An illustration of Pangu lifting the sky surrounded by a dragon, phenix, and a tortoise.

Chinese Mythology: Exploring the Fascinating Stories of the Creation Deities

Chinese mythology holds some of the most astonishing folklore. From the fearsome dragons with the ability to control the oceans and all creatures within, to the gods and goddesses who’ve created all of humanity. Today, we are going to dive into the fascinating world of Chinese mythology and explore the myths of the three creation deities.

What is Chinese Mythology?

An illustration of five mythical Chinese deities.
Mythical Chinese deities. Credit: Sharlene Yap

Chinese mythology is the collection of cultural history, folktales, and religious tradition that has been passed down for over four thousand years. These stories would either be told in oral or written form. Chinese mythology features legends and myths of creation, the founding of Chinese culture, and the Chinese state. Furthermore, it often informs people about moral issues, their culture, and values.

History of Chinese Mythology

An illustration of the Jade EMPEROR
Credit: inthekeyofsoul.com

Chinese myths are believed to have originated around the 12th century B.C.E. Myth and reality have both been intertwined throughout Chinese history. For this reason, historical figures have been worshipped as gods and ancient myths are treated as historical truths. Moreover, these myths have been shaped by three great religious traditions. They are known as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Out of these cultures, arose myths of almighty gods, spirits, and other deities. Chinese mythology, in fact, features over 200 gods.

Pangu

An illustration of Pangu lifting the sky surrounded by a dragon, phenix, qilin, and a turtle.
Pangu. Credit: Pinterest

Pangu is an ancient Chinese deity known for being the first living being and the creator of the world. As he emerged from an egg, the entire cosmos was released too. His story serves as an explanation for the creation of the universe.

As one of the oldest myths to exist, Pangu’s story has many variations. Individuals mostly told the story orally for many years until the Three Kingdom’s period came. Xu Zheng, an ancient Chinese author and government official, became the first to record it in writing. While there are many versions of the myth, there are three variations that prove to be the most common.

The Egg

Illustration of Pangu breaking out of the egg shell with the Yin and Yang symbol behind him.
Pangu breaks out of the egg. Credit: Pinterest

In the beginning, there was nothing but chaotic darkness. Over the course of 18,000 years, the chaos swirled and gathered until it formed an egg. The shell had now confined the entire universe to this tiny space. Its contents only grew more turbulent and stormier. The forces of Yin and Yang fought constantly, until one day when they finally achieved balance. Pangu was born from this first union of Yin and Yang.

Once he realized that he was stuck in a tiny space with little room for any movement at all, he began to wriggle and writhe. This caused the egg to split into two halves. The light and fluffy egg whites leaked out and floated upward, forming the clouds and the sky. At the same time, the heavy and dense egg yolk sunk down and formed the earth. Lastly, the two halves of the eggshells rose above, one becoming the sun, and the other becoming the moon.

Pangu Raises the Heavens

An illustration of Pangu lifting the heavens.
Pangu separating heaven and earth. Credit: Pinterest

After the forces of Yin and Yang united, Pangu found himself trapped in an egg. He took his great axe and used it to crack the shell open. In the process, he cuts Yin and Yang down the middle, separating them. The stars and planets burst from the egg. Yin and Yang became separated, Yin forming the earth and Yang forming the heavens above.

Pangu devoted his life to keeping Yin and Yang separated so that he wouldn’t be stuck between the earth and the sky. He used his arms to hold the heavens up. With each day, his legs grew three feet taller, and the earth became ten feet thicker. This continued over the course of 18,000 years until the day he died. When he passed, his four limbs became the pillars that keep the earth and sky far apart like it is today.

Pangu’s Body Becomes the Earth

In the third most common myth, Pangu was so exhausted from breaking out of the egg that he took a nap and died in his sleep.

As his body decayed, it changed dramatically. His last breath ascended and became the clouds. Soon after, his left eye floated up and became the sun, while his right eye became the moon. The flesh of his body melted off his bones and became rich soil. His spine turned into a great mountain range. Pangu’s arteries became ravines and canyons, while his blood would become the water that filled them. The hair fell off his head and drifted to become the stars. His teeth and bones turned into metal and stones. Pangu’s limbs became the pillars that separated the sky and earth.

