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The mythical creators of Chinese civilisations

In China, the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors (三皇五帝) were accredited to be the creators of Chinese civilisations. Before them, Chinese people lived in constant fear of wild animals and were subjected to harsh living environment. 

So who are these Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors? 

Many people have proposed different ideas. It’s a topic constantly argued about in the academic world. Nevertheless, one thing everyone agrees with is that all Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors are part of the Chinese ancient mythical figures, who changed people’s lives forever. 

Therefore, in this article, we’ll not argue about who the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors were. Instead, let’s read a few fantastic stories about the most influential Chinese ancient mythical creators. 

These stories have been told throughout generations, mainly to children. I came across many when I was a small child. They have left a deep impression on me. 

It may not be easy to appreciate these stories from an adult’s perspective. As adults, after years of training in science and technology, we like to ask logical questions, such as, “Where did the ax come from in the beginning of the universe?” While reading these stories, we need to put these rational questions aside. 

For Chinese language learners, these stories provide a small window that allows us to get a glimpse of Chinese identities and how Chinese view the universe.

Pan Gu (盘古)

We owe our universe to Pan Gu. 

In the beginning of the universe, the sky and the earth were not separated, like an egg, the egg yolk and the egg white are together. 

In this primal state, a giant was born. This was Pan Gu. He slept and slept. He slept for eighteen thousand years. 

One day, Pan Gu woke up. He looked around, all very dark. He was not pleased. So, he grabbed a gigantic ax, using all his might, swung into the darkness. 

After a huge cracking sound, the darkness began to clear up. Light things went up slowly and became the sky. Heavy things sank down gradually and became the earth. 

The sky and the earth began to be separated, but not very far yet. Pan Gu stood up, using his head to prop up the sky and using his feet to press down the earth. 

Each day, the sky rose higher and the earth grew firmer. Pan Gu also became taller so he could continue to prop up the sky and to press down the earth. 

After thousands of years, the sky and the earth were in good shape. Pan Gu was happy. But he was also exhausted. He lay down and died. 

After his death, his body metamorphosed. His breath became winds and clouds. His voice became thunders. His eyes became the sun and the moon. His hair became countless stars. His blood became ceaseless rivers and streams. His skin became the soil. His limbs became mountains and hills. 

Pan Gu became the world for all its inhabitants.

Nü Wa 女娲

Nü Wa was a goddess who often played around the hills.

One day, out of curiosity, she used some yellow clay and moulded it into a small figure. When she was finished and put it down to the ground, this figure came alive. 

She was delighted. So she made more of them. These small figures began to dance around her. 

She laughed and kept making more and more of these figures until she was tired. 

How could she make more of them more quickly? She thought about it and a great idea came to her. She mixed clay with water into mud, and began to use a rope to splash the mud around. Every bit of mud came alive once it hit the ground. 

In this way, Nü Wa created human. 

She also created the institution of marriage, so that people could be organised into society and lived a happy and peaceful life. 

This blissful time did not last long.

One day, two gods, the god of water and god of fire, had a fight. One of them was so enraged and he crashed into a mountain. And that mountain collapsed. Unfortunately, this mountain happened to be one of the pillars holding up the sky. 

As the mountain was crumbling down, part of the sky also fell. Water poured out from the hole in the sky and flooded the earth. Instantly, the flood destroyed villages and killed lives. 

On seeing this, Nü Wa’s heart sank. She decided to find a way to patch up the hole in the sky. After searching, she found some five-coloured stones. She melted them, and used it to gradually patch up the hole. 

After the work was done, the flood stopped. People had their life back, and lived in peace again. All were very grateful for what Nü Wa did for them. 

Fu Xi 伏羲

According to the legend, Fu Xi had a human head and a snake body. He was the brother and also the husband of Nü Wa.

Long long time ago, ancient people did not understand the environment they lived in. The change of weather, the rotation of the Sun and the Moon, and all the fortunes and misfortunes happened in their lives, everything was puzzling. So they came to Fu Xi to ask for answers.

In order to answer all these questions, and to help people grasp their own fate, Fu Xi began to observe and study all natural phenomena, the winds, the mountains, the birds, the waters, and so on. He eventually figured out the fundamental laws that governed the universe and people’s lives. 

Based on his findings, Fu Xi created the Eight Trigrams (八卦), using a set of simple symbols and the theory of Yin and Yang to explain all things on earth. This was the earliest version of Yijing,《易经》, the Book of Change, which is continued to be studied today.

Apart from teaching people about the universe, Fu Xi also taught people how to knit net to fish, and how to make bows to hunt.

Fu Xi perhaps represents a dim memory when hunting and gathering were the main stream activity of the ancient Chinese society. 

Shen Nong 神农

Long long time ago, people hunted animals and gathered grass to feed themselves. 

Many times, people suffered, even died, when they ate something poisonous or when the animals were not easy to hunt during winter. 

Then came in Shen Nong.

According to legend, Shen Nong had a cow’s head and a human’s body. He tasted every kind of plants and recorded the effect they had on his body, so that he would know whether or not these plants were safe to eat. 

Shen Nong was poisoned many times. Fortunately he saved himself every time as he all recognised some medicinal qualities of some plants while he was tasting all the plants. Thus, Shen Nong was also the creator of Chinese medicine. Among all his magnificent findings, he discovered tea, which millions of people love today. Read some lovely stories about tea here: Famous stories about tea in China.

After teaching people what plants were safe to eat and how to heal themselves when they got sick, Shen Nong also taught them how to grow plants so they could live off their harvest during winter, and how to domesticate animals so they could have meat supplies.

Reading about Shen Nong, we perhaps recognise the transitions that a hunting and gathering society gradually changed into an agricultural society.

The Yellow Emperor 黄帝

There was a time in ancient history, constant wars broke out between different tribes. People suffered huge losses and their lives were always in danger.

At this time, one great leader stood out. In order to put the chaos to an end, he built a strong army to protect his people and to fight pestering barbarians. After many years, only three tribes were left. They were his tribe, a tribe led by Yan Di (炎帝), and a tribe led by Chi You (蚩尤). 

In a critical moment, Yan Di came to him for help. He agreed, and together in a decisive battle, they defeated their common enemy Chi You. The country was united.

After the wars were ended, this leader held a ceremony to give thanks to heaven. Suddenly, in the sky appeared gigantic animals, which had a glow of yellow. On seeing this, people were convinced that this spectacular omen signified that their leader had the moral of the earth, and therefore named him Huang Di, 皇帝, which literally means the Yellow Emperor.

The Yellow Emperor was not only capable of fighting the wars, but also a wise ruler in peacetime. He appointed able officials and instituted judicial punishments. During his rule, there were many significant advancements, such as inventing the Chinese characters and discovering how to weave silk. 

Today, the alliance between the Yellow Emperor and Yan Di, and the decisive victory over Chi You, are considered to be the foundation of Chinese as an ethnic group. Every Chinese is a descendent of Yan Huang, 炎黄子孙.