Understanding Chinese Mythology and Folktales

Chinese mythology and folktales are a rich tapestry of legends, myths, and folklore that have been passed down through centuries. These stories reflect the values, beliefs, and history of Chinese culture, offering a window into the ancient world and its worldview. This article explores some of the key elements of Chinese mythology and folktales, incorporating relevant Chinese vocabulary, phrases, and idioms to enhance understanding.

Origins and Overview

Chinese mythology (神话, shén huà) is an intricate blend of folklore, history, and religious beliefs. It encompasses a wide range of stories about gods (神, shén), spirits (鬼, guǐ), and mythical creatures (神兽, shén shòu). These myths often serve to explain natural phenomena, human behavior, and the origins of Chinese cultural practices. Chinese mythology is deeply rooted in the country’s ancient religions, including Daoism (道教, dào jiào), Buddhism (佛教, fó jiào), and traditional Chinese folk religion.

Folktales (民间故事, mín jiān gù shì) are traditional stories passed down orally through generations. They typically involve everyday people, heroes (英雄, yīng xióng), and moral lessons (道德教训, dào dé jiào xùn). These stories reflect the wisdom and values of the Chinese people and often use idioms (成语, chéng yǔ) to encapsulate deeper meanings in a concise form.

Key Themes in Chinese Mythology

Creation Myths

One of the central themes in Chinese mythology is the creation of the world. The most famous creation myth involves Pangu (盘古, pán gǔ), the primordial giant. According to the legend, Pangu emerged from a cosmic egg (宇宙蛋, yǔ zhòu dàn) and separated the sky (天, tiān) from the earth (地, dì) by holding them apart for 18,000 years. When he died, his body transformed into various elements of the natural world: his breath became the wind and clouds, his voice thunder, his eyes the sun and moon, and his body the mountains and rivers. This myth encapsulates the idiom “开天辟地” (kāi tiān pì dì), meaning the beginning of heaven and earth, or a groundbreaking event.

Another creation myth involves Nuwa (女娲, nǚ wā), a goddess credited with creating humanity and repairing the sky. After a great flood destroyed the pillars supporting the sky, Nuwa mended the sky using five-colored stones (五彩石, wǔ cǎi shí) and saved the world. This myth emphasizes the themes of creativity, perseverance, and compassion. Nuwa’s efforts to patch up the sky reflect the idiom “补天浴日” (bǔ tiān yù rì), which means to achieve something great or make a monumental effort.

Deities and Immortals

Chinese mythology is rich with deities and immortals who oversee different aspects of life and nature. The Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝, yù huáng dà dì) is the supreme ruler of heaven, often depicted as a wise and benevolent figure who oversees the celestial bureaucracy. He is associated with the idiom “九五之尊” (jiǔ wǔ zhī zūn), referring to the highest position of power. The Jade Emperor’s role is akin to that of a heavenly administrator, ensuring that the universe runs smoothly.

Nuwa is not only a creator but also a protector, symbolizing the nurturing aspects of nature. Fuxi (伏羲, fú xī), her brother and husband, is another important figure who is credited with teaching humanity essential skills such as fishing, hunting, and writing. Together, they represent the harmonious balance of yin and yang (阴阳, yīn yáng), a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy. This balance is crucial for maintaining order and harmony in the universe.

The Eight Immortals (八仙, bā xiān) are a group of legendary figures, each with unique powers, who symbolize good fortune and longevity. These immortals often feature in stories and artworks, representing different aspects of life and virtues. For example, Lü Dongbin (吕洞宾, lǚ dòng bīn) is known for his wisdom and martial arts skills, often symbolizing the pursuit of knowledge and personal improvement. The Eight Immortals are often depicted in art crossing the sea, giving rise to the idiom “八仙过海, 各显神通” (bā xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng), meaning each of the Eight Immortals shows their unique talents.

Mythical Creatures

Mythical creatures play a significant role in Chinese mythology. The dragon (龙, lóng) is perhaps the most iconic, symbolizing power, strength, and good luck. Unlike the malevolent dragons of Western mythology, Chinese dragons are benevolent and often associated with rain and fertility. The idiom “龙腾虎跃” (lóng téng hǔ yuè), meaning dragons rising and tigers leaping, symbolizes a scene of bustling activity or a period of prosperity.

