CHINAKNOWLEDGE - a universal guide for China studies | HOME | About
Encoding: Unicode (UTF-8) [Location: HOME > History > Prehistory > Mythology]

Chinese History - Mythology and the Origins of Chinese Culture

On every occasion, and sometimes a little too much, Chinese people lays stress on the age of their culture, and for good reasons. As a very advanced civilization, it is probably not the oldest one, but the only one of the ancient cultures that has survived until today: "5000 years of history, and 7000 years of culture" (wuqian nian de lishi, qiqian nian de wenhua 五千年的歷史,七千年的文化). History clearly is not that old: The oldest traces of history (as a cultural stage that makes use of a script - see Chinese script) can be found in the 13th century BCE. Stories of older events and people can not be proved by archeology, but some little truth might be behind the tales that cover the time up to the "manufacturers" of the world. Taming the waves of the Yellow River as done by Yu the Great (Da Yu 大禹) was essential for the people to work on the fields and even to survive. Archeological findings prove that many sites in the Central Plain have been overflooded almost annually.
Although there is no myth (shenhua 神話) of a god having created the universe like in most other cultures and religions, there are lots of popular tales of persons that helped to build up and to repair the world during a time of chaos and uncertainty. A lot of such myth originate in southern China whose cultures and phantastic beliefs differed from the more "realistic" attitude of the northern peoples. Those mythical persons are by no means godlike, but are rather part of the world they helped to construct. The most famous of this persons is Pan Gu 盤古, but there are also smaller figures like Nü Wa 女媧 and her brother or husband Fu Xi 伏羲 who repaired the world with dividers and ruler, or the heroical archer Lord Yi 后羿 who shut down eight of the nine existing suns to prevent the soil from burning out.
There is also a large group of inventors like Sui Ren 燧人, who first used the fire; Hou Ji the "Lord of Millet" 后稷 and Shen Nong 神農 the "Divine Husbandman" - persons that introduced agriculture and the use of medical herbs; Chi You 蚩尤, the inventor of metallurgy and weapons; Bo Yi 伯夷 (also written 柏翳 or 伯益) who first tamed domestic animals; Can Cong 蠶叢, the inventor of sericulture in the state of Shu 蜀; or minister Cang Jie 倉頡, who invented writing, and minister Ling Lun 泠綸 (or 伶倫) who invented the pitchpipes. Nü Wa is said to have invented matrimony, and she shaped the first men of clay.
A great part of Chinese mythology has its origin in the southern kingdoms of Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越. Here, in the water-rich regions of the Yangtse area, the prevention of inundations was a crucial task for the survival of communities. It was here that myths of the water-controllers Gun 鯀, Yu the Great (Da Yu 大禹) and of Gong Gong 共工 and Shun 舜 found their origin. Tales of these heroes are also the first that appear in Chinese literature, for example in the "Poetry of the South" (Chuci 楚辭, especially the poem Tianwen 天問 "Asking Heaven"). In the oldest books of the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), the "Book of Documents" Shangshu 尚書 and the "Book of Songs" (Shijing 詩經), it is only stated that the dynasties Xia 夏 and Zhou 周 came from the west, and the Shang 商 from the east. The people of the Zhou (Ji 姬 clan) were intermarried with people from the Jiang 姜 family, other families in prehistoric times were the Sanmiao 三苗 barbarians in the south and the Zhongli or Chongli 重黎 clan.
Many tales and myths came only up in imperial China (from 2nd cent. BC), like the myth of the River god (He Shen [Heshen] 河神) Ju Ling (Juling) 巨靈 who was annually offered a virgin; or the goddess of River Xiang 湘 in modern Hunan, the Queen mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu [Xiwang Mu, Xi Wangmu, Xiwangmu] 西王母) who resided in the western paradise in Mount Kunlun 崑崙. Other immortals lived in the island paradise Penglai 蓬萊 in the eastern sea.
