For all that China is thought to be irreligious, the people have religious figures aplenty to pray to. Not just the Buddha or the practice of Taoism - or, for that matter, praying at a Confucian temple, either!
The Chinese God in Heaven is an enduring folk tale. Nuwa, the goddess who created the human race, did so out of loneliness. The Yellow Emperor, believed to have ruled for a century, is considered the Chinese people's first emperor.
Note that China, as a unified country, did not exist until October 1st, 1949, when Mao Zedong brought the land's many states together under one banner. Still, while the country's 58 recognised ethnicities had a claim to the land parcels of their forebears, they nevertheless shared many of the same folk tales and mystical beliefs as neighbouring tribes.
That's why the Yellow Emperor was all Chinese people's emperor, not just the Han Chinese, for whom he became a unifying figure when trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
Historians, archaeologists and Sinologists dedicate their lives to uncovering and understanding the history and mythology of Chinese culture. Indeed, it is the work of a lifetime - several lifetimes, even, because the Chinese often boast of their 5,000 years of continuous culture.
Written records discovered so far reveal a little over 3,000 years. A substantial span, surely, but you might argue, in light of China not being fully united until 1949...
That's where Chinese mythology comes in. No matter the Chinese states at war, the invasions of Manchus, Mongols or western powers, or the transition from one dynasty to the next, their gods united them.
Whether you foster a rabid love for all things Chinese or are merely curious, and especially if you love a good story, exploring Chinese mythology is rewarding.
Let's reward ourselves, shall we?
How Many Gods Are There in Chinese Mythology?
Unlike Greek, Roman or Egyptian mythology, the Chinese pantheon of gods is rather sparsely populated. That's because most of their gods are more of the great folk hero vein than any type of deity.
Also, the Chinese stories pale in comparison to other cultures' myths and legends in the number of fantastic deeds and the powers their gods have. Finally, whereas other creation myths' populations have distinct hierarchies, Chinese mythology has practically none.
Zeus, the Greek King of the Gods, fathered several gods and deities. By contrast, the Chinese God in Heaven, Shang Di, fathered no one.
Compared to the convoluted lineage of other, more renown mythologies, Chinese mythology is straightforward. There are no half-brothers who are also great-grandsons (Heracles) or mothers who are also wives (Hathor).
We have to point out that Nuwa married her brother to repopulate the earth but, in both cases, their roles are unambiguously outlined and, contrary to other mythologies, they had a specific purpose for their dual roles. It appears that, in other mythologies, the driver of such dualities came down to sheer, carnal lust.
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But we're getting ahead of ourselves... let's go back to the question: how many gods in Chinese mythology?
First, we have to mention the foundation gods; those at the heart of the Chinese creation myth. They are:
- Shang Di: the supreme emperor, often referred to as the god in heaven (he's not represented as a being in the literature)
- Tian: a formless entity representing the sky and/or heaven (in Mandarin, Tian means 'sky')
- Pangu: the first sentient being in Chinese mythology
- Nuwa: the mother of all humanity, considered a supreme goddess
- Huang Di: the yellow emperor, considered the first ruler and proof that all emperors rule by divine right
Again stressing that Chinese mythology is not hierarchical, as western mythologies and religions are, these gods and one goddess are complemented by those commonly referred to as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. They are not considered gods; instead, they are mythical rulers known for their wisdom, benevolence and piety.
As mentioned before, there are very few gods in Chinese mythology.
What Is Chinese Mythology?
In many ways, Chinese mythology mirrors ours: ancient tales of deeds that explain how the world and everything in it came about. One fundamental difference is that, for the most part, they abstain from the mystical. There is no miracle-making or alchemy; however, they too embrace the concept of a blissful afterlife.
At its heart, China's belief system is built on folk tales.
There are a few dragons - deity Fuxi could shape-shift into a dragon, but they are not a prominent part of the mythology. Neither are other beasts, although the phoenix and others mythological beasts are said to have mystical properties. There are few tales of anyone slaying a dragon, if any.
The myth of Chinese New Year originated from an ancient man - an ordinary man, not a deity visiting a terrified village and scaring off the dragon that terrorised them every year. That's why lighting firecrackers, draping one's house in red and gold and sometimes banging a gong are common practices during Chinese New Year.
There is little to no duality in Chinese mythology. Our foundations of good and evil don't matter to Chinese deities; in the truest meaning of the phrase, Chinese mythology is the pure application of 'it is what it is'.
You might wonder where Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism fit in the mythology. The short answer is: they don't.
These are not so much of a religion as they are philosophy. To be sure, you may visit and pray at any Buddhist temple, Taoist Temple and even a temple honouring Confucius. You might make an offering in exchange for banging a gong or light incense at the foot of your favourite statue... but you will not invoke any god.
These figures interpret the human experience as an organic whole that emphasises being one with one's surroundings and living in the moment.
As such, Taoism and the other two main 'religions' are not considered a part of the mythology. However, several deities have been attached to their stories; presumably making them each a myth in their own right.
Why is Chinese Mythology Important?
For millennia, China has referred to itself as the Celestial Empire because it was believed that the emperor was ordained by the gods. Or, more exactly, they were considered sons of heaven, direct descendants of the Yellow Emperor and, thus, born to rule. We have to stress: none of them are considered a god; those ancient ones are more role models than deities.
To grasp how important Chinese mythology is, we have to understand how central it is to the people's sense of national pride and identity, and how integral it is to every aspect of daily life.
Ancestor worship is a fundamental part of Chinese culture. Primarily, individual families' ancestors are revered but also, by extension, the entire country's ancestors - every long-dead emperor, every warrior who ever died in battle, every mother who delivered a child and every child who exercised filial piety.
In the UK. many holidays and celebrations revolve around certain events such as May Day or the Trooping of the Colours, Remembrance Day or Bonfire Night. Elsewhere on Earth, religious holidays prevail - Christmas and Easter, Purim and Hanukkah, Eid Milad ul-Nabi and Ramadan.
Not so in China - although Christmas is gaining quite a foothold and so is the solar calendar New Year, albeit with major differences. For us, Christmas (Hanukkah, Ramadan) is a time for fellowship and reverence; in China, it is a shopping holiday! Quite besides that...
China follows a hybrid solar-lunar calendar. That affords them the joy of Christmas while still keeping with their logical system of commemorations.
For example, Lunar New Year, the country's biggest festival, is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar while Chinese Valentine's Day, known as Qixi, is enjoyed on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The Dragon boat festival is perhaps the most renowned celebration beyond China's borders, besides Chinese New Year. It takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
Those occasions that don't follow that simple logic are calculated in different ways. Qing Ming, the day set aside for ancestor worship - also known as the tomb-sweeping festival, take place 104 days after the winter solstice.
You might wonder, with all of this logic floating around, why there are any deities at all. It's because Chinese gods are not supernatural; they are folk heroes with significant accomplishments.
The Chinese creation myth is not built around an omniscient, omnipotent, remote and disconnected figure who performed miracles. It is built on characteristics of the human experience: loneliness and anger, and being overcome by natural phenomena - floods, storms and fires.
The gods of Chinese mythology are relatable but, more importantly, they are accessible and equitable. Far from being bit players in the mythology as women in Abrahamic religions are, neither Nuwa nor Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West is a minor goddess.
The panoply of Chinese gods form the Chinese national identity and shape the national ideal. They encourage piety and elicit hard work. They do not give commands or threaten eternal damnation, nor do they demand absolute fealty. But they are there if you need the comfort of prayer or a fun celebration to look forward to.
To understand Chinese culture is to know that Chinese people commune daily with their gods. That's why Chinese mythology is so important.
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