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When it comes to the study of early Chinese mythology, generations of scholars have struggled with what they perceived as an extreme paucity or even complete absence of myths in the received literary tradition prior to the Han dynasty. The main reason for this phenomenon is generally seen in a strong “euhemerizing”1 tendency within early Chinese lore that must have led to the transformation of anything mythological into actual events and personalities of genuine human history. Moreover, neither the Confucian tradition with its focus on forms of human interaction and the interpretation of the course of human history, nor the competing Daoist worldview with its emphasis on man’s attunement to the eternal self-perpetuating cosmos, it has been conjectured, show any interest in the origins of the cosmos and of man. In his still very readable essay “Myths of Ancient China” from 1961, Derk Bodde (1909–2003) states:

It would be tempting but erroneous to conclude from this that there are no myths in ancient China. More accurate would be the statement that individual myths certainly do occur, but not a systematic mythology, meaning by this an integrated body of mythological materials. On the contrary, these materials are usually so fragmentary and episodic that even the reconstruction from them of individual myths – let alone an integrated system of myths – is exceedingly difficult.2

This difficulty becomes especially obvious if one looks for etiological or cosmogonic myths in pre-Han China. The apparent lack of any clearly discernable creation account prior to the appearance of the Pangu 盤古 (lit.: coiled antiquity) myth in the third century AD, which furthermore betrays some non-Chinese origins,3 led many scholars to the conclusion that China is in a way an exception among the ancient cultures of the world in that it simply possesses no creation myth.4 While this position has persisted even to the present day, beginning with Eduard Erkes’s (1891–1958) “Spuren chinesischer Weltschöpfungsmythen” (Traces of Chinese cosmogonic creation myths)5 from 1931, individual scholars have time and again sought to refute this conviction by identifying and contextualizing fragments of cosmogonic myths they found scattered across various sources, often popular materials pertaining to different local and ethnographical contexts within the Chinese realm.6 One such scholar was Professor Jao Tsung-i.

Jao became genuinely engaged with the field of creation myths when he studied cuneiform script and ancient Near Eastern history with the Assyriologist Jean Bottéro (1914–2007) at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris between 1974 and 1976, culminating in his own translation of the Mesopotamian Creation Epic also known as Enūma Eliš (lit. when on high) in Akkadian, into Chinese.7 His preoccupation with the Enūma Eliš formed a point of departure for Jao to reflect on the state of etiological myths in early China, including their forms of transmission and contexts of use, their ethnographic and geographic distribution, as well as the striking parallels he saw between the paradigms and images underlying creation accounts from the greater Chinese cultural sphere, the Near East, and also India.

As is quite common in the study of early China, Jao regards cosmogony and anthropogony as two correlated aspects of creation myths. One of Jao’s major concerns in studying the characteristics of mythological paradigms and their differences across cultural boundaries from a comparative perspective lies therefore with what these mythemes in their various elaborations reveal about the human condition in different cultural contexts. In a way, these basic considerations set the stage for the present volume, as the dynamics of the relationship between man and the cosmos, the latter including the sphere of the supernatural, form the overarching context for each of the studies assembled in this book.

The first article in the present chapter started out as a preamble to Jao’s translation of the Enūma Eliš but is in fact very much a comparative study of creation myths in China and the Ancient Near East. As such it has been republished on its own in the first volume of Jao’s collected scholarly works under the title “A preliminary comparison of creation myths and the origins of man in epics from China and beyond.”8 It begins with a definition of the term epic as denoting an orally transmitted narration or narrative poem that is inextricably linked to religious beliefs and the context of ritual ceremonies. It is here that Jao sees the main reason why we do not find any such texts in the early Chinese literary tradition. Yet Jao holds that China nevertheless must have had its own epic tradition at some point in the past, traces of which could and can still be found in performed oral folk literature among indigenous minority populations in China. Knowingly or not, Jao’s approach shares with Marcel Granet’s (1884–1940) opus magnum, Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne,9 the Durkheimian paradigm that myths derived from ritual drama and religious dance.10 After briefly summarizing the plot of the Enūma Eliš, Jao identifies the struggle between the primordial gods Apsû and Tiamat as an instantiation of a generic dualistic opposition underlying all Near Eastern cosmologies.11 In the remainder of the study he turns to pointing out examples of archetypal binary oppositions, such as sky and earth, clear and murky, light-image and form, yin and yang, as well as their respective roles in creating the cosmos in various mythological episodes from Chinese minority populations and in early Daoist literature. In his conclusion, Jao juxtaposes the Near Eastern paradigm of a cosmic creation in terms of a struggle between two opposing deities to the Chinese notion of a cosmogenesis through the conjoining of two opposite but complementary elements by means of “stimulating and responding” (ganying yi xiangyu 感應以相與), expressed in the conception of Heaven and Earth as marital partners. This also applies to the conception of Fuxi and Nüwa as the first couple in Chinese mythology, and with Nüwa being credited with the creation of man, has a direct bearing on the position and the perception of humans within the cosmic creation.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Ink rubbing of a carved stone relief showing Fuxi (right) and Nüwa (left) surrounded by smaller deities from the Wu Liang shrine 武氏祠 dating to the Eastern Han period. After Édouard Chavannes, Mission archéologique dans la Chine septentrionale. Partie 1 (Paris: E. Leroux, 1909), Pl. 60, no. 123

