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10 Chinese Myths to Know Before Visiting China

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

10 classic Chinese myths and folktales to know before visiting China.

10 classic Chinese myths and folktales to know before visiting China.

While there is certainly no shortage of material, it is challenging to write a list of “top 10” Chinese myths. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The best-known legends and folktales in Chinese mythology are not myths in the Western definition of the word. Instead, many stories are written works of fiction that became so popular and enduring, the Chinese started regarding them as legends. Many characters in these stories have also been deified and are actively worshiped today.
  2. Many characters in Chinese mythology have actual historical counterparts. This creates the curious situation of there being a historical version of things (i.e. the insipid version), and the mythical, magical version. Naturally, this list focuses on the latter.

Without further ado, here are 10 Chinese myths and folktales useful for anyone visiting China. These tales and their protagonists are frequently referenced in Chinese art, architecture, and cultural performances. You would also encounter such references all over China, or in any community with a significant Chinese population.

Top 10 Chinese Myths and Folktales to Know Before Visiting China

  1. Journey to the West
  2. Hou Yi, Chang'e, and the Rabbit of the Moon
  3. Investiture of the Gods
  4. Madam White Snake
  5. The Eight Immortals Cross the Eastern Sea
  6. Yu and the Great Flood
  7. The Lotus Lantern
  8. Pangu Creates the World
  9. Nüwa Heals the World
  10. The Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors
Monkey God Sun Wukong with his magical cudgel. The most famous "hero" in Chinese mythology.

Monkey God Sun Wukong with his magical cudgel. The most famous "hero" in Chinese mythology.

1. Journey to the West (西游记 Xi You Ji)

Easily the most famous of all Chinese myths, Journey to the West narrates the many adventures of the legendary Monkey King Sun Wukong (孙悟空), one of the most beloved characters in Chinese mythology.

Written in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en (吳承恩), the story was based on the pilgrimage of Tang Dynasty Monk Xuan Zang (玄奘), who traveled to the Western Regions i.e. India in search of Buddhist scriptures. According to researchers, Xuan Zang had various pets during his journey. Under Wu’s pen, these pets became Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie (猪八戒) and Sha Wujing (沙悟净).

Together, the magical trio defended Xuan Zang against numerous demons, many of which sought to feast on the holy monk to achieve immortality.

In total, Xuan Zang and his disciples also weathered a total of 72 calamities before reaching the West; in the process, battling and defeating tens of demons. Interestingly, the most well-known parts of Journey to the West are also not these events but the earliest chapters, which focused on the solo adventures of Sun Wukong.

In these chapters, Sun Wukong wreaked havoc on heaven after achieving great power through magical cultivation. He was further empowered by the magical Ru Yi Bang (如意棒), a wondrous cudgel that could morph to any size. Sun stole the artifact from Dragon King of the Eastern Sea.

Sun was only subdued after he failed a challenge issued by Gautama Buddha. The Buddha invited Sun to somersault out of his palm, which the arrogant Monkey King thought nothing of as he could traverse thousands of miles in a leap. In the end, Sun Wukong couldn’t even leave the heart of the Buddha’s palm.

As punishment for his mischief, Sun was imprisoned for 500 years under a magical mountain formed by the Buddha’s palm. His final atonement after release was then to accompany and protect Xuan Zang during the latter’s pilgrimage. This mission, in turn, sets the premise for the rest of the saga.

Interesting to know:

