Sacred Texts  Confucianism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at
Buy this Book on Kindle

Myths and Legends of China, by Edward T.C. Werner, [1922], at

p. 60

Chapter II

On Chinese Mythology

Mythology and Intellectual Progress

The Manichæst, yin-yang (dualist), idea of existence, to which further reference will be made in the next chapter, finds its illustration in the dual life, real and imaginary, of all the peoples of the earth. They have both real histories and mythological histories. In the preceding chapter I have dealt briefly with the first—the life of reality—in China from the earliest times to the present day; the succeeding chapters are concerned with the second—the life of imagination. A survey of the first was necessary for a complete understanding of the second. The two react upon each other, affecting the national character and through it the history of the world.

Mythology is the science of the unscientific man’s explanation of what we call the Otherworld—itself and its denizens, their mysterious habits and surprising actions both there and here, usually including the creation of this world also. By the Otherworld he does not necessarily mean anything distant or even invisible, though the things he explains would mostly be included by us under those terms. In some countries myths are abundant, in others scarce. Why should this be? Why should some peoples tell many and marvellous tales about their gods and others say little about them, though they may say a great deal to them? We recall the ‘great’ myths of Greece and Scandinavia. Other races are ‘poor’ in myths. The difference is to be explained by the mental characters of the peoples as moulded by their surroundings and hereditary tendencies. The problem is of course a psychological one, for it is, as already noted, in imagination p. 61 that myths have their root. Now imagination grows with each stage of intellectual progress, for intellectual progress implies increasing representativeness of thought. In the lower stages of human development imagination is feeble and unproductive; in the highest stages it is strong and constructive.

The Chinese Intellect

The Chinese are not unimaginative, but their minds did not go on to the construction of any myths which should be world-great and immortal; and one reason why they did not construct such myths was that their intellectual progress was arrested at a comparatively early stage. It was arrested because there was not that contact and competition with other peoples which demands brain-work of an active kind as the alternative of subjugation, inferiority, or extinction, and because, as we have already seen, the knowledge required of them was mainly the parrot-like repetition of the old instead of the thinking-out of the new  1—a state of things rendered possible by the isolation just referred to. Confucius discountenanced discussion about the supernatural, and just as it is probable that the exhortations of Wên Wang, the virtual founder of the Chou dynasty (1121–255 B.C.), against drunkenness, in a time before tea was known to them, helped to make the Chinese the sober people that they are, so it is probable—more than probable—that this attitude of Confucius may have nipped in the bud much that might have developed a vigorous mythology, though for a reason to be stated later it may be doubted if he thereby deprived the world of any beautiful and marvellous results of the p. 62 highest flights of poetical creativeness. There are times, such as those of any great political upheaval, when human nature will assert itself and break through its shackles in spite of all artificial or conventional restraints. Considering the enormous influence of Confucianism throughout the latter half of Chinese history—i.e. the last two thousand years—it is surprising that the Chinese dared to think about supernatural matters at all, except in the matter of propitiating their dead ancestors. That they did so is evidence not only of human nature’s inherent tendency to tell stories, but also of the irrepressible strength of feeling which breaks all laws and commandments under great stimulus. On the opposing unæsthetic side this may be compared to the feeling which prompts the unpremeditated assassination of a man who is guilty of great injustice, even though it be certain that in due course he would have met his deserts at the hands of the public executioner.

The Influence of Religion

Apart from this, the influence of Confucianism would have been even greater than it was, but for the imperial partiality periodically shown for rival doctrines, such as Buddhism and Taoism, which threw their weight on the side of the supernatural, and which at times were exalted to such great heights as to be officially recognized as State religions. These, Buddhism especially, appealed to the popular imagination and love of the marvellous. Buddhism spoke of the future state and the nature of the gods in no uncertain tones. It showed men how to reach the one and attain to the other. Its founder was virtuous; his commandments pure and life-sustaining. It supplied in great part what Confucianism lacked. And, as in the p. 63 fifth and sixth centuries A.D., when Buddhism and Taoism joined forces and a working union existed between them, they practically excluded for the time all the “chilly growth of Confucian classicism.”