The phoenix (凤凰, fèng huáng) represents rebirth and immortality, often depicted as a symbol of the empress and feminine grace. The phoenix’s ability to rise from its ashes is a powerful symbol of resilience and renewal. The Qilin (麒麟, qí lín), often depicted as a gentle, chimeric creature, is a harbinger of prosperity and peace. These creatures embody various positive attributes and are often invoked in auspicious contexts. The idiom “凤毛麟角” (fèng máo lín jiǎo), meaning extremely rare and precious, derives from the rarity of the phoenix and qilin.

Popular Chinese Folktales

The Legend of the White Snake

The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传, bái shé zhuàn) is one of China’s most beloved folktales. It tells the story of a white snake spirit named Bai Suzhen (白素贞, bái sù zhēn) who transforms into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a mortal man, Xu Xian (许仙, xǔ xiān). Their love is tested by the monk Fa Hai (法海, fǎ hǎi), who believes that spirits and humans should not intermingle. Despite the obstacles, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian’s love endures, symbolizing the idiom “坚贞不渝” (jiān zhēn bù yú), meaning steadfast and unwavering.

This tale explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the struggle between good and evil. Bai Suzhen’s determination to be with her beloved, despite the societal norms and supernatural boundaries, highlights the power of love and the importance of perseverance. The story also reflects the Daoist belief in the balance between yin and yang, as Bai Suzhen (yin) and Xu Xian (yang) strive to maintain their love against all odds.

The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl

Another popular folktale is the story of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女, niú láng zhī nǚ). This tale centers around the love between Niulang (牛郎, niú láng), a humble cowherd, and Zhinü (织女, zhī nǚ), a celestial weaver. Their love is forbidden by the Jade Emperor, and they are separated by the Milky Way (银河, yín hé). Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, magpies (喜鹊, xǐ què) form a bridge to reunite the lovers. This day is celebrated as the Qixi Festival (七夕节, qī xī jié), also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day.

This story reflects the idiom “鹊桥相会” (què qiáo xiāng huì), meaning the magpie bridge meeting, symbolizing a reunion of lovers. The tale emphasizes the themes of loyalty, devotion, and the power of love to transcend even the most insurmountable barriers. The story also illustrates the belief that love can overcome the separation of heaven and earth, symbolizing the universal desire for reunion and togetherness.


The story of Mulan (木兰, mù lán) is another significant folktale that has captured the hearts of many. Mulan disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the army, demonstrating the values of courage, loyalty, and filial piety. Her tale is immortalized in the Ballad of Mulan (木兰辞, mù lán cí), a poem that highlights her bravery and selflessness. The Ballad of Mulan is a poignant reflection on the sacrifices made for family and country.

The idiom “代父从军” (dài fù cóng jūn), meaning to join the army in place of one’s father, originates from this story and underscores the importance of familial duty and sacrifice. Mulan’s story has been retold in various forms, each time reinforcing the virtues of honor and dedication. The character of Mulan embodies the Confucian ideals of loyalty to one’s family and country, making her a timeless heroine.

The Magic Brush

The story of “The Magic Brush” (神笔马良, shén bǐ mǎ liáng) tells of a poor boy named Ma Liang (马良, mǎ liáng) who receives a magical brush that brings his drawings to life. Ma Liang uses the brush to help others, embodying the idiom “济世救人” (jì shì jiù rén), meaning to save the world and help others. His selflessness and kindness bring prosperity to his village, reinforcing the value of altruism.

This story highlights the importance of using one’s talents for the greater good and the rewards of virtuous behavior. Ma Liang’s journey reflects the Daoist value of harmony with nature, as he uses his brush to create balance and abundance. The tale also emphasizes the theme of social justice, as Ma Liang uses his magical abilities to challenge corrupt officials and help the poor.

Moral Lessons and Cultural Values

Chinese folktales often carry moral lessons and reflect the values of Chinese society. Filial piety (孝顺, xiào shùn), the virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors, is a recurring theme. This is vividly illustrated in the story of “The 24 Filial Exemplars” (二十四孝, èr shí sì xiào), a collection of tales that showcase extraordinary acts of filial devotion. These stories underscore the Confucian ideal of filial piety, which is considered a cornerstone of Chinese ethics.

