Chinese Mythology


Dragon © jsbaw7160/ Public domain/ Pixabay



Chinese mythology, (中国神话 zhōng guó shén huà), is a mythology passed down in oral form and in literature (New World Encyclopaedia).


From the Greek, the word mythology’s meaning is mythos for “story of the people” and logos for “word or speech”. Mythology is the study and interpretation of often sacred tales or fables of a culture of a country. These sacred tales or fables are known as myths or stories dealing with aspects of the human condition (Mark, 2018).


There are four theories of myths (Mark, 2018):

  • The rational myth theory argues that they were made to gain a better understanding of natural events and forces that occured in the everyday lives of people. This theory explains that God controls nature and humans.

  • The functional myth theory is about teaching morality and social behaviour and states that myths are created for social control and as a function to ensure stability in society

  • The structural myth theory affirms that they are based on human emotions, showing the good and the bad side of human beings

  • The psychological myth argues that myths come from the subconscious mind, giving proof to fears or unresolved issues.


Social science researchers from all over the world have studied how the stories of myths are essential for the perpetuation and maintenance of a normal social process, leading to a relation between myth and society. In myths, there is a mixt of facts and fictions, earth and heaven, history and storytelling, past and present, leading to magic and creation of a culture-hero for the country. But the nature of the myth must be believed true as it has created society and is used in society to support the creation of the country’s history, norms and the values of society (Gotesky, 1952).


Chinese mythology has mythical creatures and are used in spiritual life, superstition, folklore and religion. Mythology has for certain legends a moral to a story, which may lead to an idiom/proverb, 成语 chéng yǔ (Europeana).


Historians originate records of Chinese mythology in the 12th century B.C.E. They were later written in books such as Shān Hǎi Jīng 山海经, “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”. The exact author of the book and time are undetermined. Modern sinologists consider this book to not be written at a single time by the same author, but date it back to the period of the Warring States in the beginning of the Han dynasty. The book was credibilised by Liu Xiang, writer of the Western Han dynasty and Guo Po, a scholar of the Western Jin. The book is a Chinese classic text of mythology and magical animals and creatures such as the nine-tailed fox and a nine-headed phoenix (Shan Hai Jing Chinese Text Project).


Different novels were written with different myths and songs of ancient China leading to the creation of the country, society and Chinese culture with confucianism, taoism and buddhism (Zhicheng, 2012).


TWO CREATURES IN CHINESE MYTHOLOGY


1/THE DRAGON


The characteristics of the dragon in Chinese mythology are different from those of the dragon of the Western tradition. According to legend, the Yellow Emperor launched a series of wars against nine tribes in the Yellow River Valley. After defeating the tribes, the emperor incorporated the tribe’s totems into his dragon totem. The mystical dragon has eyes like a shrimp, antlers like a deer, a mouth like a bull, a nose like a dog, whiskers like a catfish, a lion’s mane, a long tail like a snake, scales like a fish and claws like a hawk (Ho, 2022).


Emperors in ancient China were identified as sons of dragons and the creature’s images were only for the imperial family. The creature is symbolic of luck, prosperity, power and nobleness. The dragon is one of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, as well as an important creature in festivities such as the New Year and the dragon boat festival. It is also portrayed in films, literature and paintings (Ho, 2022).


Dragon Kings were believed to be rulers of the weather and water. Four Dragon Kings controlled a sea of China in the north, south, east and west. They are shape-shifters and can even be humans. They are the oldest and most intelligent dragons in mythology (Ho, 2022).


The green dragon is one of the four beasts of mythology with the black tortoise, the vermilion bird and the white tiger. The four beasts represent the four directions. The green dragon represents the east and controls the rain and the wind. The winged dragon is in the sky and is the ancestors of dragons. It controls the four seasons and is the descendant of the Yellow Emperor 黄帝 huáng dì. The coiling dragon lives on earth and can’t fly but according to legends he can control time. The horned dragon lived for more than 500 years and has developed horns. It is known as an evil dragon creating floods. The underworld dragon lives in water or undergrounds and can control the flow of rivers or streams. The cloud dragon lives in the clouds and creates rain (Ho, 2022).


Legend says that the Yellow Emperor 黄帝 huáng dì (2717-2599 BCE) is the grandson of the winged dragon and the Flame Emperor 炎帝 yán dì, a legendary ancient ruler, is the son of a dragon. Both of them started the Han civilization and are the ancestors to its population. They were immortalised as dragons before ascending to heaven. Chinese people are considered, according to legend, as descendants of dragons, as well. The nine sons of the dragon are images used in architecture decorations (Ho, 2022).


2/THE PHOENIX


According to the book “An Explication of Written Characters”, 說文解字, shuō wén jiě zì, the creature has the jaw of a swallow, a beak of a rooster, a head of a wild goose, a neck of a snake, a hindquarter of a creature called Qilin 麒麟 qí lín (descendant of a dragon and a cattle), the back of a tortoise and the tail of a fish. Its tails have the five sacred colours of red, blue, yellow, white and black (China Fetching).


According to legend, the phoenix, 凤凰 fèng huáng came from the sky to the celebration of the Yellow Emperor’s establishment of the new empire. They are known to be a combination of male with the character 凤 and female with the character 凰. Therefore, this creature represents harmony. A mystical bird named xuán niǎo 玄鸟 was worshipped by the descendants of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) and the phoenix became the totem of the Shang Dynasty (Britannica).


Like the dragon, the phoenix has different symbolisations: prosperity, auspiciousness, virtue, righteousness, courtesy, benevolence, love, faith. The creature was used by females in the imperial family. Phoenix have a significance according to the dominant colour. The white phoenix symbolises great ambition and purity. The purple phoenix is a creature known to be faithful to love. The red phoenix is the king of all birds. The yellow phoenix symbolises nobility and talent. The cyan phoenix is the messenger of the mother goddess of life, fertility and immortality (China Fetching).


Known as beautiful creatures with a melodic singing, they only appear in a peaceful and flourishing kingdom, during the ascent of a new emperor to the throne. The creatures of dragon and phoenix are combined together symbolising marital harmony with the male being the dragon and the female being the phoenix (Britannica).



Chinese mythology has different series of myths and legends giving an explanation to the creation of civilization and China today and has been passed on from generation to generation. Today, Chinese mythology is mostly seen as idioms to represent Chinese norms and values.



Prisca Mirchandani is a freelance journalist. She holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.


The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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References:

China in perspective, Myth and Meaning. Europeana. https://www.europeana.eu/en/exhibitions/china-in-perspective/myth-and-meaning


Chinese mythology. New World Encyclopaedia : https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Chinese_mythology


Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang- Legend, History, Utilisation and Culture. China Fetching. https://www.chinafetching.com/chinese-phoenix-fenghuang


Chinese Text Project. 山海經 Shan Hai Jing. https://ctext.org/shan-hai-jing


Fenghuang Chinese mythology. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/fenghuang


Gotesky, Rubin. “The Nature of Myth and Society.” American Anthropologist 54, no. 4 (1952): 523–31. https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1952.54.4.02a00070


Ho, M. Chinese Dragons– Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art. China Highlights. 26/01/2022. https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/article-chinese-dragons.html


Mark J.J., Mythology, World History Encyclopaedia, 31.10.2018: https://www.worldhistory.org/mythology/


Wang Zhicheng. “The princeling, descendants of the Party’s ‘Immortals’ are China’s new masters”, PIME Asia News, 28.12.2012: https://www.asianews.it/news-en/The-princelings,-descendants-of-the-Party’s-’Immortals’,-are-China’s-new-masters-26729.html



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