist monk and his companions on a journey to India to retrieve sacred texts.
  • Smite: This video game, released in 2014, features Chinese gods and goddesses as playable characters. It is a multiplayer online battle arena game where players control the gods and fight against each other.
  • Kung Fu Panda: This Dreamworks movie and its sequels, released in 2008 and 2011, tell the story of a lazy panda who becomes a kung fu master. The movie is heavily influenced by Chinese mythology and culture.

Cosmology of Chinese Mythology

The mythology of China includes descriptions of mythological places and features, sometimes reaching the level of a cosmological conception. 

Here are some examples:

  • Directional: The Four Symbols of Chinese cosmology were the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Tortoise of the North, the White Tiger of the West, and the Vermillion Bird of the South, representing the four cardinal directions, with the center being represented by the emperor of China. These symbols had associated mythology and beliefs.
  • Heavenly Realm: The Heavenly realm is often personified as a deity or group of deities and is often associated with astronomically observable features, which were often the home or destination of various deities, divinities, shamans, and many more.
  • Subterranean Realm: The underground realm of Diyu is a place where the souls of the dead are punished for their misdeeds in life. It is ruled by a hierarchy of kings and officials and is said to be similar to the world above, with its own bureaucracy and system of punishment.
  • Earthly Realm: The mythical geography of China includes remote, exotic, and hard-to-reach places that are said to be inhabited by local spirits and various supernatural beings. This geography includes Grotto Heavens and earthly paradises, as well as the extremes of the cardinal directions of earth. These places are often featured in Chinese mythology and serve as the locations for the actions of various mythical creatures and beings.
  • Seas, Rivers, and Islands: Various bodies of water, including oceans, rivers, streams, and ponds, appear in Chinese mythology and are often part of a mythological geography, with notable features such as mythological islands and other mythological features. Examples of mythologized rivers include the Yangzi, the Yellow River, and the mythological Red River in the west, near Kunlun. Examples of features along mythological rivers include the Dragon Gates, which were rapid waterfalls where select carp can transform into dragons by swimming upstream and leaping over the falls. Examples of islands include Mount Penglai, a paradisaical isle in the sea.
  • Mountains: Chinese mythology includes various other mythological locales, such as fairylands or paradises, pillars separating Earth and Sky, and ruined or otherwise exotic locales that are separated by pillars and are located in the directional extremes of the world. These locales are said to be located in the west and east, with Kunlun in the west and Feather Mountain and Fusang in the east. The geography of China is explained by the damage done to the world pillar Mount Buzhou by Gonggong, which tilted the sky and displaced the Celestial Pole.
  • Kunlun: Kunlun was a paradisiacal land located in the west, where various divinities and immortals lived and where the Qing Niao bird was a messenger of Xi Wangmu. Nearby was a protective barrier called Xuánpǔ, where the jade pool Yáochí was located. Mythological geography around Kunlun included Jade Mountain and various colored rivers that flowed out of Kunlun, such as the Red or Scarlet River.
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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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