Mythology

Chinese myths, just like those in other parts of the world, included fantastic creatures, supernatural powers, and some mythological places and times.

The topics of myths were cosmology (mythological explanations of the nature of the universe), the origin of people, culture, and the Chinese state. There were also many stories about some heroes who taught people various useful things, like how to cook, write, or build houses.

Others involved ancestors of important families and ethnic groups. All these myths were closely related to various ritual ceremonies and sacrifices.

There’s never been a single, uniform Chinese mythology. Different geographic regions and cultural traditions had their own sets of myths. Even among the Han people, for example, each class and ethnic group had its own mythological traditions.

Mythological Realms

  • Ancient Chinese had several mythological explanations about the nature of the universe and the earth. Most people believed that the earth was square and surrounded by the sky that was round. Between the earth and sky, there were sky pillars, such as trees and mountains, which prevented the sky from falling on the earth.

Tian (Heaven)

  • Just above the sky, there was the realm of Heaven, which was a whole other world with many inhabitants, a supreme emperor with his government, bureaucracy, guards, servants, and social activities similar to those on earth.
  • Some myths suggested that it was possible to climb up or down the four (eight in some versions) pillars or sky ladders and to travel between earth and heaven.

Tian

Diyu (Underground)

  • Below the earth, there was Diyu, also known as Yellow Springs, which was basically the Chinese version of Hell. This underground area was also large and densely inhabited.

    Bronze mirror

    Its society consisted of a king, judges, secretaries, conductors of souls, torturers, and a number of ghastly supernatural beings, such as Horce-Face, Ox-Head, and others. The vast majority of inhabitants were the souls of those who made crimes during their life on earth.

  • The capital of Diyu was the city of Youdu. According to the popular myth, the duties of a king of the underworld was to ensure that every dead human is placed correctly, based on what they had deserved during their lives, and that the whole process was recorded. The judgment had to be fair, and good deeds could outweigh the bad ones.

    In such cases, souls were given the Drink of Forgetfulness and then reincarnated (brought back to life).

Earth

  • Many fantastic mythical events were said to have happened on the earthly realm but on remote and hard-to-get-to places. Those places were the so-called cardinal directions of the earth.

    Each cardinal direction had its symbol: the Azure Dragon represented the East; the White Tiger was associated with the West; the Black Tortoise was the symbol of the North, and the Vermillion Bird symbolized the South.

    There was the fifth cardinal direction too – it was the center, located in the middle of the Chinese empire, and it was represented by the emperor himself.

  • According to mythical tales, the whole earth, especially seas, rivers, islands, and mountains, was inhabited by local spirits and many other fantastic creatures.

Water

  • Oceans, seas, rivers, ponds, and streams appear very often in ancient Chinese mythology, as parts of mythological geography. In that world, all rivers originate from Kunlun (the Milky Way) and flow from west to east to replace a ruined world pillar and keep Earth and Heaven separated.

    The myths mention both real rivers and those that appear only in the mythological geography, such as the Weak River in the west, near Kunlun.

  • Near one of the mythological rivers, there were rapid waterfalls called the Dragon Gates. The legend says that fishes that swim upstream and leap over the falls can turn into dragons.

Creation myths

  • Ancient Chinese had various mythological explanations of the creation of the universe, the sky, the earth, people, goods, and various creatures. The earth, the sky, and the whole universe were made by either Shangti or Pangu. The first humans were said to have been made from mud by goddess Nuwa.
  • Different families and ethnic groups had their own myths of origin. For example, the Han Chinese were said to be descendants of Yandi and Huangdi (the Flame and Yellow Emperors).

Mythical Heroes

  • Chinese myths include stories of heroes that helped humanity in various ways. For example, Youchao showed people how to make wooden shelters; Suiren taught them to use fire and cook food; and Leizu developed the production of silk.

Chi You

Q&A

According to Chinese mythology, which two realms were located above and below the realm of Earth?

Above the Earth was Tian (Heaven), and below it was Diyu (Underground).

What the world pillars or sky ladders served for?

The world pillars separated the Earth and Tian, and they also served as passages for travel.

What’s the name of the capital city of the ancient Chinese underworld?

It was Youdu.

What mythical creatures symbolized the four cardinal directions?

The Azure Dragon represented the East; the White Tiger was associated with the West; the Black Tortoise was the symbol of the North, and the Vermillion Bird symbolized the South.

According to the myth, what happened to the fish that swam upstream the Dragon Gates waterfalls?

They would turn into dragons.