Influence on Pop Culture

Pangu is not as popular as other deities due to his lack of children. Ancestral worship is an important aspect of Chinese culture after all, and Pangu has no descendants. Nonetheless, he is still a beloved deity, seen as benevolent and innocent. The Chinese even hold a festival to celebrate him each year at Pangu King Temple, in Guangdong Province.

Pangu team, a Chinese programming group famous for developing a jailbreaking tool for Apple devices, chose their name in honour of the world’s first living being. The Chinese god also features in the video game Age of Mythology: Titan.

Nüwa

An illustration of Nuwa creating people out of clay as it drips from the rope she holds.
Nuwa. Credit: Pinterest

Nüwa, also known as Empress Wa, is legendary for her role as the creator of humankind. She also features in a number of other stories. However, she is mostly known for being the first human to procreate and saving humankind by sealing a hole in the sky during a severe flood. There are two commonly told variations of her story.

People Made of Clay

An illustration of Nuwa swinging a plant with mud on it to create humankind.
Nuwa creating humankind. Credit: gallivantrix.com

After Pangu created the universe, the earth became a beautiful place. Nüwa wanted to share this beauty, so she stopped along the banks of a river and began to create figures out of clay. She started small, making easy shapes like chickens and sheep. Sequentially, she decided to create figures that looked like her. She decided to name them humans. They delighted her so much that she created more until her hands hurt. In lieu of this, she took a rope, dipped it in the water, and swung it around so that many droplets of mud would form around her. People say that those made by hand would become successful and high in status, while those formed from the rope became the poor or working class.

The Marriage

An illustration of Nuwa and Fuxi intertwined.
Nuwa and Fuxi. Credit: humanjourney.us

In an alternative version of the myth, humankind has been wiped out by a flood. Nüwa and her brother, Fuxi, were the only ones to survive. They soon realized that they should procreate to keep humanity alive. However, they were deeply conflicted because they were siblings. Nüwa and Fuxi asked for Heaven’s guidance and underwent a divination test. This meant the two would go to two separate mountains and light two separate fires. If the smoke blew straight up, they were not meant to marry. However, if the smoke trails crossed, it would mean they were destined to be husband and wife. Accordingly, they had passed the test, and so, Nüwa and Fuxi married and repopulated the earth.

The Hole in the Sky

An illustration of Nuwa patching up the sky.
Nuwa patching up the sky. Credit: astoryshing.com

The earth was beautiful and populated, yet still in its infancy when Gonggong, the god of water, fought against Zhurong, the god of fire. The battle was massive, wildfires raging and floods plaguing the countryside – all to determine who was fit to be the ruler of heaven. Upon losing, Gonggong was so furious, he smashed his head against one of the four pillars holding up the sky. The earth trembled and the pillar collapsed, ripping a hole in the sky as it fell. Water poured endlessly from the hole, flooding the earth.

Nüwa couldn’t stand to watch her children suffer any longer. So, she went to the sky turtle, Ao, and begged for his help. He then cut off his own four legs to use as the new pillars. Nüwa melted five coloured stones to seal the hole in the sky. Thereafter, she replaced the broken pillars with Ao’s legs, one by one, while holding the sky up with her back.

A different version of the myth states that after she had finished, she laid down to rest and died of exhaustion. Another version states that she realised the stones wouldn’t be enough to seal the hole, so she sacrificed her body to seal the remaining piece instead.

Nüwa had restored peace to earth. However, she was not able to align the sky and earth the way they were before. Thus, the rivers of China today run in a Southeastern direction.

Influence on Pop Culture

Though traditional religious beliefs have gone through massive changes, Nüwa is still regarded as an important figure in popular culture. The people of China have dedicated many temples in China to Nüwa and Fuxi. However, her most eminent temple is situated in Hebei Province. Individuals see the temple as an ancestral shrine of all humans.

Some women even pray to Nüwa when seeking assistance with marital affairs and fertility issues.

The popular deity even features in a few video games. These include Smite, Arcane Legions, and Koei’s Warriors Orochi 2, wherein she wields a sword and shield.

Fuxi

An illustration of Fuxi wearing traditional clothing and holding the Yin-Yang symbol.
Fuxi. Credit: wellcomecollection.org

Fuxi is a powerful god regarded as humankind’s first male ancestor. He is also China’s first hero and invented the writing system, fishing, and domestication of animals.

