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Myths in the rise of Huaxia

YAN DELIANG | 2018-09-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An 8th century painting, “Fu Xi and Nü Wa,” depicts this mythological couple as having interlocked snake-like tails. The circle at the top is the sun containing a three-legged bird. The dots around the couple represent stars. The circle at the bottom is the moon containing a rabbit, an osmanthus tree and a toad. Photo: FILE

Chinese mythology was once believed to be a factual rendition of history. The changing Chinese mythology landscape and the evolution of Huaxia (which now refers to the Chinese nation and civilization) were inseparable from each other. As they developed, elements of mythology were adapted into the belief systems of the Huaxia people, and thus they were assimilated into Chinese culture. The Huaxia people processed and spread myths widely, passing them down through the generations and concepts of virtue embodied in this mythology took root among them.

Evolution of mythology
In ancient times, harsh conditions and a lack of knowledge forced people to rely on nature and their tribal leaders. Myths to explain nature emerged, asserting that there were gods involved in the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world. Tribal leaders, or heroes, who had done great things were also regarded to have supernatural power and became mythical figures.
Based on the geographical conditions and farming culture of early China, Chinese mythology is quite different from that of the West, which consists of a systematic body of myths and imaginary figures. Chinese mythology consists of fragmented and isolated myths, including creation myths and those concerning the origins of humanity and the founding of Chinese culture or the state. Some renowned myths, such as “Pan Gu and the Creation of the World” (in which the world is formed out of the body of a primal being named Pan Gu) and “Nü Wa Mends the Heavens” (in which Nü Wa, the human creator, patches the sky with five-color stones to stop the flood pouring from it), are symbolic narratives of how the world began. Imagination about human origins can be found in myths like “Fu Xi (the first mythical emperor of China) Discovers the Chinese Trigrams (ba gua)” and “Gun Yu (the reputed founder of the oldest dynasty, the Xia) Controls the Great Flood”.

As a collection of folktales, religions and cultural history that have been passed down through oral traditions, Chinese mythology evolved in accordance with human migration, social change and cultural development. For instance, the sibling relationship between Fu Xi and Nü Wa was turned into marriage bonds to explain the origins of humans. Di Qun, a mythical hero who established a large tribe in the east of China, was forgotten by his descendants because his tribe was defeated and collapsed. Some gods or tribal leaders are depicted as evil, such as Chi You, a leader of the ancient Jiu Li tribe. He was seen as a destructive monster after losing a fight against the Yellow Emperor.

There has been extensive interaction between Chinese mythology and the major belief systems behind many of these folk customs, Taoism and Buddhism. Elements from these belief systems became incorporated into Chinese mythology. For example, the Taoist belief of a spiritual paradise merged into mythology as a place where immortals and deities dwelled. After being introduced into China, Buddhism was adapted to intertwine its mythology with that of the indigenous faiths. Myths were consciously created to give meaning to Buddhist practices and beliefs such as the ideal of Karma or Samsara.

In ancient China, most of the myths were created or changed on the grounds of political or religious necessity, especially to legitimize a right to rule. The practice of mythologizing the founder of a dynasty can be traced to the first imperial dynasty, the Xia (c. 2070-c. 1600 BCE). In this way, some persons were considered semi-mythological and were granted divine right to rule. Yu (Tamer of the Flood), Qi (Lord of Fire) and Hou Ji (Lord of Millet Grains), three Chinese mythological heroes, were claimed as the forefathers of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties respectively. The Han historian Sima Qian (145-? BCE) placed the reign of the Yellow Emperor at the beginning of Chinese history in his masterpiece, the Records of the Grand Historian, which demonstrates how the early history of China was mythologized and how mythology served as a part of history. Those semi-mythological figures became the ancestors of the Chinese.

Origins of Huaxia
The history of Huaxia is closely intertwined with archaeology, biology, historical textual records and mythology. It originally referred to the confederations of late Neolithic and early bronze-age agricultural tribes that lived in the Central Plain (zhong yuan), an area on the lower reach of the Yellow River in Northern China. This term Huaxia was used for a civilized ethnic group in contrast to what were perceived as barbaric peoples beyond the border of the Central Plain.
Like many modern ethnic groups, the development of Huaxia was a long process that involved the expansion of its territory and assimilation of numerous groups. Frequent battles between pre-dynasty tribes also brought about large-scale fusion and assimilation of tribal beliefs and mythology. After the Yan Emperor (the Flame Emperor, a legendary ancient Chinese ruler) was defeated and surrendered to the Yellow Emperor, he agreed to merge the two tribes into a new confederation—the Yan Huang tribe. Under the Yellow Emperor’s leadership, the newly combined tribe defeated Chi You in the Battle of Zhuolu and established their cultural and political dominance in China proper. This was the embryo of Huaxia.

The successor of Yu, a descendent of the Yellow Emperor, marked the start of the Xia Dynasty. As Yu neared death he passed the throne to his son, Qi, instead of passing it to the most capable candidate, thus setting the precedent for dynastic rule or the hereditary system. In order to consolidate the newborn regime, the Xia associated its authority with the Mandate of Heaven and interpreted its rule through mythology. Ensuing dynasties derived ancestral lineages based on the legendary materials of the Xia and Shang dynasties.

The Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220) is considered to be one of the first great eras in Chinese history, as it made China the major regional power in East Asia. Its prestige and prominence influenced many of the ancient Huaxia people to begin identifying themselves as “The People of Han.” Hence, the first ethnic group of China, the Han Chinese, was born.

Mythology and dragons
Mythology is not just an ancient practice. It conveys belonging and behavioral models, and it plays an essential part in shaping and nourishing the Chinese people. For example, Pan Gu, Nü Wa and Fu Xi represent brave and wise pioneers. Shen Nong (the God of Medicine) is credited for his dedication because he tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical value.

Totems serve as emblems of a tribe or community and are believed to have spiritual significance. Each tribe had its own totem. In pre-dynastic times, there were various totems owned by a large number of tribes in China. The tribe founded by Tai Hao Fu Xi worshipped dragons due to a belief in the dragon’s supernatural power. The prestige of Fu Xi drove the other tribes in the Central Plain to accept the dragon as a general symbol of the indigenous people. The tribe of the Yan Emperor, who usually honored goats and cows as their emblems, turned to the dragon as their new tribal totem after they conquered the Central Plain. By defeating the Yan Emperor, the Yellow Emperor became the ruler of the Central Plain and regarded the dragon as the totem for the Central Plain. Late in the Qin Dynasty, a man named Liu Bang (256-195 BCE) claimed to be the son of the dragon and rebelled against the Qin regime. After the Qin was overthrown, Liu established the Han Dynasty, making the dragon the symbol of imperial power. Since then, the dragon has been deeply rooted in China. Nowadays, the Chinese still use the term “Descendants of the Dragon” as a sign of their ethnic identity.


This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Yan Deliang is a research fellow at Henan Academy of Social Sciences.

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)