Chinese mythology

Chinese mythology (中國神話 Mandarin Chinese: Zhōngguó Shénhuà) is a collection of cultural history, folktales, and religions that have been passed down in oral form or within the written tradition of mainstream Chinese culture. These include creation myths and legends and myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state. China is also home to many other mythological traditions, including Tibetan mythology, Turkic mythology, Korean mythology, and many others. Like many mythologies, Chinese mythology has in the past been believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of history.. Along with Chinese folklore, Chinese mythology forms an important part of Chinese folk religion.[1] Chinese mythology includes creation myths and legends, such as myths concerning the founding of Chinese culture and the Chinese state. Chinese mythology was long believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of history. Thus, many stories regarding characters and events of the distant past have a double tradition: one which presents a more historicized and one which presents a more mythological version.[2]

Historians have written evidence of Chinese mythological symbolism from the 12th century BCE in the Oracle bone script. Legends were passed down for over a thousand years before being written in books such as Classic of Mountains and Seas (山海經) and the Taiping Yulan. Other myths were passed down through oral traditions, such as theater and song before being recorded as novels such as Epic of Darkness. Historical documents and philosophical canons such as Book of Rites, Records of the Grand Historian, Book of Documents, and Lüshi Chunqiu all contain Chinese myths.

Major sources and concepts

Some myths survive in theatrical or literary formats as plays or novels. Books in the shenmo genre of vernacular fiction revolve around gods and monsters. Important mythological fiction, seen as definitive records of these myths, include:

Presiding deities

The concept of a principal or presiding deity has fluctuated over time in Chinese mythology. Examples include:

  • Shangdi, also sometimes Huángtiān Dàdì (皇天大帝), appeared as early as the Shang dynasty. In later eras, he was more commonly referred to as Huángtiān Shàngdì (皇天上帝). The use of Huángtiān Dàdì refers to the Jade Emperor and Tian.
  • Yu Di (the Jade Emperor) appeared in literature after the establishment of Taoism in China; his appearance as Yu Huang dates back to beyond the times of Yellow Emperor, Nüwa, or Fuxi.
  • Tian (Heaven) appeared in literature c. 700 BCE, possibly earlier as dating depends on the date of the Shujing (Book of Documents). There are no creation-oriented narratives for Tian. The qualities of Tian and Shangdi appear to have merged in later literature and are now worshiped as one entity ("皇天上帝", Huángtiān Shàngdì) in, for example, the Beijing's Temple of Heaven. The extent of the distinction between Tian and Shangdi is debated. The sinologist Herrlee Creel claims that an analysis of the Shang oracle bones reveals Shangdi to have preceded Tian as a deity, and that Zhou dynasty authors replaced the term "Shangdi" with "Tian" to cement the claims of their influence.
  • Nüwa (also referred to as Nü Kwa) appeared in literature no earlier than c. 350 BCE. Her companion, Fuxi, (also called Fu Hsi) was her brother and husband. They are sometimes worshiped as the ultimate ancestor of all humankind, and are often represented as half-snake, half-humans. It is sometimes believed that Nüwa molded humans from clay for companionship. She repaired the sky after Gong Gong damaged the pillar supporting the heavens.
  • Pangu, written about by Taoist author Xu Zheng c. 200 CE, was claimed to be the first sentient being and creator, “making the heavens and the earth.”[3]

Time periods

Three August Ones and Five Emperors

During or following the age of Nüwa and Fuxi came the age of the Three August Ones and Five Emperors. These legendary rulers ruled between c. 2850 BCE to 2205 BCE, before the Xia dynasty.

