An Investigation into the Chart of Pangu 盤古

An Account of Eastern Han Murals from the Shu Region Depicting the Image of “Pangu” as Seen by Renowned Personalities from the Tang and Song Periods

In: Space, Time, Myth, and Morals: A Selection of Jao Tsung-i’s Studies on Cosmological Thought in Early China and Beyond
Editor / Translator:
Joern Peter Grundmann
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It is a long-held assumption that the name Pangu 盤古 (Coiled Antiquity) made its first appearance in Xu Zheng’s 徐整 (ca. 220–265 AD) Sanwu Liji 三五曆記 (Three and five calendrical records).1,2 However, in the first of Wang Xizhi’s 王羲之 (321–379 AD) Shiqi tie 十七帖 (Seventeen notes) we read:

I know about a lecture hall dating back to the Han period. Under which Han emperor had it been built? I know there are original depictions of the Three August Ones and of the Five Thearchs to be found in it. These are refined and marvelous, and very pleasant to look at. Who could have produced them? I would like to take rubbings of them, but I don’t know whether this is possible.3

When Zhou Fu 周撫 [Wang’s friend, to whom many of the seventeen notes were addressed (tr. Note)] was in Yizhou 益州 (Yi province), Wang Xizhi, “who is not only esteemed as the greatest calligrapher of all times, but who was also a skilled painter,”4 commissioned him to investigate these paintings of the Three August Ones and of the Five Thearchs produced in Han times. It turned out that this Han period lecture hall had been built by the chief official (shou ) of Shu commandery, Wen Weng 文翁 (fl. mid-second century BC) during the reign of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 156–140 BC).5 The fragmentary remains of the Yizhou xueguan miao ji 益州學館廟記 (Record of academies and adjacent temples in Yi province) stone stele inscription read:

[…] Wen Weng was the administrator [of Shu commandery], who was initially drawn to the arts of letters […] by the time of the hundredth-sixth year of its existence, a disastrous fire […] [the hall as well as] […] [Only] the stone chamber remained intact. By the first [year of the Xingping 興平 era (194 AD) of the Han dynasty … Jupiter] […] the hall was named the ritual hall of the Duke of Zhou (Zhou Gong 周公). On its [walls] were depictions of Pangu, Li Lao 李老 [i.e. Laozi 老子 (tr. note)] […], as well as images of the historical thearchs and kings. On the roof beams one could find depictions of Zhongni 仲尼 [i.e. Confucius (tr. note)] [and] his seventy-[two …], these had been produced by Zhang Shou 張收, a Regional Inspector (cishi 刺史) of Yi province. On examining […] now [all] […] [the illustrations on the pillars] are even more [refined] and marvelous, and very pleasant to look at. […] [produced] by Liu Quan 劉悛 (438–498 AD), the Regional Inspector of Yi province, […]

[…] By the time the virtue of the element fire (huode 火德) declined, All-under-Heaven was in great disorder, the western region of Shu became a remote and faraway place where the imperial era names were not known. Thus the old name of the fifth year of the Chuping 初平 era (194 AD) was chosen [for commemorating the repair (tr. note)]. In the fourth year, Jupiter was in the position gui-[you] [ ], in the fifth year it [stood at jia-xu 甲戌] […] For the first year of the Xingping era, the calendar of the Hanshu records Jupiter being at jia-xu, which fits with the inscribed account.6

This stele has been erected on geng-xu 庚戌 day in the second month of the first year of the Yonghui 永徽 reign period (651 AD) in the Tang dynasty. An epigraph inscribed on the back of the stele reads: “Yan Youyi 顏有意 of Langya 琅雅, the present Senior Commandant-in-chief of Cavalry (shangqi duwei 上騎都尉) of Chengdu 成都 county.” According to the last line, “this account has been composed by He Suiliang 賀遂亮.”7 A paragraph under the section “Names of lost paintings” in Huang Xiufu’s 黃休復 (fl. early eleventh century) Song dynasty Yizhou minghua lu 益州名畫錄 (Records of famous paintings from Yi province) states:

