Unlike with Korea, China’s origin stories are primarily Creation Myths (which tell of the origin of the world), rather than simply Foundation Myths (which more specifically relate the origin of a people, nation, or culture). Still, pinning down one final Chinese myth about the origin of the world is an impossible task for even the best student of history. There are simply far too many varieties available, gathered from thousands of diverse cultural backgrounds and centuries upon centuries of oral story-tellers offering their own unique twists and versions. Nonetheless, there are certain elements that carry through as shared themes in the different tales.
Mythology in China is rather special given the conflicting philosophies that pull and tug the stories in multiple directions. What many fail to recognize about the country is that it has at least 6 major religions/philosophical authorities working against one another. The first is the traditional animism or the belief that the earth or nature is alive and has a spiritual essence flowing throughout. Adherents believe that the plants, animals, and earth itself are alive and conscious. It is actually from this belief that most of the traditional origin myths come, since that is the oldest religion or philosophy. Following closely on its heels though is Taoism or Daoism, a religion based upon one of the oldest Chinese classics and book of divination called the I Ching. You will see some elements of Taoism within the origin myths as given because of its age and influence. Still, this religion found itself sharply in conflict with the Confucian and Buddhist philosophers on many occasions. Oddly enough, Buddhism in China seems to mix elements of both Taoism and Confucianism although if frequently fought with them too. But it still offers its own unique twist to myth and legends. Then you have the ancestral worship affecting things. And of course the more recent impact of Christianity, Islam, and Atheism moving in.
The problem with the Chinese myths is the whole Taoism, Buddhism, Ancestral Worship, Animism, and Confucian elements. Sometimes they agree on mythology and come together. Other times they disagreed and re-wrote the old stories with their own variations. It just gets a little confusing. Luckily, the different origin myths were usually old enough that they came out of the Taoist-Animist mix and have many similarities that bring them together into 3 interesting tales. In fact, many seek to combine the three stories into one that flows together.
Variation #1 ~ The One Becomes Two
Some Chinese mythology begins with the theory that the world was initially a giant ball of chaos, all swirling together. The chaos was made out of “Qi,” a sort of gas or ‘energy,’ which-at the moment of the world’s beginning- suddenly split into two different elements. Some Chinese writers argue that this was an almost magical moment, with no sign of a creator. Others propose that it was triggered by a supernatural figure, and still others seem to suggest that the chaos was actually gods in conflict with one another themselves.
Regardless, the two elements that resulted were contrasts in masculinity and femininity, passion and passivity, hard and soft, dark and light, hot and cold. In western variations, we label them Yin and Yang. However, please bear in mind though that our “western adaptations of Yin and Yang” are often not actually primary in the belief systems of the majority of the Chinese. Not all of them were Taoist, as noted above. So while the Chinese myths may mostly agree that the original universal elements were dual in nature, they don’t necessarily all agree with the significance or religious aspect the Taoists have given to those features.
Variation #2: Pangu and the Hundun
The Pangu myth is one of those situations where the newer religions (in this case Taoism) added some stuff to the initial story so that it fit their point of view. Although it fits into the middle if you read the three versions as one story, it was actually the last one to appear in written mythology.
Once again, the world begins with chaos and utter disorder, but this time the chaos was confined inside the Hundun. The Hundun was shaped like a giant egg, and inside Yin and Yang, male and female, good and evil, light and dark all writhed around in a complete mess.
Inside the the chaos, there slowly grew a giant dragon named Pangu. For centuries he lived and grew, lived and grew. Finally he became so large that he was able to shatter the Hundun egg into two. All the chaos inside spilled out, with the yin elements moving upward where they would become the heavens and the yang elements falling downward where it would become the earth. To keep the two from mixing again, Pangu resolved to stand in between them, holding them apart. Every day, Pangu grew ten feet taller, the earth ten feet bigger, and the heavens ten feet higher. Finally, after 18,000 years everything was as big as it was going to get. Pangu even added some creativity of his own by stomping on the earth to create the flat lands and using his hands to form some of the rivers.
Tragically, Pangu eventually reached the end of his life. As he did so, his body began to disintegrate over top of the earth. Breathing out his last, his breath transformed into the wind and clouds in the sky. His final words the thunder echoing over the land. The sweat and “bodily fluids” became rain. His eyes split into two-the left becoming the sun and the right becoming the moon.His skin became the earth and ground; His veins and muscles hold the earth together. His arms, legs, and “extremities” were changed into the four compass points and five great mountain peaks (some later consider these to be part of the pillars Nuwa would later repair-see below). The blood and semen (yuck!) changed into water in the rivers and oceans. His hair became trees, plants, and stars. His teeth and bones the metal and rock. His marrows and insides the precious jewels like pearls and jade.
According to this version, humans actually came from the less than pleasant origin of “bugs” or “fleas” that had lived upon his body. Caught by his breath on the wind as they fell to earth, they became alive and were the original humans. To be honest, some people believe that rather than these being the origins of modern humans, the people created here were more like the dwarves, fairies, and other more supernatural figures. For example, this legend would have you believe that Nuwa and Fuxi were created from him in a similar fashion.
Variation #3: Nüwa and Fuxi
The story of Nüwa and earth’s creation come mainly from ancient texts such as the Huainanzi, Chu Ci, and Shan Hai Jing. This story has several variations, but they tell a pretty consistent story over all. If you watched the recent Chinese 2015 film “The Monkey King” (excellent watch for students of Chinese mythology), you saw one version of Nüwa’s story.
