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What Are the Major Elements of Chinese Mythology?

By Michael Smathers
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chinese mythology features a rich and varied pantheon of deities, supernatural creatures and enlightened/deified people. It draws influence from traditional Taoist beliefs, Confucian philosophy and Buddhist belief. Like other mythologies, the mythology of China includes a creation myth and a hierarchy of deities. The main body of Chinese mythology transferred primarily through oral tradition until the 12th century BCE, when writing became a standard form of communication. The main body of mythology covers the period from the creation of the universe until the beginning of history with the Xia dynasty in 2070 BCE.

Pangu was the first being in existence according to Chinese mythology, and was responsible for the creation of the universe. After a cosmic egg formed out of the initial chaos of the universe, Pangu slept inside it for 18,000 years and woke up, separating the heavens, yang, from the earth, yin. He supposedly pushed heaven and earth apart each day until he died. Each part of his body became a part of the world: his bones became rock, his flesh became soil, his tears became rivers and oceans, etc, similar to the Norse myth of Ymir the frost giant.

After Pangu created the world, two twin deities, Fuxi and Nuwa, created humankind. Nuwa, the goddess, molded the first few generations of humans from clay. As she created these first people individually, they were said to be stronger and more intelligent than the ones who came afterward.

The Jade Emperor is another important figure in Chinese mythology. He is the chief ruler and administrator of heaven, and determines the fate of people when they die. People who adhere to the moral values of Chinese society such as filial piety, compassion, respect for authority and respect for the community are reward with a place in ti'an, or heaven.

Chinese mythology also places great emphasis on the dragon. The Chinese dragon, unlike the Western dragon, is said to be benevolent and commonly affiliated with wind and water. It is responsible for rain, an important event for a traditionally agricultural society such as ancient China. The people of China sometimes identify themselves as a whole as descendants of the dragon. Unlike the Western dragon, the Chinese dragon has no wings.

The dragon is one of the Four Sacred Symbols of China. The Blue Dragon, Qing Long, represents the element of wood and the East direction. Its opposite number, the White Tiger Bai Hu, represents West and the element of metal. Meanwhile, the Vermillion Phoenix, Zhu Que, represents fire and guards the south. Xuan Wu, the Black Tortoise, represents water. There is sometimes thought to be a fifth symbol, Huang Long, the Yellow Dragon of the Center, representing the element of earth.

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