Other opponents of myth, including a critical philosopher of great ability, we shall have occasion to notice presently.

History and Myth

The sobriety and accuracy of Chinese historians is proverbial. I have dilated upon this in another work, and need add here only what I inadvertently omitted there—a point hitherto unnoticed or at least unremarked—that the very word for history in Chinese (shih) means impartiality or an impartial annalist. It has been said that where there is much myth there is little history, and vice versa, and though this may not be universally true, undoubtedly the persistently truthful recording of facts, events, and sayings, even at the risk of loss, yea, and actual loss of life of the historian as the result of his refusal to make false entries in his chronicle at the bidding of the emperor (as in the case of the historiographers of Ch’i in 547 B.C.), indicates a type of mind which would require some very strong stimulus to cause it to soar very far into the hazy realms of fanciful imagination.

Chinese Rigidity

A further cause, already hinted at above, for the arrest of intellectual progress is to be found in the growth of the nation in size during many centuries of isolation from the main stream of world-civilization, without that increase in heterogeneity which comes from the moulding by forces external to itself. “As iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” p. 64 Consequently we find China what is known to sociology as an ‘aggregate of the first order,’ which during its evolution has parted with its internal life-heat without absorbing enough from external sources to enable it to retain the plastic condition necessary to further, or at least rapid, development. It is in a state of rigidity, a state recognized and understood by the sociologist in his study of the evolution of nations.

The Prerequisites to Myth

But the mere increase of constructive imagination is not sufficient to produce myth. If it were, it would be reasonable to argue that as intellectual progress goes on myths become more numerous, and the greater the progress the greater the number of myths. This we do not find. In fact, if constructive imagination went on increasing without the intervention of any further factor, there need not necessarily be any myth at all. We might almost say that the reverse is the case. We connect myth with primitive folk, not with the greatest philosophers or the most advanced nations—not, that is, with the most advanced stages of national progress wherein constructive imagination makes the nation great and strong. In these stages the philosopher studies or criticizes myth, he does not make it.

In order that there may be myth, three further conditions must be fulfilled. There must, as we have seen, be constructive imagination, but, nevertheless, there must not be too much of it. As stated above, mythology, or rather myth, is the unscientific man’s explanation. If the constructive imagination is so great that it becomes self-critical, if the story-teller doubts his own story, if, in short, his mind is scientific enough to see that his explanation p. 65 is no explanation at all, then there can be no myth properly so called. As in religion, unless the myth-maker believes in his myth with all his heart and soul and strength, and each new disciple, as it is cared for and grows under his hands during the course of years, holds that he must put his shoes from off his feet because the place whereon he treads is holy ground, the faith will not be propagated, for it will lack the vital spark which alone can make it a living thing.

Stimulus Necessary

The next condition is that there must be a stimulus. It is not ideas, but feelings, which govern the world, and in the history of mythology where feeling is absent we find either weak imitation or repetition of the myths of other peoples (though this must not be confused with certain elements which seem to be common to the myths of all races), or concoction, contamination, or “genealogical tree-making,” or myths originated by “leisurely, peaceful tradition” and lacking the essential qualities which appeal to the human soul and make their possessors very careful to preserve them among their most loved and valued treasures. But, on the other hand, where feeling is stirred, where the requisite stimulus exists, where the people are in great danger, or allured by the prize of some breathless adventure, the contact produces the spark of divine poetry, the myths are full of artistic, philosophic, and religious suggestiveness, and have abiding significance and charm. They are the children, the poetic fruit, of great labour and serious struggles, revealing the most fundamental forces, hopes, and cravings of the human soul. Nations highly strung, undergoing strenuous emotion, intensely energized by constant conflict with p. 66 other nations, have their imagination stimulated to exceptional poetic creativeness. The background of the Danaïds is Egyptian, not Greek, but it was the danger in which the Greeks were placed in their wars with the sons of the land of the Pharaohs that stimulated the Greek imagination to the creation of that great myth.

