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February 10, 2018

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The myths that shaped China

MYTHS helped explain the world for ancient humans. Most ancient civilizations enjoyed their own versions of how the world began and how people first inhabited it, so did the Chinese.

Though developed independently, Chinese myths share similar understandings and experiences on some particular issues with myths from other backgrounds.

For example, the world was created by a powerful god — Jehovah for the Hebrew, and Pangu for the Chinese. The first man was made from mud, either by Jehovah in the Bible, Prometheus in the Greek myths, or goddess Nu Wa in the Chinese legend. There are records of huge floods in myths of many different cultures, though with different explanations of the cause.

Yet, apart from answering the general questions on the origins of the world and humans, Chinese myths are also believed to serve as the foundation of traditional values and philosophy, which may help understand the Chinese culture better.

Developed and passed orally at first, Chinese myths were later collected and recorded throughout the history in books such as “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” and “Huainanzi” (The Writings of the Masters South of the Huai).

It is inevitable that there are different versions of myths on the same topics due to multiple sources and distortion in spread. This series explores some of the most widely spread versions of Chinese myths.

Pangu Creates the New World 

Once upon a time, the world was a mere hundun (formless chaos) until a giant woke up and made changes.

Then restless yuanqi, or original energy, composed the original world. Among them were those that are clear and light called qingqi, and there were also murky and heavy zhuoqi. The different qi crashed and twisted in the universe, forming the original cosmic egg-like world.

The clear energy and murky energy can also be understood as the yang (positive) and yin (negative) energies respectively, which served as the foundation of traditional Chinese philosophy and culture in many ways.

Right within the egg lay a giant named Pangu who was sleeping soundly despite the chaos around him. He slept for 18,000 years, with a sweet dream of a lively beautiful world around him. Yet when he woke up, Pangu saw nothing but swirling darkness. He tried stretching a bit, but found himself restrained by invisible energies.

In anger, he pulled out a tooth which turned into an ax and swung it to the darkness with full strength. With a loud thump, the egg-like world was smashed. The clear and light energy ascended and formed the sky while the murky and heavy descended and turned into the earth.

Pangu was pleased with the new world that he just made. To prevent it from returning to its original look, he stood there and propped up the sky, lifting and pushing with all strength. To his surprise, his body grew at the move. He kept pushing and growing day and night. Each day, the sky grew 1 zhang (3 meters) higher, the earth 1 zhang thicker and Pangu 1 zhang taller.

Another 18,000 years later, the sky was firmly attached to the heaven and the Earth was soundly anchored below. Although he was delighted about the achievement, Pangu wished that he could do more to decorate the world. However, he was overly exhausted from creating the new world and finally fell down.

At that moment, his voice produced rolling thunder; his breath formed the clouds, mists and breezes; his left eye became the shinning warm sun; while his right eye turned into a clear and bright moon. His beard changed into shining stars.

Pangu’s skin hair made flowers and trees. His blood turned into running rivers and seas. His muscles became rich soil for plants. His teeth, bones and marrow turned into jade, minerals and various treasures underground. His sweat became rains moistening everything on Earth.

His head became Taishan Mountain in the east; his feet made Huashan Mountain in the west; his left arm became Hengshan Mountain in the south; his belly turned into Songshan Mount in the center; and his right arm shaped Hengshan Mountain in the north. The five mountains formed the magnificent scenery of the world (China).

Pangu exhausted himself for the beautiful new world.


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