China is often thought of as a country with no religion. That's not true; the Chinese people are fully religious, just not in the way that we are. In fact, they may be more religious than we are if you count every god, goddess and all the deities in their pantheon.
Furthermore, China boasts a substantial Muslim population and, with increased exposure to western cultures, interest in Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. There is even a small Jewish population in China; they've been there since around 800 CE.
Authentic Chinese gods are nothing like the omniscient, omnipotent God revered in Abrahamic religions. By comparison, the gods of China are pretty hands-off. Still, for operating under such limitations, Chinese mythology's gods are an amazing bunch.
Creation Myth Gods
People of deep faith tend to resent the term 'creation myth' because it feels like their beliefs are being mocked. By using this phrase, we don't intend any disrespect to anyone's beliefs, no matter what they are.
In this sense, the myth in question is a narrative, not an accusation.
Every civilisation has its origin stories. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped the Sun god Ra, Thor was the Norse god of thunder and Arianrhod is the Celtic goddess of the moon and stars. In this sense, every society has its creation myths so China's mythology fits right in.
Where it differs is in the gods' accessibility, longevity and number. Chinese mythology has far fewer gods than most other creation myths - five, to be specific.
Shang Di (上帝)
If any of China's gods could be called a creator, Shang Di would be. He makes his first appearance in literature around 700 BC; stories involving him date much further back - specifically, the Shang dynasty (ca. 1760 - 1050 BCE). His name translates to Above Emperor; he is also called the God in Heaven.
There are no drawings of him but written texts describe him well. He is male, compassionate and emotional, intellectual and just. No great feats are attributed to him. He fought no wars, he did not lead a people... the clearest picture we get of Shang Di is from texts written during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 222 CE).
In direct contrast with Shang Di, Tian takes no human form. Literally translated, Tian is heaven - perhaps a more significant concept than in western religions because, at some point in ancient history, the line separating Shang Di and Tian blurred to the point that referring to Tian implied the celestial father.
For a time, they were both worshipped as a single entity; thus the inspiration for the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
The mother-goddess is credited with creating the human race. She was so lonely that she moulded yellow earth into human form, creating for herself a family of dolls. Realising that she could populate the entire world but unable to form each one, she raked the yellow earth with string, creating more people.
As the story goes, those people she moulded became the nobles because they were created by the mother-goddess's hands.
Nuwa also gets credit for repairing the Pillars of Heaven.
Heaven could no longer cover all of the earth and Earth could no longer hold up Heaven because the pillars were broken. All manner of disaster and tragedy unfolded: beasts ate children, rains flooded valleys...
Nuwa first patched up heaven and then cut the legs off of a giant turtle to hold up the sky. She killed the black dragon that was tormenting the people of Ji and built dams to halt the floods.
Odd how, even though China today is a patriarchy, their mythology includes a very skilled and hard-working woman.
Now we meet the first corporeal creature in the pantheon of Chinese gods. Even more interesting is that certain aspects of his story parallel passages in the book of Genesis.
In the beginning, there was a formless and primordial nothing. Of this nothing emerged an egg. For 18,000 years it waited, until Yin and Yang, those duelling energy forces were balanced. Once they were, Pangu emerged from the egg. Then, with his giant axe, he set about creating the world.
One mighty swing sent the heavy Yin into freefall; it became the earth. Yang, now free of the heavy weight of Yin, floated skyward. Pangu took up his station between them to keep them in their proper place.
After another 18,000 years passed, Pangu met his end. As he was laid to rest, his left eye became the sun and his right one, the moon. His voice became the thunder and his breath, the wind. His body shaped the land, mountains and valleys. The fur covering his body became the trees, bushes and grass of the earth. His blood became the rivers.
Pangu is a relative newcomer to the gods. He first appeared in the literature toward the end of the Han dynasty.
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Yu Huang (玉皇）
The Jade Emperor is a god of the Tao belief system. He's the ruler of heaven and earth, as well as the official deity of the human emperors. Because he is one of the most important gods, his court is full of gods and goddesses.
