Chinese Myths

[ Literature (besides fiction) ]

Chinese Myths

By Anne Birrell

Anne Birrell here introduces the general reader to a selection of narratives organized by themes and motifs that help set Chinese myths in the context of world mythology.

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6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | 80 pp. | 40 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-70879-2

Chinese myths were primarily a diffuse and fragmentary oral tradition, eventually preserved in writing only in a piecemeal fashion. Many classical texts are unavailable in translation, and the stories have been unknown to Western readers. Anne Birrell here introduces the general reader to a selection of narratives organized by themes and motifs that help set Chinese myths in the context of world mythology.

The contents include:

  • Origin and creation myths
  • Myths of the flood
  • The divine cosmos
  • Gender in myth
  • Metamorphoses
  • Mythic heroes and heroines
  • Fabled plants and animals
  • Major sources of myth
  • Introduction
  • Origins
  • Divine cosmos
  • Catastrophe myths
  • Mythic heroes and heroines
  • Gender in myth
  • Metamorphoses
  • Fabled flora and fauna
  • Strange lands and peoples
  • Continuities in the mythic tradition
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Picture credits
  • Index

The mythology of Chinese culture and civilization is contained in a variety of sacred narratives which tell how the world and human society were created in their present form. They are sacred narratives because they relate acts of the deities in addition to other episodes, and they embody the most deeply felt spiritual values of a nation. A generally accepted Western definition of myth as 'sacred narrative' reflects the meaning of the Chinese term for myth, shen-hua: shen means 'divine, deity, holy'; hua means 'speech, tale, oral narrative'. The concerns of myth also extend beyond the accounts of the deities, including stories about world catastrophes of flood, fire, drought, famine, of eating, exile and migration, besides leadership qualities, human government, the hero figure and the foundation of dynasties, peoples and clans.

The modern study of mythology combines the disciplines of anthropology, the classics, comparative religion, history, folklore, literature, art and psychology. This broader line of inquiry into the nature of myth contrasts with the study of myth in the nineteenth century, which centred more narrowly on questions of origins and the idea of myth as an explanation of primitive science and primitive society. Compared with the study of Western mythologies, especially those of Greece and Rome, the study of Chinese myth is still in its infancy. Initially, the study of Chinese myth was heavily influenced by the origins and explanations, or 'etiological', approach. But it is now opening up to more contemporary theories of comparative mythology and the worldwide study of mythology, so Chinese mythology is proving to be a valuable and exciting treasure trove of mythic themes, motifs and archetypes.

The subjects and concerns of Chinese mythology can be traced back to the cultural and environmental factors which shaped the earliest form of Chinese civilization in antiquity. The beginnings of this civilization are inex tricably linked to its favourable environment. Three zones of ecogeographical systems developed in the land mass of China. There is the temperate North China belt with its fertile plains alluviated by the Yellow River. Its seed culture of millet and hemp, mulberry and fruit trees, and grasslands were conducive to the evolution of wild and domestic plants and animals, and to human habitation. But this region was also prone to harsh winters, severe droughts and catastrophic floods. The South China belt forms a second zone, with a stable, mild and humid climate, the region being alluviated by the Yangtze River. Its vegetative propagation culture benefits from an all-year growing season. It is an aquatic agricultural system that is favourable to rice, beans, lotus, bamboo, fish and turtles. The third zone is the Deep South China belt with rich coastal fishing grounds and a tropical ecosystem.

The different but equally favourable environments of north and south contributed to the dual origin of human culture in China, and led to the emergence of numerous communities of similar economic levels but with varying cultural systems. The earliest known sites of human habitation are the Neolithic settlements at Banpo in the Wei River valley in the north (near modern Xi'an, Shaanxi province) and Hemudu in the Yangtze River valley in the south-east (Zhejiang province). These centres of village farming are datable to around 5000 BC for Banpo and (by radiocarbon techniques) 3718 BC for Hemudu.

The environmental factors of climate, terrain, vegetation, animal life, mineral resources and topology contributed to the gradual evolution of diverse food-producing communities in the major river valleys of the Yellow (Huang) River, the Wei and Han Rivers in the north, the Huai River in the central region, and the Yangtze River in the south.

