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5-08-2015, 22:37

Religion, Philosophy, and Mythology

Spirituality and mythology have been deeply rooted in Chinese culture for thousands of years. In fact, many Western folktales, fairy tales, and myths known in modern times have ancient Chinese versions.

For example, “The Tiger and the Grandmother” is a Chinese version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The oldest

written version of “Cinderella” came from China. It was written by author Duan Chengshi and published in the 853 CE. The next earliest written version of “Cinderella” appeared in France in 1544.

China also has its own mythology, complete with mythological creatures. The dragon, unicorn, phoenix, and tortoise all play important roles in Chinese mythology. These creatures may look familiar to some of the creatures often associated with Western mythology, but the creatures of Chinese myth often have different characteristics.

The Chinese Zodiac

The ancient Chinese practiced astrology. In Chinese astrology, each year is named after an animal. The animals are the 12 signs that run along the path of the sun through the solar system. The legend of the years of each animal is rooted in Buddhism. One New Year, Buddha invited all of the animals to come to him, but only 12 animals showed up: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each had a year named after

it. The position of the sun, moon, and planets at the time of a person’s birth determined his or her destiny.

As other zodiacs do, the Chinese zodiac explains the characteristics of the people born in that year. The ancient Chinese believed the year in which a person is born affected that person’s fortune. Marriages and other major life decisions were made after consulting the zodiac.


The dragon has long been a symbol of Chinese culture. Dragon statues have been found dating back to Neolithic times. Dragons appeared on artwork and on buildings. Unlike Western dragons, ancient Chinese dragons were not seen as dangerous monsters. Instead, they were considered good luck.

The Han dynasty described the dragon as having the trunk of a snake, tail of a whale, face of a camel, claws of an eagle, feet of a tiger, scales of a carp, antlers of a deer, and ears of a bull. If you look closely at traditional Chinese dragon depictions, you may be able to see some of the features from other animals. Most dragons are shown with four claws because the five-clawed dragon was reserved for the emperor.

The ancient Chinese had many beliefs surrounding dragons. According to ancient Chinese legend, dragons ruled over the four seas around China: the East Sea, the West Sea, the South Sea, and the North Sea. Each sea had its own guardian dragon. The dragons lived in the water and could fly. Instead of fire, the dragons breathed clouds. They could become invisible or change shape and size. Sometimes they even appeared in human form.

Some people believed dragons caused floods when they traveled down a river. Farmers prayed to the dragons during a drought because legend said when dragons played in the clouds, they brought rain.

In ancient Chinese culture, dragons represented strength and goodness and were symbols of spring. Dragon processions, often held in the spring, ushered the return of the dragon that spent winter underground.


The fenghuang is the most honored of all birds in Chinese mythology. It looks like a peacock, but it is immortal. It is the female counterpart to the dragon. The bird was the symbol of the empress and often appeared in ancient Chinese ceremonial costumes. According to ancient Chinese legend, the fenghuang appears only when reason, peace, and prosperity are prevailing in the country. A fenghuang’s appearance was a sign that a new emperor would bring harmony to the country.

The tortoise is another creature of Chinese mythology believed to have special symbolism. Because it is one of the oldest creatures on Earth, it is a symbol of longevity, strength, endurance, and wealth.

The unicorn, or qilin, is also a creature of good luck and longevity. The male qilin has a horn, but the female does not. The Chinese version of the unicorn looks much like a four-legged, hooved dragon. Legend says the last time a qilin showed itself was when Confucius was born. It has not appeared since.

The Gods

The Chinese believed numerous gods inhabited the underworld, Earth, and heaven. In heaven, the Jade Emperor reigned supreme, but among the common people gods existed as well. The God of Walls and Moats protected each village. Each family received a god for protection, called the God of the Hearth. Another god, Guan Yu, protected fishermen. People worked to remain on the good side of the gods, worshiping them and offering them gifts. A life well lived might be rewarded with attainment of a godlike status in the afterlife.


Many ancient civilizations told stories of a great flood, and ancient China is no exception. The Chinese had many problems with flooding in the areas near the Huang and Yangtze Rivers. The Chinese have more than one flood story, but the most common features Gun and his son, Yu.

According to Chinese mythology, many years ago, flooding swept through the countryside, covering even the mountains of China. Emperor Yao, a mythical emperor who was said to live in the 2400s BCE, was dismayed by all of the flooding. He asked the four mountains what he should do. The mountains told Yao his cousin Gun could help with the flooding.

Gun began trying to control the floodwaters.