The tales of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝), Tai Hao 太皞, Shao Hao (Shaohao) Zhi 少昊摯, Zhuan Xu (Zhuanxu) 顓頊 (also called Gao Yang [Gaoyang] 高陽), Di Ku (Diku) 帝嚳 (also called Gao Xin [Gaoxin] 高辛), the holy and virtuous rulers Yao 堯 and Shun 舜, and the founder of the Xia Dynasty 夏, Yu the Great, who tamed the floods, divided the empire into the nine provinces (jiuzhou 九州) and characterized the soil of every province, only become prominent during the Spring and Autumn 春秋 period (770-5th cent. BC). The origin of these stories must be traced to tales of mythical rulers, gods or tribal ancestors of prehistoric tribes or clan groups (zu 族) like Ji 姬, Si 姒, Jiang 姜 (Qiang 羌), Mi 芈, Miao 苗, Ying 嬴. Many of these names are written with the radical "wife" 女 (like the word for surname, xing 姓), expressing the originally matrilinear character of the ancient tribal groups. Tribal heroes or mythical tribal ancestors (zongshen 宗神) of different tribes and periods later merged together to a unified pantheon of ancestor deities that became relatives of each other within a constructed lineage with the Yellow Emperor at its head. The result of this unified pantheon can first be seen in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 "Classic of the Mountain and Seas".
The classification of the saints and rulers of highest antiquity ("Three Augusts" and "Five Emperors", San Huang Wu Di [sanhuang wudi] 三皇五帝) takes only shape during the Warring States 戰國 (5th cent-220 BC) and Han 漢 (206 BC-220 AD) periods. It was especially the Confucianists that stressed the virtuous character of Yao, Shun, and Yu and saw them as exemplarious rulers of antiquity. These divine rulers were grouped together as the "Two Emperors and Three Kings" (Er Di San Wang [erdi sanwang] 二帝三王: Yao, Shun, Yu of Xia 夏禹, Tang of Shang 商湯, and King Wenwang of Zhou 周文王). Except these "great" rulers, the different books of the Warring States period mention dozens of deities and mythical rulers whose names later disappeared and were meaningless in contrast to the Confucian pentade. It was especially in the late Warring States period when new deities came up that were projected into the time before the Yellow Emperor, gods like Sui Ren, Fu Xi, Nü Wa, and Shen Nong. Other deities like Tai Hao, Shao Hao and Yan Di disappeared. The latest Chinese deity appearing in the pantheon was Pan Gu, the founder of the universe.
Many deities were thought to have transformed into stars, and many starry constellations have the name of a deity. Quite famous is the story of Draught Ox (Qian Niu [Qianniu] 牽牛) and the Weaver Maid (Zhi Nü [Zhinü] 織女), or Chang E (Chang'e 嫦娥) who ascended to the moon and transformed into a toad. In the southern myths, a crow carrying the sun determines sunrise and sunset.
Before the identification of certain persons with these rulers, they belonged to a pantheon of a group of tribal heroes and ancestors that were often associated with cardinal directions. Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, Yan Di (Yandi) 炎帝, Bo Yi (Boyi) 伯夷, Gong Gong , Gun, Yu the Great, the Four Sacred Mountains (Si Yue [Siyue] 四嶽 or 四岳), Ji 稷 (also called Qi 棄), Gao Yu (Gaoyu) 高圉, Tai Wang (Taiwang) 太王, Xuan Ao (Xuan'ao) 玄囂, Jiao Ji (Jiaoji) 蟜極, Chang Yi (Changyi) 昌意, Qing Yang (Qingyang) 青陽, Di Hong (Dihong) 帝鴻 and Jin Yun (Jinyun) 縉云 are associated with the west; Tai Hao, Shao Hao, Zhuan Xu, Di Ku, Yao, Yi 羿, Zhuo 浞, Jiao 澆, Jun 俊 (also called Shun 舜), Xie 契, Ming 冥, Jin Tian (Jintian) 金天 and Lie Shan (Lieshan) 烈山 with the east. Several of these deities were also associated with astronomical constellations or with the colors corresponding to the Five Processes or Five Phases (wuxing 五行), like the Yellow Emperor, the White Emperor (Baidi 白帝), the Blue-Green Emperor (Qingdi 青帝, Cangdi 蒼帝), the Black Emperor (Heidi 黑帝), and the Red Emperor (Chidi 赤帝).
Criticism about these mythologies came up during the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) periods. But it was especially from the late 19th century on, that scholars like Kang Youwei 康有為, Xia Zengyou 夏曾佑, Miao Fenglin 繆鳳林 and Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 began to analyze the making of these old myths and detected the composition of different local tales or mythy of tribal ancestors to a whole structured pantheon that was made from late Warring States and the Han period on. Fu Sinian 傅斯年, Meng Wentong 蒙文通, Yang Kuan 楊寬 and Xu Xusheng 徐旭生 analyzed the mythical tales as originating from three cultural spheres: Hua 華 (Zou-Lu 鄒魯, Dongyi 東夷) in the east, Xia 夏 (Jin 晉, Huaxia 華夏) in the west and the barbarian tribes (Miao 苗, Man 蠻, Chu 楚) in the south. In the 1930es and 1940es a group of historians tried to derive social structures (idealiter: the primary communist society, yuanshi shehui 原始社會) on the background of these traditional myths and tales.