  • Zhu Bajie, Xuan Zang’s second disciple, had the face of a pig. He was also lazy, greedy, and lascivious, with a recurrent joke of the saga being Zhu always getting into trouble because of his many shortcomings. In practically all cases, he needed the resourceful Sun Wukong to bail him out.
  • Several modern Chinese sayings originated from Journey to the West. For example, “the inability to escape from the mountain of my hand” (逃不出我的五指山 tao bu chu wo de wu zhi shan). This saying came from how Su Wukong, despite his formidable abilities, could not even leap out of the hand of the mighty Buddha.
  • In 1942, Arthur Waley published a translated version titled Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China. In his version, the protagonists were given the anglicized names of Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.
  • Many Chinese today worship Sun Wukong as the Fighting Buddha (斗战胜佛 dou zhan sheng fo) or the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. The latter is based on Sun’s official Taoist title in the story. (齐天大圣 qi tian da sheng)
  • Over the years, Journey to the West has inspired many movies and television series, including Western productions such as Netflix’s The New Legends of Monkey.
  • Likewise, the adventures of the Monkey King is classic repertoire in Chinese opera.
  • The real-life sutras brought back to China by the historical Xuan Zang are currently kept at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. This ancient structure is one of the top tourist attractions of the ancient capital.
In Chinese creation myths, Hou Yi saved the world but doomed his marriage.

In Chinese creation myths, Hou Yi saved the world but doomed his marriage.

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2. Chang’e Ascends to the Moon (嫦娥奔月 Chang E Ben Yue)

In ancient Chinese creation myths and legends, Hou Yi (后羿) was a God of Archery. During his time, there was also not one but ten suns surrounding the world. The children of the God of the Eastern Heaven, these suns took turns illuminating the world. Each day, one sun would rise and bestow light upon humanity.

After many years, the suns tired of this rigid schedule and decided to all rise at the same time. Without surprise, the combined heat immediately plunged the world into a deadly drought. To save his people, the Emperor of Ancient China then appealed to mighty Hou Yi, who swiftly shot down nine of the suns. The mythological hero would have shot down the final sun too, but the Emperor advised that to do so would forever remove light from the world. The sole surviving sun was thus spared.

The world was saved but through his actions, Hou Yi gained a terrible enemy. The God of the Eastern Heaven was furious that Hou Yi killed nine of his boys. In revenge, he banished Hou Yi from heaven. He also stripped the hero of his immortality.

To restore himself, Hou Yi then sought the help of the Divine Mother of the West. After listening to his plight, the goddess pitied the archer and gave him an elixir of immortality. Sadly, and for reasons unknown, Hou Yi did not immediately consume this elixir. While out vanquishing more monsters, his wife Chang'e (嫦娥) found the elixir and ate it.

The elixir immediately transfigured Chang'e into an immortal and she ascended to the moon palace. There, she would spend the rest of eternity accompanied by only a rabbit. Hou Yi and Chang’e never met each other again. The beloved couple was forever separated.

Interesting to know:

  • Chang’e is pronounced in Mandarin not as “Chang-yee,” but as “Chaang-er.
  • The Chinese commemorate Chang'e’s ascension by celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. Throughout the eighth lunar month, the Chinese eat mooncakes and offer them as gifts too.
  • No thanks to NASA’s visit to the actual barren moon in 1969, this Chinese myth is nowadays somewhat of a joke with Chinese people. However, the huge amount of profits involved with making and selling mooncakes keeps the legend alive.
  • In Journey to the West, Zhu Bajie was cursed into his awful form as punishment for sexually harassing the Goddess of the Moon. This goddess is assumed to be Chang'e.
  • Some traditions also refer to Chang’e as Guanghan Xianzi (广寒仙子). The lunar palace is itself called Guanghan Gong (广寒宫).
  • Some modern text describes Chang’e as the “Chinese Goddess of the Moon.” However, she is more accurately, a Chinese moon fairy, as she is rarely worshipped.
With over a hundred supernatural characters, Investiture of the Gods is one of the most fascinating Chinese myths and story-perfect for movies. Shown here are the posters for three cinematic adaptations.

With over a hundred supernatural characters, Investiture of the Gods is one of the most fascinating Chinese myths and story-perfect for movies. Shown here are the posters for three cinematic adaptations.

3. Investiture of the Gods (封神演义 Feng Shen Yan Yi)

Like Journey to the West, Investiture of the Gods was written in 16th Century Ming Dynasty, with the author believed to be Xu Zhonglin (许仲琳). The inspiration for his masterpiece was the civil war leading to the establishment of the ancient Zhou Dynasty.