The Yizhou xueguan ji 益州學館記 (Record of academies in Yi province) says: In the first year of the Xingping 興平 era (194 AD) of Emperor Xian of Han (r. 184–220 AD), Gao Shun 高䀢 of Chenliu 陳留 was made administrator of Yi province. He repaired the Jade Hall stone chamber in Chengdu. To the east he built another stone chamber which he used as a ritual hall for the Duke of Zhou. On its walls were depictions of Pangu, Li Lao and other divinities from high antiquity, as well as images of the historical thearchs and kings. Moreover, on the roof beams could be found depictions of Zhongni and his seventy-two disciples, as well as of the Three August Ones and of various recent ministers. The Qijiu 耆舊 (On elders)8 relates that these had been produced in the Western Jin period by Zhang Shou, a Regional Inspector of Yi province during the Taikang 太康 era (280–289 AD). Of old there was a Yizhou xuetang tu 益州學堂圖 (Illustrations of the Yi province lecture hall). In the tenth year of the Yongming 永明 period (493 AD) of the Qi dynasty, Liu Tian 劉瑱 (460–501 AD) and Liu Quan, the Regional Inspector of Chengdu, again repaired the ritual hall and the Jade Hall. […] Quan’s younger brother was Tian. […] He was very talented and produced illustrations of Zhongni and of the major disciples, including carriages, garments, and ritual implements. Today these have been replaced by other illustrations, leaving no traces of the old ones.9

The passage we find quoted here has been transmitted almost without loss of text and can be used to fill the gaps in the above cited passage from the Yizhou xueguan miao ji, which is quite a rare coincidence. During Huang Xiufu’s time the Wen Weng stone chamber had already been refurbished several times by others at later dates, and no traces of the illustrations of Pangu dating from the Eastern Han period were left on its walls. For this reason, these are listed under the section “Names of lost paintings.”

Section thirty-one of the Yuanhe junxian tu zhi 元和郡縣圖志 (Maps and records of commanderies and districts of the Yuanhe period), dealing with the area of Chengdu county, states that: “In the south part of the outer walls stands the Wen Weng lecture hall, also known as the ritual hall for the Duke of Zhou.” In the Huayang guozhi we read: “Wen Weng established a lecture hall as a place for refined studies and made a stone chamber for it, which one source refers to as Jade Hall.”10 Li Ying’s 李膺 (fl. early sixth century) Shu ji 蜀記 (Records of Shu) says:

During the Zhongping 中平 period (184–190 AD) of the Later Han, a fire spread through the academy, its side rooms and corridors, destroying them at once. Only this hall was not reached by the blaze. Its structure is ancient and strange, unique and marvelous. Illustrations of ancient sages and worthies can be found on its walls. In its rafters are incised the Transmitter of Culture and his seventy-two disciples. It was illustrated by Liu Tian during the Yongming period of the Qi dynasty. When Zhu Lingshi 朱齡石 (379–418 AD) pacified Qiao Zhong 譙縱 (d. 413 AD) he inscribed the order of Emperor Wu of Song (r. 420–422 AD) on the chamber’s stone walls. Dai Wang 代王 (i.e., Yuwen Da 宇文達 [550–580 AD] [tr. note]) further embellished the extant old paintings on Emperor Wu’s behalf with cinnabar and azurite. He moreover added images of Doulu Bian 豆盧辨 [ 盧辯 (d. 557 AD)] and Su Chao 蘇綽 (498–546 AD).11

This stone chamber therefore underwent several restorations and extensions, ultimately encroaching into the Shu area’s treasure-house of art. The stages of its transformations are often found described in literati accounts, where they make for an extraordinary reading experience. Scroll seventy-two in Lou Yue’s 樓鑰 (1137–1213 AD) Qiujian daquan wenji 秋澗大全文集 (Complete collected works of Qiujian) [sic] contains a “Han Wen Weng jiangshi huaxiang tiba” 漢文翁講室畫像題跋 (Short comment on the images in the Wen Weng Han lecture hall), where we read:12

