Patrick Eng
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Week 27 - What I Need to Know About Chinese Mythology


Like many creation stories, there seem to be a few of them and with no shortage of contradictions.

In this version of Chinese creation, Pangu is believed to be the creator of all things and was created from a cosmic egg that formed from chaos. The story of Pangu was written down by Xu Zheng who lived during the Three Kingdoms period (220 - 280 A.D.).

In Zheng's account, after the cosmic egg had formed, it took about 18,000 years for Yin and Yang to balance themselves out. After the balance had occurred (as all things should be), Pangu awoke from the egg and began the task of creating. In terms of appearance, Pangu was a hairy giant with horns. Not someone you would want to bring home to the parents. But hey, I'm sure he's beautiful on the inside or something like that.

Since Yin and Yang were connected, Pangu took his ax and split them in half - Yin becoming earth and Yang becoming the sky. Pangu needed to make sure that Yin and Yang stayed apart though, so he stood between them (basically a Chinese Atlas). And with each day that he held Yin and Yang apart, the earth became 10 feet thicker, the sky 10 feet taller, and Pangu 10 feet taller. He did this for another 18,000 years until his death.

Keeping the sky from the earth is no easy task - 10 out of 10 would not recommend trying - so in other versions Pangu is aided by four creatures:

  1. Turtle

  2. Qilin (a Chimera-esque creature)

  3. Phoenix

  4. Dragon (think MuShu)

From Pangu's death, though, came everything in existence, from his left eye becoming the sun to the fleas on his fur becoming every living animal.

The story of Pangu revolves around the creation of the earth and sky and all things, except for humans. We'll get to that part later, after taking a deeper look at this whole Yin-Yang thing.

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The Yin Yang symbol, also known as Taijitu, is a common concept used in Taoism. It represents the whole as the combination of two halves that are always chasing each other and seeking balance. The Yin side roughly translates to shady (dark side with white dot) and yang to sunny (white side with black dot).

This symbol brings about the common concept of duality seen throughout nature:

  1. Night and day

  2. Male and female

  3. Good and bad

  4. Beautiful and ugly

The list goes on and on. That's the thing about Yin and Yang, it involves the concept of infinity and the eternal pursuit of balance.

Because of its dual nature, something can never be total Yin or total Yang. One part always leads to the other and they rely on each other to the point that defining one requires defining the other as well.

Yin and Yang are also in a constant state of change and can transform into each other. Like how lengths of days change, or how seahorses can change gender when needed.

Yin and Yang are not always perfectly balanced, and I would even venture to say that most things are not balanced. But it will always remain whole so that whenever there is an excess of Yin there will naturally be a deficiency of Yang and vice versa.

Consider this quote from the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching:

"The Way begot one,

And the one, two;

Then the two begot three

And three, all else."

Just FYI, the Way is also referred to as Tao and is defined as the absolute. As you can see, Tao split into two (and later three), and became the foundation of all things. This split into two is Yin Yang.

It's not too hard to see now, but Taoists like to study patterns, using Yin Yang as a template.

Take Qigong for example (think Tai Chi but a little less scripted in terms of movements). Yin and Yang are fundamental parts of the body, with Yang occupying the upper body and Yin the lower. The center of the body is where they meet. Yin and Yang are usually brought into the exercise to help explain the harmonies within the body.

Here's a good way to think about all this according to this article:

"Yin Yang is a system of recognizing how to separate out patterns in our life while also relaxing to accept the overall whole and complete nature of the Tao."

Because everyone has both Yin and Yang, it's impossible to accept one without also accepting the other. Failure to do so would be like creating a dam that tries to hold back a wave of chaos that will eventually overwhelm it. Deep shit, I know.

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The Jade Emperor is the top deity in various versions of Chinese mythology. Unlike Pangu, The Jade Emperor did not create the heavens and the earth and is seen to be more of a steward of creation, dispensing justice and governing the universe. He lives at the highest point in heaven with his family, officials, and other servants.

In this instance of the creation story, we just settle on Yin and Yang infinitely working to balance each other and in the process, create the five essential elements: metal, wood, fire, water, and earth.

The story of The Jade Emperor was passed down orally until it was integrated into the state-religion by Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty after he had a vision of The Jade Emperor.

