> topics > Literature

Cultural genes significant to mythological studies

GAO XIAOKANG | 2019-08-15
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
The above picture portrays Nüwa mending the sky. Nüwa’s dual identity of godhood and human character constitutes the unconscious genes of the deeper traditional Chinese world outlook on the god-human or man-nature relationships. Photo: NIPIC.COM
 

 

Half a century ago, renowned Chinese mythologist Yuan Ke (1916–2001) noted when he was compiling his magnum opus Myths in Ancient China that the four great ancient civilizations, namely China, India, Greece and Egypt, all had rich myths. Those from Greece and India have been preserved rather completely, but Chinese mythology remains only in fragments. Scattered throughout the works of our Chinese ancestors, they are so unorganized as to be incomparable to the mythologies of Greece and other nations. 

 

Yuan felt sorry for the fragmentation of Chinese mythology, predominantly that of the Han ethnic group. Moreover, some scholars argued that even these scattered myths are not necessarily reliable due to the ways they were documented and their time of compilation. In this light, Chinese mythology indeed pales in comparison to ancient Greek myths that boast a systematic genealogy and epic narratives. However, this comparison between Chinese and foreign myths has limitations, because the inheritance of mythology is inseparable from cultural genes. 
 
 
Reconstructing cultural life 
The concept “mythology” originates from “mythos” in ancient Greek. Initially it referred extensively to all sorts of content transmitted through the oral tradition. Later its connotations were altered to include systematic narratives about gods, religious beliefs, heroes and ancestors, as a gradual result of the inheritance and evolution of the collective memories of certain ethnic groups. With their content integrated, early myths constituted continuous and intact cultural memories through derivative narrative forms like heroic epics, religious stories, folk legends and fairy tales. 
 
In ancient China, Confucianism was the grand tradition governing society, valuing ethics and rationality over gods or ghosts. Therefore, early myths were typically disregarded or distorted in mainstream cultural volumes compiled by later generations. 
 
Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that there were no myths in ancient China, nor does it mean the early myths ever died out in the later memory of the ethnic group concerned. 
 
From the works of philosophers of the Spring, Autumn and Warring States periods (770–221 BCE) to the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) and Comprehensive Meaning of Customs and Mores (Fengsu Tongyi), even to various weird, uncanny and supernatural stories in later times, the presence of mythology has loomed behind these sundry and fragmented narratives and intertwined with mainstream culture, fostering complicated and mysterious cultural memories. 
Since the 18th century, many important systems of myth in Western mythological studies, whose influences are felt still today, were verbal fragments scattered throughout folkloristic events and disorganized ballads and narratives. 
 
From the Ossian epic of Celtic mythology, a research object of German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), to Northern European or Aryan myths, which were probed by mythologists of the Linguistic School, they all come from early mythological memories reconstructed out of modern knowledge systems. 
 
These reconstructed memories are fresh and vital, culturally influential and aesthetically valuable in contemporary mythological creation and dissemination. 
 
Obviously, myths are not just primeval remains. They are of great significance to humanity in the contemporary era, even to humanity’s future. 
 
A second question is whether the mythological memories that have entered contemporary life can be counted as historical legacy. 
 
As Italian historical philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) famously said, “Every true history is contemporary history.” Croce’s “contemporary history” refers to “living” history that can be understood and felt by contemporary people. In his view, historical sites, documents, literature and chronology are all dead. Only when they are connected and can evoke memories, only when memory fragments are constructed into processes of life that can be understood and felt, can history be “true.” In other words, history meaningful to contemporary people is a product of the organization, construction and revitalization of human memories. 
 
In his book The Collective Memory, French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) pointed out that the past is a kind of social construction shaped by present attention. Historical legacies will be meaningless without being understood, felt and attended at present. Ancient mythology cannot sustain its cultural vitality without being re-understood, re-felt and re-constructed by generations after generations. 
 
 
Significance of cultural genes 
With the rise of folkloristic and mythological research in the 18th and 19th centuries, Western scholars went beyond the deity-based genealogy and complex stories typical of ancient Greek mythology, starting to seek mythological elements from linguistic phenomena like sememes, morphemes and phonemes. 
 