However, in the next article Jao reveals a different facet of ancient Chinese mytho-history that does in fact resemble the Near Eastern paradigm of a struggle between the gods. He describes how, in his view, the primordial concept of the Thearchs of the Five Colors had been reduced over time to the opposition between the Yellow and the Flame Thearch engaging in battle with each other. For Jao, this struggle in its various depictions found in early Chinese sources, symbolizes an “antagonism between two paradigms” (二系的對立). He regards this dualistic paradigm as the result of the work of scribes and historians and conjectures that it must have developed from a theogony into a genealogy of actual human sovereigns, establishing what he calls “the fundamental dualism in early Chinese history.”12 While Jao does not draw any parallels between this paradigm and related mythemes in other cultures, except for a brief reference to the struggle between Apsu and Tiamat in the Near Eastern Creation Epic, Anne Birrell suggests that the antagonism between the Yellow and the Flame Thearch fits the bipartite conception of sovereignty that Georges Dumézil (1898–1986) has identified as a recurring motive in Indo-European mythology.13

In the last of the three articles in this chapter Jao explores some of the cosmogonic accounts found in the third to fourth century AD Daoist tradition, paying special attention to the various instantiations of the Pangu myth and to the idea of a primordial chaos (hundun 混沌) or “cosmic egg” standing at the beginning of the creation of the cosmos.14 As has been mentioned above, the Pangu myth is generally believed to be of non-Chinese origin. While some scholars associate it with the mythology of the Miao and Yao tribes in South China, most scholars, including Jao, detect in it traces of the Vedic tradition from ancient India. Jao focuses here on the myth of the body of Pangu, or sometimes of Laozi, being transformed into the physical world, in which he sees a clear connection to the etiological myth of the giant deity Puruṣa related in the Rig-Veda.15 He argues that this particular mytheme entered the Chinese Buddhist canon through the translation of the Mātaṅga Sutra into Chinese in the late Eastern Han period and has subsequently been retrieved, partly in terms of anti-Buddhist polemics, in the Daoist canon as well. However, at the same time, Jao also holds that there must have been an older type of Pangu myth predating these third to fourth century AD instantiations by several centuries. In the appendix to this chapter, he goes to great lengths to prove that visual depictions of Pangu existed in Sichuan at least by the end of the second century AD, and thus already during the late Eastern Han period.

Overall, Jao’s contributions to the field of early Chinese mythology are found primarily in his identification of parallels and shared patterns underlying myths from the macro-regions of China, India and the Near East, and especially in his tracing of mythological strands within the greater China region, including the connections between the often oral myths of minority populations and the Chinese mainstream literary tradition. His approach resembles to some degree that of Wolfram Eberhard (1909–1989) in his seminal work Lokalkulturen im alten China (Local cultures in ancient China).16 However, unlike Eberhard, Jao does not conclude that the mythological traditions of various local cultures have become interfused over time to form a Chinese mythology. Quite the contrary, he thinks the various, seemingly related sets of myths from the fringes of the Chinese cultural sphere must have been influenced by a now lost mythology from the center of an early Chinese high culture.

Unfortunately for the non-specialist reader, Jao does not introduce the field of early Chinese myths in great detail in his studies. Perhaps somewhat irritatingly for the scholarly-trained reader, his investigations do not betray any consistent methodological approach either. One may wonder whether his work was influenced at all by such pioneering considerations on the methodology of studying early Chinese myths as, for instance, those assembled in volume seven of the important Gushibian 古史辨 (Debates on ancient history) series or in K. C. Chang’s (1931–2001) “Chinese Creation Myths: A Study in Method.”17

The non-specialist reader who wishes to be able to follow and appreciate Jao’s arguments may therefore find it worthwhile to consult the excellent introductory works in the field of Chinese mythology by Bodde and Birrell.18 To my mind, the works of Jaan Puhvel and William G. Doty (1939–2017) remain the best introduction to issues of comparative mythology such as those touched upon in the present chapter.19


I use the term here in the way it is habitually understood in the field of early China studies as denoting “the transformation of what were once myths and gods into seemingly authentic history and human beings.” Derk Bodde, “Myths of Ancient China,” in Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. Samuel Noah Kramer (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961), 372–3. This is, however, the exact opposite of what the term means in its original Greek sense. William G. Boltz therefore speaks of a reverse euhemerism when referring to this sort of “humanized” mythology in his “Kung Kung and the Flood: Reverse Euhemerism in the Yao tien,” T’oung Pao 67.3–5 (1981): 141–53.


