REVIEW: Chinese Myths by Xueting C. Ni
Chinese mythology has been passed down in written and oral form over many millennia, emerging from a range of cultural traditions that often have their origins in Daoism and Buddhist religion. At times merging history and folklore, Chinese myths are rich in symbolism and teach us about the complexities of an ancient culture that stretches back more than 4000 years. In this book, learn about Pangu, the creator being, who sprang from an egg after the forces of yin and yang emerged out of a formless chaos; or Hou Yi, the greatest archer of all time who shot down nine of the ten suns; or Fuzanglong, the treasure dragons, who are said to live underground guarding massive hoards of gold and jewels; or the mad monk Ji Gong, a man of great appetites who used his supernatural abilities to seek justice for the poor; and enjoy the adventures of the short-tempered, super-human Monkey King, who after being defeated by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, gains modesty and becomes a disciple of the monk Tank Sanzang. Illustrated with 120 photographs and artworks, Chinese Myths is an accessible, entertaining and highly informative exploration of the fascinating mythology underlying one of the world’s oldest and most influential cultures.
Given the increasing number of fantasy books utilizing Chinese settings and Chinese mythology, I thought this might be a good introduction to them which would help me navigate, to me, fairly unknown waters. With China’s vast size there are apparently often many different and possibly conflicting versions of these stories. The author said,
“I have tried to keep to the most well-documented versions, or those which I have learned about during my own life in China, having lived as far in the north as Changchun and as far in the south as Guangzhou.”
Along with the creation stories, there is more about the background to the gods, goddesses, and creatures in Chinese mythology. The information is grouped into cosmology, creation, mythological creatures, gods and immortals, mythological heroes, monsters and ghosts, legends, and treasures of the earth and forge.
Interesting things I learned – none of the major branches of Chinese mythology have anything equal to Ragnarok or Armageddon. There are many myths involving water – something that historically could drastically affect most of the Chinese population (such as the flooding of the Yangtze River). Record keeping has always been extensive in China which has led to bureaucratic themed myths. There is a creation myth whose details were often used to explain social inequality. Mirroring the extensive hierarchy of Imperial China, there were often several levels of grandeur for such creatures as dragons and phoenixes.
This is intended only as an introduction to Chinese mythology, and it covered the subject without being too dry. Most of it is actually more an overview of the various gods, goddesses, creatures, and demon characters in them. In describing these, a synopsis of some of their stories were included. But the last two chapters contain several myths and stories. There are also lovely illustrations and images that reminded me a bit of those in “Auspicious Animals” by Jun’ichi Uchiyama.
“I hope this book not only helps explain concepts and patterns in Chinese myths, but that it also provides some insight into the mentality behind them, and consequently encourages cultural understanding.”
This wasn’t quite what I was expecting but was nonetheless interesting and taught me a lot. The illustrations, though, were gorgeous. B