The list of names comprising the Three August Ones and Five Emperors vary widely among sources. The most widely circulated and popular version is:

  • The Three August Ones (Huáng)
    • Fuxi: companion of Nüwa
    • Yellow Emperor ("Huang Emperor"): often regarded as the first sovereign of the Chinese nation
    • Shennong ("Divine Farmer"): reputedly taught the ancients agriculture and medicine
  • The Five Emperors ()
    • Shaohao: leader of the Dongyi (Eastern Barbarians); his pyramidal tomb is in present-day Shandong
    • Zhuanxu: grandson of the Huang Emperor.
    • Emperor Ku: great-grandson of the Huang Emperor and nephew of Zhuanxu.
    • Yao: son of Ku; Yao's elder brother succeeded Ku, but he abdicated when found to be an ineffective ruler.
    • Shun: successor of Yao, who passed over his own son and made Shun his successor because of Shun's ability and morality.

These rulers are generally regarded as morally upright and benevolent, examples to be emulated by latter day kings and emperors. Historically, when Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BCE, he felt that his achievements had surpassed those of all the rulers who had gone before him. He combined the ancient titles of Huáng (皇) and (帝) to create a new title, Huángdì (皇帝), which is usually translated as Emperor. The Chinese refer to themselves as 炎黃子孫 ("Descendants of the Flame and Yellow Emperors").

Great Flood

Shun passed on his place as emperor to Yu the Great. The Yellow River, prone to flooding, erupted in a huge flood in the time of Yao. Yu's father, Gun, was put in charge of flood control by Yao, but failed to alleviate the problem after nine years. He was executed by Shun, and Yu took his father's place, leading the people to build canals and levees. After thirteen years of toil, flooding problems were ameliorated under Yu's command. Shun enfeoffed Yu as ruler of the geographic region of origin of the Xia, in present-day Henan.

Xia dynasty

Upon Yu's death, his position as leader was passed not to his deputy, but rather to his son Qi. Sources differ regarding the process by which Qi rose to this position. Most versions agree that Yu designated his deputy, Gaotao, to be his successor. When Gaotao died before him, Yu then selected Gaotao's son, Bo Yi as his successor. One version holds that all those who had submitted to Yu admired Qi more than Bo Yi, leading Yu to pass his power to Qi instead. Another version holds that Bo Yi ceremoniously offered the position to Qi, who accepted, against convention, because he had the support of other leaders. Yet another version claims that Qi killed Bo Yi and usurped his position as leader.

The version currently most accepted in China has Yu name Bo Yi as successor because of the fame Bo Yi had achieved teaching people to drive animals with fire during hunts. Bo Yi had the support of the people, which Yu could not easily stand against. However, the title Yu had given Bo Yi came without power; Yu gave his own son all the power in managing the country. After a few years, Bo Yi lost popularity, and Yu's son Qi became favored. Yu then named Qi as successor. Bo Yi did not go willingly and challenged Qi for the leadership. A civil war ensued. Qi, with strong support from the people, defeated Bo Yi's forces, killed Bo Yi, and solidified his own rule.

Qi's succession broke the previous convention of meritorious succession, and began what is traditionally regarded as the first dynasty of Chinese history. The dynasty is called "Xia" after Yu's center of power.

The Xia dynasty is semi-mythological. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals record the names of 17 kings of the Xia dynasty. However, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence of its capital or its existence as a state of significant size. Some archaeological evidence for a significant urban civilization before the Shang Dynasty exists.

Shang dynasty

Jie, the last king of the Xia dynasty, was supposedly a bloodthirsty despot. Tribal leader Tang of Shang revolted against Xia rule and eventually overthrew Jie, establishing the Shang dynasty, based in Anyang. Book 5 of the philosopher Mozi described the end of the Xia dynasty and the beginning of the Shang. During the reign of King Jie of Xia, there was a great climatic change. Legends hold that the paths of the sun and moon changed, the seasons became confused, and the five grains dried up. Ghouls cried in the country and cranes shrieked for ten nights. Heaven ordered Shang Tang to receive the heavenly commission from the Xia dynasty, which had failed morally and which Heaven was determined to end. Shang Tang was commanded to destroy Xia with the promise of Heaven's help. In the dark, Heaven destroyed the fortress' pool, and Shang Tang then gained victory easily.[4]