The story itself began in the final days of the Shang Dynasty (商朝). The emperor of then, Di Xin (帝辛), was a ruthless, womanizing tyrant. He was also notorious for having an evil concubine named Da Ji (妲己), the concubine herself said to be the human form of a nine-tailed vixen.

Together, the wicked duo was guilty of many nefarious acts, crimes such as ripping out fetuses to make elixirs and grilling righteous couriers to death with super-heated copper pillars. Their incessant brutality eventually resulted in an uprising spearheaded by the noble House of Ji (姬). Many magical warriors, sages, even deities subsequently joined the extended struggle.

With the capital and the imperial army under him, Di Xin initially had the upper hand. However, the House of Ji benefited from the assistance of Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), an elderly sage destined to appoint deities, but never to be one himself.

Through Jiang’s strategy and “connections,” many powerful characters were recruited to fight for the House of Ji. After numerous magical battles, the conflict finally ended with the capital conquered and Di Xin being forced to commit suicide. The wicked Da Ji and her nefarious sisters were also executed on the advice of Jiang Ziya.

Nezha, the Boy Warrior God

Curiously, and somewhat akin to Journey to the West, most Chinese are only familiar with one of the mini-stories found at the beginning of the work. Specifically, that of Nezha (哪吒), the third son of one of Di Xin’s leading generals.

Said to be the reincarnation of a divine being, Nezha was birthed with all sorts of fantastic weapons. For example, a golden “universal” ring, a magical brick, and a “heaven-befuddling” sash.

The hot-headed and powerful Nezha also got himself and his family into much trouble, his worst act being his slaying of a son of the Dragon King. To atone for his crimes, Nezha then committed suicide before his family and enemies.

He was subsequently resurrected, with his body remade from parts of the lotus. To ensure he behaves, his father, General Li Jing (李靖), was given a fantastical golden pagoda that could magically imprison Nezha and most other lifeforms. Father and son then became major players in the events leading to the downfall of the evil Shang Dynasty.

Interesting to know:

  • Chinese artworks nowadays mostly feature Jiang Ziya in his most renowned form. That of a raggedly dressed old man with a fishing rod.
  • In a way, Investiture of the Gods was the Chinese mythology version of the Trojan War saga.
  • Nezha and his dad appeared in Journey to the West too. Both lost to Sun Wukong during Sun’s battle with heaven.
  • Li Jing, with his pagoda, is formally titled Tuo Ta Tian Wang (托塔天王). Those familiar with Japanese myths would immediately notice his physical resemblance to the Japanese guardian, Bishamon.
  • Investiture of the Gods was made into several Japanese animes and games. It is one of the most popular and well-known Chinese myths in Japan.
  • Many warriors and sages in Investiture of the Gods are Taoist representations of Buddhist Bodhisattvas. This highlights the usually peaceful co-existence of Taoism and Buddhism throughout Chinese history.
  • Today, Nezha is worshiped by many Taoists today as San Taizi, or the Third Prince. Formally, he is also known as Zhongtan Yuanshuai (中坛元帅). The latter is an epithet that means “the marshal of the central altar.”
Madam White Snake is one of the four great folktales of China as well as classic repertoire in Chinese opera.

Madam White Snake is one of the four great folktales of China as well as classic repertoire in Chinese opera.

4. The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传 Bai She Zhuan)

Chinese myths and folktales about a magical white snake long existed in oral tradition before they were was put into writing. Most historians now believe Feng Menglong’s (冯梦龙) version to be the earliest written one.

In most versions, the story revolved around the marriage of young doctor Xu Xian (许仙) to Madam White (白娘子), a white snake spirit in human form. Despite being a spirit, Madam White was kind and caring. Her love for her husband was also deep and true, and she often uses her magic or wisdom to help his medical work.

Sadly, the exorcist monk Fa Hai (法海) strongly disapproved of the marriage, viewing it as a gross perversion of nature. To break up the couple, Fa Hai kidnapped Xu Xian and imprisoned him in the Temple of the Golden Mount (金山寺 jin shan si). Desperate to rescue her husband, Madam White and her companion Xiao Qing (小青) then assaulted the temple with an army of allies. To force Fa Hai into releasing Xu Xian, they also summoned a massive flood to besiege the temple.