I have read in the Five Books from the Han and Wei Periods (Han Wei wu shu 漢魏五書) that “during the Han period there was a Wen Weng – Gao Shun stone chamber situated in Chengdu. Images of a sequence of sages and worthies, beginning with the Three August Ones and the Five Thearchs, had been incised on the space of its walls by the hands of the Grand Protector (Taishou 太守) Zhang Shou. Shou was a contemporary of Emperor Xian [of Han]. When I recently visited the Liu family academy, I had the chance to behold the actual images myself. Starting from Pangu Shi 盤古氏 all the way to Zhongni and his seventy disciples, approximately one hundred and thirty personages were depicted, executed in an utmost exquisite manner that reveals an ancient simplicity. Having passed through countless dangerous cliffs they have come down to us without showing the slightest traces off damage. Who except some deity would have been able to protect and preserve them like this? From somewhat later in time we have the calligraphic copy that Dongpo 東坡 (i.e. Su Shi 蘇軾 [1037–1101 AD]) produced of Wang Yishao’s 王逸少 (Wang Xizhi) note in which the latter desires to possess rubbings of these images. This outstanding note bears the distinct style of Yan Lu Gong 顏魯公 (Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 [709–785 AD]). Marveling at it over and over again, one is suddenly overcome with a sense of deep veneration, causing one to harbor thoughts of retreating into the world of antiquity. This is indeed quite extraordinary.

Among the so called “Five Books from the Han and Wei Periods” there is a work called Han guanyi 漢官儀 (Etiquette of officials in the Han) which Lou (sic) discusses in some detail in a separate work titled “Du Han-Wei wu shu” 讀漢魏五書 (On reading Five Books from the Han and Wei eras).13 The album of the paintings incised in Gao Shun’s stone chamber in the Wen Weng lecture hall that Lou (sic) had caught sight of in the Liu family academy starts with the image of Pangu Shi. “Its walls are engraved with Images of the Three August Ones and the Five Thearchs” says Lou, whereas Li Ying’s Shu ji states: “In its rafters are incised the Transmitter of Culture and his seventy-two disciples.” In Lou’s account these are engraved in stone, corresponding to the fact that what Gao Shun had originally built was the stone chamber. Thus, what Lou had seen must have been rubbings of the original images. Since he describes them as having been “executed in an utmost exquisite manner, revealing an ancient simplicity” (極精妙簡古) and as “having come down to us by passing through countless dangerous cliffs without showing the slightest traces of damage” (經千有餘崴無絲髮剝壞), it can only mean that Lou was still able to see with his own eyes, what Huang Xiufu had no longer been able to behold! Lou also points out that these portraits have been drawn by Zhang Shou, Grand Protector of Shu. But who was this painter Zhang Shou? When Zuo Si 左思 (250–305 AD) wrote his San du fu 三都賦 (Three capitals rhapsody), he once visited Zhang Zai 張載 (fl. late third to early fourth century AD) to inquire of him about the affairs of Shu. The “Zai zhuan” 載傳 (Biography of Zai) in the Jinshu 晉書 (Book of Jin) says: “Zai’s father, Shou, had been Grand Protector in the commandery of Shu. During the Taikang era Zai travelled to Shu to pay his father a visit. When he passed through Jiange 劍閣 he produced an inscription to commemorate the occasion. Zhang Min 張敏, Regional Inspector of Yi province, found the inscription quite unusual and added a note of appreciation to it.”14 Thus, according to the Jinshu, Shou indeed once held the position of Grand Protector of Shu commandery. Following He’s Yizhou xueguan miao ji, the ritual hall of the Duke of Zhou that Gao Shun erected in the first year of the Xingping era under emperor Xian of Han bore the image of Pangu on its walls side by side with that of Li Lao and those of numerous other deities. With his image captured in a mural, it is obvious that the name Pangu must have been known at the end of the Han period as well. The first year of the Xingping period corresponds to the year 194 AD.

