The Chinese Viking

The Chinese Viking

Pentecost 20

Yesterday we discussed the Viking creation myth. Tomorrow we will continue with the story of how the Norse mythology accounted for the characteristics of its culture. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to mention that these warriors, noted for both their skill on the water and their fierce spirit were not the first giants nor was Norse mythology the first mythology to speak of giants.

A Chinese creation myth starts out with the world in chaos and the chaos soon encapsulated itself into what the Chinese called a cosmic egg. Cosmic in modern times refers to the metaphysical or something from space but in ancient times cosmic was a synonym for universal. The Chinese referred to the chaos becoming a cosmic egg meaning all the universal became one in its birth. It is at this point that Chinese mythology branches out with different versions of the story coming forward.

In one version the egg contains a sleeping person who one day awakens, stretches, and like a young chick does, cracks the egg open. The person is called Pan Gu and the lighter parts of his cosmic egg form the sky with the heavier parts forming the earth. The created the separation of earth and sky and also began yin and yang, the two opposing elements of the universe that are so prominent in Chinese beliefs. Pan Gu awakes already larger than the typical man and he grows ten feet each day for 18,000 years. As he grew taller, Pan Gu pushed and shaped the earth into its present shape. Exhausted, Pan Gu falls asleep and dies. After his death, Pan Gu’s body parts became mountains to help anchor the earth and establish boundaries. His breath is said to have become the wind and clouds; his voice thunder; his eyes the sun and the moon. The world’s rivers were Pan Gu’s blood with his veins becoming roads. The rain was his sweat and his bones rocks, his teeth metal. His hairs on his head became the stars and his skin turned to soil while the hairs on his body became the vegetation growing out of the soil just as his hairs had grown out of his body.

Another version of the Chinese creation myth has the egg lying dormant for 18,000 years. Within the egg during this time, the perfectly opposable concepts of yin and yang were developed and balanced, causing the sleeping soul inside to awaken and emerge from the egg. This creature, depicted as a hairy giant is named Pan Gu who has horns on his head and who always wears furs. In this version Pan Gu creates the world and separates the yin from the yang with one mighty swing of an axe. The earth is the yin and the sky is the yang. With each passing day, the sky grows ten feet higher, the earth ten feet thicker, and Pan Gu ten feet taller. As in the other version, Pan Gu dies after 18,000 years. This story has his breath becoming the wind, mist and clouds. His voice is thunder, his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon. Pan Gu’s head become the mountains and extremes of the world, his blood, the rivers while his muscles the fertile land adorned with his fur which becomes the forests and foliage along the landscape. His bone marrow becomes sacred diamonds; his bones transformed into minerals of the earth. The Chinese saw the stars and the galaxy of space as the facial hair of Pan Gu and their rivers were his blood transformed.

In some versions of the creation tale, Pan Gu is accompanied by four animals: a turtle, a phoenix, a dragon, and a qilin. The phoenix was a mythical bird said to arise from the ashes and in modern times has become a symbol for reincarnation and recovery from disaster. In Chinese culture it was sometimes called the fenghuang, a combination of two words meaning male and female used to represent yin and yang. The fenghuang was also known as the “August rooster” and depictions of it were used on a national Chinese symbol during the early twentieth century. It is sometimes referred to as the “ho ho bird”. The phoenix was considered to represent great power from the heavens.

The qilin is also a mythical creature. It was a hooved creature usually depicted with fire all over its body. Prominent in Chinese and other Asian cultures, the presence of this chimerical animal whose body appeared to contain parts of other more commonly known creatures occurred during the passing or birth of a wise man or great ruler. Some of the versions tell of a unicorn rather than the qilin but it is interesting that whether a qilin or unicorn, Pan Gu’s mythical helper is a four-footed cloven animal. This he has animal helpers who crawl, walk, fly, and breathe fire while being able to both walk and fly.

In some of the versions of Pan Gu’s tale, he himself creates humans out of the clay of the earth. In other versions, the fleas from his fur fall to the earth and become animals which evolve into humans. IN the tales of Pan Gu sculpting humans from the clay, he places them in the sun to dry. Some get more light than others which explains the different skin hues of mankind. A great flood appears and Pan Gu is forced to hurriedly gather his human sculptures. Some are not fully dried and this, to the Chinese, explains why some humans are crippled or disabled.

 

The earliest recorded stories of Pan Gu appeared in the second century ACE and the writer’s name has been found carved into the side of a wall of a cave. Xu Zheng lived during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history making these myths some of the earliest to be recorded and their authorship a known personage. Primarily a character in Taoist beliefs, Pan Gu is also mentioned in Chinese Buddhist mythology. After the death of Pan Gu, it is said that the Chinese goddess Nuwa used yellow clay to firm humans. These humans were said to be extremely smart but soon Nuwa tired and began making humans with a rope dipped in the clay. The humans created this way were not as smart.

We’ve discussed before the interesting phenomenon about the history of mankind in which similar things appear on the planet at similar times but at great distances from each other. It is not that unusual for the various mythologies to seek to answer basic questions like who are we and where did we come from and how. What is interesting is that those answers seem to have so much in common. The barren icy topography of the Norse mythology is very far away from the Chinese Asian continent. Given the lack of communication and travel restrictions, it is somewhat safe to assume that neither had knowledge of the other. And yet, both sought to explain giants and the infirmities of man.

It is through our myths that we see our spirit, the human spirit that lives in each of us. Whether you believe we were created from a cosmic explosion or by the hands of a loving creator, we share so much in common. The pain we feel is the same pain another feels. Stomp on a toe and it will hurt. Crush the spirit of hope and the soul will wither. Feed the light within each of us and peace has a chance to blossom.

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