While she did everything out of love, Madam White’s flood ultimately caused the death of many humans and animals. To punish her for her many “sins,” Fa Hai magically defeated Madam White and imprisoned her in the Thunder Peak Tower (雷峰塔 lei feng ta).

There, Madam White would languish for many years till the pagoda was destroyed by Mengjiao (夢蛟), her son with Xu Xian. In alternate versions of the story, Xiao Qing was the one who freed Madam White. She accomplished this after strengthening her magic through many years of devoted cultivation.

Interesting to know:

  • The Legend of the White Snake is one of the four great folktales of China. One of the most beloved stories in Chinese mythology too.
  • Madam White’s mortal name was Bai Suzhen (白素贞).
  • Without surprise, Fa Hai is detested by many Chinese. Especially children.
  • Over the years, the Legend of the White Snake has been adapted into many television series, operas, and movies. In almost every version, Madam White is portrayed as the victim, rather than a wicked serpentine seductress.
  • The Temple of the Golden Mount and Thunder Peak Tower are actual places tourists can visit in the Jiangnan area of China. Their popularity entirely stems from the Legend of the White Snake.
  • Interestingly, the real-life Thunder Peak Pagoda collapsed in 1924. (A reconstruction was completed in 2002). This curious resemblance to the events in the myth was “explored” in the 2021 Chinese animation, Green Snake. The animation itself was a modern imagination of the events beyond the original tale.
Diorama of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea at Singapore's Haw Par Villa.

Diorama of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea at Singapore's Haw Par Villa.

5. The Eight Immortals Cross the Eastern Sea (八仙过海 Ba Xian Guo Hai)

The Eight Immortals are a group of famous Taoist deities. In Chinese art and worship, they are typically represented by the magical instruments they wield.

  • Li Tieguai (李铁拐) – Represented by crutches as he was lame. Guai means “crutch” in Chinese.
  • Han Zhongli (汉钟离) – Represented by a large Chinese fan.
  • Lü Dongbin (吕洞宾) – Represented by twin swords.
  • He Xiangu (何仙姑) – Represented by a lotus blossom.
  • Lan Caihe (蓝采和) – Represented by a flower basket.
  • Han Xiangzi (韩湘子) – Represented by a flute.
  • Zhang Guolao (张果老) – Represented by a Chinese fish drum, and riding a mule.
  • Cao Guojiu (曹国舅) – Represented by Chinese castanets.

(How the Eight achieved immortality involves a whole series of Chinese myths that you can read here.)

The most famous story of the Eight Immortals is that of them crossing the Eastern Ocean. During this journey, they came into a conflict with the Dragon King, with the Eight then easily winning the ensuring battle with their colorful abilities.

This supernatural conflict, in turn, became a popular motif in many forms of Chinese art, as well as gave rise to the Chinese saying, Ba Xian Guo Hai Ge Xian Shen Tong (八仙过海各显神通). The saying means an elaborate engagement, during which each player showcases his or her unique talents.

Interesting to know:

  • Like Madam White Snake, the story of the Eight Immortals has been made into many television series and movies.
  • The Eight Immortals also feature in martial arts. In Jackie Chan’s early hit, the Drunken Master, the Eight Immortals was the inspiration for Jackie’s drunken style of fight. Of note, in the movie, the hardest stance for Jackie to master was that of He Xiangu. This was due to her being the only female in the group.
  • Several of the Eight are based on historical figures. Interestingly, while they are all well-known and acknowledged as gods, only Lü Dong Bin has a significant number of worshipers today. His followers sometimes refer to him as Sage Lü. (吕主, lu zhu).
Song Dynasty painting of Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty.

Song Dynasty painting of Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty.

6. Yu and the Great Flood (大禹治水 Da Yu Zhi Shui)

During the reign of Ancient Chinese Emperor Yao, a terrible flood persisted, leading to the death of thousands and the destruction of many crops. While Yao appointed many to contain the flood, none remotely succeeded. The situation worsened day by day.