Pan Gu (Pangu) 盤古 should be the first in a chronology of the creation of the universe, but he was mentioned or rather invented quite late, during the Three Kingdoms 三國 period (220-280 AD). His body is said to have transformed into Heaven, Earth and the ten thousand creatures. Before this transformation the universe is thought to have been chaotic (hundun 混沌), in a state where all materials were unreconizable unified in a primordial beginning (taichu 太初, taiyi 太一), but in the shape of an egg. Pan Gu was born inmidst this tohu wa bohu and after 18,000 years, Heaven and Earth first separated from each other and took shape (tiandi kaipi 天地開辟), the pure part (qing 清) formed Heaven, the muddy part (zhuo 濁) shaped the Earth. Pan Gu's head and his four limbs became the Five Sacred Mountains (Wuyue 五嶽), blood and tears became rivers and streams, his eyes were sun and moon, his hairs were the vegetation with trees and grass. His breath was the wind, his voice was thunder, when he opened his mouth it was summer, when he closed his mouth, winter came, when he was glad, the day was bright, and when he was angry, clouds covered the sky.
The myth of the creation of the universe by the transformation of Pan Gu's body was evidently a myth from the south, probably from the Wu-Yue 吳越 region in modern Zhejiang. Only later with the assimilation of different regional cultures Pan Gu and the myth about him were incorporated into China's mythical treasury.
According to other myths, the earth has a square shape while the heaven is round, just like the carapax of a turtle, the breastshield quare, the back cover round. Like a turtle walks on four mighty legs, four poles served this universe as subconstruction. The human body is just another reflection of this construction: feet, the bottom, are square, while the head, representing the heaven, is round. The same idea is reflected in the traditional round Chinese coin with the square hole in the middle.



Much earlier than the Pan Gu myth is the creation myth of Nü Wa (Nüwa) 女媧 who formed human beings from mud and clay. The creatrix - Han period scholars doubted that she was a woman - ascended as a universal ruler and can thus be seen as the first empress of China. Other myths tell us that she was not a deity but only a human, the inventor of marriage, together with her husband (and/or brother) Fu Xi (Fuxi) 伏羲. Both are often depicted with the body of a serpent, both bodies are intertwined, and the semigod pair hold ruler, divider and measuring rope. After one of the poles supporting the universe had collapsed, Nü Wa repaired the world with the help of her instruments. One myth tells that Gong Gong (Gonggong) 共工 had caused the collapse of a mountain who supported the east side of the terrestrial surface. Because of this damage all Chinese rivers flow to the east. The degradation of Nü Wa from a creatrix to the patroness of matrimony might reflect a changing role of women in Chinese society and the growing dominance of patriarchy.
Fu Xi (also called Mi Xi [Mixi] 宓羲 or Bao Si [Baoxi] 庖羲) is a deity that appears in very different fuctions and with half a dozen of different names. He was the inventor of nets for hunting and fishing, melody and music, divination with the eight hexagrams, knotted cord for calculating time and space, and the inventor of fire. From the Han period 漢 on (206 BC-220 AD) he becomes the consort of the creatrix Nü Wa and is often identified with Tai Hao (Taihao) who had before been a solitary deity. Together with Nü Wa, he became a creator of the universe and the first representant of matrimony. From the same time on he was often interpreted as a human ruler with supernatural powers.



