Chinese mythology was grounded in the temporal and spatial rhythms of the agricultural year. In time, these actions were solidified in the form of a calendar. Early Chinese festivals grew directly out of those calendrical rhythms, and produced China’s first mythical themes. Myth is a living story, told and retold in a continual process. The eventual recording of those myths removed them from those festivals and created an altered kind of story. The Chinese mythological tradition itself focuses far more directly upon stories of culture heroes building a shared society and polity than the origins of the universe. The eventual “origin” tale in China emerged more than a millennium after the first myths, and was far removed from the stories generated by rural farmers in their agricultural festivals.
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All translations from Chinese and French are my own. Quotations from English language sources take the precise form of the original (including British spellings).
I use the jubaolou (聚寶樓) version of the Almanac, which is widely available in Chinese bookstores in Hong Kong and most major world cities.
Useful collections and analyses of Chinese mythology include Birrell (1993), Yang and An (2005), and Werner (1994). My own televised lectures on East Asian and Pacific mythology (including three lectures on Chinese mythology) appear as Lectures 37–48 with The Great Courses in the series Great Mythologies of the World. For those who read Chinese, the works of Yuan Ke (袁珂; 1916–2001) are indispensable. I have referred often in my own work to Yuan (1996, 1998). An English translation of some of Yuan Ke’s work is provided in Yuan (1993).
In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby (2007) writes memorably about these seasonal patterns.
Unless otherwise noted, all omissions and entries in square brackets in all quotations are by the author.
All retellings of the myths in this essay, unless otherwise noted, are those of the author. In keeping with one of the major themes of this essay, there is no “core text” for myth. They are always told and retold, with sometimes changing details. Nonetheless, after each retelling, I will note English sources that can be consulted.
Granet’s full quotation is “Everyone in these gatherings—where rural concord was forged in rhythmic time—celebrated a sentiment of exultant power, imagining that they were a part of the harmony found in nature itself.”.
Joseph Mali (2003), in his preface to Mythistory, notes that, for someone living and teaching in Jerusalem, “[…]ethowever however modern we might have all become, our life and history are still largely determined by some very ancient myths.” I maintain that a similarly general power of myth and early history continue to play a role in Chinese life and culture.
Versions of this myth can be found in Yang and An (2005, pp. 131–135).
Among the numerous useful works on mythology as an intellectual process, several have been key resources for my own research, including Doty (1986), as well as multiple texts by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The most accessible of those is Myth and Meaning (Lévi-Strauss 1995), a brief introduction to mythological thought. His classical studies of myth and structure include “The Structural Study of Myth” in Lévi-Strauss (1963), as well as his four-volume analysis of South American and North American mythology, beginning with The Raw and the Cooked (Lévi-Strauss 1969), and continuing through three more volumes.
A fascinating, further, point that is beyond the scope of this essay is that this kind of classification and categorization has, in turn, come back to play a role in everyday life. The almanac and calendar have been a constant in Chinese society throughout the imperial period, and it is still printed, although not as influential, to this day. These very compilations of traditional sayings, in times when almost every household in Chinese society possessed an almanac, became something that a literate individual in the community could interpret, even for illiterate individuals. This influence of writing, even upon everyday life in mostly illiterate communities, is one of the most distinctive elements of Chinese culture.
Many of these myths of cultural growth can be found in the Huainanzi 淮南子. A fine English translation of the entire text can be found in Major et al. (2010).
An analysis of “Questions of Heaven” can be found in Birrell (1993, pp. 26–29).
Birrell, Anne. 1993. Chinese mythology: An introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dalby, Liza. 2007. East wind melts the ice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Doty, William G. 1986. Mythography. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Granet, Marcel. 1975. The Religion of the Chinese People [tr. Maurice Freedman]. New York: Harper & Row.
Granet, Marcel. 1998. La religion des Chinois. Paris: Albin Michel.
Han Fei. 2014. Han Feizi. Metro Fifth Avenue Press, LLC. (Chinese text).
Knoblock, John, and Jeffrey Riegel. 2001. The annals of Lü Buwei. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The raw and the cooked. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1995. Myth and meaning: Cracking the code of culture. New York: Schocken Books.
Major, John S., et al. 2010. The Huainanzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mali, Joseph. 2003. Mythistory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Qu Yuan (trad.), n.y. Chuci Tianwen (Heavenly Questions). Sibu congkan (四部叢刊), 3.1a-6b.
Rickett, Allyn J. 1985. Guanzi: Political, economic, and philosophical essays from early China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Werner, E.T.C. 1994. Myths and legends of China. New York: Dover Publications.
Lihui, Yang, and An Deming. 2005. Handbook of Chinese mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Yuan Ke. 1993. Dragons and dynasties: An introduction to Chinese mythology. Trans. by Kim Echilin and Nie Zhixiong. New York: Penguin Books.
Yuan Ke 袁柯. 1996. Zhongguo gudai shenhua 中國古代神話. [Ancient Chinese Myths.] Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Publishing 北京人民文學出版社.
Yuan Ke 袁柯. 1998. Zhongguo shenhua da cidian 中國神話大辭典. [Dictionary of Chinese Mythology.] Chengdu: Sichuan Cishu Publishing 成都四川辭書出版社.
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LaFleur, R.A. Time, space, and the calendar in early Chinese mythology. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 8, 65–82 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40636-021-00214-4