Chinese Mythology — Origins, Characteristics, Legends, Folklore, and Elements

Murals of Some Taoism Religion Deities in Chinese Mythology, inside the Yongle Palace

Murals of Some Taoism Religion Deities in Chinese Mythology, inside the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province.

Chinese Mythology
 

What is Chinese Mythology?

 

Chinese Mythology includes creation myths, great deities, beautiful wonderlands, mythical creatures, and ancient legends. 

 

They combined ancient folklore, history, religion, and mystical rites, and originated as long as humans appeared.

 

When these primitives were learning and fighting to survive, they created a beautiful land for their descendants and left many legendary stories that have been passed on for thousands of years. 

Brush Painting of Chinese Mythical World
Chinese Mythology
 

Origin of Ancient Mythology

 

The Classic of the Mountains and Seas or Shan Hai Jing, a book that had only pictures originally and descriptive Chinese characters added centuries later, was believed the origin and foundation of ancient mythology in China. 

It was believed written by Yu the Great, founder of the first empire, the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) in history. 

 

This miraculous book includes about 40 states, 550 mountains, 330 rivers, over 100 historical figures, more than 400 Mythical Creatures, and their legends, agricultural activities, and customs, in addition to the creation myth, Chinese Gods, and Mythical World

It is a combination of reality, myth, and legend, and records of the era of mysterious deities and brave heroes with influential contributions.

Ancient and Mythical Creatures in Chinese mythology

Besides the Classic of Mountains and Seas, myths and legends from other literature, Taoism Religion and Buddhism, and folktales have extensively enriched Chinese mythology.

Chinese Mythology
 

Characteristics and Facts

 

Multiple Origins and Systems

Chinese Mythology includes many deities with different origins.

 

They coexist harmoniously in culture and history, and there’s no consensus in regard to who is the strongest or most powerful one. 

In general, deities in Chinese myth include Gods in Creation Myths,  extraordinary heroes and kings from the prehistoric era who made great contributions, and immortals from Taoism Religion, Buddhism, and folklore. 

Part of Tang Dynasty Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Buddhism Apsaras in Mid Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.

The Practical Sun

The origin of the sun varies in Chinese culture, which has been believed the incarnation of the Pan Gu’s left eye or the son of a mysterious queen. 

Except for having been shot down by hero Hou Yi, and chased by a clan leader Kua Fu, there were not many stories about the sun. 

However, the track of the sun was clearly and frequently described in history, which has great Astronomy value.

Therefore, the sun in Chinese mythology was not a sacred, mythical object that was worshipped by many people; instead, it was considered more for practical and agricultural utilizations. 

Hou Yi Shooting the Sun in Chinese Mythology

Hero Hou Yi Shooting Extra Suns

Fighting Against Nature

Many Chinese myths and legends are about fighting against nature or the supernatural, to survive, and protect human well-being. 

When the weather was extremely hot, a hero would shoot the extra suns down; when a huge flood was deluged, it would be fought and conquered.

 

There were also extraordinary people that had created characters, documented medical herbs, killed evil monsters, etc. 

Major characters in those myths are diligent and fearless workers, sometimes with mystical power.

 

In the end, they became immortals because of their outstanding contributions, hard work, and the spirit of sacrificing. 

Nv Wa Fixing the Broken Sky in Chinese Mythology

Nv Wa Fixing the Broken Sky

Been Historicized and Secularized by the Confucianism

Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, was highly against supernatural ideology.

 

Therefore, in most of his masterpieces, he historicized many immortals in ancient myths and secularized many mysterious legends. 

Mythology in Confucianism, then, served the ruling class and their governance, in which the Chinese emperors' power was granted by heaven.

 

Meanwhile, sovereigns’ behaviors would be reflected by natural phenomena. 

Everything Is Possible To Become Immortal Through Cultivation

In Chinese mythology, everything in the universe has the possibility to gain supernatural power and become immortals. 

Human

 

Those who had made great contributions to humankind, or who had completed orthodox cultivations, would have the chance to fly up to the sky and transform into immortals, such as many Prehistoric Kings.

Animal

Besides Mythical Creatures, some ordinary animals, such as snakes and foxes,  can turn into human or celestial beings, if they went through assiduous cultivations, and did extremely contributive activities (like having saved people’s lives), or run into a lucky opportunity.  

Plants

Plants have their own wills, and those growing in blessed mystical places can absorb nimbus, and obtain different superpowers. 

However, after having gained supernatural power, every immortal should behave with high moral standards; otherwise, they would lose everything. 

Therefore, they usually focus on further practicing in beautiful wonderlands, traveling around the world, and helping humans when it’s necessary. 

Deities in Chinese Mythology
Chinese Mythology
 

What Is Cultivation in Chinese Mythology?

 

Cultivation is a Taoism Religion term, which includes two practice phases, Xiuzhen and Xiuxian. 