Eventually, Yao turned to a young man named Yu (禹). Versions differ as to how Yu attended to the task but he ultimately succeeded where so many had failed.

To reward him for his efforts, Yao appointed Yu as his successor, and the hero was soon crowned as the first ruler of the Xia Dynasty (夏朝). Once believed to be purely mythical, some archaeologists and historians nowadays believe that the Xia Dynasty, and Yu, might have indeed existed.

Interesting to know:

  • Yu’s father, Gun (鯀), was also tasked by Emperor Yao to control the floodwaters. Thus, Yu was also inheriting his father’s work.
  • Ancient Chinese texts and compendiums do not agree on Yu’s ancestry. Some say he’s a descendant of the Yellow Emperor (see below).
  • Some versions of this Chinese myth claim Yu subdued demons and monsters to control the flood. Others state he mobilized a large force to move a mountain rock by rock, with Yu himself physically involved in the efforts.
  • Some modern geologists believe the story of Yu and the flood to be true. They base their hypotheses on sediments found in the Yellow River.
  • Emperor Yao had passed the throne to Shun (舜) by the time the flood controls were completed. According to legend, Shun was so impressed by Yu’s work, he made Yu his heir instead of his own son.
  • “Historically,” Yu was said to have divided Chinese territory into the Nine Provinces after controlling the flood. With bronze received from these new divisions, Yu also created nine magnificent tripod cauldrons. These cauldrons are sometimes mentioned in modern Chinese video games and Xianxia drama series.
  • Up till the end of the Zhou Dynasty in 256 BC, the nine tripod cauldrons represented supreme imperial authority. They are believed to have indeed existed too. However, all were lost in the Si River during Qin Shihuang’s conquest of the Warring States.
  • Lastly, the story of Yu and his efforts to contain the flood is nowadays a Chinese allegory for perseverance. It is also an allegory for innovation.
Majestic Mount Hua. Where a goddess was imprisoned till freed by her son.

Majestic Mount Hua. Where a goddess was imprisoned till freed by her son.

7. The Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯 Bao Lian Deng)

The folktale of the Lotus Lantern bears many similarities to the Legend of the White Snake. Likewise, it was also made into several Chinese movies and television series, and has long inspired Chinese opera.

Essentially another magical family drama in Chinese mythology, the Lotus Lantern depicts the adventures of Chen Xiang (沉香), the son of mortal Liu Yanchang (刘彦昌) and the goddess San Sheng Mu (三圣母). Chen’s maternal uncle, Er Lang Shen (二郎神), disapproved of this union, and to punish his sister, he imprisoned her under the lotus peak of Mount Hua. Some versions also state Er Lang Shen executed the punishment under the orders of the Jade Emperor.

Upon reaching adulthood, Chen Xiang used his mother’s magical lotus lantern to defeat his uncle. After doing so, he also split Mount Hua and freed his mom.

Of note, the trope of forbidden marriages is highly popular in Chinese folktales, with the phenomenon possibly reflecting deeply-seated resentments towards class differences throughout Chinese history.

Another noteworthy Chinese myth with a similar theme is that of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女 niu lang zhi nü). This pair was punished by being permitted to meet only once a year. Specifically, on the seventh day of the seventh month, on a bridge formed by magpies.

Interesting to know:

  • San Sheng Mu was the goddess of Mount Hua, thus the association of the mountain with the myth.
  • Mount Hua is the “Western Peak” (西岳 xi yue) of the Five Holy Mountains of China. It is notorious for its steep and dangerous ascent.
  • Er Lang Shen, or Yang Jian, is an actual Taoist God who appeared in many other Chinese myths and folktales. In Investiture of the Gods, he was one of the most powerful heroes. In Journey to the West, he was also the only heavenly general capable of battling Sun Wukong to a standstill. Er Lang Shen’s most defining feature is the third eye in the middle of his forehead. He also owns a heavenly hound (哮天犬 xiao tian quan). Naturally, Sun Wukong detests him and his mutt.
Depiction of Pangu in a compilation of Chinese myths.

Depiction of Pangu in a compilation of Chinese myths.