What Zhang Shou had painted were probably the seventy-two disciples of Zhongni as well as all the important officials since the time of the Three August Ones. At least this is what Yizhou qijiu 益州耆舊 (On the elders of Yi province) wants us to believe.15 Yet during the time of Huang Xiu fu in the Northern Song period (960–1127 AD), Shou’s original designs had already been painted over. Liu Quan’s work, created during the Southern Qi period (479–502 AD), endured to the time of Emperor Gaozong 高宗 of the Tang (628–683 AD). But it too had been painted over during the Northern Song and can no longer be seen. According to the Lidai minghua ji Liu Quan’s younger brother, Liu Tian, excelled at painting women. Another elder brother of Tian was Liu Hui 劉繪 (458–502 AD). Information on his life can be found in the “Hui zhuan” 繪傳 (Biography of Hui) in the Nan Qishu 南齊書 (Book of the Southern Qi).16 Neither the name Zhang Shou nor that of Liu Quan appear in Zhang Yanyuan’s work. They should be added to it based on the sources cited above.

All of the extant historical images of Pangu from the Yao region, such as a Song period image of Pangu from Hunan, as well as a Qing period image from Guibei 桂北, are entirely of a rather recent date.17 Thanks to He’s inscriptional account, we now know that the production of images of Pangu was already popular in the Shu area towards the end of the Han period. Accordingly, the myth of Pangu must have formed sometime prior to the Eastern Han dynasty as well.

Under the section “Shu gu zhi mihua zhentu” 述古之秘畫珍圖 (Listing secret paintings and precious images from antiquity) in the Lidai minghua ji we find a work named Yizhou xuetang tu 益洲學堂圖 (Images from the lecture hall of Yi province), consisting of ten scrolls. The commentary says:

[The work] depicts the Sage Thearchs from Antiquity as well as seventy Worthies. At a later point in time, the images of Han and Jin Emperors together with their important officials, as well as of the worthy minister of Shu, chief official Shou, have been added. These have presumably been produced by someone who had lived during the Eastern Jin period.18

These later additions did in fact come from the hands of Zhang Shou. Zhang must have been so fond of this book that he added this line of commentary to the title.

Xu Zheng’s Sanwu Liji states: “heaven and earth were in a state of primal chaos, resembling a chicken’s egg, and Pangu was born amidst, living for 18,000 years.”19 Zheng was a man from the state of Wu who lived during the time of the Three Kingdoms (San guo 三國 [189–263 AD]). The Suishu jingji zhi mentions a work named Maoshi pu 毛詩譜 (Chronological record of the Mao Odes) in three scrolls, about which it says: “This work has been composed by Xu Zheng 徐整, Chamberlain for Ceremonials (Taichang qing 太常卿) of Wu.”20 The Jingdian shiwen xu lu 經典釋文序錄 (Introductory records to the explanatory writings to the classical canons) lists Zheng Xuan’s 鄭玄 (127–200 AD) Shipu 詩譜 (Chronological record of the Songs) in two scrolls. Further down it says: “Xu Zheng [wrote] a chang (elucidation) [to it] and Tai Shuqiu 太叔裘 [provided] an yin (rectification).”21 The Sui zhi mentions another Maoshi pu in two scrolls which “has been annotated by Tai Shuqiu and Liu Xuan 劉炫 (fl. 546–613 AD).”22 We may therefore assume that Xu Zheng elucidated Kangcheng’s 康成 (i.e., Zheng Xuan’s) notes, enjoying a similar prestige as Tai Shuqiu in his day. The Sui zhi further lists a lost work from the Liang period (502–557 AD), called Sanwu li shuo 三五曆說 (Three and five calendrical explanations), consisting of one scroll of images from an unknown author. Should this work have been composed by Xu Zheng as well, then this would mean that the Sanwu Liji originally also comprised a scroll with images, which certainly must have included an image of Pangu. Zheng’s style name was Wencao 文操; he was a native of Yuzhang 豫章 in Jiangxi province.