 

  • Xiuzhen is to practice one's mind and spirit, find the true self, and pursue the final truth of the universe.

 

  • Xiuxian is the process of pursuing immortality, usually coming after the Xiuzhen process. 

 

In mythology, to conclude, cultivation is a person or a creature obtaining immortality and mystical power in certain auspicious places, through physical practices (such as breathing exercises), taking elixirs from special alchemy, or doing good deeds.

Pond Yangtianchi on Top of Mount Hua

Pond Yangtianchi on Top of Mount Hua, Believed the Place that Deities Take Water to Do Alchemies. 
This Mythical Small Pond is Surrounded by Rocky Stones but Had Never Overflown nor Dried Up. 

Chinese Mythology
 
Chinese God Shen Nong

Shen Nong Tasting Herbs, Painted by Guo Xu (1456-1529) - Shanghai Museum

Yu the Great Leading People Defending the Great Flood
Niu Lang and Zhi Nv's meeting on Qixi Festival, by Snow Fish

Niu Lang and Zhi Nv's meeting on Qixi Festival, by Snow Fish

Supreme Gods

Jade Emperor — The most supreme deity of Taoism Religion, the sovereign living in heaven, respected as the leader of all deities and the ruler of the whole world. 

Hao Tian — The most supreme god in Chinese culture, who has been worshipped by emperors in grand imperial worship ceremonies. 

Memorial Tablet of Huangtian Shangdi or Haotian Shangdi on Main Hall of Temple of Heaven

Memorial Tablet of  Hao Tian Enshrined on Main Hall of the Temple of Heaven, Where Emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912) Held Grand Sacrificial Ceremonies to Worship the Heaven.  

Chinese Mythology
 

Mystical Places in Chinese Mythology and Folklore. 

Up in the Sky

In Chinese Astrology, the sky was divided into four cardinal directions; in the upper center, there are Three Enclosures where supreme deities live. 

 

In these four areas, each contains seven big stars, which look like images of four mythical creatures: Azure Dragon of the East, Black Tortoise of the North, White Tiger of the West, and Vermilion Bird of the South.

They represent each section of the sky and control the four seasons respectively; a yellow dragon named Ying Long is guarding in the middle, which is superior and more powerful. 

They were important celestial beings and laid the foundation for Chinese culture, mythology, Fengshui, and magic arts in the Taoism Religion.

Azure Dragon or Qing Long

Azure Dragon

White Tiger or Bai Hu

White Tiger

Vermillion Bird or Zhu Que

Vermillion Bird

Black Tortoise or Xuan Wu

Black Tortoise

Eaves Tiles of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Shanghai Museum

Mount Kunlun in the West

Mount Kunlun is the most important mountain in Chinese mythology.

 

It is a sacred, beautiful land where many celestial beings and mythical animals are living. 

Penglai Islands in the East

In ancient mythology, Penglai Islands are some mountains floating in the sea.

 

In those mythical mountains, fancy palaces are made of jade and gold, all animals and plants are pure as white clouds, and some powerful immortals are living there. 

Therefore, Emperor Qin Shi Huang and Emperor Wudi of Han, two of the greatest monarchs in Chinese history, all had been to Penglai to search for immortals.  

Penglai Island Painted by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1497 — 1552)

Penglai Island Painted by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1497 — 1552) — Poly Art Museum

Mount Tai the Connection of Heaven and Acheron 

At the foot of Mount Tai, there is the entrance to the underworld, where all the ghosts would go through.

 

On the top, however, is a path to heaven. 

Therefore, it is believed as a magnificent, mythical place that connected the worlds of celestial, human, and ghosts. 

Meanwhile, Mount Tai has been the holy place where accomplished emperors held Feng Shan, the most sacred and supreme worship ceremony in Chinese culture. 

Other Mythical Places 

In Chinese culture, most of the magnificent mountains, rivers, and lakes have their own immortals guarding those places, as well as protecting local inhabitants. 

Taoists and Buddhists have been practicing in those quiet, spectacular places for thousands of years, during which they built many spectacular temples, pagodas, and grottoes. 

Click to Read More About Mythical Land

Mount Kunlun of Chinese Mythology
Chinese Mythology
 

Mythological Creatures in Chinese Mythology and Folklore.

  • Four Symbols, the Guardians of Cardinal Directions on Sky

 

Azure Dragon of the East, Black Tortoise of the North, White Tiger of the West, and Vermilion Bird of the South.

 

  • Four Auspicious Mythological Creatures in Culture

 

The four most benevolent, auspicious, and miraculous creatures in ancient Chinese culture, are the Dragon (variable), the Phoenix (knowledgeable), the Qilin (honest), and the Turtle (divine).

 

Chinese Phoenix and Dragon on Silk Painting of the Warring States Period

Chinese Phoenix and Dragon on Silk Painting of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), They Were Believed Guiding the Deceased One's Soul to Heaven — Hunan Museum