The development of Chinese civilization must also be viewed from the perspective of its ancient borders and its neighbouring countries in antiquity. China was to some extent protected by natural barriers. It was bounded to the north by the Gobi desert, to the west by the Kunlun and Himalayan mountains, to the east and south-east by the sea. This geographic cordon ensured that embryonic Chinese settlements were neither systematically eliminated nor repeatedly invaded by neighbouring peoples. On the other hand, the geographic disposition of its borders allowed for corridors and routes of communication which facilitated cultural diffusion. Modern research is still in the process of determining which cultural inventions are indigenous to China and which were the result of cultural diffusion. It is believed that millet, the staple crop of north China, arrived from fertile oases in Central Asia, and that rice originated in India and arrived in China by a land route of transfusion through south-east Asia. The cultural innovations of a writing system and metallurgy that were successfully exploited by the rulers of the earliest Chinese state may have been transmitted from non-Chinese peoples rather than independently invented by the ancient Chinese. Other cultural influences are discernible from Siberia in the north, Melanesia in the southeast, Tibet in the south-west, and most crucially from Central Asia in the west through the Tarim Basin, whose peoples formed points of contact with the Middle East and Near East.

The ambiguous relationship between the relative insularity of the Chinese land mass and the proximity of neighbouring ethnic peoples raises the question of the origins of the Chinese people. Considering the size and importance of the region, firm evidence is remarkably poor for their physical origin. The major discovery of skeletal remains in a cave at Zhoukoutian near Beijing, which has been radiocarbon-dated to 16,922 BC, were initially classified as Peking Man hominids but are now believed to be related to American Plains Indians rather than Asiatic or Mongoloid types. The earliest Mongoloid skeleton was found in south China, in Guangxi province, though its date and identification are indefinite. Identification is insecure for an incomplete skull from Sichuan province dated at 5535 BC. One authoritative view is that the origins of the Chinese derive from Mongoloids who represent a mixture of racial populations of great antiquity, which are as diverse as Polynesians and American Indians. But the evidence for the ancestry of the people inhabiting the land mass of China between 10,000 and 5000 BC awaits further archaeological research.

Coming to the Neolithic period, skeletal remains from village cemeteries of north China dating from around 5000 BC show Mongoloid features with no significant ethnic diversity. For the later period of antiquity, the Late Shang era c. 1200 BC, data from sacrificial pits show a great diversity of racial origin, including Melanesian, Eskimo and Caucasoid types. But the ethnic origins of people buried in sacrificial pits, who were presumably non-Chinese prisoners of war, may be separated from the ethnic identity of the emergent civilization in China during the late second to early first millennia BC. Current scholarly findings lead to some firm conclusions. First, the Neolithic northern population shows a considerable physical homogeneity. Second, the population of north China has remained surprisingly homogeneous since the Neolithic era (c. 5550-c. 2000 BC). Third, the data point to the lack of any significant migration to or foreign invasion of the region during and since around 5000 BC.

Of the three ecogeographical systems in the land mass of China, the North China belt proved to be the most favourable for the development of China's first state and for the beginnings of Chinese civilization. Early on, its culture expanded to take the form of numerous ethnic communities distributed along the main river valleys of the Yellow, Wei, Han, Huai and Yangtze rivers. Their traits were equally developed by the Neolithic era. One of these ethnic groups emerged by about 1700 BC as the dominant power in the Yellow River region of the Central Plains. It progressed to become the first Chinese dynasty, the Shang, with a major site of power in Anyang city (modern Henan province). Two separate Neolithic northern cultures have been identified by their pottery styles: the Yangshao culture of painted pottery developed along the Central Plains region of the Yellow River, while the Longshan culture of unpainted black pottery was distributed over a large area to the south and east. The Shang state took its genesis from the Longshan culture of Henan province. It rose to prominence in an era of unprecedented cultural and technological innovation. The success of the Shang was due to its superior system of military organization, control of food production, urban settlements, institutions of kinship and the priesthood, methods of transport and communication, and its distinctively robust artistic expression. The Shang state had the power and authority to organize the construction of impressive buildings and to attract specialists such as record-keepers, soldiers, retainers and artisans to maintain the state apparatus and to conduct large-scale ritual ceremonies, including human sacrifice in the burial rite of the ruling elite.