In conclusion, images of Pangu, even in the form of murals, already existed before the time of Xu Zheng. Ren Fang’s 任昉 Shuyi ji 述異記 (Tales of strange matters)23 tells of popular stories about Pangu that circulated during the Qin and Han periods. The origins of the myth of Pangu must therefore be quite ancient.

Supplementary Note

More information on the stone stelae from the Wen Weng lecture hall can be found in the tenth scroll of Shi Zhecun’s 施蟄存 Shuijingzhu bei lu 水經注碑錄 (A list of stelae in the commentary on the water classic).24 The sources cited by Shi may be consulted to supplement what has not been covered in the present study. Six fragmentary remains of Gao Shun’s inscription in the stone chamber are still extant today. These are also treated in Shi’s account.


This article first appeared under the title “Pangutu kao” 盤古圖考 (An investigation into the chart of Pangu) in Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan yanjiushengyuan xuebao 中國社會科學院研究生院學報 (1986) 1: 75–6, as well as in Zhongguo gudai-, jindai wenxue yanjiu 中國古代、近代文學研究 4 (1986). It has subsequently been republished as “Shu Songren suo jian Donghan Shu di kehui ‘Pangu’ de bihua” 述宋人所見東漢蜀地刻繪盤古的壁畫 (An account of Eastern Han murals from the Shu region depicting the image of “Pangu” as seen by renowned personalities from the Song period) in Zhongyang minzuxueyuan xuebao 中央民族學院學報 63.2 (1989): 8–9. This translation is based on the final, augmented version, “Pangutu kao: Shu Tang-Songren suo jian Donghan Shu di kehui ‘Pangu’ de bihua” 盤古圖考述唐宋人所見東漢蜀地刻繪盤古的壁畫 (An investigation into the chart of Pangu: An account of Eastern Han murals from the Shu region depicting the image of “Pangu” as seen by renowned personalities from the Tang and Song periods), republished 2003 in WJ 1: 278–82.


Professor Jao adds a lengthy footnote here stating: “In his Xianqin shi 先秦史 (History of the Pre-Qin period) as well as in his Du shi zhaji 讀史札記 (Notes on reading historiographical works) Lü Simian 呂思勉 (1884–1957) corroborates his investigations on the topic of Pangu with quotes from the Sanwu Liji as well as from the Wu yun linian ji 五運曆年記 (Chronicle of the five cycles of time). These are in turn citations from Ma Su’s 馬驌 (1621–1673) Qing dynasty work Yishi 繹史 (Unravelling history). According to the latter, the account from the Sanwu Liji has been borrowed from Indian sources. Yet Ma Su was not able to quote the original Sanskrit sources to substantiate his claim. Cf. my Xuantang jilin: Shilin 選堂集林 史林 (Xuantang’s selected works: Selected works on history), 3 vols. (Hong Kong: Chunghwa, 1982), 311 [Aṇḍa lun yu Wu-Jin jian zhi yuzhouguan 安荼論 (aṇḍa) 與吳晉間之宇宙觀].”


Jao cites this passage from Bao Shichen’s 包世臣 (1775–1855) handwritten Shiqi tie shuzheng 十七帖疏證. Cf. Bao Shichen, Yizhou shuangji 藝舟雙楫 (Shanghai: Jiaoyu shudian, 1937), 198–210.


 「書為古今冠冕,丹青亦妙」. Quoted from Wang Xizhi’s biography in scroll five of Zhang Yanyuan’s 張彥遠 (fl. ninth century AD), Lidai minghua ji 歷代名畫記 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 175.


See Hanshu, 89.3625–3627. For an English translation of Wen Weng’s biography see John K. Shyrock, The Origin and Development of the State Cult of Confucius (New York: Paragon, 1966 [1933]), 68; and Witold Jablonski, “Wen Wong,” Rocznik Orientalistyczny 21 (1957): 135–6.


