Myths and Legends of China
Sources of Chinese Myth
“So, if we ask whence comes the heroic and the romantic, which supplies the story-teller’s stock-in-trade, Page 70the 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, Page 71having 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.