Header images courtesy of Ryan Moulton and Danielle Barnes (via Unsplash)
As can be expected from a civilisation with a long-standing history, Chinese mythology is far from monolithic and is the result of the integration and absorption of various nearby cultures from different historical periods. It is fair to say that Chinese folklore, legends, and stories are an amalgamation of ideas from Han Chinese culture, the Han predecessors known as Huaxia, Manchurian culture, Tibetan faith and mythology, Korean mythology, and many others besides.
Much of mythology revolves around exciting tales of heroic archetypes, villains, deities, and supernatural beings, designed to promulgate religious ideas or cultural values. While some such characters have become famous enough to have transcended cultural boundaries—many in the western world have heard of Sun Wukong the Monkey King (孫悟空), and the goddess of the moon Chang’e (嫦娥), for example—there are plenty of other less humanoid creatures just as important to Chinese culture, but whose stories are lesser known to those outside East Asian cultural circles. Here are seven Chinese mythical creatures and supernatural beings that are interesting to know about!
Possibly the most ubiquitous of all of Chinese mythological creatures, the dragon has long been a revered symbol of power and luck. While typically stylised as powerful but also aggressive and rather malicious in European culture, Chinese and East Asian dragons are seen as highly auspicious, bringing about luck, windfall, and harmony. You won’t find St George being praised or canonised in Asia for slaying a dragon!
In imperial China, the only person allowed to use and wear motifs of this creature was the emperor, and thus the dragon has always been used as a symbol of the royal family. While imperial family members like princes were also allowed to bear this symbol on their robes and accessories, they would use a four-clawed dragon, while the mightier five-clawed dragon was reserved solely for the emperor. When China created its first national flag during the Qing dynasty, it was only natural that its main feature was a dragon. In Hong Kong, a semblance of this cultural relevance was represented in the use of a dragon as part of our coat of arms while under British rule.
Chinese dragons also differ from European dragons in that they are depicted as long and snake-like, with no wings. This is also the style in which the Japanese depict their dragons, but just speak to a tattoo artist well-versed in Asian culture and design, and they’ll tell you the easiest way to tell between them is to look at their feet—Chinese dragons are usually drawn with five claws, while Japanese dragons have three.
This mythical bird is another typically traditional Chinese creature. According to the earliest-surviving Chinese dictionary Erya from the third century, the phoenix has the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag, and the tail of a fish. Most depictions are not quite as detailed, and mostly show a multicoloured pheasant-like bird with long tail feathers like a peacock.
Male phoenixes were originally called 鳳 (fung6) and the females were called 凰 (wong4), but this gender distinction is often no longer made, and all phoenixes are collectively known as 鳳凰 (fung6 wong4). This creature is a mostly feminine entity, the polar opposite to dragons, which are generally seen as masculine.
Symbolising high virtue and grace, the phoenix was used exclusively in imperial households by the empress. The combined motif of dragon and phoenix symbolises the union of yin and yang, and is therefore often seen in marriage ceremonies. Male and female fraternal twins are also referred to in Chinese as 龍鳳胎 (lung4 fung6 toi1; dragon and phoenix infants).
Though its origins are unclear, Nian is a mythical beast that is one of the key characters to the Lunar New Year. As legend has it, at the beginning of every year, Nian would come out of its lair to feed on men and animals in nearby villages. Some stories describe it as a creature like a flat-faced lion with a dog’s body and large incisors, while others say it is a huge beast with two long horns and sharp teeth.
In a bid to drive the Nian away from their homes, the villagers discovered that the beast has a fear of fire, loud noises, and the colour red. They then decked out their homes in red decorations, lit fires, clashed gongs and cymbals, and set off loud firecrackers—traditions that we have retained in Lunar New Year celebrations to this day. The presence of the Nian in Chinese culture is also the reason why we refer to the Lunar New Year holiday as 過年 (gwo3 nin4)—to “pass over Nian.”
This odd mythical creature is a hooved chimaera whose appearance is said to signal the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or an illustrious ruler. They are thought to be divine, peace-loving creatures, only appearing in areas ruled over by wise and benevolent leaders. The qilin was first mentioned in text in the fifth-century literary commentary Zuo Zhuan, and is later mostly associated with the giraffe.
