In China’s earliest recorded legends, gods and monsters are surprisingly scarce. Who killed them off?
To understand the heart of a civilization, we have to start with its myths. How did the world get to be the way it is? Where did people come from? What are we doing here, and what’s good to be afraid of?
The Greeks had all the answers. So did the Egyptians, and the Babylonians, and the Hebrews and the Norsemen, and every other self-respecting people on earth. We’ve all been swimming in gods, heroes and monsters for as long as we’ve known how to tell stories.
China seems to be no exception, at first glance. Tales of clever dragons abound — as do stories of powerful phoenixes, hooved qilin, and tricksters like Sun Wukong the Monkey King.
And yet, when we dig down to the very earliest stories the Chinese people wrote down about themselves, none of these magical characters seem to be present — in fact, one observation stands out with startling clarity:
Someone seems to have killed primeval China’s first-generation gods and monsters.
China’s accounts of her own origins are astonishingly down-to-earth — bureaucratically dull, even — in contrast with the demigods and legendary battles that adorn so many other civilizations’ mythical ages.
In the earliest Chinese folklore, we are startled to find nothing like Hercules’s combat with the Hydra, or Beowulf’s contests with Grendel, or Gilgamesh’s trysts with the love-goddess Inanna.
Chinese foundation-myths contain hardly any tall tales like the Persian Shahnameh‘s account of the evil sorcerer Zahhāk, from whose shoulders demonic snakes grew, and who was finally felled by the sword-wielding hero Fereydun.
Nor do China’s ancestral sagas recount Biblical adventures like the Garden of Eden, or Noah and his Ark, or Jacob’s wrestling with an angel, or Jonah being swallowed and delivered unharmed from the belly of a great fish.
In fact, Chinese proto-history does not even recount a semi-legendary age like that of the Indian Upanishads and the Mahabharata, when godlike heroes vied with one another in thunderous battles that shook the earth.
All those tales came later — hundreds of years later, as China developed a rich repository of literary lore in dialogue with the surrounding lands of India, Persia, Tibet, Vietnam, and Europe.
In China’s earliest records of her own origins, what we find instead are stories like this:
The Yellow River was flooding the land, washing away houses and farms, drowning men and cattle alike.
So the one called Shun, who was emperor in those days, appointed a man named Yu to tame the waters.
Yu coordinated the labor of many different peoples, and organized a system of flood control.
Following Yu’s commands, the people worked to deepen the riverbeds, raise the embankments, and dig nine new channels that directed the water to the sea.
After many years of hard work, the flood waters were tamed. Yu taught the people new ways of planting crops, and they lived in harmony, reaping greater harvests than ever before.
Inspiring as this story undoubtedly is, it’s kind of… mundane, isn’t it?
Where are the flying dragons? Where are the chariots of fire? Why doesn’t Yu battle a seven-headed sea demon who yearns for the love of a goddess?
I’m not cherry-picking here. This is what you find in all the earliest Chinese sagas: epic wars, heartbreaking betrayals and star-crossed lovers — all requiring extraordinarily little suspension of disbelief.
So we’re basically left with two options here. Either the proto-historical Chinese were the single most unimaginative people on the face of the earth — or they once had one hell of a motherlode of ancestral legends, which somehow got dismissed and discarded.
Option two is not only more fun — it’s also much more plausible. Hints of a wonderfully rich prehistoric Chinese mythology do peek through the cracks now and then, when we keep our ears open.
The first man was named Pangu, and he lived inside a great black egg.
One day, Pangu woke up and decided he didn’t want to live in the egg anymore. So he pushed and pushed – and the harder he pushed, the taller he grew!
Pangu’s struggle made so much noise that a turtle, a phoenix, a dragon, and a chimerical beast called a qilin all came to see what was going on.
With the help of these four magical creatures, Pangu tore the egg asunder! Its lighter half ascended to become the sky, while its heavier half fell to become the earth.
And so, the world was born.
This splendid story — which is sung by the Miao people of southern China — begs a lot of questions. Where did the egg come from? Why were a human and five magical creatures trapped inside it? How did Pangu, all on his own, get the whole human race started?
The Miao people don’t have the answers to those questions — but at some point, someone must have. This story opens a window on a whole mythological world that’s been lost in the mists of prehistory.
Those were far too many suns. The earth was sweltering in their heat. Men were blinded. Beasts were scorched.
Something had to be done.
King Yao sent a man named Hou Yi to reason with the suns.
The ten suns weren’t budging.
So Hou Yi pulled out his bow. Shook it in a way he hoped was intimidating.
It wasn’t. The ten suns were not impressed.
Hou Yi was out of options. He nocked an arrow, took aim, and shot one of the suns clean out of the sky.
As the sun fell to earth, it transformed into a three-legged raven and scurried away.
Hou Yi shook his head, took aim again, and shot another sun out of the sky. That sun, too, turned into a three-legged raven as it fell.
Now only eight suns were left, and Hou Yi proceeded to shoot seven of them out of the sky. As each one fell, it became a three-legged raven and ran away.
Finally, just one sun was left in the sky.
“That’ll do,” said Hou Yi. “One sun is plenty.”
Again — where does one even begin?
Why were there ten suns in the sky? Was this before or after Pangu ripped open the black egg? Do the two stories even take place in the same universe? How the hell does a three-legged raven stay perched on a branch?
It’s not even clear, source-wise, if this story represents some primordial layer of Chinese myth — or if it’s a later invention lacquered with the brush of antiquity.
That fact is absolutely crucial to recognize. If you Google these gods and monsters, you’ll find all kinds of fun facts about their palaces, their lineages, their favorite foods and their romantic entanglements – butall those touch-ups come from later ages.
The real core of the mythos – the original stuff upon which all that extravagant paint is applied – is extraordinarily hard to get at.
Did someone destroy all the evidence? Why on earth would someone do such a thing — not just kill a hero or a god, but an entire mythology?
How, and why, and by whom was it decided, some afternoon 4,000 years ago, that it was perfectly okay to commit mythological genocide?
Okay. One last story, because three is the magic number:
Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, had a potion of everlasting life.
Hou Yi, the sun-slayer, paid that mysterious lady a visit, and brought home a bottle of liquid immortality.
But before he got around to drinking it, his wife Chang’e cracked the seal and gulped it down.
Fearing his wrath, she fled to the moon – where she remains to this very day, a silent testament to the loneliness of undying love.
And here, at last, we find an intersection — a hint of a larger world. We know Hou Yi already, and now we learn he has a wife. Magic potions are apparently possible, as are journeys into space. And this Xiwangmu — could she hearken back to a time when a Great Mother made the grain grow?
Everyone’s hands are up, eager to answer. Those hands have been up since the 3rd century BCE, if not earlier.
Ever since China’s first great literary flowering in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, poets and historians have sought to recapture their land’s primeval magic.
But the real stories — the tales that came straight from the mouths of mums around the fire when tigers still lurked in the jungle — those, somehow, are almost entirely gone.
We don’t know who killed China’s first generation of gods. We probably never will. And there’s a certain beauty in that.
Because mysteries, I think, are what make gods so special.
Sometimes, the mystery itself is what we really need.