Myths and Legends of China

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The Influence of Religion

Apart from this, the influence of Confucianism would have been even greater than it was, but for the imperial partiality periodically shown for rival doctrines, such as Buddhism and Taoism, which threw their weight on the side of the supernatural, and which at times were exalted to such great heights as to be officially recognized as State religions. These, Buddhism especially, appealed to the popular imagination and love of the marvellous. Buddhism spoke of the future state and the nature of the gods in no uncertain tones. It showed men how to reach the one and attain to the other. Its founder was virtuous; his commandments pure and life-sustaining. It supplied in great part what Confucianism lacked. And, as in the Page 63fifth and sixth centuries A.D., when Buddhism and Taoism joined forces and a working union existed between them, they practically excluded for the time all the “chilly growth of Confucian classicism.”

Other opponents of myth, including a critical philosopher of great ability, we shall have occasion to notice presently.

History and Myth

The sobriety and accuracy of Chinese historians is proverbial. I have dilated upon this in another work, and need add here only what I inadvertently omitted there—a point hitherto unnoticed or at least unremarked—that the very word for history in Chinese (shih) means impartiality or an impartial annalist. It has been said that where there is much myth there is little history, and vice versa, and though this may not be universally true, undoubtedly the persistently truthful recording of facts, events, and sayings, even at the risk of loss, yea, and actual loss of life of the historian as the result of his refusal to make false entries in his chronicle at the bidding of the emperor (as in the case of the historiographers of Ch’i in 547 B.C.), indicates a type of mind which would require some very strong stimulus to cause it to soar very far into the hazy realms of fanciful imagination.

Chinese Rigidity

A further cause, already hinted at above, for the arrest of intellectual progress is to be found in the growth of the nation in size during many centuries of isolation from the main stream of world-civilization, without that increase in heterogeneity which comes from the moulding by forces external to itself. “As iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Page 64Consequently we find China what is known to sociology as an ‘aggregate of the first order,’ which during its evolution has parted with its internal life-heat without absorbing enough from external sources to enable it to retain the plastic condition necessary to further, or at least rapid, development. It is in a state of rigidity, a state recognized and understood by the sociologist in his study of the evolution of nations.

The Prerequisites to Myth

But the mere increase of constructive imagination is not sufficient to produce myth. If it were, it would be reasonable to argue that as intellectual progress goes on myths become more numerous, and the greater the progress the greater the number of myths. This we do not find. In fact, if constructive imagination went on increasing without the intervention of any further factor, there need not necessarily be any myth at all. We might almost say that the reverse is the case. We connect myth with primitive folk, not with the greatest philosophers or the most advanced nations—not, that is, with the most advanced stages of national progress wherein constructive imagination makes the nation great and strong. In these stages the philosopher studies or criticizes myth, he does not make it.

In order that there may be myth, three further conditions must be fulfilled. There must, as we have seen, be constructive imagination, but, nevertheless, there must not be too much of it. As stated above, mythology, or rather myth, is the unscientific man’s explanation. If the constructive imagination is so great that it becomes self-critical, if the story-teller doubts his own story, if, in short, his mind is scientific enough to see that his explanation Page 65is no explanation at all, then there can be no myth properly so called. As in religion, unless the myth-maker believes in his myth with all his heart and soul and strength, and each new disciple, as it is cared for and grows under his hands during the course of years, holds that he must put his shoes from off his feet because the place whereon he treads is holy ground, the faith will not be propagated, for it will lack the vital spark which alone can make it a living thing.

Stimulus Necessary

The next condition is that there must be a stimulus. It is not ideas, but feelings, which govern the world, and in the history of mythology where feeling is absent we find either weak imitation or repetition of the myths of other peoples (though this must not be confused with certain elements which seem to be common to the myths of all races), or concoction, contamination, or “genealogical tree-making,” or myths originated by “leisurely, peaceful tradition” and lacking the essential qualities which appeal to the human soul and make their possessors very careful to preserve them among their most loved and valued treasures. But, on the other hand, where feeling is stirred, where the requisite stimulus exists, where the people are in great danger, or allured by the prize of some breathless adventure, the contact produces the spark of divine poetry, the myths are full of artistic, philosophic, and religious suggestiveness, and have abiding significance and charm. They are the children, the poetic fruit, of great labour and serious struggles, revealing the most fundamental forces, hopes, and cravings of the human soul. Nations highly strung, undergoing strenuous emotion, intensely energized by constant conflict with Page 66other nations, have their imagination stimulated to exceptional poetic creativeness. The background of the Danaïds is Egyptian, not Greek, but it was the danger in which the Greeks were placed in their wars with the sons of the land of the Pharaohs that stimulated the Greek imagination to the creation of that great myth.

