[This sensitive topic turns out to need a methodological introduction. Those who have read it before may skip to the table of contents by clicking here].
Gods. As conventionally used, "myth" means one of two things: (1) stories of the gods or the creation of the world, things lying wholly in the supernatural domain, or (2) exaggerated or invented stories of humans or human events. Outside of popular folklore (and there is no early source for popular folklore), Chinese myths are mostly of the second type. China does not, for example, see law as the gift of some deity (as the Near Eastern cultures typically do), but as instituted by some culture hero. Even China's improbable animals, such as the dragon, seem to have evolved gradually from a naturalistic form (a serpentlike creature) to a less naturalistic one (a winged creature; first known in the Warring States). Comparative mythologists tend to approach each new culture with powerful inner convictions about what they will find. But given the general situation which the Chinese data tend to imply, it would be a methodological error to expect certain categories of myth to be automatically present in China. They may in fact be absent. That Chinese myths are late is the principal point of this quote from Werner (1932):
The phases through which myth has passed in China may be briefly summarized. Though the beginnings of Chinese myth are hidden from us, there is good reason to believe that Chinese and Indian myth had a common origin, which was somewhere outside of China. When myth is first discernible, we find "an age of magic" followed by "an heroic age." "Primitive mythology" is said to have been invented or imitated from foreign sources after 820 BC. Before that date, myths are very rare. In the following century, myths of an astrological character began to attract attention. In the age of Lao Tzu (born 604 BC) fresh legends appear, and then there is a gap during the long classical period until the time of the Warring States (Chan Kuo, 500-100 BC) when new stimuli and great emotion prompted to mythological creation. (page xix)
The lateness of Chinese myth has been confirmed by subsequent research. Werner speaks of an "age of Laudz." There is no "age of Laudz." The 06c "Laudz" is a backward projection, the cast cultural shadow of a person who lived two centuries later, in the Warring States period. There is no "gap" between the age of Laudz and the Warring States; they are the same period. The Chinese situation is thus even more striking than Werner, relying on traditional dates, could have realized. Chinese myths are late.
Outside Origin. Werner's other point is that many Chinese myths suggest an origin outside of China. This too seems to be sound. It is explicit in the case of the Queen of the West (Syi Wangmu) and with the Myau origin of Chinese law as told in the Lw Sying text. Some myths first attested in Warring States times have disturbingly close parallels with myths from West Asia. The implied connection is made more plausible by the fact that evidence for outside origin occurs on the mundane level as well. Greek intellectual puzzles echoed in Chinese texts, which have often been noted as possible instances of contact, turn out (Brooks 1999) to cluster after a definite beginning date, a date which closely follows Alexander's 0329-0327 conquest of Bactria. Bactria was not just some town, in antiquity it was the exchange point for the western and eastern silk routes. What Alexander did from the Chinese point of view was to Hellenize the western end of the silk route. This made the transfer of Greek ideas back along that route suddenly very easy. Again, there seems to be little doubt that the appearance of coinage (as distinct from bullion money) in both India and China was stimulated by the Lydian coinage of Asia Minor. All this suggests a network of limited but real mutual awareness across all of Asia at least as early as the 06th century. It strengthens the likelihood that contact with other cultures, which must be invoked to explain the mundane cases, explains the presence of many Chinese supernatural motifs also. Werner's two points are obviously connected. The late date of Chinese myths increases the probability of the outside origin of at least some of those myths.
Not all alien origins need to be geographically remote. Thus, the divinely associated water cosmogony in the recently discovered Tai-Yi text is indeed recognizable from myths in other cultures, but is not early (that text is from c0288), and it is not Chinese: it arises in non-SiniticChu.
Culture Heroes. The work done by gods in other cultures seems to be mostly achieved by other means in China. Prominent among those means is the culture hero, and most Chinese culture heroes are either rulers or ministers. They represent the formative power of sovereignty in the culture. In China, we do not seem to have one more example of a supposed universal human urge to create creation myths. We have instead a culture where, between the realm of nature and the realm of man, there stands the zone of sovereignty. What is constant across cultures, it would appear, is not the presence of creation myths, but the tendency in any culture to formulate explanations in terms of dominant elements in that culture. In China, or at least in the Sinitic part of what we call China, it is not gods, but the state and its symbols, the real or imagined rulers of antiquity, who tend to figure in such explanations. Culture heroes may also have a role in introducing the things they do not simply invent. Thus the beginnings of law are not ascribed in China, as they are in the Near East, to the gods, but (in the Lw Sying document, of c0350) to a culture hero's Sinicizing humanization of cruel alien practices. The Queen of the West is not simply presented as a deity, but as an intriguing being who was reached (in a tale of c0315) by an epic westward journey of King Mu of Jou.
