On the Origin of Species

There are two main myths about the origin of human beings in Chinese mythology. From the Handbook of Chinese Mythology:

Another ancient writing, Fensu Tongyi (Popular Customs and Traditions, second century CE), records another well-known myth relating to Nuwa. Nuwa created human beings by molding them from yellow earth with her hands, since the sky and the earth had been created but no humans yet existed.

The work drained here strength and took a lot of time, so she took a cord and pulled it through the mud, then she lifted the cord and shook it. All of the sludge that fell down from the cord became men and women. Thus, rich and noble people were those made by Nuwa’s hands, while poor and lowly people were those made by Nuwa dragging a cord through the mud. (Yang and An 172)

Clearly, there are some aristocratic social values conveyed in this myth. Some contemporary versions of the myth explain that rain began to fall as Nuwa was drying the clay people, “so they hurriedly swept the models with a broom into a dustpan and carried them into the cave. During the process, some models lost their legs or arms and some were hurt in the eyes and ears. That is why there are both healthy people and disabled people today in this world” (Yang and An 173).

The other myth involves the creator Pan Gu, who separated heaven and earth from primordial chaos. Somewhat like the Norse Ymir (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning VIII), when he died his body transformed into the features of the earth. Also like the myth of Ymir and the dwarves (XIV), some of the inhabitants of the earth came from his body as well:

This was first recorded in Wuyun Linianji (A Chronicle of the Five Circles of Time, third century CE), a book compiled during the Three Kingdoms era. When Pangu was dying, his body began to transform: his breath became the winds and clouds, his voice became the thunder, his left eye became the sun, his right eye became the moon, his four limbs and trunk became the four extremes of the earth and the Five Mountains, his blood became the rivers, his veins became the earth’s arteries, his flesh became fields and soil, his hair and beard became the stars, his skin and body hair became plants, his teeth and bones became various metals and rocks, his semen and marrow became pearls and jade, his sweat became the rain and the dew, and the various insects on his body reacted to the wind and turned into human beings. (Yang and An 177)

Now there’s a nice story, huh?


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