The Yellow Emperor (Huang Di [Huangdi] 黃帝) is thought to be the ancestor of the Chinese people. The clan of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi zu 黃帝族) and the clan of Yan (Yandi zu 炎帝族) are thought to have represented the Qijia culture 齊家文化 in modern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. Later these tribes might have moved to the east and founded the cultures of the Central Plain 中原 as basic cultures of Chinese civilization, with a people later named Huaxia 華夏 (or simply Hua 華 or Xia 夏) was told to have founded China's first dynasty, the Xia 夏. Other descendants of the Yellow Emperor's clan is a clan with the surname Ji 姬 who later founded the Zhou Dynasty 周. Ancestorship of the Yellow Emperor is often constructed to obtain legitimation for rulership. Even Non-Chinese tribes should later claim their descendency from the Yellow Emperor.
The Yellow Emperor's father was Shao Dian 少典, his actual name was Gongsun Xuanyuan 公孫軒轅 (Xuanyuan [Xuan Yuan] might also be a place name where his clan dwelled), his residence (or state) was Youxiong 有熊. The Yellow Emperor was the first of a line of cultural heroes that are venerated for their inventions. Xuan Yuan is said to has invented - also with the help of his ministers - wells, mortars, bow and arrow, cattle breeding, carts and ships, clothing, divination, mathematics, astronomy and calendar, musical notes (minister Ling Lun [Linglun] 伶倫), medicine and writing (minister Cang Jie [Cangjie] 倉頡). In early Chinese thought, every ruler is blessed by one of the Five Processes or Five Phases (wuxing 五行), that of Xuan Yuan was the earth (corresponding colour: yellow), hence his designation "Yellow Emperor".
As a universal ruler, the Yellow Emperor fought against and subdued improper and rebellious rulers and tribes, like Chi You (Chiyou) 蚩尤 in the battle of Zhuolu 涿鹿, the northern Hunzhou 葷粥 (said to be ancestors of the Xiongnu 匈奴), and the Red Emperor (Chi Di [Chidi] 赤帝, also called Yan Di, the "Emperor of the Fire") in the battle of Banquan 阪泉 (might be the same event as in Zhuolu). He replaced Shen Nong (Shennong) 神農 as the ruler of the world.
The main wife of the Yellow Emperor was Lei Zu (Leizu) 嫘祖 who invented spinning and weaving. The tomb of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Ling 黃帝陵) is in Qiaoshan 橋山, Huangling County 黃陵縣/Shaanxi.



Zhuan Xu (Zhuanxu) 顓頊 was a son of Chang Yi (Changyi) 昌意 and grand-son of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. He resided in Diqiu 帝丘 or Pu 濮, his surname of Gao Yang (Gaoyang) 高陽 (might also be a place name). He is said to have deepened the knowledge of calendar and astronomy, used ghosts and spirits for assistance in his government - over a realm that covered the surface of modern China (!) - , thought the people by refining the universal breath and installed regulated rituals and sacrifices. One of his sons was Qiong Chan (Qiongchan) 窮蟬 (also called Qiong Xi [Qiongxi] 窮係), ancestor of Emperor Shun 舜.