This explains why so many of the greatest myths have their staging, not in the country itself whose treasured possessions they are, but where that country is ‘playing the great game,’ is carrying on wars decisive of far-reaching national events, which arouse to the greatest pitch of excitement the feelings both of the combatants and of those who are watching them from their homes. It is by such great events, not by the romance-writer in his peaceful study, that mythology, like literature, is “incisively determined.” Imagination, we saw, goes pari passu with intellectual progress, and intellectual progress, in early times, is furthered not so much by the mere contact as by the actual conflict of nations. And we see also that myths may, and very frequently do, have a character quite different from that of the nation to which they appertain, for environment plays a most important part both in their inception and subsequent growth—a truth too obvious to need detailed elaboration.

Persistent Soul-expression

A third condition is that the type of imagination must be persistent through fairly long periods of time, otherwise not only will there be an absence of sufficient feeling or momentum to cause the myths to be repeated and kept alive and transmitted to posterity, but the inducement to add to them and so enable them to mature and become complete and finished off and sufficiently attractive to p. 67 appeal to the human mind in spite of the foreign character they often bear will be lacking. In other words, myths and legends grow. They resemble not so much the narrative of the story-teller or novelist as a gradually developing art like music, or a body of ideas like philosophy. They are human and natural, though they express the thought not of any one individual mind, but of the folk-soul, exemplifying in poetical form some great psychological or physiographical truth.

The Character of Chinese Myth

The nature of the case thus forbids us to expect to find the Chinese myths exhibiting the advanced state and brilliant heterogeneity of those which have become part of the world’s permanent literature. We must expect them to be true to type and conditions, as we expect the other ideas of the Chinese to be, and looking for them in the light of this knowledge we shall find them just where we should expect to find them.

The great sagas and eddas exalted among the world’s literary masterpieces, and forming part of the very life of a large number of its inhabitants, are absent in China. “The Chinese people,” says one well-known sinologist, “are not prone to mythological invention.” “He who expects to find in Tibet,” says another writer, “the poetical charm of Greek or Germanic mythology will be disappointed. There is a striking poverty of imagination in all the myths and legends. A great monotony pervades them all. Many of their stories, taken from the sacred texts, are quite puerile and insipid. It may be noted that the Chinese mythology labours under the same defect.” And then there comes the crushing judgment of an over-zealous Christian missionary sinologist: “There p. 68 is no hierarchy of gods brought in to rule and inhabit the world they made, no conclave on Mount Olympus, nor judgment of the mortal soul by Osiris, no transfer of human love and hate, passions and hopes, to the powers above; all here is ascribed to disembodied agencies or principles, and their works are represented as moving on in quiet order. There is no religion [!], no imagination; all is impassible, passionless, uninteresting.... It has not, as in Greece and Egypt, been explained in sublime poetry, shadowed forth in gorgeous ritual and magnificent festivals, represented in exquisite sculptures, nor preserved in faultless, imposing fanes and temples, filled with ideal creations.” Besides being incorrect as to many of its alleged facts, this view would certainly be shown by further study to be greatly exaggerated.

Periods Fertile in Myth

What we should expect, then, to find from our philosophical study of the Chinese mind as affected by its surroundings would be barrenness of constructive imagination, except when birth was given to myth through the operation of some external agency. And this we do find. The period of the overthrow of the Yin dynasty and the establishment of the great house of Chou in 1122 B.C., or of the Wars of the Three States, for example, in the third century after Christ, a time of terrible anarchy, a medieval age of epic heroism, sung in a hundred forms of prose and verse, which has entered as motive into a dozen dramas, or the advent of Buddhism, which opened up a new world of thought and life to the simple, sober, peace-loving agricultural folk of China, were stimuli not by any means devoid of result. In China there are gods many and heroes many, and the very fact of the existence p. 69 of so great a multitude of gods would logically imply a wealth of mythological lore inseparable from their apotheosis. You cannot—and the Chinese cannot—get behind reason. A man is not made a god without some cause being assigned for so important and far-reaching a step; and in matters of this sort the stated cause is apt to take the form of a narrative more or less marvellous or miraculous. These resulting myths may, of course, be born and grow at a later time than that in which the circumstances giving rise to them took place, but, if so, that merely proves the persistent power of the originating stimulus. That in China these narratives always or often reach the highest flights of constructive imagination is not maintained—the maintenance of that argument would indeed be contradictory; but even in those countries where the mythological garden has produced some of the finest flowers millions of seeds must have been sown which either did not spring up at all or at least failed to bring forth fruit. And in the realm of mythology it is not only those gods who sit in the highest seats—creators of the world or heads of great religions—who dominate mankind; the humbler, though often no less powerful gods or spirits—those even who run on all fours and live in holes in the ground, or buzz through the air and have their thrones in the shadow of a leaf—have often made a deeper impress on the minds and in the hearts of the people, and through that impress, for good or evil, have, in greater or less degree, modified the life of the visible universe.

