In every culture, there are myths and legends that people are familiar with and are happy to tell to their children. Most countries have their own myths. But unlike ancient Greece, China had no Homer to retell its ancient myths in a well-expressed literary record. Firstly, myths and legends were passed down orally for over a thousand years before being written down in some early books such as the Huainanzi and the Book of Mountains and Seas.
Moreover, China has gone through a lot of conflict periods, different religions and many opposing philosophies that appear and interact in many Chinese myths. When we go through some of the well-known Chinese tales, we find no clear distinction between what is real/historical and what is mythical.
Those myths and legends have continued to develop through the generations, creating incredibly rich folklore. Although there are hundreds of these myths, those that reside in Chinese traditions are particularly interesting as they still determine the thoughts and behaviour of citizens today.
In this article, you will discover 5 legends of Chinese mythology, imbued with strong characters and values
1. Pangu – The Creator of the World (盘古)
According to an ancient Chinese myth, the world was created by a God named Pangu. In the first place, the universe was a mass of darkness like a huge egg. Inside the egg was a creature named Pangu who slept soundly for thousands of years. But as he was sleeping, Pangu grew and developed into a giant with a hairy body, two tusks and two horns.
One day, Pangu woke up and felt strangled by the darkness. So, he took a broad axe and broke the egg with all his might. Then the first thing he did was to separate Yin and Yang with his axe, yin becoming the earth and yang the sky. Pangu stood in the middle holding up the sky with his strong arms and stomping down the earth with his strong feet.
Furthermore, after Pangu died, his body turned into the Five Sacred Mountains, his eyes turned to the moon and the sun, his blood changed into the river and sea, and his skin and hair became grass and trees. Overall, Pangu himself made up the universe. Nowadays, Pangu is considered as a great hero by Chinese people and the first-ever born creature of the world.
2. Nuwa – The creator of humans (女娲)
In traditional Chinese mythology, the renaissance is owing to a goddess named Nuwa (the goddess of all mankind). She had a human body and a snake tail. The goddess found the newly created world to be charming, but it was too empty. She wanted the world to be filled with intelligent, laughing creatures like herself. So she took some clay beside the river and moulded a figure in her likeness. Nuwa made a variety of figures. Each was different from the others. Then, she breathed into them, and immediately they sprang to life. These newly-fashioned people kept Nuwa company, and she was no longer lonely.
According to the legend, the four pillars of the sky were destroyed and chaos broke out. In fact, the fires were out of control and the oceans flooded. Animals went wild and started to eat people. Nuwa repaired the damage by cutting off the legs of the Great Tortoise to define them as the four new pillars. After this, peace was restored on Earth.
3. Sun Wukong – The Monkey King (孙悟空)
Among the common Chinese myths and legends, one of the most famous is Sun Wukong legend, or “the king of the monkeys”. Actually, he is the most famous and beloved characters in Chinese mythology. Sun Wukong was a very mischievous monkey, known for causing havoc in paradise with his eagerness to conquer the world.
It was said that he was able to use a cane he had stolen from the dragon king of the East Sea. But Sun Wukong was finally defeated by Buddha who asked him to somersault his palm. He couldn’t get out of half his hands and be imprisoned for 500 years under a magic mountain formed by Gautama Buddha’s palms. He later became a companion of the monk Xuanzang and accompanied him on his adventurous journeys.
Fun fact: Over the years, Sun Wukong has become a pop culture icon and appeared in various places. One of the most famous adaptations is Dragon Ball, with the lead Son Goku being based on the Monkey King.
4. Chang’e – The immortal Goddess of the Moon (嫦娥)
This ancient story came from the legendary time when the Emperor of Jade was on the throne. The Emperor had 10 sons who were transformed into 10 suns. These suns wreaked havoc on the earth and made it impossible for people to survive. Then came a brave archer named “Yi“, who set out to destroy them. He killed nine of the suns but left one behind. Later, Yi was rewarded for his courage with the elixir of life. But one day while he was hunting in the forest, someone tried to break into his house and steal the elixir. Yi’s wife (Chang’e), refused to give it and drank it herself. When she drank the elixir, she became so light that she was taken up to the moon, where she is believed to still live today.
To remember Chang’e, Yi laid the table and spread Chang’s favourite snacks on it. Since then, this practice has become a tradition of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. People will eat Moon cakes, drink wine, and look up at the full silver moon to celebrate their happy life.
Fun fact: The main Chinese Lunar missions are called “Chang’e” in reference to the myth. In addition, Netflix recently made an animated movie called “Over the Moon“, released in October 2020 and in which the story of Chang’e is the main plot.
5. The Jade rabbit (月兔)
The jade rabbit is also known as “the rabbit that lives on the moon“. According to mythology, it is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. The story began when a poor old man came to beg for food. At that time, the creatures of the forest (the monkey, the otter, the jackal and the rabbit), gave kindness to those in need and thought that doing a good deed today would be repaid tomorrow.
Thus, to help man, the monkey brought fruit, the jackal brought a jar of milk and the otter collected dead fish from. But the rabbit, who only ate grass, offered himself as an offering to the man. But the man did not kill him and revealed his true identity. He was the God Sakra. Later he drew the image of the rabbit on the moon to honour him.
Fun fact: The first lunar robot sent by China thanks to the chang’e 3 mission in December, 2013 is called “The jade rabbit” due to this legend.