Two factors played a crucial role in the rise of the Shang state and the beginnings of Chinese civilization. Technological expertise in bronze metallurgy meant supremacy in war and material culture. The invention of a usable writing system consisting of graphs or characters by around 1200 BC led to improved methods of social organization through the bureaucratic and administrative control of commerce, calendrical regulation of agriculture, foreign affairs, alliances and religious practices.

Central to the identity and function of the state was the Shang concept of a priestly king. The king's functions were to make divination to the royal ancestors, to conduct rituals in honour of the ancestors, to make a sacred and symbolic progress through Shang territory, to hold audience, to bestow honours, to lead in war, and to lead the royal hunt. The king's was an itinerant power, as there was no fixed Shang capital. Instead there were several sites that served as ritual, technological and funerary centres. The king ruled through the intercession of the great god Di (pronounced Dee).

One of the north-west regions visited by Shang kings was the Wei River valley west of the Yellow River, which was inhabited by the Zhou people. The Zhou belonged to a different ethnic group from the Shang, but they absorbed Shang cultural influences. They were a warrior people and in time they conquered their Shang overlords and established the Zhou dynasty c. 1123 BC. Zhou society was organized into strictly defined social classes and functions, with a dual emphasis on warfare and agricultural productivity. The Zhou kings embarked on a military strategy to unite the diverse communities of the north and south, extending their power into what is now Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and to the regions north and south of the Yangtze River. They reorganized these settlements into a loose federation of kingdoms (guo) to form the Zhou state. Military expansion was reinforced by a hierarchy of aristocratic warriors and a food-producing peasantry who supplied conscript service and forced labour.

The Zhou introduced moral rigour to their political and social system, echoes of which are to be found in China's first literary work, the Zhou Classic of Poetry of around 600 BC. The Zhou abandoned the great god Di of the Shang, and instead they worshipped the sky god Tian, with the Zhou king designated as Son of the Sky God (Tian Zi). Zhou divination methods included the use of milfoil or yarrow stalks, culminating in the Zhou text Classic of Change (Yi jing, pronounced E jing).

The Zhou political system flourished for several centuries but by the fourth century BC it had begun to disintegrate. As early as the year 771 BC Zhou power was effectively diminished, and the capital was moved east from Xi'an to Luoyang, but the king retained nominal control over the federation of kingdoms. These kingdoms gradually formed independent centres of political, military and economic power. They began to merge into larger polities that in the Warring States era of the fifth to third centuries BC contended for supremacy over a reunited state. The most militaristic of these kingdoms, the Qin of Shaanxi province in the north-west, successfully unified the residual Zhou kingdoms into the first Chinese empire. Though shortlived (only sixteen years of rule), it was followed by the four-centuries-long Han empire, which continued Qin socio-economic policies and consolidated imperial power.

Although the Shang had developed a writing system, its main function was divination by the priesthood and later by the king alone. Thousands of inscriptions found at Anyang city consist of oracle bones. The Shang script was not used to record their origins, myths or sacred history. The disintegration of the Zhou empire in the fourth century BC led to cultural fragmentation and the dispersal of older value-systems. Hence the perceived need for classical writers to record and preserve for posterity the remembered heritage of their sacred history. Since their different versions of the myths are relatively consistent, it must be assumed that these writers were drawing on a communal fund of oral traditions that date from before the first recorded myths in China's earliest text, the Classic of Poetry. Very few recognizably Shang or Zhou myths survive. Most recorded myth is undatable and takes its ancestry from the date of the written texts that were themselves based on an archaic oral tradition.

