In The Beginning: Creation Stories of China


Outline map of China with picture of animals main

China is the oldest continuing culture in the world. The Chinese people orally developed creation stories to explain their origins and the meaning of life. The earliest accounts are about the creator god Shangdi. Our first complete accounts tell about a cosmic egg that breaks open to form the universe. Others believe Nüwa created humans and later saved the sky. Later Taoism accounts told of a life force that is the source of all creation. 

Creation Stories 

Many couples have a story about how they met or when they decided to get married. These “creation stories” often improve in the telling, details being added and changed.  

Ancient peoples also had creation stories. They wanted to know how they came to be, which also helped to provide meaning to their existence. Creation myths were not only intended to provide a scientific analysis of what happened. Often, more importantly, they explained why.

China Civilization Begins 

As the “cradle of civilization” thrived in the Middle East, another ancient culture rose in eastern Asia. Settlements arose around ten thousand years ago. Its first dynasty arose two thousand years ago. China has the lengthiest continuous history of any country in the world. 

The Chinese people had many different creation myths. There were different versions of each myth, the details developing over time. Let us look at the fundamentals. 

Shangdi 

Shangdi is the earliest religious system of the Han people of China. The term means  “Emperor (or Sovereign) Above,” “Lord On High,” “Highest Lord,” “the Supreme God,” or “Celestial Lord.” 

An oracle bone inscription of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BCE) speaks of Shangdi as a force that influences world events. He is the creator of the universe. We do not have specific details.  

Shangdi later became closely associated with a god named Tian (Heaven). We also do not have specific creation narratives discussing how Tian created the world. Tian provided authority to virtuous rulers to govern China. Heaven’s authority provided a “mandate from heaven.”  

Confucianism is an ancient Chinese belief system concerned with personal ethics and morality. Chinese emperors honored its tenets. Tian’s origin story would be of significant interest.  

Phan Ku 

An early written creation myth is from about 600 BCE. The myth has components familiar to Egyptians and other Middle Eastern creation stories. 

The universe was a dark void filled with chaos. It was the shape of a hen’s egg. Phan Ku, a giant, burst out of the egg.  Already a giant, he continued to grow. 

Phan Ku spent the next eighteen thousand years creating the world. He then died. Nonetheless, the world was not truly complete. His body transformed. His skull became the dome of the sky. His body became the soil. The fleas of his hair became humans. 

Phan Ku’s absence left an emptiness that became the source of the world’s suffering. 

Buddhism developed into a major religion in China. Buddhists are concerned with how to stop suffering. Phan Ku’s origin story would have been of significant interest. 

Nüwa

Nüwa is a goddess in ancient Chinese legend known for creating humans and repairing the sky.

She first appeared in literature in the 4th Century BCE. Fuxi was her companion, brother, and husband. They are often half-snake, half-human creatures. 

A battle among the gods damaged the pillar holding up the sky. Nüwa was very concerned about her people. She fixed the damage. Everybody was happy again. 

Pan Gu 

A third-century version of the Phan Ku account involves Pan Gu. There are various details. 

For instance, one account says that Pan Gu shaped humans from clay and left them in the sun to dry. Perhaps the two halves of the egg broke in half, the two parts forming the earth and sky.

Pan Gu is a popular figure in Taoism and Buddhist mythology. Chinese art often shows him (ironically often portrayed as a little person) working with his tools accompanied by four supernatural creatures: a unicorn, tortoise, phoenix, and dragon.

Jade Emperor 

The Jade Emperor is a popular figure in Chinese mythology. 

He has many names, including Yu Huang Shang-ti or “the August Personage of Jade.”  His images are often that of a middle-aged man with a thin mustache and a goatee (a sign of wisdom). 

The Jade Emperor is the supreme ruler of the heavens and the first emperor. Chinese emperors emulated his traits of fairness, mercy, and benevolence. 

There are many myths about his origins. Some believe he arose from the cosmic egg. Others believe he was first a mortal. Some believe he built the first humans out of clay.  

Taoism Influence 

Taoism teaches the concept of yin and yang. 

The yin and the yang are a balance of opposites, such as hot and cold. The creation stories visualized creation this way. For example, ying (earth/female) and yang (heavens/male). The opposites are cosmically connected. They form a balanced unity.

A later account removes the presence of a creator god. A force (tao or “the way”) was the source of creation. At first, there was a nothingness and void. The life force creates something from nothing. Yin and yang follow as well as all of creation.  

Collecting Ancient Myths 

We have fewer original stories than other ancient cultures because of the absence of written records. Chinese emperors banned the practice of ancient nature religions that contained the earliest versions of Chinese creation myths. Scholars fear many records were lost. 

Creation myths developed orally for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese scholars later wrote down oral myths, legends, and folktales. Two important collections of creation stories are Shui Jing Zhu (Mountain and Sea Scroll) and Shan Hai Jing (Commentaries on the Water Scroll)

Three Chinese religious and philosophical belief systems (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) influenced the development of the creation stories.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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