The Invention of Fishing and Trapping

Fuxi and Nüwa cared deeply for humanity and would often help them when they faced significant hardships. One day, Fuxi noticed how humans were suffering from starvation, as hunting had become increasingly difficult. He decided to help them by teaching them how to catch fish with their hands. However, the Dragon King – ruler of the oceans, rivers, and weather – was furious that they were consuming his subjects. He worried that if they continued to eat his subjects, he would have no one to rule. As a result, the Dragon King declared a rule that humans are forbidden from catching fish with their hands.

Fuxi then tried a different approach. He weaved a net made from wild reeds and taught the humans to capture the fish with the net instead.

The Bagua or Eight Trigrams

A painting of Fuxi holding a writing utensil and paper.
Fuxi. Credit: Kanō Sansetsu

One of Fuxi’s greatest religious creations is the bagua or eight trigrams. The symbols are made up of three broken or unbroken lines which represent the eight fundamental principles of reality. The bagua plays a huge role in Chinese Buddhism and the practice of feng shui. The myth states that Fuxi was inspired to draw the eight trigrams after seeing the back of a turtle.

Domestication of Livestock

Among his list of achievements and creations, Fuxi also created the domestication of livestock. He reasoned that keeping the animals for meat, milk, and labour was far more practical than hunting each day. Fuxi is also creating the writing system, inventing currency, preserving meat, and smelting metals.

Creation of Mankind

In some myths, Fuxi played a part in the creation of human beings. In one version, Fuxi and his sister, Nüwa, get married and produce the human race through their union. However, in another version, he helped Nüwa create humanity out of clay. People also believe that he helped her seal the hole in the sky. Regardless, his significance in the story is not as strong as Nüwa’s. This is because ancient Chinese society was largely matriarchal. People usually describe Fuxi as an “assistant” in stories concerning Nüwa.

Influence on Pop Culture

Illustration of an armoured Fuxi with a book and pen in hand from the game "Age of Mythology".
Fuxi in the game “Age of Mythology”. Credit: gofullbuild.com

In honour of Fuxi, the people of China celebrate a month-long festival held from 2 February to 3 March of the lunar calendar at his temple in Tianshui City. On his birthday, the 16th day of the lunar year, people from neighbouring provinces make the trip to light incense, pray, and pay their respects to Fuxi. Some even call upon Fuxi when seeking improved health, state of financial affairs, or to thank their original ancestor.

Fuxi features in the video games Dynasty Warriors and Age of Mythology. Additionally, in Warriors of Three Sovereigns, Marvel’s first Chinese-centric comic, a featured character wields a sword named “Fuxi sword” and is the last descendant of Fuxi.

Cultural Significance of the Creation Gods

A ritual painting of the Jade Emperor among many other Chinese deities.
Chinese mythological gods. Credit: sothebys.com

Chinese mythology has been a rich source of inspiration for many artists and writers for centuries. These Chinese gods continue to inspire a number of artwork, such as drawings and illustrations, books, video games, and films, among many more. Furthermore, the creation gods influence social and religious practices that are followed even today. Civilians pray to the beloved gods regularly and have faith due to the obstacles these gods have overcome. The Chinese gods have shaped cultures and morals that individuals try their best to live up to even now. Their stories are also a great source of entertainment, as the nature of myths serves as liberation for the human mind.

References

Chinese mythology. (2020, February 20). New World Encyclopedia, . Retrieved 16:26, October 27, 2021 from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Chinese_mythology&oldid=1032655.

“Chinese Mythology .” U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Retrieved October 25, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chinese-mythology

Hamilton, Mae. (n.d.). Pangu. Mythopedia. Retrieved from https://mythopedia.com/chinese-mythology/gods/pangu/

Hamilton, Mae. (n.d.). Nuwa. Mythopedia. Retrieved from https://mythopedia.com/chinese-mythology/gods/nuwa/

Hamilton, Mae. (n.d.). Fuxi. Mythopedia. Retrieved from https://mythopedia.com/chinese-mythology/gods/fuxi/

Leontovich, O. The world of Chinese fictional narratives: content, characters and social impact. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 2, 301–317 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40636-015-0026-x

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