Some Chinese explorers supposedly made a voyage to East Africa during the Ming dynasty, bringing back many exotic animals to China, including giraffes. The emperor was convinced that their capture was a sign of his great power and might, and named the giraffe the qilin. This theory is supported by the description of the qilin as being a quiet herbivore, with the ability to “walk on grass without disturbing it”, antlers like a deer, and scales like a dragon—qualities that may also artfully describe a giraffe’s long, thin legs, horn-like ossicones, and tessellated pattern on its coat. This identification of giraffes with the qilin has had lasting influences: in Korean and Japanese, the same word is still used for both the long-necked animal and the mythical creature.
Because the qilin has a single horn, it is often translated into English as a “Chinese unicorn,” though this can be misleading as they are very different beasts and, in any case, some qilin may also be depicted as having two horns.
Another hybrid, chimerical creature, the pixiu is mostly depicted as a stocky, winged lion. In more detail, they have the head of a Chinese dragon, the body of a lion, and will have either one or two antlers on their head. Males have one antler, and are said to bring wealth home to its master, as well as guard the money already at home; females are identified by two antlers, and will ward off evil.
They are said to be auspicious and can attract wealth towards itself, though this is likely because it is also described as having a voracious appetite for gold, silver, and precious stones. It is also said that pixiu do not have anuses, meaning they will ingest money and wealth without later passing it out. For these qualities, this is a mythical creature popularly used in the art of feng shui—pixiu decorations placed around the home, office, or as small accessories on your person are said to bring wealth and prosperity.
Not every mythical creature is one that has positive connotations, of course. The fox spirit is a common character in East Asian folklore, appearing in tales and literature in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. Mostly depicted as mischievous shape-shifters, the fox spirit often appears in tales disguised as a beautiful woman, usually attempting to seduce men for their own entertainment or to eventually feed on them. This is why in today’s Chinese culture, a woman who actively attracts and seduces lots of partners is scornfully called a 狐狸精 (wu4 lei4 zing1; fox spirit).
The nine-tailed variety of the fox spirit appeared in the Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas), an ancient text from the Warring States era written by Yu the Great. Though described as an eater of mankind, the text does also state that it is an auspicious omen that appears during times of peace, and that eating a nine-tailed fox will protect a man from being poisoned by insects. This is also a creature that has been associated with divinity; the nine-tailed fox is sometimes depicted alongside the goddess of immortality Xi Wangmu, or being present at Mount Kunlun, the mythical divine mountain range.
The Chinese notion of a vampire is different to the blood-sucking, coffin-dwelling, garlic-fearing western variety. Though commonly referred to in English as vampires, they are more akin to zombies—its Chinese name 殭屍 (goeng1 si1) literally means “stiff corpse”. Vampires are often depicted as grey-green bodies dressed in official garments from the Qing dynasty, that gets around by hopping with its arms outstretched in front. Instead of feasting on fresh blood, they kill living creatures to absorb their qi life force.
Ideas as to why a dead person might end up becoming a vampire vary from source to source, but some causes include the use of supernatural acts such as voodoo to resurrect the dead, a body not being buried after the funeral, when a pregnant or black cat leaps across the coffin, or when there is an inherent clash in good and evil within a person’s soul and the good portion departs for the afterlife while the bad part remains and reanimates the dead body.
A supposed origin for vampire tales comes from the folk practise of transporting a corpse over long distances when a loved one passes away far from home. As legend has it, poor people who could not afford to have their dearly departed transported back to them could hire a Taoist priest to reanimate the body and have it “hop” their way home. These priests would operate only at night, ringing bells to alert people in the vicinity as it is considered bad luck for the living to lay eyes on a vampire. Taoist paper talismans might also be stuck to a vampire’s forehead to immobilise it as and when needed by the priests, a feature that is still present in popular depictions of vampires in films and drawings to this day.
Traditional Chinese architectural styles always feature doors with a bottom jamb or raised threshold approximately 15 centimetres in height; it is typically said that this is to prevent vampires from being able to enter households because they can only hop, and cannot lift their legs high enough to climb over the threshold.