8. Pan Gu Creates the World (盘古开天 Pan Gu Kai Tian)

In ancient Chinese myths, Pan Gu (盘古) was the first living being in the whole of creation.

Before his birth, there was no sky and earth, with everything just a primordial mess. From this chaos, a cosmic egg was formed, which then gave birth to Pan Gu.

After gaining sentience, Pan Gu progressively shaped the world that we know of today. With his mighty ax, he split the sky from the earth, and separated the Yin and Yang. He also ensured the sky stayed separated by continuously pushing it upwards.

Many, many years after creating the world, Pan Gu died. His breath then became the wind and weather. His voice, thunder.

His body also formed the world, or more specifically, the continent of China. The rest of him transformed into the living beings that populate the world today. Based on this Chinese creation myth, everything in the world, ourselves inclusive, originated from Pan Gu.

Interesting to know:

  • Pan Gu’s ax is occasionally featured as an end-game weapon in Chinese video games.
  • Pan Gu is usually envisioned as looking somewhat savage, and wearing a fur/grass woven shawl.

Interesting to know:

  • Pan Gu’s axe is occasionally featured as an end-game weapon in Chinese video games.
  • He is usually envisioned as looking somewhat savage, and wearing a fur/grass woven shawl.
Illustration of Nüwa healing the sky in a children’s picture book by Heilongjiang Meishu Chubanshe.

Illustration of Nüwa healing the sky in a children’s picture book by Heilongjiang Meishu Chubanshe.

9. Nüwa Heals the Sky (女娲补天 Nü Wa Bu Tian)

Nüwa (女娲) was an ancient Chinese goddess. Her most prominent story in Chinese mythology is that of her repairing the heavenly pillars.

During her time, the battle between Gonggong (共工) and Zhuanxu (颛顼) damaged the various pillars holding up heaven. This resulted in the world being plagued by fire and floods.

Answering the prayers of mortals, Nüwa smelted together magical five-colored stones and repaired the pillars. In some versions, Nüwa also slayed all sorts of monsters to restore peace on Earth.

Interesting to know:

  • Some versions describe Nüwa as the first woman on Earth. She was also credited with creating humans using clay.
  • While modern pop culture entertainment invariably depicts Nüwa as empress-like, in some ancient Chinese art and texts, the goddess was described as having the lower body of a serpent.
  • Some ancient Chinese texts also describe Nüwa as the sister-wife of Fu Xi (see below).
  • Nüwa was an important character in Investiture of the Gods. In that story, she was the one who ordered the nine-tailed vixen to bewitch Di Xin. She did so to punish the evil ruler for impudence in her temple.
  • While occasionally mentioned, Nüwa seldom makes any major appearance in other Chinese myths and folktales.
  • Nüwa was depicted as a sultry, dangerous antagonist in the 2021 JRPG, Shin Megami Tensei V. While this depiction seems offensive, the game’s interpretation of the goddess is greatly faithful to classical descriptions. Nüwa was shown having a serpentine form. She could also create an army of clay dolls.
Sculpture of Yellow Emperor and Emperor Yan in the Zhengzhou Yellow River Scenic Area.

Sculpture of Yellow Emperor and Emperor Yan in the Zhengzhou Yellow River Scenic Area.

10. The Three Sovereigns and The Five Emperors (三王五帝 San Wang Wu Di)

Chinese myths and legends describe the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors as the supreme rulers of Ancient China. While the actual composition frequently varies, Fuxi (伏羲), Shengnong (神农), and the Yellow Emperor (黄帝 huang di) feature in most versions of the Three Sovereigns.

  1. Fuxi, half-man and half-snake, is believed to be the first man. He was also the brother/husband of Nüwa. Fuxi is furthermore credited with the creation of many things, the most famous of which is the I-Ching. (易经 yi jing). It is said that Fuxi learned of the hexagrams after examining the back of a mythical tortoise.
  2. Shengnong translates to the “divine farmer,” and correspondingly has many farming practices credited to him. He is also renowned for testing hundreds of herbs to determine their medicinal values. According to legend, he ultimately died of poisoning from this repeated experimentation. His intestines were destroyed by a poisonous grass he had ingested.
  3. The Yellow Emperor, or Huang Di, is celebrated by the Chinese as the first Emperor. (Mythological, not historically). His full name was Ji Xuanyuan (姬轩辕), and like the other sovereigns, he is credited with many inventions. His greatest accomplishment is also the defeat of Emperor Yan (炎帝 yan di) and the unification of Ancient China.