Some myths suggest Nüwa and Fuxi were simply gods living upon the earth after its creation. Others claim that they were actually the children (grandchildren?) of Pangu himself. However, in literature, Nüwa’s story came 6 centuries before that of Pangu. Nonetheless, Nüwa and Fuxi are depicted in ancient Chinese art as figures with the body of a snake and the top of a human. You can see an ancient depiction of the two on the right. Theirs was a love story, and one that is significant to the origin myth. Actually Nüwa’s story comes in two parts – the creation of humanity and the salvation of the world.
1) The Creation of Humanity
When the earth and heaven were first divided, two supernatural figures lived on the earth. The first was Nüwa and the second her brother Fuxi. Although they were related, they fell in love with one another and wished desperately for the chance to marry. However, they knew that this was unnatural and were unsure about whether it was appropriate. So Fuxi climbed one of the great mountains with Nüwa and they prayed. One story says they asked that if the heavens approved of their love, then a great mist or fog would gather. If the heavens disapproved, the fog would disappear. To their great joy, the mists of fogs grew very large and permission for their marriage was granted. Another story (the Shan Hai Jing) says that they got permission after they built two separate fires that morphed into one.
Some myths suggest that Nüwa created humanity with the help of her husband, but others suggest she worked alone. Either way, Nüwa got creative and began fashioning human figures out of a mixture of yellow earth, then after she became tired, she began using mud instead. To help hold everything together she added some ropes or cording to make them stand up. She also gave them legs instead of her own tail and created men and women so they would recreate on their own. Finally, when her work was completed, she breathed life into the figures and created humans. Unfortunately, those made out of yellow earth were of higher quality and were thought to be the forefathers of the aristocracy. The peeople made out of mud were more common and became the ancestors of the poor, working folk.
Nüwa was delighted with her creation and loved them very much, seeing them as her children and treasures on the earth. So when they were in danger, she was willing to do anything to protect them.
2) The Salvation of the World
According to the most ancient of Chinese myth, the earth originally had four separate corners, each of which held 1 or 2 pillars holding up the heavens. These pillars were the only point at which the heavens and earth were connected and had to be closely protected to keep the two from crashing into one another. There was also a concern of the more evil creatures using the pillars as a chance to move up or down between the heavens and the earth. It was during the peaceful time when the pillars were working that Nüwa and Fuxi created humans. But tragedy struck.
Gònggōng or Kanghui, one of the sea gods or sea serpents, unfortunately had the dubious notoriety of having gotten into various fights with the “good deities.” After losing one of the battles, he grew angered (or embarrassed–the myths aren’t quite sure) and broke one of the pillars (named Buzhou Mountain) in a fit of temper. As a result, the whole sky began falling in the northwest as the earth rose in the southeast. This caused the entire axis of the earth to shift and resulted in complete and utter chaos. Fires, Floods, Animals going Wild and eating people-everything went haywire and Nüwa realized something had to happen if the world was to survive.
The stories differ on what precisely Nüwa did to save the world, but most go with the Huainanzi’s version. Therein, Nüwa went and found five blue stones, which she used to repair the broken sky (giving it the blue color). Then she cut of the four legs of the mythological turtle Ao and put them up as pillars to re-set the sky and earth in their places. She also killed off a black dragon who was helping to cause some of the chaos. It is unclear whether she survived her work- some myths have her dying as part of the final solution and sacrificing her body to reform the world. Others say that she lived in peace with Fuxi and helped establish the first Chinese government.
Naturally, some chose to accept the stories as independent of one another- particularly since the addition of Pangu came so much later. The minorities are more inclined to accept the Pangu myth, while the larger groups tend to pick up the Nüwa version. Nonetheless, others choose to produce some combination of the the three. It is fairly simple to see how this would play own.
As Version 1 states, the world originally lay in utter chaos with all the different contrasting elements mixed together. Then Version 2 picks up by stating the chaos however was confined in the Hundun egg, where Pangu grew until he split the egg apart. He is the father of the world, creating earth and the heavens from his body and efforts. When he died, his body mixed with the supernatural elements still in the air to form Nüwa and her brother Fuxi. Together, the two of them created humans and rejoiced. However, all of Pangu’s hard work was nearly destroyed when the pillars he fashioned from his extremities were broken by Gonggong. To save the world Nüwa threw up the five stones to fix the sky and formed the pillars anew. Thus the earth was created and nearly destroyed, while humans managed to survive it all to become the illustrious Chinese we know today.
The varying religions like Buddhism, Animism, Taoism, and Ancestral Worship have picked apart and pieced together these three myths to suit their own story-lines. Thus, we have multiple versions of the Chinese origin myth existing today.
Whatever the version, the modern eye can clearly see the intricacy and beauty of Chinese mythology in all its forms and fashions. The details, the imagery, the themes and plots spread throughout. The Chinese legends are beautiful and full of magic, ingenuity, passion, and wisdom. The best part is that it is still preserved in the art and style of classic Chinese artistry still preserved today. Take a trip to Beijing and see the paintings on the ancient palace pillars. Look at the writings and painted visions lining the museum walls. Chinese mythology is a truly unique and stunning creation!