Fuxi mythology reveals shared belief of Chinese ancestors

By CUI MINGDE / 10-12-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A Tang Dynasty painting of Fuxi and Nüwa discovered at the Astana Graves in Xinjiang from the 3rd–8th centuries

In China, the myths surrounding the origins of humanity and the creation of the world are often associated with the legends of Fuxi and Nüwa. Various historical documents and myths indicate that Fuxi is viewed as the common ancestor of many ethnic groups. As a legendary figure, Fuxi appeared relatively late in literature. The earliest known record of Fuxi can be traced back to the Warring States period (476–221 BCE).

The Chu Silk Manuscript discovered in a Chu tomb near Zidanku in Changsha, Hunan, in 1942, offers the earliest descriptions of Chinese creation myths. The manuscript’s initial section presents a logical narrative, unveiling the sequence of events. In the primordial era of chaos, Fuxi and Nüwa joined in matrimony, giving birth to four sons—the gods of the four seasons. These four gods distinguished the sun and the moon, and determined the four seasons. They created earth before heaven. In this sequence, Fuxi existed prior to the formation of heaven and earth, and his descendants contributed to the normal operation of the universe. Therefore, Fuxi and Nüwa have been generally regarded as the original creators of Chinese civilization and the Chinese nation.

People’s reverence for Fuxi and the construction of temples and monuments in his honor are mainly based on his status as the ancestor of humanity and civilization. As the mythical progenitor of the human race, Fuxi not only propagated the species but also “united man and wife, regulated the five stages of change, and laid down the laws of humanity.” Since Fuxi is believed to be the ancestor of humanity and civilization in China, it is reasonable to consider him as the common ancestor of all ethnic groups.

Flood myths

In the genealogy of Chinese mythology, the myths of many ethnic groups are closely related to Fuxi. Flood myths are not only common among the Han people in the Central Plains, but also among various ethnic groups in China, including the Koreans and Oroqen in the northeast, the Kazakhs in Xinjiang, the Monguor in Qinghai, the Tujia in Hunan and Hubei, the Hlai on Hainan Island, the Gaoshan ethnic group in Taiwan and many other ethnic groups in southwest China.

Chinese flood myths are often associated with the marriage of Fuxi and Nüwa, who were depicted as siblings in most mythical accounts. It is estimated that there are 33 instances of sibling marriage within Chinese mythology, and of these, 28 are presented in flood myths, accounting for a high proportion of 84.8%. Historically, there are over 100 myths that involve the mating of siblings following a catastrophic flood among ethnic groups in the southwestern and central-southern regions of China, many of which are closely related to Fuxi.

To sum up, the flood myths of many ethnic groups that involve sibling marriage and the creation of mankind are closely linked to Fuxi and Nüwa. This indicates a strong connection between these two legendary figures and many ancient ethnic groups. Therefore, Fuxi and Nüwa are believed to be the earliest and most representative ancestors recorded in Chinese literature.

Archaeological evidence 

Legends hold that Fuxi was born in present-day Tianshui, Gansu Province, grew up in present-day Xinle, Hebei Province, and passed away in present-day Huaiyang, Henan Province. He was believed to have operated mostly in the southeast of Henan, the south of Shandong, and the north of Anhui. However, cultural relics related to Fuxi are found throughout the country.

A prominent feature of the Fuxi culture is that Fuxi and Nüwa are often depicted with human upper bodies and intertwined snake-like lower bodies. To date, a total of 118 depictions of the intertwined couple have been discovered in Gansu, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Hubei, Yunnan, and Beijing. The widespread distribution of Fuxi culture relics reflects both the tremendous influence of Fuxi culture and the widespread worship of this mythological figure.

Due to Fuxi’s divine status and enduring influence, his worship has become a cultural phenomenon, exemplified by the presence of Fuxi temples throughout China. Originally, Fuxi temples were mainly situated in northern China, including Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong provinces, as well as northwestern regions such as Gansu and Shaanxi. Some of these temples still exist in these areas today.

With the migration of ethnic groups and population flow, Fuxi culture gradually spread and expanded to other regions. Fuxi temples began to emerge in the south, demonstrating both the widespread influence of Fuxi culture and the significance of Fuxi as a shared cultural symbol among various ethnic groups. 

Worship of Fuxi

Whether included in imperial lineages, described as an ancient legendary emperor in the Zhuangzi, or revered as a sacred deity, Fuxi is commonly honored by multiple ethnic groups. Fuxi’s veneration has remained steadfast throughout the ages, with his prominent role extending to the sacrificial systems of Chinese dynasties, often receiving the grandest ceremonies.

The worship of Fuxi began in the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and continued during the Han (202 BCE–220 CE). By examining the relevant historical documents on Fuxi worship throughout different dynasties, several noteworthy points can be observed. Firstly, Fuxi worship is a tradition that has been continuously passed down through generations, incorporating inheritance, adjustments and refinement. Secondly, from the Qin to the Qing dynasties, although Fuxi worship varied in its degree of importance, rituals, and sacrificial locations, it exhibited a general trend towards standardization. Thirdly, regimes established by ethnic minorities placed more emphasis on the worship of Fuxi, resulting in several tidal waves of Fuxi worship throughout history.

The significance of Fuxi as the progenitor of Chinese civilization and the Chinese nation, as well as a shared cultural symbol among different ethnic groups, has been demonstrated in historical documents, mythologies from various ethnic groups, scattered cultural relics, and the widespread worship of Fuxi by multiple ethnic groups.

Social importance of Fuxi 

The reason why Fuxi has become a shared cultural symbol among different ethnic groups is also related to the belief that Fuxi has contributed to all ethnic groups. According to historical records and mythological accounts, Fuxi possessed extraordinary powers and abilities. His creation of the “Bagua” [which consists of eight trigrams, or three-line symbols, composed of continuous and broken lines. The continuous lines are called yang and basically represent all things male; the broken lines are called yin and represent female aspects of life] laid the foundation for the basic form of Chinese civilization. His establishment of societal and familial rules led people from a state of barbarism to civility. His alleged invention of writing facilitated cultural exchange and the transmission of knowledge, ushering humanity into a civilization with recorded history. Fuxi was also known for establishing marriage customs, elevating the quality of human reproduction and moral civilization. Moreover, he was believed to have taught fishing, herding, and hunting skills, and to have invented counting methods and music. The reverence for Fuxi in later generations mainly stems from his contributions to the Chinese civilization.

In conclusion, Fuxi’s association with numerous inventions and creations from ancient times has firmly established his esteemed status within Chinese culture. The Chinese people, acknowledging his significant contributions, hold Fuxi in high esteem and regard him as a unifying cultural symbol among various ethnic groups.

Cui Mingde is a professor from the Institute of Ethnology at Yantai University.