The Shang dynasty ruled from c. 1766 BCE to c. 1050 BCE. It came to an end when the last despotic ruler, Zhou of Shang, was overthrown by the new Zhou dynasty. The end of the Shang dynasty and the establishment of the Zhou is the subject of the influential mythological fiction Investiture of the Gods. Book 5 of Mozi also described the shift. During the reign of Shang Zhou, Heaven could not endure Zhou's morality and neglect of timely sacrifices. It rained mud for ten days and nights, the nine cauldrons (presumably used in either astronomy or to measure earth movements) shifted positions, pontianaks appeared, and ghosts cried at night. There were women who became men while it rained flesh and thorny brambles, covering the national highways. A red bird brought a message: "Heaven decrees King Wen of Zhou to punish Yin and possess its empire". The Yellow River formed charts and the earth brought forth mythical horses. When King Wu became king, three gods appeared to him in a dream, telling him that they had drowned Shang Zhou in wine and that King Wu was to attack him. On the way back from victory, the heavens gave him the emblem of a yellow bird.

Unlike the preceding Xia dynasty, there is clear archaeological evidence of a government center at Yinxu in Anyang, and of an urban civilization in the Shang dynasty. However, the chronology of the first three dynasties remains an area of active research and controversy.

Creation and the pantheon

Chinese mythology holds that the Jade Emperor was charged with running of the three realms: heaven, hell, and the realm of the living. The Jade Emperor adjudicated and meted out rewards and remedies to saints, the living, and the deceased according to a merit system loosely called the Jade Principles Golden Script (玉律金篇, Yù lǜ jīn piān). When proposed judgments were objected to, usually by other saints, the administration would occasionally resort to the counsels of advisory elders.


The Chinese dragon is one of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, considered to be the most powerful and divine creature and the controller of all waters who could create clouds with their breath. The dragon symbolized great power and was very supportive of heroes and gods.

One of the most famous dragons in Chinese mythology is Yinglong, the god of rain. Many people in different places pray to Yinglong to receive rain. Chinese people use the term 龍的傳人 ("Descendants of the Dragon") as a sign of their ethnic identity.

Religion and mythology

There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Elements of pre-[Han dynasty] mythology such as those in Shan Hai Jing were adapted into these belief systems as they developed (in the case of Taoism), or were assimilated into Chinese culture (in the case of Buddhism). Elements from the teachings and beliefs of these systems became incorporated into Chinese mythology. For example, the Taoist belief of a spiritual paradise became incorporated into mythology as the place where immortals and deities dwelt.

Important deities and mythological figures



Mythical places

  • Mount Buzhou: mythical mountain
  • Diyu: hell
  • Feather Mountain: a place of exile during or just after the world flood
  • Fusang: a mythical island interpreted to be Japan
  • Jade Mountain, a mythological mountain
  • Kunlun Mountain: a mythical mountain, dwelling of various divinities, and fabulous plants and animals
  • Longmen: dragon gate where carp can transform into dragons
  • Mount Penglai: paradise; a fabled fairy isle on the China Sea
  • Queqiao (鵲橋; Quèqiáo): bridge formed by birds flying across the Milky Way
  • Tiantang: heaven
  • Xuanpu (玄圃; Xuánpǔ): a mythical fairyland on Kunlun Mountain
  • Yaochi (瑤池; Yáochí): abode of immortals where the Queen Mother of the West lives.
  • Youdu: the capital city of Di Yu


  • Cords of the Sky
  • Pillars of the Earth
  • Sky Ladder

Mythical creatures


  • Zhulong: the torch dragon, a solar deity
  • The Four Fiends (四凶, Sì xiōng):
    • Hundun: chaos
    • Taotie: gluttony
    • Táowù (梼杌): ignorance; provided confusion and apathy and made mortals free of the curiosity and reason needed to reach enlightenment
    • Qióngqí (窮奇): deviousness


