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5 ancient Chinese legends that you should know

By Catharina Cheung 24 August 2020 | Last Updated 20 August 2021

Header image courtesy of “The Creation of the Milky Way” by Guo Xu (via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no denying that Chinese history and culture are long and varied, and a philosophical study of the Chinese worldview will reveal that a lot of the values and ideals that people have were disseminated through the form of myths and legends. Despite the misconception that Chinese people are mostly Buddhist, the fact is that there are various other religions and deity worship that have also contributed to mythological lore.

Often, Chinese legends also carry some sort of underlying moral or feature a culturally heroic character who is meant to inspire those who hear the tale. Here are five Chinese legends about creation, deities and higher beings, and love.

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“Goddess Nüwa Mends the Heavens” by Xiao Yuncong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nüwa and creation

Every culture has its own creation myths, and the Chinese are no exception. Nüwa (女娲) is a mother goddess figure credited with the creation of humanity in Chinese mythology. She resided in the newly created universe on Mount Kunlun but thought the world was far too empty.

As she sat by a river, Nüwa saw her reflection in the water and decided she wanted the universe to be populated with intelligent creatures like herself. She then moulded figurines using clay, each one different from the others, and breathed life into them. The world was no longer lonely for Nüwa and things were at peace.

That is, until the god of fire and the god of water got into a dispute. The latter was defeated in a fight and knocked over a mountain, which happened to be one of the pillars supporting the sky. The sky began to fall and the world sustained devastating damage. Not wanting to see humankind suffer, Nüwa gathered five different coloured stones, melted them down, and used them to mend the holes in the sky.

Cutting off the legs of a giant tortoise, she used them to prop up the four corners of the sky, and thus saved the earth from destruction. Because of these two events, Nüwa is considered the mythological mother of all Chinese people and is often depicted as having the body of a human woman and the tail of a snake.

“Inquiry of the Heavens” by Xiao Yuncong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hou Yi shooting down the suns

As legend has it, the Sun Goddess had 10 sons with the Supreme God, who all acted in turn as 10 suns. Every morning, the Goddess would send one of her sons to be on duty in the sky, sending light to the earth.

One day, the 10 sons decided to travel to earth together for a visit. Unfortunately, as these 10 fiery beings got close, their intense heat began scorching the world and everything that lived in it. The people’s desperate pleas to be saved were heard by the Supreme God, who didn’t want to see the earth destroyed, and sent for Hou Yi (后羿), a legendary archer with a magical bow.

Angered by the suffering of the people, Hou Yi began shooting down the suns one by one. As he was aiming for the last one, the people stepped in and told him they need the sun for light and warmth. Hou Yi was revered for this courageous act, and this is why we have one sun in the sky.

Photo: Snow Pavilion

Tu’er Shen

This lesser-known Chinese deity is a particularly interesting one, because he is the patron deity of homosexual love. According to What the Master Would Not Discuss, a Qing dynasty work of literature, Tu’er Shen (兔兒神) was once a man named Hu Tianbao. He fell in love with a handsome imperial inspector of Fujian and was caught spying on him taking a bath. Hu was sentenced to death for his offence, but a month later, he appeared in a village elder’s dream. Because his crime was one of love, he claimed, the officials in the underworld felt it was unfair and so appointed him the god and safeguard of homosexual affections.

In the dream, Hu demanded that the local men build him a temple where they can burn incense in the interest of the “affairs of men.” This was quickly completed, and the shrine grew so popular in Fujian that the “cult” of Hu Tianbao was the target of extermination by the Qing government.

Tu’er Shen is literally translated as “the Rabbit Deity,” and some versions of the tale claim that he reappeared in the dream as a rabbit, but it is more likely that the name is a reference to the slang term for homosexuals in late imperial China: rabbits.

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“The Moon of the Milky Way” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Cowherd and the Weaver

There was once a cow herder called Niulang (牛郎), who was poor and owned nothing but an old ox, which was actually an immortal banished from heaven and made to live on earth as an animal. One day, the ox said to Niulang, “If you wish to get married, go to the lake, and your wish will be granted.”

Doing so, Niulang saw seven princesses descending from heaven to bathe in the lake. The youngest princess, who was skilled at weaving and called Zhinü (织女), had her clothes blown away by a gust of wind, and could not return to heaven like her sisters without her celestial garb. Niulang helpfully returned her clothes and, fascinated by her beauty, asked for Zhinü’s hand in marriage. Tired of her secluded life in heaven, she agreed. Niulang and Zhinü fell in love, had two children, and lived happily for two years.

A year on earth equates to just a day in heaven, so when the princess was found to be missing after two celestial days, they traced her to Niulang’s village. Of course, Zhinü was made to return to heaven, leaving behind a distraught Niulang. The old ox then told Niulang that he was close to death, and to use his hide as a flying carpet to catch up to Zhinü. The cowherd thanked the animal and did just so, chasing after his wife in the sky. Seeing his approach, the heavenly empress took out her golden hairpin and drew a line in the sky to halt his progress. This slash became a torrential river—the Milky Way—and the two lovers were thus separated.

They were forced to reside on different stars, but out of compassion for the couple, magpies gathered to form a bridge across the Milky Way so that Niulang and Zhinü could meet. Even the heavenly emperor was moved by their love for each other and allowed such a meeting once a year.

Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, the Chinese believe that these celestial lovers are having their annual reunion. This date is thus also celebrated as Chinese Valentine’s Day, known as Qixi, or the Double Seventh Festival. This year, Qixi fell on 14 August—did you look up at the night sky and see if you can spot their two stars?

Monument to Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Photo: Andrijko Z. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Butterfly Lovers

Hailed as a tragic love story to rival Romeo and Juliet, The Butterfly Lovers is a tale that has been told in China for over 1,400 years. As the story goes, Zhu Yingtai (祝英台) was an intelligent young woman who was the only daughter of a wealthy family. Girls were not allowed to go to school, but Zhu convinced her doting father to let her disguise herself as a man and receive education in Hangzhou.

There, she met Liang Shanbo (梁山伯), a penniless but knowledgeable scholar. Hitting it off right away, they formed a strong friendship and eventually became sworn brothers. After three years of studying together, it was time for Zhu to return home. Loathe to part so soon, Liang accompanied her for part of the journey, during which Zhu repeatedly used metaphors and the surrounding scenery to draw parallels, hinting that she is a girl. Unfortunately, Liang failed to understand her words, and the pair parted ways.

It wasn’t until several months later that Liang realised the truth and rushed to the Zhu household to ask for Zhu’s hand in marriage. But by then, Zhu’s father had already arranged for her engagement to a wealthy man. Heartbroken Liang returned home, fell deeply ill, and soon died.

Mourning her love’s death, Zhu made plans for her marriage procession to pass by Liang’s grave on the day of her wedding. Strong winds and rain pelted down, and a peal of lightning struck the tomb, which opened up. Choosing death over a loveless marriage, Zhu threw herself into Liang’s grave to join her true love. The couple were then magically transformed into a pair of beautiful butterflies, flying out of the tomb together, and were never apart again.

The story of the Butterfly Lovers gained such prominence that it spawned various songs, spin-off stories, regional operas, and films. One of the most popular artistic iterations is the violin concerto Liang Zhu, composed in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. To this day, this tale is often performed as a Cantonese opera in Hong Kong and is still very well received.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.