Historians have conjectured that the Chinese mythology began in The myths and the legends were passed down in oral format for over a thousand years, before being written down in early books such as ''Shan Hai Jing''. Other myths continued to be passed down through oral traditions such as theatre and song, before being recorded in the form of novels such as ''Fengshen Yanyi''.
Records of Myths
A number of works record ancient Chinese mythology in their settled forms. Most myths extant today are derived from their recording in these works.
* ''Shan Hai Jing'' - Literally ''Mountain and Sea Scroll'', the ''Shan Hai Jing'' describes the myths, witchcraft, and religion of ancient China in great detail and also has a record of the geography, sea and mountains, history, medicine, customs, and ethnicities in ancient times. It has been called an early encyclopedia of China. In Wu Chinese, "talking about the ''Shan Hai Jing''" is an idiom meaning gossip or idle chat.
* ''Hei'an Zhuan'' - Epic of Darkness Literally ''Epic of the Darkness'', this is the only collection of legends in form preserved by a community of the Han nationality of China, namely, inhabitants of the Shennongjia mountain area in Hubei, containing accounts from the birth of Pangu till the historical era.
*Imperial historical documents and philosophical canons such as , Shiji, , Lüshi Chunqiu, and others.
Some myths survive in theatrical or literary formats, as plays or novels. Important mythological fiction which is seen as definitive records of these myths include:
* Verse poetry of ancient states such as ''Lisao'' by Qu Yuan of the Chu state.
* ''Fengshen Yanyi'' , or ''Anointing of the Gods'', which is mythological fiction dealing with the founding of the Zhou dynasty.
* ''Journey to the West'', by Wu Cheng'en, a fictionalised account of the pilgrimage of Xuanzang to India, in which the pilgrims encounter a variety of ghosts, monsters, and demons as well as the Flaming Mountains.
* ''Baishe Zhuan'', a romantic tale set in Hangzhou involving a snake who attained human form and fell in love with a man.
Myths and Legends
A unique characteristic of Chinese culture is the relatively late appearance in Chinese literature of creation myths. Those that do exist appear well after the foundation of Confucianism, Taoism, and Folk Religions. The stories exist in several versions, often conflicting, with the creation of the first humans being variously ascribed to Shangdi, Yu Huang, , Nuwa, Pangu. The following presents common versions of the creation story in roughly chronological order.
*Shangdi , appears in literature probably earlier than 700 BC as ''Huangtian Dadi'' 皇天大帝 very occasionally as 皇天上帝, , is possibly an attempt to Christianise Chinese god by religious advocates. When Huangtian Dadi was used it refers to Jade Emperor or Yu Huang, and Tian 天 and Jade Emperor were synonymous in Chinese prayers.
*Yu Huang , appears in literature after the establishment of Taoism in China, but the position of Yu Huang dates back to beyond the times of Huangdi, Nuwa or Fuxi.
*Tian , appears in literature probably about 700 BC, or earlier . There are no "creation" oriented narratives for 'Heaven', although the role of a creator is a possible interperatation. The qualities of 'Heaven' and Shangdi appear to merge in later literature . The extent of the distinction between them is debated. The sinologist Herrlee Creel proposes that an analysis of the Shang oracle bones shows Shangdi preceded 'tian' as a deity, and that Zhou Dynasty authors replaced the term Shangdi with tian to cement the claim of their influence. Again this is possible Christianization of Jade Emperor into God in the Christian Bibles.
*Nüwa , appears in literature no earlier than about 350 BC. Her companion was Fuxi , the brother and husband of Nuwa. These two beings are sometimes worshipped as the ultimate ancestor of all humankind. They sometimes believe that Nuwa molded humans from clay for companionship. They are often represented as half-snake, half-human creatures. Nüwa was also responsible for repairing the sky after Gong Gong damaged the pillar supporting the heavens .
*Pangu , written about 200 AD by the Daoist author Xu Zheng, was a later myth claiming to describe the first sentient being & creator.
Three August Ones and Five Emperors
Following on from the age of Nuwa and Fuxi was an age known as the Three August Ones and Five Emperors . This involves a collection of legendary rulers who ruled between c. 2850 BC to 2205 BC, the time preceding the Xia dynasty.
The list of names comprising the Three August Ones and Five Emperors vary widely between sources . The version in the widest circulation is:
*The Three August Ones :
**Fuxi - The companion of Nuwa.
**Shennong - Shennong, literally meaning "Divine Farmer", reputedly taught the ancients agriculture and medicine.
**Huang Di - Huang Di, literally meaning, and commonly known as, the "Yellow Emperor", is often regarded as the first sovereign of the Chinese nation.