The Jade Emperor was the not the first ruler, however, and was actually the disciple of the primordial being Yuanshi Tianzun. Tianzun gave the Jade Emperor the keys to the universe, who in turn will pass them to the Heaven-honoured One of the Dawn of Jade of the Golden Gate (should put that on my next business card).

Members of The Jade Emperor's family include:

  • Tianshang Shengmu or Mazu - his wife, the Jade Empress

  • Yang Shen - his nephew, the Second Lord of Quality

  • Erlang Shen and his dog Tiangou who chases away evil spirits

  • Shi Quning - his daughter, basically a matchmaker deity

  • Unnamed Horse head goddess who is his second wife and goddess of silkworms

  • Wang/Lingquan the Transcendent Official - palace manager and protector of humanity

The Jade Emperor is worshipped by humans and deities alike, all of which offer sacrifices and are rewarded or punished accordingly. This day of worship happens on the 9th day of the first lunar month.

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The Eight Immortals were a legendary group of individuals that transcended humanity and used their godlike abilities to fight evil. Their godlike abilities were bestowed on them due to their steadfast practice of Taoism, and they are used as role models for following a devoted life rooted in Taoism. The lives of these immortals all seem to share some basics of Taoism, mainly that they suffered unjust punishments, detached themselves from worldly things, and gave to others more than they received.

Many of these immortals were actually based on people born in the Song or and Tang Dynasties. Meaning, the distinction between fact and myth becomes even more blurred.

When it comes to superhuman abilities, we have the usual run of the mill:

  • Transformation

  • Eternal life and super strength/durability

  • Mind control/manipulation

  • Healing

  • Seeing into the future

While not every Taoists believes in the Eight Immortals, they still serve a useful purpose in terms of inspiration and entertainment. And who doesn't like a good story?

1. He Xian Gu (The Pure)

Possibly the only female among the Eight Immortals, He Xian Gu was known as the purist, an ideal daughter, and pursuer of spiritual freedom. To achieve her immortality and join the ranks of the Eight Immortals, He Xian Gu was visited by an immortal in a dream. In this dream, the immortal told He Xian Gu to eat the powdered rocks of the nearby river bank, as doing so would make her lighter than air and grant her immunity from death.

She awoke from her dream and did as instructed. After eating the powdery rocks, she found that she could jump enormous distances and didn't require human nourishment to the point where she ceased all eating (seems more like a curse to me).

Her immortality became known though, and an Empress wanted to learn how to achieve it herself. This empresses' motivation was based purely on power though, and when He Xian Gu was summoned to the Empress, she decided to just ascend to heaven instead due to her aversion to such impure motivation.

This immortal is often seen with a lotus flower that has the ability to heal people both physically and mentally.

2. Cao Guo Jiu

The patron immortal of actors and the theatre, Cau Guo Jiu is believed to be an actual historical figure and a member of the royal family during the Song Dynasty. To achieve his immortality, Cao Guo Jiu chose to live life in a cave, renouncing worldly pleasures and responsibility (he did so after his brother killed a man to take his wife, and Cao Guo Jiu failed to show him the error of his ways). While living in the cave, Cao Guo Jiu was visited by two immortals who asked him where Tao and heaven were, to which he pointed to the sky and his heart respectively. His answer showed the immortals that he had discovered something profound and let him join their ranks to achieve harmony with nature.

This immortal is often seen wearing a cap and carrying a jade tablet or castanets.

3. Li Tieguai

One of the most popular immortals, Li Tieguai was the patron immortal of the poor and sick. He is known to travel with an iron crutch that will never rust and a gourd that supplies medicine to all that need it.

He was a disciple of Laozi, the founder of Taoism, and lived his life in training. After rejecting various worldly temptations, Laozi gave Li Tieguai magical powers, like never needing food or the ability to fly.

Before attaining immortality, it was said that Li Tieguai sent his spirit to heaven for a conference of the immortals or something along those lines. He told his disciple at the time to burn his body if he did not return after seven days since that would mean he achieved immortality and joined those in heaven.

After six and a half days though, the disciple's mother became sick and began to die. So he decided to burn Li Tieguai's body a little early so he could see his mother again. Unfortunately, after the body was burned, Li's spirit came back from heaven, only to find an unusable host. So, he found the nearest dead beggar and inhabited that instead. Laozi found Li in his new body and gave him the gourd of medicine, which he then used to bring his disciple's mother back to life.

