An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Pan Gu 盤古

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Pan Gu 盤古 was in Chinese mythology the creator of the world.

His figure is first mentioned in Xu Zheng's 徐整 Sanwu liji 三五曆記 (quoted in the encyclopaedia Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚) from the 3rd century CE. Later on he appears in Ren Fang's 任昉 Shuyiji 述異記 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557), where it is said that the body of Pan Gu constitutes Heaven and Earth. In the collection Xuanzhongji 玄中記, that is included in the story collection Gu xiaoshuo gouchen 古小説鈎沉, a similar story is told.

In its original state, the universe was a thorough chaos (hundun 混沌). Pan Gu spontaneously emerged from its centre, and after 18,000 years, Heaven and Earth became clearly divided. While the Yang 陽 part formed the clear outer sphere (like the white in an egg), the Yin 陰 and impure part remained in the centre (like the yolk of an egg). With the increasing height of Heaven and the growing thickness of the earth, Pan Gu's body likewise became larger and larger. His head and his limbs formed the five sacred mountains, his blood, tears and sweat transformed into rivers, his eyes formed Sun and Moon, his hairs the forests and vegetation, the teeth transformed into stones and ores, marrow and sperm became jewels and jade. The winds were nothing else than his breath, and the roaring thunder his voice, while flashes came out of his eyes.

This story is also told in the apocryphal writing Wuyunli nianji 五運曆年紀 that is quoted in the history book Yishi 繹史 and in the collection Guang bowuzhi 廣博物志. In the latter, natural phenomena are attributed to different activities and physical parts of the body of Pan Gu. It is said that his body had the shape of a snake, that his breath produced wind and rain, the blows of his breath thunder and lightning. When his eyes were open, the white in the eyes formed the clear sky, and when he closed his eyes, it became dark.

Popular tales also explain that Spring and Summer were warmed by his open mouth, and when he closed his mouth, coldness and frost caused Autumn and Winter. When he was happy, the sky was clear and blue, and his angriness clouded the sky.

It is not clear when exactly this story came into being, probably during the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) or Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods and quite likely in the region of Wu and Yue (modern Jiangsu and Zhejiang). The people of the southern regions (Nanhai 南海, Guilin 桂林) also erected honorific tombs and temples for Pan Gu. The Sanwu liji also says that the Three August Emperors (sanhuang 三皇) were descendants of Pan Gu. Pan Gu is thought to have participated in the modelling of the landscape of the world. He is therefore often depicted as holding a chisel in his left hand and an axe in his right.

The modern scholar Xia Cengyou 夏曾佑 (1863-1924, author of Zhongguo gudai shi 中國古代史) found out that the southern peoples of China venerated a certain Pan Hu 槃瓠 as the deity that created the world of the primordial chaos, and that this deity was later also incorporated into the Heaven of the Chinese. Yet in the biography of the Southern Man 南蠻 in the history book Hanshu 漢書, Pan Hu is only mentioned as a dog of the mythical emperor Gao Xin 高辛 who was allowed to marry Gao Xin's daughter as a reward for destroying Gao Xin's enemy Dong Xin 東辛. The couple withdrew into the mountains and produced six sons and six daughters, the ancestors of the wild Wuling tribes 武陵蠻. It might therefore be that Pan Hu had nothing to do with the deity Pan Gu.

The famous book Shanhaijing 山海經 also reports the story of how Pan Gu's limbs constituted the parts of the earth and mentions several places where deities like Zhuyin 燭陰 or Zhulong 燭龍 were believed to built up Heaven and Earth. On the other hand, Zhulong is mentioned in the Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of the South" as a deity able to throw light into places where the sun does not reach to.

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 594.
Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). "Pan Gu 盤古", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 748.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 358.