This explains why so many of the greatest myths have their staging, not in the country itself whose treasured possessions they are, but where that country is ‘playing the great game,’ is carrying on wars decisive of far-reaching national events, which arouse to the greatest pitch of excitement the feelings both of the combatants and of those who are watching them from their homes. It is by such great events, not by the romance-writer in his peaceful study, that mythology, like literature, is “incisively determined.” Imagination, we saw, goes pari passu with intellectual progress, and intellectual progress, in early times, is furthered not so much by the mere contact as by the actual conflict of nations. And we see also that myths may, and very frequently do, have a character quite different from that of the nation to which they appertain, for environment plays a most important part both in their inception and subsequent growth—a truth too obvious to need detailed elaboration.

Persistent Soul-expression

A third condition is that the type of imagination must be persistent through fairly long periods of time, otherwise not only will there be an absence of sufficient feeling or momentum to cause the myths to be repeated and kept alive and transmitted to posterity, but the inducement to add to them and so enable them to mature and become complete and finished off and sufficiently attractive to Page 67appeal to the human mind in spite of the foreign character they often bear will be lacking. In other words, myths and legends grow. They resemble not so much the narrative of the story-teller or novelist as a gradually developing art like music, or a body of ideas like philosophy. They are human and natural, though they express the thought not of any one individual mind, but of the folk-soul, exemplifying in poetical form some great psychological or physiographical truth.

The Character of Chinese Myth

The nature of the case thus forbids us to expect to find the Chinese myths exhibiting the advanced state and brilliant heterogeneity of those which have become part of the world’s permanent literature. We must expect them to be true to type and conditions, as we expect the other ideas of the Chinese to be, and looking for them in the light of this knowledge we shall find them just where we should expect to find them.

The great sagas and eddas exalted among the world’s literary masterpieces, and forming part of the very life of a large number of its inhabitants, are absent in China. “The Chinese people,” says one well-known sinologist, “are not prone to mythological invention.” “He who expects to find in Tibet,” says another writer, “the poetical charm of Greek or Germanic mythology will be disappointed. There is a striking poverty of imagination in all the myths and legends. A great monotony pervades them all. Many of their stories, taken from the sacred texts, are quite puerile and insipid. It may be noted that the Chinese mythology labours under the same defect.” And then there comes the crushing judgment of an over-zealous Christian missionary sinologist: “There Page 68is no hierarchy of gods brought in to rule and inhabit the world they made, no conclave on Mount Olympus, nor judgment of the mortal soul by Osiris, no transfer of human love and hate, passions and hopes, to the powers above; all here is ascribed to disembodied agencies or principles, and their works are represented as moving on in quiet order. There is no religion [!], no imagination; all is impassible, passionless, uninteresting.... It has not, as in Greece and Egypt, been explained in sublime poetry, shadowed forth in gorgeous ritual and magnificent festivals, represented in exquisite sculptures, nor preserved in faultless, imposing fanes and temples, filled with ideal creations.” Besides being incorrect as to many of its alleged facts, this view would certainly be shown by further study to be greatly exaggerated.

Periods Fertile in Myth

What we should expect, then, to find from our philosophical study of the Chinese mind as affected by its surroundings would be barrenness of constructive imagination, except when birth was given to myth through the operation of some external agency. And this we do find. The period of the overthrow of the Yin dynasty and the establishment of the great house of Chou in 1122 B.C., or of the Wars of the Three States, for example, in the third century after Christ, a time of terrible anarchy, a medieval age of epic heroism, sung in a hundred forms of prose and verse, which has entered as motive into a dozen dramas, or the advent of Buddhism, which opened up a new world of thought and life to the simple, sober, peace-loving agricultural folk of China, were stimuli not by any means devoid of result. In China there are gods many and heroes many, and the very fact of the existence Page 69of so great a multitude of gods would logically imply a wealth of mythological lore inseparable from their apotheosis. You cannot—and the Chinese cannot—get behind reason. A man is not made a god without some cause being assigned for so important and far-reaching a step; and in matters of this sort the stated cause is apt to take the form of a narrative more or less marvellous or miraculous. These resulting myths may, of course, be born and grow at a later time than that in which the circumstances giving rise to them took place, but, if so, that merely proves the persistent power of the originating stimulus. That in China these narratives always or often reach the highest flights of constructive imagination is not maintained—the maintenance of that argument would indeed be contradictory; but even in those countries where the mythological garden has produced some of the finest flowers millions of seeds must have been sown which either did not spring up at all or at least failed to bring forth fruit. And in the realm of mythology it is not only those gods who sit in the highest seats—creators of the world or heads of great religions—who dominate mankind; the humbler, though often no less powerful gods or spirits—those even who run on all fours and live in holes in the ground, or buzz through the air and have their thrones in the shadow of a leaf—have often made a deeper impress on the minds and in the hearts of the people, and through that impress, for good or evil, have, in greater or less degree, modified the life of the visible universe.