Mythical Animals in Chinese Culture
Ancient Creatures in the Classic of Mountains and Seas
Some ancient, mythical animals were documented in the book named The Classic of Mountains and Seas, which was believed written by Yu the Great, founder of the first empire, the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) in the history of China.
Yu the Great visited many places in China, led people to defeat the huge flood, and had conquered many evil monsters.
As an exceptional king and a true hero, he also recorded those interesting clans that he had been to, and many mythical creatures living there.
Mythical Animals and the Their Meanings in Chinese History
Gradually, more mythical animals were discovered and documented, in folk legends or historical notes.
Since Flame Emperor (Yan Di) and Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), to Confucius, to Dong Zhongshu who officially promoted the Divine Right of Kings in 134 BC, it is always believed that appearances of lucky animals are representatives of a good monarch and excellent governance, vice versa.
Therefore, those auspicious animals are widely used in clothes, jewelry, decoration, architecture, and literature throughout Chinese history.
There are four most miraculous, benevolent, and auspicious animals in ancient Chinese culture, the Dragon (variable), the Phoenix (knowledgeable), the Qilin (honest), and the Turtle (divine).
In Chinese culture, there are many types of dragons. Most of them are brave, powerful, variable, insightful, invincible, smart, and care about human beings.
They are in charge of the wind, thunder, rain in the sky, and rivers, seas, and lakes in the earth.
Dragon Ying Long
Ying Long lies in the middle of the sky (Read the Other Four Mythical Animals Guarding on the Sky), and is the representative of the earth in the Five Elements.
It controls wind and rain and is superior to other mythical animals. Therefore, the images of the yellow dragon were strictly and exclusively used by emperors in history.
Unlike other dragons in China, Ying Long has two wings and later were evolved into colorful clouds.
Dragon Zhu Long
According to The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Mount Zhong is located in an extremely frigid place in the north. On top of this mountain, a powerful dragon named Zhu Long, or the Dragon of Zhu, is living there.
Zhu Long has an over 500 kilometers long snake-shaped red body with a human’s head. He is in charge of the transformation of time and weather.
This dragon never eats or sleeps. He brings the daytime by opening his eyes and takes darkness to the earth when his eyes are closed. His exhalation means the winter is coming, while inhalation brings the summer to the world.
Dragon Chi Long
Chi Long was originally an animal from the sea, then after years of magical cultivation, they became one type of dragon which looks like a gecko with no horns.
The marine origin made Chi Long a good fighter against the fire. So images of Chi Long were widely used on the roof of ancient Chinese buildings to protect houses from fire.
Unlike other strong and powerful dragons, Chi Long is closer to people’s daily lives, which made it is the symbol of lucky, happy, romantic relationships, and a good career. So its image was widely used in people’s clothes, accessories, and decorations.
Dragon Jiao Long
In Chinese mythical culture, animals like fishes and snakes are possible to transform into dragons, if they have a dragon’s blood, or did remarkably good things like having saved people's lives or run into some special opportunities.
However, this transition takes a long time (hundreds or thousands of years); they also need to face the risk of being influenced or destroyed by other species or people.
At the end of the transition, there will be a final thunder test: if they survived after having hit by the thunderstruck, they would fly to the sky and became a real immortal dragon. Otherwise, they would be burnt to death immediately.
Jiao Long is the name of the animal in the transition before the final thunder test, so Jiao Long has scales, and looks half snake and half dragon. They cannot fly, but they could swim incredibly fast and cause huge floods.
Dragon Qiu Long
There are many different versions with regard to Qiu Long’s looks, but the consensus is that Qiu Long is the baby or the teenage dragon.
Dragon Pan Long
Pan Long has black skin and is over 13 meters long; it usually coils on the ground or swims in the rivers or seas. Pan Long is venomous but could bring rain to drought places.
In ancient Chinese buildings, Pan Long is widely coiled in pillars and beams, meaning to protect people living inside from any type of injury.
Phoenix or Fenghuang
Phoenix is a big, colorful bird with miraculous power, whose feather constituted five Chinese Characters: virtue, righteousness, courtesy, benevolence, and faith.
Phoenix lives in Phoenix trees, eats fresh bamboo, and drinks from fresh springs. It never lives in a group, nor goes to dirty, chaotic places.
During Yellow Emperor and King Shun’s reigns, it had been noted that a Phoenix had appeared to the secular world, to show the excellent governance and peaceful world that these kings brought people.
Fenghuang, in some legend, predicted the rise of the Zhou Dynasty.
Gradually, Phoenix was exclusively used by female members of the royal family, especially the Queen. Nowadays, it is representative of beautiful, brave, and intelligent women in Chinese culture.
Qilin appeared in Chinese history relatively late. Around 2500 years ago, Qinlin was documented together with Confucius.
When Confucius was born, a mysterious animal showed up and left a book made of jade, writing that this baby is the reincarnation of the son of the God of Water, who is morally qualified as a king but won’t be one.
This animal has the elk’s body, lion’s head, deer’s horn, tiger’s eyes, and ox’s tail.
When Confucius was old and run into a Qilin during hunting, he said that he would stop writing and leave the world soon.
Qilin, Qi refers to male ones and Lin refers to female ones, is always considered as one of the luckiest and happiest mythical creatures in China. Qilin is beautiful, mild, powerful, and never attacks people.