However, the combination of linguistic elements opens a torrent of possibilities, which is very likely to reduce mythology to a game of mosaic composition. 
 
Given this likelihood, French philosopher and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908–2009) said in his masterwork Structural Anthropology that myth differs from general language in their “gross constituent units,” in other words, fixed structural relations recurring in different languages. 
He used slate, a crystal structure in rock, as a metaphor to describe the repetitive intrinsic structural meaning of myth in the entire cultural tradition. Based on his analysis, myth is a discourse with a fixed inherent structure within a specific culture, or genes responsible for displaying the inner structure of the cultural tradition. 
 
The metaphor of the slate or genes can deepen people’s understanding of the complicated connotations of mythological expression and inheritance in different cultures. Genes are not life entities, but they are the basis for the birth of life. The same is true with myth as cultural genes: the magic of ancient deities has disappeared, but genes that support the magic might remain to breed new beings. 
 
Notable modern Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) borrowed from mythological materials to write Old Tales Retold. In his words, “I just took some details from ancient myths and enriched them at my will. Sometimes it was no more than nonsense.” This cannot be counted as myth in the general sense. 
 
However, underlying the “nonsensical” narrative is the semantic structure of an ancient mythology. For example, in the short story “Mending the Sky,” Lu Xun romanticized the creation goddess Nüwa in a seriocomic fashion, meanwhile hinting at big real-world events going on at the time. 
 
Deeper down, the seriocomic image was exactly the duality of godhood and human character unique to Nüwa in traditional Chinese creation mythology. On one side, she showed godhood through such behaviors as creating human beings and mending the sky, suggesting the man-nature relationship; and on the other, she served as the intermediary and ruler of human ancestors, thus representing human nature, or the kinship and social ties of mankind. 
 
The duality of Nüwa’s identity repeats in mythological documents, constituting the unconscious genes of the deeper traditional Chinese world outlook on the god-human or man-nature relationships. 
 
Studying creation myths from the perspective of cultural genes can help us straighten out the relationships between virtual legends and real historical documents and between dead bodies and live memories. 
 
 
Promoting cultural communication 
In the late 1990s, American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927–2008) put forward the “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis, which is now regarded as representative of West-centric cultural conservativism. Huntington contended that there are unbridgeable fault lines between different civilizations. However, he overlooked the deeper structure causing the clashes between cultures and civilizations. 
 
In the early 21st century, German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) said in The Decline of the West that intricate structures and strains might exist deep in cultural forms. He drew upon “pseudomorphosis,” a term from mineralogy, to attest to his observation of a complex structure in which multiple factors of one culture squeeze, juxtapose and collide with each other, but never blend. 
 
The pseudomorphosis theory not only negated the view that has prevailed since the 19th century that different cultures will necessarily blend in the midst of conflict and interaction, but also differed from Huntington’s fault line hypothesis. It recognized the complexity of the inner structure of seemingly integrated cultural forms and identified the structure in which diverse cultural genes are juxtaposed and mixed, as well as its influence on the development of cultures, even civilizations. 
 
Based on a critical position toward West-centrism, scholars of traditional Chinese culture emphasize the respective centrality or pivot of different cultures and pay attention to the comparison and interplay between Chinese and Western cultures and histories. 
 
However, studies of this kind often neglect the intrinsically tangled relations between different cultural traditions. For instance, some researchers have argued that the dragon in Chinese legends has completely different mythological backgrounds, image features and moral significance from the dragon in Western culture. Thus, the Chinese “long” is not supposed to be translated into “dragon” in English. 
 
This thinking pattern loses sight of the sophisticated and mixed cultural genes contained in myth. In her article “A History of the European Dragon: From Chaos to Enlightenment,” Oxford professor Julia M. H. Smith examined the complicated origin and evolution of the dragon in Western culture, and she revealed multiple manners of similarities to the Chinese long, such as image, form and meaning. 
 
Smith’s revelation confirmed the complicated cultural genes of the mythological image, indicating that it might have exerted an influence on more than one civilization in the early periods of humanity. 
 
 
Gao Xiaokang is a professor of Chinese language and literature from the School of Liberal Arts at Nanjing University. 
 
edited by CHEN MIRONG