*The Five Emperors :
**Shaohao - Leader of the Dongyi or "Eastern Barbarians"; his pyramidal tomb is in present-day Shandong province.
**Zhuanxu - Grandson of the Yellow Emperor
** Emperor Ku - Great grandson of the Yellow Emperor; nephew of Zhuanxu.
** - The son of Ku. His elder brother succeeded Ku, but abdicated when he was found to be an ineffective ruler.
** - Yao, passing over his own son, made Shun his successor because of Shun's ability and morality.
These rulers were generally regarded as extremely moral and benevolent rulers, examples to be emulated by latter day kings and emperors. When Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, he felt that his achievements had surpassed those of all the rulers who have gone before him. Hence, he combined the ancient titles of ''Huang'' and ''Di'' to create a new title, Huangdi , usually translated as ''Emperor''.
passed his place as leader of the Huaxia tribe to Yu the Great . According to legend, the Yellow River was prone to flooding, and erupted in a huge flood in the time of . Yu's father, Gun, was put in charge of flood control by , but failed to alleviate the problem after 9 years. He was executed by , and Yu took his father's place, and led the people in building canals and levees. After thirteen years of toil, flooding problems were solved under Yu's command. Shun enfeoffed Yu in the place of , in present-day Wan County in Henan. On his death, Shun passed the leadership to Yu. The main source for the story of Yu and the Great Flood comes from The Counsels of Yu the Great in the Classic of History .
Because of his achievement in resolving the Great Flood, Yu, alone among the mythological rulers, is usually called "Yu the Great" . Alternatively, he is called Emperor Yu , like his predecessors.
Upon Yu's death, his position as leader was passed not to his deputy, but was inherited by his son . Various sources differ as to the process by which Qi rose to this position. Most versions agree that during his lifetime, Yu had designated his deputy, , to be his successor. When Gaotao died before him, Yu then selected Gaotao's son, Bo Yi as successor. One version then says that all the peoples who had submitted to Yu admired Qi more than Boyi, and Yu passed power to Qi instead. Another version holds that Boyi ceremoniously offered the position to Qi, who accepted, against convention, because he had the support of other leaders. A third version says that Qi killed Boyi and usurped his position as leader.
A 4th version, the currently most accepted version in China says, Yu named Bo Yi as successor, because Bo Yi had achieve fame through teaching the People to use fire to drive animals during hunts. Bo Yi had the popular support of the People and Yu could not go against it easily. But Yu gave Bo Yi the empty successor title, without giving Bo Yi more responsibilities. Instead Yu gave his own son all the responsibilities of managing the country. After a few years, Bo Yi lose popularity without additional achievements, and Yu's son Qi became more popular among the People. Then Yu named Qi as the successor. Bo Yi, however, did not lose willingly. Bo Yi challenged Qi for leadership, and a civil war ensued. Qi with great support of the People, managed to defeat Bo Yi's forces, and killed Bo Yi, and solidified his rule.
In any case, Qi's succession broke the previous convention of meritorious succession, and began what is traditionally regarded as the first dynasty in Chinese history. The dynasty is called "" after Yu's centre of power.
The Xia Dynasty is considered at least semi-mythological. The ''Records of the Grand Historian'' and the ''Bamboo Annals'' record the names of 17 kings of the Xia Dynasty. However, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence of its capital or its existence as a state of any significant size. Archaeological evidence do not point towards a significant urban civilisation until the Shang Dynasty.
, the last king of the Xia Dynasty, is said to be a bloodthirsty despot. Tang of Shang, a tribal leader, revolted against Xia rule and eventually overthrew Jie and established the Shang Dynasty, based in Anyang. The Shang Dynasty ruled from ca. 1766 BC to ca. 1050 BC. It came to an end when the last despotic ruler, , was overthrown by the new Zhou Dynasty. The end of the Shang Dynasty and the establishment of the is the subject of the influential mythological fiction, '''' .
Unlike the preceding Xia Dynasty, there is clear archaeological evidence of a government centre at Yinxu in Anyang, and of an urban civilisation in the Shang Dynasty. However, the remains an area of active research and controversy.
Creation and the Pantheon
The Jade Emperor is charged with running of the three realms heaven, hell and that of the living. The Jade Emperor adjudicates and metes out rewards and remedies to actions of saints, the living and the deceased according to a merit system loosely called the Jade Principles Golden Script 玉律金篇, see external links. When judgments proposed were objected to, usually by other saints, the administration would occasionally resort to the counsels of the advisory elders.
The Chinese dragon is one of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology. The Chinese dragon is considered to be the most powerful and divine creature and is believed to be the controller of all waters. The dragon symbolised great power and was very supportive of heroes and gods. One of the most famous dragons in Chinese mythology is Ying Long, or "Responding Dragon". He is said to be the god of rain. Many people in different places pray to him in order to receive rain. In Chinese mythology, dragons are believed to be able to create clouds with their breath. often use the term "" as a sign of ethnic identity.
For the most part, Chinese myths involve moral issues which inform people of their culture and values. There are many stories that can be studied or excavated in China.
Religion and mythology
There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and the major belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
On the one hand, elements of pre-existing mythology were adapted into these belief systems as they developed , or were assimilated into Chinese culture . On the other hand, elements from the teachings and beliefs of these systems became incorporated into Chinese mythology. For example, the belief of a spiritual became incorporated into mythology, as the place where immortals and deities dwell.