Bodde, “Myths of Ancient China,” 370.


For the Pangu myth see Bodde, “Myths of Ancient China,” 382–6, and Wu Xiaodong, “Pangu and the Origin of the Universe,” in China’s Creation and Origin Myths: Cross-cultural Explorations in Oral and Written Traditions, eds. Mineke Schipper, Ye Shuxian and Yin Hubin (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 163–76.


The most prominent among these viewpoints are brought together and discussed in Paul R. Goldin, “The Myth that China has no Creation Myth,” Monumenta Serica 56 (2008): 1–22.


See T’oung Pao 28.3–5 (1931): 355–68.


See N. J. Giradot, “The Problem of Creation Mythology in the Study of Chinese Religion,” History of Religions 15/4 (1975): 289–318, and the studies of Max Kaltenmark, Eduard Erkes, Wolfram Eberhard, Kwang-chih Chang (張光直) and others mentioned therein. The latest studies to reconfirm the existence of creation myths in early China are, to my knowledge, Goldin, “The Myth that China has no Creation Myth,” and the contributions assembled in Schipper, Ye and Yin, China’s Creation and Origin Myths.


Various accounts, chief among them Chen Hanxi’s 陳韓曦, Jao Tsung-i: Dongfang wenhua zuobiao 饒宗頤東方文化坐標 (Hong Kong: Open page, 2016), 175–7, claim that Jao had spent altogether fifteen years from 1976 to 1991 translating the epic from the original Akkadian text, revising his manuscript several times throughout the process. However, in his own post-face to his Jindong kaipi shishi 近東開闢史詩 (The Near Eastern Epic of Creation) (Taipei: Xin wenfeng, 1991), 113, Jao names a third, revised version of James B. Pritchard’s (1909–1997) English translation of the epic dating from 1963 as the base text for his Chinese translation of the Enūma Eliš. While there is no such translation done by Pritchard himself, it seems almost certain that what Jao was actually referring to is E. A. Speiser’s (1902–1965) English rendering of the text in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, third edition with supplements (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969 [1950]), 60–72; together with additions and amendments by A. K. Grayson in ibid., 501–3. Indeed, the close resemblance in wording between the two translations suggests that Jao might have been working, at least to some degree, from Speiser’s English version of the text. In any case, Jao’s elegant and consistent rendering of the text into classical Chinese, be it from the original Akkadian source, from Speiser’s English translation, or perhaps from both, nevertheless constitutes a remarkable achievement in its own right.


WJ 1: 364–84.


Marcel Granet, Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne, 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1926).


Cf. Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 6, on the myth-as-ritual school in early to mid-twentieth century Sinology.


One may wonder why Jao did not link his findings to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908–2009) structuralist paradigm of a mediation between “binary opposites” underlying the operation of mythological narratives.


Jao does not proceed to explain the significance of this assumed dualism and how it might have related to actual conflicts in an early Chinese political or institutional context. In a more analytical approach to a related phenomenon, Sarah Allan does just that. In The Heir and the Sage (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1981), she traces the contradiction between the principles of rule by hereditary right and rule by virtue inherent in the cyclical interpretation of history in early China, beginning with the legends of Yao, Shun and Yu, and shows how they had to be mediated in each transfer of rule from one ruling house to another.


Birrell, Chinese Mythology, 131. Cf. Georges Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna: Essai sur deux représentations indo-européenes de la souveraineté (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1940).


The scholarly literature found on this topic is especially vast. Some of the most important publications include N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); David C. Yu, “The Creation Myth of Chaos in the Daoist Canon,” Journal of Oriental Studies 24.1 (1986): 1–20; and Kristofer Schipper, “The Wholeness of Chaos: Laozi on the Beginning,” in China’s Creation and Origin Myths, eds. Schipper, Ye and Yin, 135–52, to name just a few.


This connection has also been pointed out in Bodde, “Myths of Ancient China,” 384.


Wolfram Eberhard, Lokalkulturen im alten China, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1942). A revised edition of volume 2 has been republished as The Local Cultures of South and East China, trans. Alide Eberhard (Leiden: Brill, 1968).


See Lü Simian 呂思勉 and Tong Shuye 童書業, eds., Gushibian 古史辨, vol. 7 (Shanghai: Kaiming shudian, 1941), and Chang Kwang-Chih 張光直, “Zhongguo chuangshi Shenhua zhi fenxi yu gushi yanjiu” 中國創世神話之分析與古史研究, Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica 8 (1959): 47–79.


See Bodde, “Myths of Ancient China”; Birrell, Chinese Mythology; and Birrell, Chinese Myth and Culture (Cambridge: McGuinness China Monographs, 2006).


See Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987), and William G. Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, 2nd ed. (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000 [1986]).

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