He stole Xirang, a self-expanding soil, from a god.

He tried to use it to absorb the water. Gun built dams and embankments to control the flooding, but nothing seemed to stop the raging waters that destroyed the lands.

After nine years of fighting the floods, Emperor Yao resigned. The new emperor, Shun, banished Gun because he had not been able to stop the flooding. Instead, Shun asked Gun’s son, Yu, to help.

Yu asked a dragon and a tortoise for help. The creatures showed Yu what to do. Yu grabbed the rivers and rerouted them to the sea. He used the dragon’s tail to cut ditches to guide the water away from the land. He dug canals, tunnels, and lakes to stop the flooding. Yu worked so hard he wore the nails off of his fingers and could no longer walk. However, because of his efforts, Yu became a demigod, or part god and part human.


The Chinese believed a person had two souls. One soul appeared at conception and died with the physical body. The higher soul, or spirit, formed at birth. When the body died, this spirit went to a heavenly place where it could watch over its descendants.

To protect its living descendants, the spirit required sacrifices offered in an ancestral temple. The living burned incense and offered food. If the spirit’s physical body was not given enough offerings at the burial site, it would come back to haunt the living. Saying bad things about one’s ancestors was the worst type of abusive language. It was believed the ancestors would come back and work evil on the living if they were not respected. Ancestral worship was most common in aristocratic Chinese society. This was because peasants did not have surnames, and therefore they did not have as strong a connection to ancestors to worship.


Kongfuzi, better known by his Latinized name, Confucius, was one of the most important figures in ancient Chinese spirituality and philosophy. Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BCE, during the Zhou dynasty.

Confucius originated from Lu, in modern-day Shandong Province, where he worked in a government post. He sought out teachers to instruct him and eventually became a teacher himself. Confucius wanted to reform the Zhou culture and promote his moral teachings and a commitment to improving oneself. Confucius continued to gain higher offices, first becoming a magistrate and then a minister of justice. He left Lu looking for an emperor who would adopt his teachings, but he was never able to have a ruler fully adopt his principles while he was alive.

Confucius’s philosophies, which became known as Confucianism, promoted principles of giving, trust, righteousness, appropriate behavior, and knowledge. He believed in always improving oneself and argued education should be easily available. Harmony among the people was more important than the rights of the individual. Confucius also explained, “never

do unto another what you do not desire.”1 He edited the traditional Nine Classics.

After Confucius’s death, his popularity grew.

The Han dynasty made his tomb a temple, and a Song dynasty scholar compiled all of his teachings. Confucianism continued to be the main philosophical guide in Chinese government until the early 1900s.


Taoism, like Confucianism, began as a philosophy, not a religion. It influenced Chinese society through art and literature. Taoism was based on the teachings of Laozi, a philosopher who probably lived during the 500s BCE. Unlike Confucianism, Taoism emphasized the individual, rather than the group. Followers lived according to “The Way,” or the force of Tao. The goal for those who practiced Taoism was finding a rhythm in the natural world. This rhythm could be achieved through a healthy diet and healthy habits such as meditation and martial arts, including Tai Chi.

Feng Shui

Feng shui literally means “wind and water.”2 The formal practice of feng shui dates back to Zhou dynasty times, but it may have started earlier. Feng shui studies the conditions of the spiritual and physical from the points of view of the spirits of earth, water, and wind. It is believed every place has its own qi, or spiritual breath, which can have a powerful effect on balance and harmony. The ancient Chinese believed graves, temples, and buildings should be built in connection with the principles of feng shui. For example, houses and graves need to face the south because summer comes from that direction. Winter comes from the north and is not preferable. It is also preferred that pathways are not straight. This is said to slow down the qi, so it will not travel with full force.


Buddhism played another important role in ancient China. This way of life came to China from India during the Han dynasty. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism spread all over the country. It is the most practiced religion in China today.

Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha, a man named Siddhartha Gautama who probably lived in India in the 500s and 400s BCE. According to Buddhist teachings, Gautama eventually achieved enlightenment, or freedom from the pain and suffering of the physical world, and became the Buddha. Buddha stressed the desire to achieve wisdom and compassion. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana, or a state of total peace and release from all human suffering. One can achieve nirvana through meditation, prayer, performing good deeds, and disciplined behavior.

Buddhism saw mountains as sacred places, so temples and Buddhist monasteries were built there. Cave temples with Buddhist sculptures were built throughout northern China’s mountains from roughly 300 to 400 CE. Empress Wu Zhao also promoted the building of many of the temples and cave sculptures.