Another common theme is the reward of virtuous behavior and the punishment of wrongdoing. The story of “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains” (愚公移山, yú gōng yí shān) teaches perseverance and determination. Despite being mocked, the old man continues to move mountains, believing that his descendants will eventually complete the task. This story emphasizes the idiom “愚公移山” (yú gōng yí shān), meaning that determination can overcome any obstacle. It reflects the Chinese belief in the power of persistence and collective effort.

The story of “Meng Jiangnu Weeps Over the Great Wall” (孟姜女哭长城, mèng jiāng nǚ kū cháng chéng) is another example of virtue being tested. Meng Jiangnu’s husband is conscripted to work on the Great Wall, and he dies due to harsh conditions. Meng Jiangnu’s grief and her journey to find her husband’s body lead to the collapse of a section of the Great Wall. This tale reflects the idiom “一哭千里” (yī kū qiān lǐ), meaning a cry that shakes the heavens and the earth, symbolizing the power of deep emotion and the quest for justice.

Word List

  • 神话 (shén huà) – Mythology
  • 神 (shén) – God
  • 鬼 (guǐ) – Spirit
  • 神兽 (shén shòu) – Mythical creature
  • 民间故事 (mín jiān gù shì) – Folktale
  • 英雄 (yīng xióng) – Hero
  • 道德教训 (dào dé jiào xùn) – Moral lesson
  • 盘古 (pán gǔ) – Pangu
  • 宇宙蛋 (yǔ zhòu dàn) – Cosmic egg
  • 天 (tiān) – Sky
  • 地 (dì) – Earth
  • 玉皇大帝 (yù huáng dà dì) – Jade Emperor
  • 女娲 (nǚ wā) – Nuwa
  • 八仙 (bā xiān) – Eight Immortals
  • 龙 (lóng) – Dragon
  • 凤凰 (fèng huáng) – Phoenix
  • 麒麟 (qí lín) – Qilin
  • 白蛇传 (bái shé zhuàn) – Legend of the White Snake
  • 白素贞 (bái sù zhēn) – Bai Suzhen
  • 许仙 (xǔ xiān) – Xu Xian
  • 法海 (fǎ hǎi) – Fa Hai
  • 牛郎织女 (niú láng zhī nǚ) – Cowherd and Weaver Girl
  • 牛郎 (niú láng) – Niulang
  • 织女 (zhī nǚ) – Zhinü
  • 银河 (yín hé) – Milky Way
  • 喜鹊 (xǐ què) – Magpie
  • 七夕节 (qī xī jié) – Qixi Festival
  • 孝顺 (xiào shùn) – Filial piety
  • 木兰 (mù lán) – Mulan
  • 愚公移山 (yú gōng yí shān) – The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains
  • 开天辟地 (kāi tiān pì dì) – The beginning of heaven and earth; groundbreaking
  • 坚贞不渝 (jiān zhēn bù yú) – Steadfast and unwavering
  • 鹊桥相会 (què qiáo xiāng huì) – The magpie bridge meeting; lovers’ reunion
  • 代父从军 (dài fù cóng jūn) – To join the army in place of one’s father
  • 济世救人 (jì shì jiù rén) – To save the world and help others
  • 补天浴日 (bǔ tiān yù rì) – To achieve something great or make a monumental effort
  • 凤毛麟角 (fèng máo lín jiǎo) – Extremely rare and precious
  • 一哭千里 (yī kū qiān lǐ) – A cry that shakes the heavens and the earth; deep emotion

Chinese mythology and folktales provide a profound understanding of the ancient Chinese worldview and cultural values. They continue to inspire and educate, bridging the past with the present. Whether through the heroic tales of gods and mortals or the timeless lessons embedded in folktales, these stories remain a vital part of China’s cultural heritage. By exploring these myths and stories, we gain not only a deeper appreciation for Chinese culture but also universal insights into the human condition. The enduring themes of love, perseverance, and virtue found in these tales resonate across cultures and time, making them a valuable part of the global narrative.

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