Also, because the beggar's body had a lame leg, Laozi also gave Li the iron crutch. After which, Li was deemed worthy to join the immortals and travel across the land healing those in need.

4. Lan Caihe

Lan is the Millennial of the Eight Immortals - you just can't put a label on him/her/them. No one even knows how old Lan is, if he/she is a man or woman, or even if he/she is sane. Lan also doesn't get much attention outside of the Eight Immortals, with little being known about his/her's mortal life.

What is known is that Lan was a singer and dancer and cared only enough to get through each day, relishing everything in the moment. Lan apparently achieved immortality after a distinctly lucrative night and when sitting down at a table, heard a crane come land by them. Knowing this crane was a sign of the end of their life, Lan decided to do the logical thing and jump on the crane. Lan rode the crane into heaven, thus achieving immortality.

This immortal is often seen carrying a bamboo flower basket or bamboo castanets (clappers)

5. Lu Dongbin

The most well known of the Eight Immortals and unofficial leader of the group. Lu was a historical figure born in 796 during the Tang Dynasty. Lu was both a poet and a scholar and was known as an early master of neidan. Like all immortals though, he isn't without his flaws. Lu was known for his "attachment" to women, for being prone to drunkenness, and even destroying a river bank during a fit of rage.

Lu is best known for his yellow millet dream and his 10 trials to achieve immortality. You can learn more about those here and here. But basically, once Lu proved that he was detached from this world after completing the 10 trials, he was then deemed worthy of immortality - after which he then became very drunk and slept with a lot of women...

This immortal is often seen wearing a sword which he uses to drive out evil spirits.

6. Han Xiang Zi

Han was known for his philosophical take on life and disinterest in worldly/political affairs. He was a historical figure that was born in the Tang Dynasty and the nephew of the renowned Confucian statesman, Han Yu.

He achieved immortality because while hiking through the mountain, playing his flute, Han encountered the immortal Lu Dongbin. Han convinced Lu to take him on as his disciple, with Han eventually learning the secrets of immortality. Another version has Han and Lu traveling to a magical peach orchard that gives the eater immortality. While Han was climbing one of the tree's he slipped and fell out. Instead of falling to his death, however, Han ended up having eternal life.

This immortal is often seen with a flute.

7. Zhang Guo Lao

Zhang was also known to be a historical figure in the Tang Dynasty. He was a hermit who lives in the mountains of east-central China. He was known to be quite eccentric and an entertainer, brewing his own liquor and riding his white mule backwards.

Zhang had a knack for dying a lot and then either coming back to life right after, or just appearing somewhere else, alive and healthy.

He (and his trusty donkey) achieved immortality after falling asleep in an abandoned temple one day and woke up to the smell of a delicious stew. After eating most of the stew and giving the last bit to his donkey did he learn that the stew was actually an immortality potion brewed by the local alchemist for himself.

Zhang became renowned throughout the land and made it a personal mission to avoid the Chinese bureaucracy to the point of death - he died multiple times anytime someone brought up joining the government.

8. Zhongli Quan

The big-bellied, wine-drinking immortal born during the Han Dynasty. He was known to carry around a fan that could resurrect the dead and turn stones into silver and gold - which he would then give to the poor so they could buy food.

He grew up in the court and joined the military. After experiencing defeat in war, he became lost in the snowy mountains, believing that his death would be soon. He unexpectedly stumbled upon an old man, however, who gave him directions to the local spiritualist. This spiritualist, recognizing Zhongli's immortal potential, agreed to teach him the ways of immortality when asked. Zhongli trained for three days, learning the mystical arts of the immortals, alchemy, and Taoism. Afterwards, Zhongli was tasked with using what he learned to help the people.

This immortal is often seen carrying a fan.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

Like most mythologies, Chinese myths are full of inconsistencies and contradictions. That doesn't mean there isn't something valuable though. From the creation of the universe through a cosmic egg to the steward of creation, the Jade Emperor, Chinese mythology share's many basics with other cultural myths.

They even have their own badass team of Taoist role models called the Eight Immortals, who basically tell you that by detaching yourself from worldly pleasures and by giving more than receiving, you can achieve immortality.

Probably not the most honest marketing, but hey, at least their product is good.

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Patrick Eng