Di Ku (Diku) 帝嚳, also called Gao Xin (Gaoxin) 高辛, was a grandson of Xuan Ao (Xuan'ao) 玄囂, a son of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. Di Ku's father was Jiao Ji (Jiaoji) 蟜極. His residence was Bo 亳. Di Ku was also a virtuous ruler who impartially served his people, was wise and intelligent. One of his sons by his wife from the Chenfeng clan 陳鋒 was Fang Xun (Fangxun) 放勳, another son by his wife Quji 娵訾 was Zhi 摯. When Di Ku died, Zhi succeeded him but resigned after nine years to his younger brother, the Marquis of Tang 唐, Fang Xun, who was also called Yao 堯.



Yao 堯, also called Tang 唐, Tao Tang (Taotang) 陶唐 or Tang-Yao 唐堯, was a great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. Probably Yao was originally not identical with Tao Tang who is chronologically often placed before the Yellow Emperor. Yao and his successor Shun 舜 (the pair Yao-Shun 堯舜 or Tang-Yu 唐虞) are deeply venerated by the Confucianists as rulers of extraordinary virtue, humanity and kindness. Probably the most important incident during his reign is the implementation of a new calendar by Yi 羲 and He 和 (clan Zhongli 重黎, also descendants of the Yellow Emperor). He employed Gun 鯀, an ancestor of Yu the Great 大禹, for the regulation of the rivers - but Gun failed. After seventy years of rule Yao decided to cease his throne to someone worthy. After consulting his ministers, he gave his two daughters Ehuang 娥皇 and Nüying 女英 to Shun 舜 who became the next emperor.



Shun 舜, also called Yu 虞, Youyu 有虞 or Yu-Shun 虞舜, distant relative of Yao 堯 as descendant of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, took over the throne of the Son of Heaven (tianzi 天子) from Yao after he had taken over the actual business of ruling the empire already before. It is often told that the rulers of the Xia Dynasty 夏 were the first to establish a succession from father to son, but in fact, the genealogical affiliation of the Five Emperors (Wu Di [Wudi] 五帝) as relatives of the Yellow Emperor make them a kind of dynasty too. It is especially the throne succession of Shun that if famous for the custom of giving the throne to the most virtuous man (chanrang 禪讓) instead of the own son. But in fact they were distant relatives. Yao and Shun are often coupled as a pair and then called Yao-Shun 堯舜 or Tang-Yu 唐虞.
Shun is probably an ancestor deity of the Shang Dynasty 商, scholars identify him with Kui 夔/Ku 嚳/Jun 俊, a predynastic ancestor of the Shang. Moreover, Shun is said to be from the east where the Longshan culture 龍山文化 and the early Shang states were located. These eastern peoples were called Yi 夷 (a term later meaning "barbarian") in contrast to the inhabitants of the western Yellow River plain, the Xia 夏.
Shun employed Yu for the regulation of the rivers (the "tribute of Yu" ) and should later bestow Yu with the rule of the empire ("all under Heaven" - Tianxia 天下). For a long time he fought against the southern Sanmiao 三苗, a people descandant of the Yellow Emperor's enemy Chi You or of Huan Dou (Huandou) 驩兜 (also called Huan Tou [Huantou] 驩頭), a son of Zhuan Xu (Zhuanxu) 顓頊. During this campaign, Shun died in the southern wilderness. Only Yu was able to defeat the Sanmiao finally, many prisoners were made slaves of the Xia.
Shun bequeathed the throne to his loyal minister Yu who is seen as the founder of the Xia Dynasty 夏.
Yao, Shun and Yu are three of the holy rulers of antiquity whose government was characterized by humanity, virtue and kindness. The next was Tang the Perfect 成湯, founder of the Shang Dynasty 商, followed by the pair Wen-Wu 文武 (King Wen [Wenwang] 周文王 and Wu [Wuwang] 周武王), founders of the Zhou Dynasty 周.


Map and Geography


Prehistoric cultures

-- Mythology
-- Xia Dynasty

Mythical emperors

-- Xia kings and rulers

Religion


Technology and Inventions


Economy


Arts
  © 2000 ff · Ulrich Theobald · Mail