Development. Once established in a culture, from whatever source, myths tend to grow in the culture. The classic Chinese case of such growth, discovered by Tswei Shu and rediscovered by Gu Jye-gang, is the addition, over time, of increasingly ancient emperors to the far end of the ruler list. Pan Gu, a shadowy creator of the world, who came to occupy the extreme end of the list, does not appear in the classical period at all, but only in Han, and even in Han, he is not well integrated into the previous series of rulers. The classical period itself began by being uncertain about the recent "Three Dynasties" of Sya, Shang, and Jou. "Confucius" is made to say in an early 04c Analects passages that the ritual practices of Sya and Shang are not sufficiently attested to be knowable. In a late 04c Analects passage, however, he is made to say that ritual changes can be predicted by rule, up to a hundred generations into the future. This Analects pattern of increasing confidence in what is known about the past is part of the larger tendency, across the entire culture, toward increasinglyu bold claims about the more remote portions of the past. The accuracy of the claimed knowledge can be doubted. What is unmistakable is the increasing complexity of the claims.
The investigator should not assume that the late and elaborate versions of these social constructions are more accurate than the earlier simple versions. The general picture is of an energetically creative approach to the past, considered as a source of theoretical validation for the policies which it was desired to recommend in the present. Neither should the early and skimpy accounts of the Queen of the West be replaced, in our account of the past, by later and more attractive accounts. Both should be seen as stages on the larger trajectory of invention and extension; the meeting of personal or social needs.
Men. The same applies to merely human myths. Thus, the supposed 06c general Sun Wu is a backward projection of the perfectly historical 04c Chi strategist Sun Bin, who however continues to exist alongside Sun Wu in the received account of Chinese history. Unlike Laudz, whose myth as it develops verges into the supernatural, but which can be brought back to the factual germ from which it later grew, the Sun Wu myth is altogether an invention; it has to be expunged so as to make the real figure of Sun Bin intelligible. This is not known a priori; each case must be studied on its merits. But in general, we cannot assume that an exaggerated story has a true story as its kernel: sometimes, as with Sun Wu, there is no kernel at all (it is notorious that the Dzwo Jwan narrates in great detail a battle supposedly won by Sun Wu, but without mentioning him). As to why myth should be made in the first place, consider the shelves of any Barnes and Noble store. If you are selling ancient wisdom, the more ancient, the better. And if you are recommending new policies, the better precedent you can show for those policies, the less resistance the ruler is likely to feel. China carries to an extreme the notion that the tried is better than the untried.
Topoi. Myths are thus not true as they stand. In some cases they are not true at all. But there are some regularities in the way they grow. The chief regularity is that they grow in response to the interests or the felt needs of a given time. Those interests or needs will tend to create hot buttons: highly reactive themes in the culture. One highly reactive theme in the late Chinese classical period is personal betrayal. Another is recognition by a superior or by that ideal superior, a ruler. Such themes tend to generate stories which illustrate them. A theme capable of generating such stories we call a topos. The topoi in a literature are useful as a map of the reactive spots, the high profile concerns, of the culture. Both the betrayal theme and the recognition theme express crises in careers. What both ultimately document is not a set of events in real lives, but a general concern with career vicissitudes.
So when we hear how a King of Wu read the works of Sun Wu and conceived a desire to employ him, we should remember that there is a similar story of a King of Chin reading the works of Han Fei and conceiving a desire to employ him, and another story of a Han Emperor reading the works of Szma Syang-ru and conceiving a desire to employ him. Topoi abound in the Dzwo Jwan (completed c0312), and even more in the Jan-Gwo Tsv family of texts, and still more in the Shr Ji. Unless we can demonstrate that one story in such a topical cluster is the source of the other ones, and thus may itself have a historical basis, we cannot safely take any of the stories as fact, even as a distorted elaboration of fact. Any given member of a topos set may be an invention: the application of a popular design template to new material.
Cultures. It follows that stories both true and invented (and it can be a tedious task to determine which are which) tell us chiefly about the culture in which they occur: its worries, its sensibilities, its aspirations. Stories which speak to points of cultural receptivity will find a warmer reception, and are more likely to get into collections of anecdotes, than those that don't. Personas like that of Confucius, which prove capable of drastic modification over time, are durable in the consciousness of the culture (even if, as with Confucius, they may be transformed out of recognition). Those less available to thematic shaping tend to vanish from the literature. The several hundred poets of Tang are reduced to a dozen poets with which the Sung critics of Sung feel they have to deal. Culture exaggerates, and culture also winnows. The historian is the observer of this process. History, indeed, can be seen as in large part concerned to describe this process.
With this much by way of introduction, here are some myths where the cultural evolution of early China, and in the end the psychological inwardness of early China, can be seen with special clarity.
- Hou Ji
- The Queen of the West
- Shvn Nung
- The Nine Ding
Persons and Personas
- Ancient Emperors
- Yi Yin
- Chidyau Kai
- Sun Wu
- Betrayal of Early Friendship
- Fidelity Unto Death
- Recognition of Unlikely Talent
- Recognition Through Writings
- Violence Against Women
29 July 2000 / Contact The Project / Exit to Results Page