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Chinese Legends & Myths

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

This lesson will introduce you to some of China's most popular legends and myths, including the creation story of the world, powerful deities, dragons, immortals and how souls are judged in the underworld.

Yin and Yang

From popular martial arts films to Japanese animation to small jewelry sold in stores, you have likely seen the Yin-Yang symbol in your daily life. But do you know where it originated? As it turns out, according to Chinese mythology, the Yin-Yang plays a part in the creation of the world. The story of Yin and Yang is just one aspect of the rich tapestry of Chinese mythology. Chinese myths started off with a wide variety of gods and goddesses and have since been introduced from various belief systems brought to the country, such as Daoism, Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism.

Pangu and the Five Sacred Mountains

Pangu
pangu

A popular creation myth from Daoism states that before the beginning of the world there were two opposite forces. Yin was the female element, representing softness, darkness and the earth; Yang was the male element, representing hardness, light and the heavens. Though the two forces were opposites, they were still dependent on each other to maintain the harmony of the universe. Originally, the Yin and Yang were contained in an egg from which the deity Pangu eventually emerged.

Pangu lived for 18,000 years, growing bigger and filling the space between the earth and sky. Then, Pangu died, and his body formed the world. In one myth, his body became the five sacred Daoist mountains that exist today in China. These mountains were even venerated as gods themselves. One of the mountains, Tai Shan, has a flight of steps -- referred to as the 'Stairway to Heaven' -- that reaches its summit where sacrifices can be offered.

The Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor
The Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor is a prominent deity in Chinese mythology and is regarded as the supreme ruler of heaven, determining how events transpired in the heavens and earth. To conduct the affairs of the universe, the emperor would summon all of the deities to his palace on the first of the year to appoint or promote them to various positions, which involved overseeing things such as war, wealth, water and time itself.

The origin of the Jade Emperor himself varies widely. In some lore, he was born as a regular human who achieved immortality and became the Jade Emperor. Other stories depict him as a deity who predated creation. The Jade Emperor is frequently shown seated on his throne, dressed in robes that are embroidered with dragons.

The Eight Immortals

The Eight Immortals
eight immortals

The Eight Immortals are a popular myth, often written about in literature and folk tales and revered in Chinese society. According to legend, the Eight Immortals are not gods but 'Xian' -- humans who have achieved immortality. Each immortal possesses a power, such as the power to perform magic or the ability to fly. Their powers can also be transferred into tools for the purpose of destroying evil or bestowing life. The immortals frequently went on adventures where they sought to banish evil from the world. They were also addicted to wine and were often called the 'Eight Drunken Immortals.'

Dragons

Chinese Dragon
Chinese Dragon

Myths and legends of Western cultures frequently depict dragons as brutish monsters that are usually slain by heroes; however, Chinese myths paint the dragon as a more elegant and mystical figure. In Daoism, dragons are benevolent spirits who are kind to humans and associated with prosperity. Dragons slept in the winter and emerged in the spring. In art, dragons are shown playing with a flaming ball or pearl, symbolizing thunder. It is believed that the dragons' playing caused the rain to fall. The Long Wang, or 'dragon kings,' were the gods of lakes, rivers and oceans, and offerings were made to them during droughts.

Demons and Hell

One of the Judges of Hell
Chinese Hell Judge

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