Lu Zengxiang 陸增祥 (1833–1889), Baqiong shi jinshi buzheng 八瓊室金石補正 (Taipei: Wenhai, 1974), scroll 35.1–2.


Jao remarks here that this line is badly damaged in the original and has been reproduced by him according to record #03378 in the Beituo ben 碑拓本 held at Academia Sinica in Taipei.


This title presumably refers to the Yibu qijiu zhuan 益部耆舊傳 (Biographies of the elders of Yi province), a now lost work written by Chen Shou 陳壽 (233–297 AD) that relates the biographies of eminent personalities from the Yizhou area between the Western Han and the period of the Three Kingdoms. However, the title could also stand for Yizhou qijiu zhuan 益州耆舊傳 (Biographies of the elders of Yi province) or for Yizhou qijiu zaji 益州耆舊 雜記 (Miscellaneous accounts of the elders of Yi province), both lost works of unknown provenance. Parts of all three works are preserved in Pei Songzhi’s 裴松之 (372–451 AD) commentary to Chen’s San guo zhi 三國志 (Records of the Three States). A work called Qijiu is cited once underneath a quotation from the Yizhou qijiu zaji in San guo zhi 45.1088, indicating that it is indeed an abbreviation which could stand for any of the three longer titles.


Huang Xiufu’s 黃休復, Yizhou minghua lu 益州名畫錄 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1964), 61. Parts of the English translation have been adapted from J. Michael Farmer, “Art, Education & Power: Illustrations in the Stone Chamber of Wen Weng,” T’oung Pao LXXXVI (2000): 112–16.


See Huayang guozhi jiaobu tuzhu, 3.152.


Li Jifu 李吉甫 (fl. early ninth century AD), Yuanhe junxian zhi 元和郡縣志 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983), juan 31, 768. Parts of the English translation of this passage have been adapted from Farmer, “Art, Education & Power,” 110.


The work from which Jao quotes here is in fact the Qiujian xiansheng daquan wenji 秋澗先生大全文集, authored by Wang Yun 王惲 (1228–1304), and not by Lou Yue. The original passage can be found in Wang Yunwu 王雲五 (1888–1979) et al., eds., Sibu congkan chubian suoben 四部叢刊初編縮本, 110 vols. (Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu yinshuguan, 1965), 74: 704.


This piece as well has been written by Wang Yun and not by Lou Yue. For the work under discussion see Ying Shao 應劭, Han guanyi 漢官儀 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985).


Fang Xuanling 房玄齡, Jinshu 晉書, (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2012), 55. 1516–7.


Jao presumably refers to the work given as Qijiu in the quote from the Yizhou minghua lu above. See footnote 225 above.


Xiao Zixian 蕭子顯, Nanqishu 南齊書, (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 841–3.


Jao refers here to the beginning of the first part of the collection Pan Wang da ge 盤王 大歌 (The great song of King Pang) (Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 1987).


Lidai minghua ji, 3.131.


Jao cites this passage from Ouyang Xun 歐陽洵, Yiwen leijü 藝文類聚 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1965), juan 1, p. 2.


Wei Zheng 魏徵, Linghu Defen 令狐德棻, Suishu 隋書 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973), 1024.


See Wu Chengshi 吴承仕 (1884–1939), Jingdian shiwen xu lu shu zheng 經典釋文序錄 疏證 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008), 83–4.




Cf. the passage on Pangu in the first part of the Shuyiji fragments transmitted in Cheng Rong’s 程榮 (ca. 1600) Ming dynasty work Han-Wei congshu 漢魏叢書 (Changchun: Jilin Daxue chubanshe, 1992), 697, which has been translated into French by Maspero and subsequently also into English by Kierman in Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, 381.


Shi Zhecun 施蟄存, Shuijingzhu bei lu 水經注碑錄 (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 1987), 387–400.

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