Like all other ancient cultures, the Chinese have well-known myths about the beginnings of the universe and the origin of existence. And also like other civilizations, ancient China’s creation myths reflect the ingrained traditional values of the Chinese people.
One of the central tenets of traditional Chinese culture is the oneness of heaven and mankind, as well as the harmony between humanity and nature.
The Chinese character that means “king” or “monarch” is 王, consisting of three horizontal strokes connected by a single vertical stroke. In ancient China, the san cai (三才), or “three powers,” referred to heaven, earth, and humanity (天地人). Thus, the character meaning “king” represented the ideal ruler, his wisdom and power uniting the three fundamental agents of existence.
The creation of heaven and earth
Before there were people, much less kings to rule over them, however, heaven and earth had to first come into being. By ancient Chinese mythology, this fell to the god Pan Gu (盤古).
Before the creation of the universe, the cosmos was an enormous empty egg. There were neither directions, nor the separation of yin and yang. It contained nothing but void matter and Pan Gu, a giant who slept for what seemed like eternity.
Finally, Pan Gu awoke from his eons of slumber. He was surrounded by stuffy blackness and could hardly move. Irritated, he split open the cosmic shell.
From the egg exploded layers and layers of existence, from the most microscopic energy particles to stars and galaxies. Light and clarity ascended to become the endless heavens, while heavy murkiness sank to form the vast earth.
Fearing that the heavens and the earth would become one again, he decided to do something about the unbearable confines that had trapped him for so many years. For another epoch, the god stood like a pillar between heaven and earth, defining them clearly and making them forever distinct.
According to this ancient Chinese legend, spirit and substance came into existence at the same time. There was the egg with its chaotic contents, yet from within it came Pan Gu’s will to crack it open and create all life and order in existence.
The birth of mankind
As with most cultures, the ancient Chinese believed humanity was created in divine likeness. The legend of the goddess Nü Wa (女媧), explains the creation of men and their proliferation across the earth.
Nü Wa, it is said, fashioned human beings from the clay of the Yellow River, using her reflection in the water as inspiration. In this way, the empty world was given its human masters and custodians.
Gods taught and protected mankind as they built the beginnings of their civilization. Apart from the act of creation, Nü Wa and her husband (or, in some versions of the legend, her brother) Fu Xi set into motion the interaction of yin and yang, established the family, and introduced music. When the gods of fire and water vied for supremacy and caused disaster by rupturing the heavens, it was Nü Wa who gathered 36,501 precious stones from all corners of the earth, smelted them together, and welded shut the gaping hole in the firmament.
Harmony between men and nature
China’s creation myths point to a fundamental understanding of the universe and humanity’s place within it.
While China as a country is usually called the “middle kingdom” or “central state” in modern Chinese, the civilization itself was often referred to as shen zhou (神州) or “land of the divine.” This reflects the belief in ancient Chinese culture that human beings were created by gods, endowed with divine characteristics, and had the ultimate duty to align themselves with the divine.
Such beliefs were embedded throughout various aspects of Chinese culture, philosophy, and life. The teachings of Daoism and Confucianism reflect the principle of yin-yang duality in spiritual cultivation and everyday morality. Later, when Buddhism was introduced to China from India, the transcendental aspirations of that religion became an integral feature of faith throughout all of Asia.
The king or emperor was called the Son of Heaven, signifying his right to rule as assigned by heavenly mandate. His empire was called tian xia (天下), meaning “all under heaven,” or she ji (社稷), a word referring to the gods of earth and grain — the conditions needed for the people to work and prosper. If the ruler ran afoul of divine principles, he and his dynasty could — and often was — replaced.