One possible explanation available is that there is no distinction between the religion factions in heaven, whether it is Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam or Catholicism, according to the text of ''Pantao Yen Log'' or ''The Feast of the Immortal Peaches'', ''Tiantang Yiuchi'' both of which alleged the five religions shared the same origin or source. These distinctions were made on earth, originally due to geography. Appellations to the purified and enlightened ''yuanling'' do contain distinctions, collectively these are known as Sheng Fo Xian Zhen .
*''Sheng'' is the honorary title for a deity from the Confucian school or mortal worthy of canonization due to deeds Confucian in nature. Guan Yu for his unwavering loyalty to the two brothers and to his king was a deified as Sheng. This term is also used for deity in the west.
*''Fo'' literally buddha, is a general term for any deity borrowed from Buddhism, including buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats, and famous monastics.
*''Xian'' would be immortalised Taoist or adherents, like the famous Eight Immortals were all Taoist
*''Zhen'' is a general title applicable to all schools including the occidental saints.
* ''Xian'' used in conjunction with Sheng, as in ''Shengxian'' , a general title applicable to all saints.
All mortals including the likes of kings e.g. Three August Ones and Five Emperors or commoners like Ji Gong, Zhong Kui, Mulian, with deeds worthy of commendation, using yardstick similar to the Taoist ''Jade Principles Golden Script'' 玉律金篇, would eventually be considered as enlightened being, or as a ''yuanling''. To be a deity or god in the pantheon these enlightened would need to further carry out work or deeds on behalf of heaven, and eventually additional titles added.
Important mythologies and deities
*Three Pure Ones the Daoist trinity, beings first transformed from the primodial unity
* heavenly kings of Daoist religion
** Jade Emperor
** Beiji Dadi
** Tianhuang Dadi
** Empress of Earth
*Eight Immortals Daoist
** Lan Caihe , God of Brotherhoods. God of martial power. Also revered as God of War in that time.
*Tu Di Gong
*Wong Tai Sin
*Three August Ones and Five Emperors , a collection of legendary rulers
*Zhu Rong :
*Gong Gong :
* Bashe a snake reputed to swallow elephants
** A mythical bird supposed to have only one eye and one wing: 鶼鶼 a pair of such birds dependent on each other, inseparable, hence, represent husband and wife.
**Jingwei a mythical bird which tries to fill up the ocean with twigs and pebbles.
**Nine-headed Bird Used to scare children.
**Su Shuang a mythical bird, also variously described as a water bird, like the crane.
** Also known as Chinese roc.
**Qing Niao a mythical bird, the messenger of Xi Wangmu.
* Chinese dragon
**Yinglong, a powerful servant of Huang Di.
**Fucanglong, the treasure dragon
**Shenlong, the rain dragon
**, the earth dragon
**Tianlong, the celestial dragon
**Li , lesser dragon of the seas. Is hornless.
**Jiaolong, a dragon of floods and the sea.
* Qilin, chimeric animal with several variations. The first giraffe sent as a gift to a Chinese emperor was believed to be the Qilin. An early Chinese painting depicts this giraffe replete with the fish scales of the Qilin.
* Longma , the "dragon horse", similar to the Qilin.
* a mythical one legged monster.
* , also known as a mythical giant monstrous fish.
* Jiang Shi
* Luduan can detect truth.
* Yaoguai — demons.
* Huli jing — fox spirits.
* Nian, the beast
* Ox heads & horse faces 牛頭馬面 messenger boy in Hell.
* Rui Shi
* , Azure dragon of the east.
* , black warrior of the north.
* , white tiger of the west.
* , vermillion bird of the south.
* Tao Tie a mythical gargoyle like figure, often found on ancient bronze vessels, representing greed. It is said to be the fifth son of dragon and has such an appetite that it even eats its head.
* Xiao A mythical mountain spirit or demon.
* Xiezhi a unicorn beast
* The Xing Tian is a headless giant. He was decapitated by the Yellow Emperor as punishment for challenging him. Because he has no head, his face is in his torso. He wanders around fields and roads and is often depicted carrying a shield and an axe and doing a fierce war dance.
* Chinese Monkey Warded off evil spirits and was highly respected and loved by all Chinese people.
* Yifan Zhang - Cat goddess, lead a legion of cats to uphold righteousness before the Shang Era. Descendant of Huang Di.
* Xuanpu , a mythical fairyland on Kunlun Mountain .
* Yaochi , abode of immortals where Xi Wang Mu lives.
* Fusang , a mythical island, interpreted as Japan or the Americas.
* Queqiao the bridge formed by birds across the Milky Way.
* Penglai the paradise, a fabled Fairy Isle on the China Sea.
* Longmen the dragon gate where a carp can transform into a dragon.
* Di Yu the Chinese hell
Literary sources of Chinese mythology
*, a literary genre that deals with strange events and stories
*Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, with many stories of fox demons
*Imperial historical documents and confucian canons such as Shiji, Lüshi Chunqiu, Liji, Shangshu