Myths and Legends of China

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I ching dualism was not, rightly speaking, a cosmogony until Chou Tun-i made it one by the publication of his T’ai chi t’u in the eleventh century A.D. Over the unscientific and the scientific minds of the Chinese these two are paramount.

Applying the general principles stated in the preceding chapter, we find the same cause which operated to restrict the growth of mythology in general in China operated also in like manner in this particular branch of it. With one exception Chinese cosmogony is non-mythological. The careful and studiously accurate historians (whose work aimed at being ex veritate, ‘made of truth’), the sober literature, the vast influence of agnostic, matter-of-fact Confucianism, supported by the heavy Mencian artillery, are indisputable indications of a constructive imagination which grew too quickly and became too rapidly scientific to admit of much soaring into the realms of fantasy. Unaroused by any strong stimulus in their ponderings over the riddle of the universe, the sober, plodding scientists and the calm, truth-loving philosophers gained a peaceful victory over the mythologists. Page 93

1 Cf. Aristotle’s belief that bugs arose spontaneously from sweat.

2 For the Buddhist account see China Review, xi, 80–82.

3 Compare the Japanese legend, which relates that the Sun-goddess was induced to come out of a cave by being tempted to gaze at herself in a mirror. See Myths and Legends of Japan, F. Hadland Davis, pp. 27–28.

4 See Myths of the Norsemen, by H. A. Guerber. These resemblances and the further one—namely, the dualism in the prechaotic epoch (a very interesting point in Scandinavian mythology)—illustrate the danger of inferring identity of origin from similarity of physical, intellectual, or moral results. Several remarkable parallelisms of Chinese religious and mythological beliefs with those recorded in the Hebrew scriptures may also be briefly noted. There is an age of virtue and happiness, a garden with a tree bearing ‘apples of immortality,’ guarded by a winged serpent (dragon), the fall of man, the beginnings of lust and war (the doctrine of original sin), a great flood, virgin-born god-men who rescue man from barbarism and endow him with superhuman attributes, discipleship, worship of a Virgin Mother, trinities, monasticism, celibacy, fasting, preaching, prayers, primeval Chaos, Paradise, etc. For details see Chinese Repository, vii, 520–521.

5 Cf. the dwarfs in the Scandinavian myth.

6 See Legge, Shu ching, ii, 320, note.

7 In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is as well to note that the mention of the t’ai chi in the Canon of Changes (I ching) no more constituted monism the philosophy of China than did the steam-driven machinery mentioned by Hero of Alexandria constitute the first century B.C. the ‘age of steam.’ Similarly, to take another example, the idea of the earth’s rotundity, though conceived centuries before Ptolemy in the second century, did not become established before the sixteenth century. It was, in fact, from the I ching that the Chinese derived their dualistic (not their monistic) conception of the world.

8 “Formerly, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flying about and feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was myself again, the veritable Chou. I did not know whether it had formerly been Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Chou.” Chuang Tzŭ, Book II.

Chapter IV

The Gods of China

The Birth of the Soul

The dualism noted in the last chapter is well illustrated by the Chinese pantheon. Whether as the result of the co-operation of the yin and the yang or of the final dissolution of P’an Ku, human beings came into existence. To the primitive mind the body and its shadow, an object and its reflection in water, real life and dream life, sensibility and insensibility (as in fainting, etc.), suggest the idea of another life parallel with this life and of the doings of the ‘other self’ in it. This ‘other self,’ this spirit, which leaves the body for longer or shorter intervals in dreams, swoons, death, may return or be brought back, and the body revive. Spirits which do not return or are not brought back may cause mischief, either alone, or by entry into another human or animal body or even an inanimate object, and should therefore be propitiated. Hence worship and deification.

The Populous Otherworld

The Chinese pantheon has gradually become so multitudinous that there is scarcely a being or thing which is not, or has not been at some time or other, propitiated or worshipped. As there are good and evil people in this world, so there are gods and demons in the Otherworld: we find a polytheism limited only by a polydemonism. The dualistic hierarchy is almost all-embracing. To get a clear idea of this populous Otherworld, of the supernal and infernal hosts and their organizations, it needs but to imagine the social structure in its main features as it existed Page 94throughout the greater part of Chinese history, and to make certain additions. The social structure consisted of the ruler, his court, his civil, military, and ecclesiastical officials, and his subjects (classed as Scholars—officials and gentry—Agriculturists, Artisans, and Merchants, in that order).

Worship of Shang Ti

When these died, their other selves continued to exist and to hold the same rank in the spirit world as they did in this one. The ti, emperor, became the Shang Ti, Emperor on High, who dwelt in T’ien, Heaven (originally the great dome).1 And Shang Ti, the Emperor on High, was worshipped by ti, the emperor here below, in order to pacify or please him—to ensure a continuance of his benevolence on his behalf in the world of spirits. Confusion of ideas and paucity of primitive language lead to personification and worship of a thing or being in which a spirit has taken up its abode in place of or in addition to worship of the spirit itself. Thus Heaven (T’ien) itself came to be personified and worshipped in addition to Shang Ti, the Emperor who had gone to Heaven, and who was considered as the chief ruler in the spiritual world. The worship of Shang Ti was in existence before that of T’ien was introduced. Shang Ti was worshipped by the emperor and his family as their ancestor, or the head of the hierarchy of their ancestors. The people could not worship Shang Ti, for to do so would imply a familiarity or a claim of relationship punishable with death. The emperor worshipped his ancestors, the officials theirs, the people theirs. But, in the same way and sense that the people worshipped the emperor on earth, as the ‘father’ of the nation, namely, by adoration and Page 95obeisance, so also could they in this way and this sense worship Shang Ti. An Englishman may take off his hat as the king passes in the street to his coronation without taking any part in the official service in Westminster Abbey. So the ‘worship’ of Shang Ti by the people was not done officially or with any special ceremonial or on fixed State occasions, as in the case of the worship of Shang Ti by the emperor. This, subject to a qualification to be mentioned later, is really all that is meant (or should be meant) when it is said that the Chinese worship Shang Ti.