To know why Chinese mythology is so important in everyday life, you have to understand the large role the Jade Emperor plays in their creation myths.
Sovereigns and Emperors
Unlike Abrahamic religions, there is no hierarchy in the Chinese belief systems, even though it might seem so. True, some deities are granted more importance but seldom does one god or goddess pull rank on another one.
One such exception may be Fuxi, Nuwa's companion and brother.
When the great flood struck, the siblings fled to Kunlun Mountain to wait out the storm. When the waters receded, they asked the Jade Emperor for permission to marry. Once permission was granted, they set about repopulating the earth.
Fuxi is one of the Three Sovereigns, those gods one level down from the creator-gods. It's rumoured that he could shape-shift into a dragon but his actual deeds are far more mundane. He taught the people how to hunt and fish with nets, domesticate animals for farming and, quite apart from all of that, he taught them how to write.
Fuxi is regarded today as more of a folk hero than a god even though he is formally among the Three Sovereigns of Chinese mythology. The other two are Shennong, the divine farmer who taught ancient people agriculture and medicine, and Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, generally considered the country's first sovereign.
The Five Emperors
They are not necessarily considered gods but they are the embodiment of benevolence, good deeds and sterling leadership, thus deserving of worship. In comparison to our religious hierarchies, you might think of them as saints - once-living people whose deeds and characteristics everyone should aspire to emulate.
- Shaohao (少昊) - leader of the so-called Eastern Barbarians. A son of the Yellow Emperor, he reigned around 2600BC
- Zhuanxu (顓頊) - Grandson of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor
- Emperor Ku (帝嚳) - nephew of Zhuanxu and great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor
- Yao (堯) - Emperor Ku's second son. His elder brother was forced to abdicate because he was a weak ruler
- Shun (舜) - Yao surrendered his throne to Shun because of his extraordinary moral virtue and piety
Shun was not a blood relative of Emperor Yao, whose nine sons lived what we would call the party life. The emperor could not see leaving power to any of them so he asked his advisers who might qualify to succeed him. Shun, who had worked in various ministerial positions, was brought forth.
Wait a minute! We're talking about emperors, not about any deity? What is Chinese mythology about, then?
Deities of the Tao and Buddha
When China is credited for having any kind of religion, it is generally Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that comes to mind.
In some respects, that is correct: they each have a temple in every city and people go there to pray and perform rituals. However, they are all more philosophical than religious; Kongzi, Laozi and the Buddha were wise men, not supreme or supernatural beings. Ancient texts reveal that Confucius and Laozi may have even crossed paths!
There is a delicious irony in the fact that the founders of these 'schools' preached pragmaticism, not mysticism and, yet, people pray to them as though they were mystics.
Equally ironic is the idea that, although ancient literature proves that these were ordinary mortals who performed no miraculous deeds, nevertheless, their mythology has grown to include entire stables of gods and immortals.
Deities Associated with Taoism and Buddhism
You may pray at a Taoist or Confucianist temple and bow in front of the Buddha's statue but you have to know what you're praying for so your prayer can get to the right god.
Mythical figures in Chinese belief systems each have particular powers or license to grant certain favours but no god or goddess has wide-ranging powers. So, you have to know that praying to Guan Yin (a Buddha goddess) is a plea for mercy and compassion and making an offering to Xi Wang-Mu (associated with Taoism) means you hope for long life.
Confucius, though holding equal footing in China's mythology and more than one temple dedicated to him, has no associated gods. When people worship Confucius or light incense at his statue, they are venerating that great sage, not asking for help with anything.
In some Confucian temples, they even let you bang a gong - usually if you make a donation, first.
The human experience is richer and more profound for our belief in our kings, gods and mythologies. Nowhere is that more evident than in China, that supposedly godless country that has a god for everything from justice (Gao Yao) to sitting exams (Kui Xing); from Gong Gong the Water God to Tu Di Gong, god of the earth.
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