  • Sanzuwu (三足烏; sānzúwū): three-legged crow that represented the sun birds shot down by Houyi
  • Qing Niao (青鳥; qīngniâo): mythical bird and messenger of Xi Wangmu
  • Fenghuang (鳳凰; fènghuáng): Chinese mythical bird, sometimes translated as "phoenix"
  • Bi Fang (畢方)
  • Crane: linked with immortality, may be transformed xian
  • Jiān (鶼; jian1): mythical one-eyed bird with one wing; 鶼鶼: a pair of such birds dependent on each other, inseparable, hence representing husband and wife
  • Jiguang (吉光; jíguāng)
  • Jingwei: mythical bird which tried to fill up the ocean with twigs and pebbles
  • Jiufeng: nine-headed bird used to scare children
  • Peng: giant mythical bird
  • Shang-Yang (商羊): a rainbird
  • Sù Shuāng (鷫鷞; su4shuang3): mythical bird like a crane; described as a water bird
  • Vermilion Bird: icon of the south, sometimes confused with the Fenghuang
  • Zhen: poisonous bird



  • Mermaid (人魚)
  • Kun (also Peng): giant monstrous fish form of the Peng bird.


  • Kui: one-legged mountain demon or dragon who invented music and dance; also Shun's musical master
  • Jiangshi: a reanimated corpse
  • Ox-Head and Horse-Face: devils in animal forms[5] and guardians of the underworld
  • Xiāo (魈; xiao1): mountain spirit or demon
  • Yaoguai: demons


  • Jiuwei Hu (九尾狐): Nine-tailed fox
  • Nian: lives under the sea or in mountains; attacks children
  • Longma: winged horse similar to the Qilin
  • Luduan: can detect the truth
  • Xiezhi (also Xie Cai): creature of justice said to be able to distinguish lies from truths; it had a long, straight horn used to gore liars
  • Qilin: chimeric animal with several variations. The first giraffe sent as a gift to a Chinese emperor was believed to be the Qilin; an early Chinese painting depicts this giraffe replete with the fish scales of the Qilin. Qilin was believed to show perfect good will, gentleness, and benevolence to all righteous creatures.
  • Pixiu: resembled a winged lion
  • Rui Shi (瑞獅, Ruì Shī): guardian lions
  • Huli jing: fox spirits
  • Xīniú (犀牛): a rhinoceros; became mythologized when rhinoceroses became extinct in China. Depictions later changed to a more bovine appearance, with a short, curved horn on its head used to communicate with the sky
    • Bai Ze: legendary creature said to have been encountered by the Yellow Emperor and to have given him a compendium listing all the demons in the world


  • Chinese Monkey: warded off evil spirits; highly respected and loved
  • Xiao (mythology), described as a long-armed ape or a four-winged bird

Snakelike and reptilian

Mythical plants

Mythical substances

  • Xirang: the flood-fighting expanding earth


  • Imperial historical documents and confucian canons such as Records of the Grand Historian, Lüshi Chunqiu, Book of Rites], and Classic History
  • In Search of the Supernatural: 4th century compilation of stories and hearsay concerning spirits, ghosts, and supernatural phenomena
  • Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, with many stories of fox spirits
  • Zhiguai (誌怪): literary genre that deals with strange (mostly supernatural) events and stories
  • Zi Bu Yu: a collection of supernatural stories compiled during the Qing dynasty

See also


  1. (Yang, 4)
  2. Yang, 12–13
  3. Werner, E.T.C. (1922). Myths and Legends of China. New York: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd. p. 77.
  4. Mozi. "非攻下 – Condemnation of Offensive War III".
  5. "Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese, Version 3.4". Wenlin Institute.


  • Paper, Jordan D. (1995). The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-2315-8. 
  • Yang, Lihui, et al. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533263-6
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