The myths of ancient China that emerged from the oral tradition were preserved in classical texts during the Age of the Philosophers with the advent of literary texts in the sixth to third centuries BC. The decline of the Zhou coincided with the emergence of great thinkers and writers, such as Confucius and Mencius of the Confucian school and Zhuang Zhou of the Daoist school. Ancient China had no Hesiod, Homer or Ovid to retell the mythic oral tales at length. Instead, Chinese writers introduced fragmentary passages of mythic stories into their works of philosophy and history to illustrate their arguments and give authority to their statements. Chinese myth thus exists as an amorphous, diffuse variety of anonymous archaic expression that is preserved in the contexts of philosophical, literary and historical writings. They are brief, disjointed and enigmatic. These mythic fragments incorporated into miscellaneous classical texts vary in their narration, and authors often adapted myth according to their own point of view. The result is that Chinese myth survives in numerous versions, the content of which is broadly consistent, but which shows significant variation in the details. Whereas the reshaping of archaic oral Greek and Roman myths into an artistic form of narrative literature implies the loss of the authentic oral voice, the Chinese method of recording mythic fragments in a wealth of untidy, variable stories is a rare survival of primitive authenticity.

The themes of Chinese myths have significant parallels with those of other world mythologies. Where they diverge is in their central concern and cultural distinctiveness. Major mythic themes are narrated in several versions, such as the six story lines of the creation of the world and the four flood myth stories. The world picture of one Chinese creation myth shows similarities with ancient Egyptian cosmology. Other creation myths in the Chinese tradition contrast with the Biblical and other versions in their lack of a divine cause or a creator. One major creation myth, the myth of the cosmological human body, has features similar to ancient Iranian mythology. Chinese flood myths are unique for the absence of the motif of divine retribution and of divine intervention in halting the deluge. Instead, the central concern of the major Chinese flood myth focuses on the concept of human control of the catastrophe through the moral qualities of the warrior hero. Drought myth, probably deriving from the arid conditions of parts of north China, finds frequent and eloquent expression.

Myths of cultural benefits resemble those of other mythologies in two respects: deities are the divine originators of these benefits, and deities are the first to teach humans how to use them. Chinese culture deities are mostly masculine figures. Female deities often figure in cosmological myths, but their mythic narratives have been obscured for us by later scribal prejudice. Modern gender theory has rediscovered vestiges of their myths, such as the creator goddess and maker of humankind, and the mother goddesses of the sun and moon. Myths of dynastic foundation give a unique emphasis to female ancestors, followed by male founding figures, as with the Shang and Zhou origin myths. The theme of love is rare and is narrated in a sexually non-explicit manner, which may suggest early prudish editing. Divine birth is expressed through animalian agency, such as a bird or a bird's egg, or through parthenogenesis, for example from the belly of a male corpse, or an old woman's ear, or a hollow tree. Metamorphosis colours the stories, with objects turning into trees of brilliant and symbolic foliage, or figures becoming a bear, a bird or a star. The foundation motif becomes more frequent in later classical texts as dynastic rulers, ethnic peoples and major families claimed divine descent through populous and conflicting genealogical lines.

Themes of divine warfare and cosmic destruction are significant. There are also the important themes of a second beginning of the world after a hero has saved humankind from a major catastrophe, and of a Golden Age of wise kings who are ideal rulers and inaugurate the first human government. Less strong are themes to do with agriculture, the pastoral life, migration, exodus and exile, odyssey and the epic, and gender conflict. A major theme is the perception of foreigners in myths of the self and the cultural 'other'. Recurring themes of the warrior and the moral hero are represented in numerous episodes. Chinese heroic myth differs from other mythologies in its early emphasis on the moral virtue of the warrior hero.

Many figures depicted in mythical episodes represent cultural archetypes. The saviour figure occurs in myths that feature the creator goddess and the first human giant whose body becomes the universe. The archetype of the nurturing deity is represented by female cosmological and calendrical figures, such as the mothers of the sun and moon, and by the numerous male culture gods. Divine vengeance is symbolized by the myths of Woman Droughtghoul and Responding Dragon, who execute other deities on the command of a great god. There also appears the archetype of the failed hero, and the archetypal trickster figure, though these are not fully delineated in the myths. The stereotype of the successful hero figure is represented in several myths, for example the grain deity Sovereign Millet and the queller of the deluge, Reptilian-Pawprint. The moral hero Hibiscus is the archetypal hero and the leader of his people. These themes, archetypes, symbols and motifs will be developed and explored in the following chapters.


By Anne Birrell

Anne M. Birrell is the author of Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, and Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China.