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

Chinese Mythology is a tapestry interwoven with creation myths, divine beings, enchanting realms, mythical creatures, and age-old legends. 

 

These narratives are a fusion of ancient folklore, history, religious beliefs, and mystical rituals, tracing their origins back to the dawn of human existence.

 

In the crucible of survival, our primitive ancestors forged a world of wonder, destined to endure across the ages.

 

They bestowed upon their progeny a realm teeming with beauty and fascination, safeguarding a treasury of legendary tales that have gracefully traversed the millennia. 

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

Origin of Ancient Chinese Mythology

 

Ancient Chinese mythology combines creation myths, timeless legends, prehistoric history, religion, and folktales.

 

These stories were passed down orally, inscribed in ancient oracle bone scripts, engraved on valuable bronze wares, depicted in old murals and paintings, described in historical records, eulogized in classic literature, presented in religious and folk shrines, celebrated in traditional festivals, reproduced in fascinating stories, and integrated into many people's daily lives.

Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture (around 4000 BC — 3000 BC)

Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture (around 4000 BC — 3000 BC). — National Museum of China

Among the substantial ancient traces, there are some primary resources depicting the mythical world.

 

The Classic of the Mountains and Seas or Shan Hai Jing

The Classic of the Mountains and Seas, or Shan Hai Jing, is a remarkable book primarily composed of illustrations with descriptive Chinese characters added centuries later.

 

It is regarded as one of the most significant origins and foundations of ancient mythology in China.

 

Tradition attributes its creation to Yu the Great, the founder of the first Chinese empire, the Xia Dynasty (around 2070 BC to 1600 BC), or including his assistant Boyi. 

 

This extraordinary book encompasses approximately 40 regions, 550 mountains, 330 rivers, over 100 historical figures, more than 400 Mythical Creatures, their legends, agricultural practices, customs, creation myths, Chinese Gods, Goddesses, Mythical Deities, and Mythical Places.

 

It seamlessly blends elements of reality, myth, and legend, providing a window into an era populated by mysterious deities and courageous heroes who made influential contributions to Chinese culture.

Ancient and Mythical Creatures in Chinese mythology

Historical Records and Literature Classics

In ancient times, when the Mandate of Heaven was widely believed, myths, legends, especially those involving kings, as well as mythical phenomena, were extensively documented by official historians, most of which became a crucial source of mythology.

 

Furthermore, additional myths and legends were depicted and celebrated in various forms of literature.

 

These include works like the "Book of Songs" (Shijing), the "Verses of Chu" (Chuci), fables found in Zhuangzi, as well as a rich collection of folktales and novels.

 

Click to Read More about Chinese Poetry and Chinese Novels

Mythical Creature Kun Peng from A Fable of Zhuangzi.

Mythical Creature Kun Peng from A Fable of Zhuangzi.

Religious Mythology

 

Since the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) when Taoism Religion originated and was popularized, and Buddhism was introduced, these belief systems have made significant contributions to shaping today's Chinese mythological world.

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.

Chinese Mythology

Characteristics and Facts of Chinese Mythology

 

Multiple Origins and Systems

Chinese Mythology encompasses numerous deities with diverse origins, coexisting harmoniously within the culture and history.

 

There is no consensus on which deity holds the most significant influence or most power.

 

In general, Chinese mythological figures include Gods from Creation Myths, exceptional heroes and kings from the prehistoric era who made significant contributions, as well as Deities from Taoism Religion, Buddhism, and folklore.

Chinese Gods, Goddesses, Deities, and Immortals

Chinese Gods, Goddesses, Deities, and Immortals in "Eighty-Seven Celestials" by Artist Wu Daozi (about 680 — 758). 

The Practical Sun

The origin of the sun varies in Chinese culture, with some believing it to be the incarnation of Pan Gu's left eye or the son of a mysterious queen.

 

Apart from being shot down by a hero, Hou Yi, and chased by a clan leader, Kua Fu, there are not many stories about the sun.

 

However, the sun's trajectory was clearly and frequently described in history, which holds great astronomical value.

 

Therefore, in Chinese mythology, the sun was not a sacred, mythical object widely worshiped by many people.

 

Instead, it was primarily considered for practical and agricultural applications.

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 scorching, a hero would shoot the extra suns down; when a massive flood was deluged, it would be fought and conquered.

 

Some extraordinary people had created characters, documented medical herbs, killed evil monsters, etc. 

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

 

Ultimately, they became immortals because of their outstanding contributions, hard work, and spirit of sacrifice. 

Nv Wa Fixing the Broken Sky in Chinese Mythology

Nu 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 from ancient myths and secularized various mysterious legends.

 

Mythology in Confucianism, then, served the ruling class and their governance, with Chinese Emperors' power being seen as granted by heaven.

 

Furthermore, the behaviors of sovereigns would be believed to be reflected in natural phenomena.

Royal Style Buildings of Wudang Mountains.

Royal Style Building Complex of Wudang Mountains

Everything Is Possible To Become Immortal Through Cultivation

In Chinese mythology, everything in the universe can gain supernatural power and become immortal. 

Human

 

Those who had made significant contributions to humankind or 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 go through assiduous cultivation and do extremely contributive activities (like having saved people’s lives) or run into a lucky opportunity.  

Plants

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

However, after gaining 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 worldwide, and helping humans when 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 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 unique 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 God of Han Culture and Imperial Worship Rites — Hao Tian Shang Di

Hao Tian Shang Di is the paramount deity in Chinese Han culture, presiding over all aspects of the world.

Hao Tian Shang Di is perceived as the ultimate authority of the universe, residing anthropomorphically in the celestial realm.

Throughout history, Chinese Emperors were revered as the "Sons of Heaven," mandated to govern the nation by the divine Mandate of Heaven.

The celestial realm itself is personified in Hao Tian Shang Di.

From the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) to the final feudal empire, the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the veneration of Hao Tian Shang Di stood as the most significant and grandiose imperial sacrificial ceremony, exclusively conducted by emperors.

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 is divided into four cardinal directions; in the upper center, there are Three Enclosures where supreme deities live. 

 

Each of these four areas 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 guards 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 honorable and sacred mountain in Chinese mythology.

 

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

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 live there. 

Therefore, Emperor Qin Shi Huang and Emperor Wu of Han, two of the greatest monarchs in Chinese history, went 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 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 to be 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. 

Mount Tai in Shandong Province

Ancient Stairs and Buildings on Mount Tai of Shandong Province. 

Other Mythical Places 

In Chinese culture, many majestic mountains, rivers, and lakes are believed to have deities safeguarding these places and ensuring the well-being of local inhabitants.

 

Over thousands of years, Taoists and Buddhists have chosen these serene and awe-inspiring locations for their spiritual practices.

 

This enduring tradition has led to the construction of numerous remarkable temples, pagodas, and grottoes in these areas.

Click to Read More About Mythical Places

Mount Kunlun of Chinese Mythology
Chinese Mythology

Mythological Creatures in Chinese Mythology and Folklore

  • Four Symbols, the Guardians of Cardinal Directions in the 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).

 

Click to Read More Mythical Creatures

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

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