Sources of Chinese Myth

“So, if we ask whence comes the heroic and the romantic, which supplies the story-teller’s stock-in-trade, p. 70 the answer is easy. The legends and history of early China furnish abundance of material for them. To the Chinese mind their ancient world was crowded with heroes, fairies, and devils, who played their part in the mixed-up drama, and left a name and fame both remarkable and piquant. Every one who is familiar with the ways and the language of the people knows that the country is full of common objects to which poetic names have been given, and with many of them there is associated a legend or a myth. A deep river’s gorge is called ‘the Blind Man’s Pass,’ because a peculiar bit of rock, looked at from a certain angle, assumes the outline of the human form, and there comes to be connected therewith a pleasing story which reaches its climax in the petrifaction of the hero. A mountain’s crest shaped like a swooping eagle will from some one have received the name of ‘Eagle Mountain,’ whilst by its side another shaped like a couchant lion will have a name to match. There is no lack of poetry among the people, and most striking objects claim a poetic name, and not a few of them are associated with curious legends. It is, however, to their national history that the story-teller goes for his most interesting subjects, and as the so-called history of China imperceptibly passes into the legendary period, and this again fades into the mythical, and as all this is assuredly believed by the masses of the people, it is obvious that in the national life of China there is no dearth of heroes whose deeds of prowess will command the rapt attention of the crowds who listen.”  2

The soul in China is everywhere in evidence, and if myths have “first and foremost to do with the life of the soul” it would appear strange that the Chinese, p. 71 having spiritualized everything from a stone to the sky, have not been creative of myth. Why they have not the foregoing considerations show us clearly enough. We must take them and their myths as we find them. Let us, then, note briefly the result of their mental workings as reacted on by their environment.

Phases of Chinese Myth

We cannot identify the earliest mythology of the Chinese with that of any primitive race. The myths, if any, of their place of origin may have faded and been forgotten in their slow migration eastward. We cannot say that when they came from the West (which they probably did) they brought their myths with them, for in spite of certain conjectural derivations from Babylon we do not find them possessed of any which we can identify as imported by them at that time. But research seems to have gone at least as far as this—namely, that while we cannot say that Chinese myth was derived from Indian myth, there is good reason to believe that Chinese and Indian myth had a common origin, which was of course outside of China.

To set forth in detail the various phases through which Chinese myth has passed would involve a technical description foreign to the purpose of a popular work. It will sufficiently serve our present purpose to outline its most prominent features.

In the earliest times there was an ‘age of magic’ followed by an ‘heroic age,’ but myths were very rare before 800 B.C., and what is known as primitive mythology is said to have been invented or imitated from foreign sources after 820 B.C. In the eighth century B.C. myths of an astrological character began to attract p. 72 attention. In the age of Lao Tzŭ (604 B.C.), the reputed founder of the Taoist religion, fresh legends appear, though Lao Tzŭ himself, absorbed in the abstract, records none. Neither did Confucius (551–479 B.C.) nor Mencius, who lived two hundred years later, add any legends to history. But in the Period of the Warring States (500–100 B.C.) fresh stimuli and great emotion prompted to mythological creation.

Tso-ch’iu Ming and Lieh Tzŭ

Tso-ch’iu Ming, commentator on Confucius’s Annals, frequently introduced legend into his history. Lieh Tzŭ (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), a metaphysician, is one of the earliest authors who deal in myths. He is the first to mention the story of Hsi Wang Mu, the Western Queen, and from his day onward the fabulists have vied with one another in fantastic descriptions of the wonders of her fairyland. He was the first to mention the islands of the immortals in the ocean, the kingdoms of the dwarfs and giants, the fruit of immortality, the repairing of the heavens by Nü Kua Shih with five-coloured stones, and the great tortoise which supports the universe.