People believe that Qilin can defeat bad luck, and bring cute babies to couples who had prayed for one.
Turtle in Chinese Culture
When Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) was in a big war with another powerful clan, a turtle carrying a board, on which had Xi Wang Mu’s magical spells, came out of a river. The magical info on this board then helped King Huang won the war in the end.
The turtles have various formats on their shells and can live for a very long time, therefore, they were considered as the representatives of longevity, firm, grateful and loyal.
The turtle shells, on the other hand, were widely used in the divination activities in ancient China, when people could read and decode the cracks after burning their shells.
Other Ancient & Mythical Animals
Teng She and Bai Xi
A long time ago, Goddess Nv Wa had created tens of thousands of human beings and made the world alive.
Soon, however, she felt lonely and then made two mythical creatures based on her own appearance: Teng She was a male snake who could fly, while Bai Xi was a female snake with a human's top.
These two were very brave and loyal and had assisted Nv Wa defeated many other evil monsters to protect human beings.
In one version of Nv Wa's legend, she sacrificed herself to fill up the broken sky; Teng She and Bai Xi followed her and sacrificed as well. Together, they protected human beings and brought world peace again.
In another version that Nv Wa successfully fixed the broken sky and vanished from the secular world, Teng She and Bai Xi went with her, as always.
Though their ending is quite mysterious, Teng She then became an important mythical creature in the Taoism Religion's divination.
Jiao Ren, a group of half-human and half-fish, mythical creatures, are living in the South China Sea.
They are very good at weaving and could produce beautiful waterproof textiles. Their tears are precious pearls and their grease could burn for tens of thousands of years.
Nine-Tailed Fox or Jiu Wei Hu
Jiu Wei Hu is a type of fox that has beautiful white fur and nine tails. They howl like newborn babies and eat people, and live in a magical place named Qingqiu.
According to some sayings in Chinese mythology, eating Jiu Wei Hu’s flesh can protect the predator from any kind of poisons.
Since then, Jiu Wei Hu has become the representative of love, happiness, and prosperity in ancient Chinese culture.
Around 1000 years ago, people started to believe that Jiu Wei Hu could transform into a beautiful woman to seduce man for different purposes, such as getting the human’s energy or lives, or sometimes they just fell in love with someone and wanted to have a romantic relationship in the secular world.
According to Chinese mythology, Pi Xiu has a dragon’s head and tail, and a lion’s body. They fly in the sky, guarding heaven day and night.
Therefore, they are the representative of a powerful, invincible army.
Also, Pi Xiu eats everything, but never excretes, which made it respected as a wealthy patron saint in Chinese culture.
Till now, people who pray for fortune and protection will wear, or set a Pi Xiu shaped decoration nearby.
Gong Fu is the son of a dragon and another animal, so it looks half-dragon and half-shrimp and could hold a large amount of water in his stomach
Gong Fu lived in heaven in the beginning, but was banished into a river and was repressed under a huge turtle shell after he had made a mistake. A thousand years later, he was released from the shell, but could never come back to heaven anymore. During this period, he had protected humans from huge floods and evil monsters several times.
Gradually, more and more people carved his image on bridges and big drainage systems to honor him, hoping that he could continue protecting human beings.
Xiang Liu, a very cruel monster fed on human flesh, had a snake’s body and nine heads. It would spray bitter, spicy, and fatal water, which turned many places into venomous and disgusting swamps.
Many people had been killed, and a large amount of land had been destroyed by its massive poisonous water.
Therefore, the founder of the Xia dynasty, Yu the Great, killed Xiang Liu with the help of Ying Long and other dragons.
But Xiang Liu’s body and blood were still poisonous, even after it had died. So, Yu the Great buried its body into a large pond in the north of the mysterious Mount Kunlun and built a magical building next to it, which was designed to suppress and frighten other evil monsters.
Kun Peng was first documented and described by great Taoism philosopher Zhuang Zi, or Chuang Tzu, in his masterpiece.
Kun was originally a huge whale living in the sea, but centuries later, it transformed into an incredibly enormous bird named Peng. The bird then flew over many places and kept flying toward the mysterious holy land.
It is a purely poetic mythical creature who had never hurt or come close to humans; it only shows up occasionally near the sea throughout history.
Kun Peng is, therefore, considered as a symbol of great ambition, because of its beautiful transformation and wonderful journey.
Chong Ming has two eyeballs in each eye; it looks like a colorful rooster and howls like a phoenix.
In addition, it is very helpful to human beings, who could scare aggressive animals and evil monsters away, using its magical howling as a weapon.
Gradually, people carve or paint Chong Ming’s images on roofs or doors to pray for protection.
Nowadays, some families in China still use Chong Ming’s image as door god or decoration, praying for good luck and happiness.
Kui is a mythical animal that was born in heaven. Kui has only one leg and howls like thunder. It can glow like sunlight and always showed up along with big storms.
It is said that there were three Kuis in total. The first Kui was caught by King Huang Di, who made a battle drum using Kui’s skin.
The king’s enemies were seriously shocked and frightened by the drum’s sound, most of their soldiers lost their minds and then failed soon.
The second Kui was caught by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in the history of China who built the Great Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors.
The third and last Kui now is still unknown.