On the defeated Emperor Yan, an academic conference in 2004 concluded that Shengnong and Yan were actually the same man. Whichever the case, Huang Di was the ruler of the Yan Huang tribe at the height of his accomplishments. Till today, the term “the sons of Yan Huang” (炎黄子孙 yan huang zi sun) is still used by the Chinese to refer to themselves as a whole.

Interesting to know:

  • Huang Di’s greatest invention was the South-Pointing Chariot (指南车 zhi nan che). After uniting China, his people were besieged by the Jiu Li (九黎) Clan. The leader of the Jiu Li, Chiyou (蚩尤), had a bronze head and many arms, and was capable too of spewing a magical fog that could trap Huang Di’s troops. To traverse through the fog, Huang Di created the South-Pointing Chariot. The vehicle had a figure that always pointed to the South.
  • In modern-day written Chinese, the term “Zhi Nan” is synonymous with compass or guide.
  • There is no standard composition of the “five emperors” too. In Sima Qian’s famed Chronicles of the Grand Historian, they are stated as Huang Di, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, and Shun.

Appendix: Are the Tales of Liaozhai Considered Chinese Mythology? (聊斋)

Liaozhai is a collection of supernatural tales written by Pu Songlin (蒲松龄) in the 18th century. Macabre, colorful, and often terrifying, Pu Songlin's opus magnum was a critique of the injustice he witnessed in society.

Culturally, Liao Zhai established certain tropes in modern Chinese storytelling too. For example, that of a poor scholar finding unlikely romance and help in a female spirit.

On the other hand, few Chinese, if any, would consider the tales of Liaozhai as Chinese myths. For a start, the collection was written in pre-modern times, some 150 years after Journey to the West. While some tales were based on obscure Chinese folktales or myths, the bulk was the brainwork of the author.

It is thus more accurate to consider Liaozhai as pre-modern social commentary. An exemplary work that achieved modern recognition because of its piercing insights.

Further Reading

Journey to the West, A Great Way to Learn About China
The riotous adventure of the great Monkey King is a splendid way to learn about the complex civilization that is China.

The Legend of the Lady White Snake; An Analysis of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian Themes
Analysis of the Asian religious themes in Madam White Snake, arguably the most famous Chinese folktale.

Origin Stories of the Eight Immortals
The Eight Immortals each underwent colorful adventures before their transfigurations into godhood.


  • 尚燕彬, & 张红梅. (2002). 中国古代神话与传说:珍藏版. 北京燕山出版社. ISBN: 9787540214357.
  • 么 書儀. (1995). 神話傳說三百篇: 注音今插,音解釋圖. 大連出版社. ISBN: 7-80612-054-8.
  • 篠田 耕一. (1989). 幻想世界の住人たち Iii 中国編 (Vol. VII, Ser. Truth In Fantasy). 新紀元社. ISBN: 978-4915146220.
  • Mark, E. (2021, June 24). Most Popular Gods & Goddesses of Ancient China. World History Encyclopedia.
  • Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, April 1). 中国神话人物列表. Wikipedia.

© 2016 Ced Yong


Ced Yong (author) from Asia on November 02, 2016:

Thanks for commenting, Anne. I hope you get to visit China soon too, and see these myths come alive in architecture and art.

Cyong74 on November 02, 2016:

Hi Anne. Thanks for your comment. I hope you get to visit China someday too, and experience these myths brought alive by architecture and arts.

Anne Harrison on November 01, 2016:

What a great hub. There is so much to learn from these tales, which add depth to any trip to China. In Japan, I visited a temple where Tripitaka is said to have brought these scrolls from India.

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