The T’ang and Sung Epochs

Religious romance began at this time. The T’ang epoch (A.B. 618–907) was one of the resurrection of the arts of peace after a long period of dissension. A purer and more enduring form of intellect was gradually overcoming the grosser but less solid superstition. Nevertheless the intellectual movement which now manifested itself was not strong enough to prevail against the powers of mythological darkness. It was reserved p. 73 for the scholars of the Sung Period (A.D. 960–1280) to carry through to victory a strong and sustained offensive against the spiritualistic obsessions which had weighed upon the Chinese mind more or less persistently from the Han Period (206 B.C.-A.D. 221) onward. The dogma of materialism was specially cultivated at this time. The struggle of sober reason against superstition or imaginative invention was largely a struggle of Confucianism against Taoism. Though many centuries had elapsed since the great Master walked the earth, the anti-myth movement of the T’ang and Sung Periods was in reality the long arm and heavy fist of Confucius emphasizing a truer rationalism than that of his opponents and denouncing the danger of leaving the firm earth to soar into the unknown hazy regions of fantasy. It was Sung scholarship that gave the death-blow to Chinese mythology.

Lao Tzu
Click to enlarge

Lao Tzu

It is unnecessary to labour the point further, because after the Sung epoch we do not meet with any period of new mythological creation, and its absence can be ascribed to no other cause than its defeat at the hands of the Sung philosophers. After their time the tender plant was always in danger of being stunted or killed by the withering blast of philosophical criticism. Anything in the nature of myth ascribable to post-Sung times can at best be regarded only as a late blossom born when summer days are past.

Myth and Doubt

It will bear repetition to say that unless the myth-builder firmly believes in his myth, be he the layer of the foundation-stone or one of the raisers of the superstructure, he will hardly make it a living thing. Once he believes in reincarnation and the suspension of natural p. 74 laws, the boundless vistas of space and the limitless æons of time are opened to him. He can perform miracles which astound the world. But if he allow his mind to inquire, for instance, why it should have been necessary for Elijah to part the waters of the Jordan with his garment in order that he and Elisha might pass over dryshod, or for Bodhidharma to stand on a reed to cross the great Yangtzŭ River, or for innumerable Immortals to sit on ‘favourable clouds’ to make their journeys through space, he spoils myth—his child is stillborn or does not survive to maturity. Though the growth of philosophy and decay of superstition may be good for a nation, the process is certainly conducive to the destruction of its myth and much of its poetry. The true mythologist takes myth for myth, enters into its spirit, and enjoys it.

We may thus expect to find in the realm of Chinese mythology a large number of little hills rather than a few great mountains, but the little hills are very good ones after their kind; and the object of this work is to present Chinese myth as it is, not as it might have been had the universe been differently constituted. Nevertheless, if, as we may rightly do, we judge of myth by the sentiments pervading it and the ideals upheld and taught by it, we shall find that Chinese myth must be ranked among the greatest.

Myth and Legend

The general principles considered above, while they explain the paucity of myth in China, explain also the abundance of legend there. The six hundred years during which the Mongols, Mings, and Manchus sat upon the throne of China are barren of myth, but like all periods of the Chinese national life are fertile in legend. And p. 75 this chiefly for the reason that myths are more general, national, divine, while legends are more local, individual, human. And since, in China as elsewhere, the lower classes are as a rule less educated and more superstitious than the upper classes—have a certain amount of constructive imagination, but not enough to be self-critical—legends, rejected or even ridiculed by the scholarly class when their knowledge has become sufficiently scientific, continue to be invented and believed in by the peasant and the dweller in districts far from the madding crowd long after myth, properly so called, has exhaled its last breath. p. 76


76:1 The inventions of the Chinese during a period of four thousand years may be numbered on the fingers of one hand."

76:2 East of Asia Magazine, i, 15–16.

Next: Chapter III. The Fashioner of the Universe