The writing of mythological tales began in the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420), when various writers, influenced by the alchemist's ideas and Taoist and Buddhist superstitions, were interested in inventing stories about gods and ghosts. Some of them show their unusual imagination and mastery of the written language. This practice was continued in the next period, the period of Southern and Northern Dynasties.
In the middle of the Tang Dynasty many well-known writers and poets began story writing. Their stories incorporate a wide range of subject matter and themes, reflecting various aspects of human nature, human relations and social life. In form they are not short notes or anecdotes like the tales produced before them, but well-structured stories with interesting plots and vivid characters, often several thousand words in length. Among them are many tales whose main characters are gods, ghosts, or foxes.
Mythical stories of the Song Dynasty show strong influence of Tang fiction, but hardly attain the Tang level. One achievement in the field of fiction worthy of special mention is the compilation of the great Taiping Guangji or Extensive Records Compiled in the Taiping Years (976-983), which is a collection of about seven thousand stories published before and in the first years of the Song Dynasty. The stories were selected from over three hundred books, many of which have long been lost to us. A large portion of the seven thousand stories are about gods, deities, fairies, and ghosts. In Song times there were stories written in the vernacular, called "notes for story-tellers".
In the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties that followed the best-known works of fiction were novels in the vernacular, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms,Water Margin, Pilgrimage to the West, The Scholars, and Dream of the Red Mansions.
In the early period of the Qing Dynasty there appearedan anthology of short mythical stories written in the classical style-- Strange Stories from Happiness Studio by Pu Songling. For some time it was a most popular book, praised and liked by many people. After Pu, Ji Yun, who presided over the compilation of the Siku Quanshu (Complete Collection of Written Works Divided into Four Stores), wrote a book entitled Notes from a Thatched House, which includes anecdotes, rumours and tales about gods, foxes and ghosts.
As with other cultures, Chinese mythical stories are entwined with history. The history of the long period before recorded history began is partly based on legend, which is interwoven with mythology. Such ancient heroes and leaders as Fuxi, Shennong, Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) and Yu are both historical figures according to legend and important characters in mythical stories.
Again - as in other cultures - myths reflect Creation, the importance of true love and balance, self-sacrifice, encourage good deeds and warn against sin, rebellion vs oppression.
All these features add up, perhaps, to one prevailing characteristic - China's mythical stories, either those created by the primitive people or those written by later scholars, are full of human feelings. Gods, ghosts, foxes and spirits are commonly described as living things with human qualities and human feelings. Chinese inventors of myths describe gods the way they describe man, or treat them as if they were human, and endow them with human nature.
There are also stories that try to illustrate fatalism, reincarnation, and all sorts of feudal ethical principles. This is only natural, because literary works inevitably reflect the beliefs of the age in which they are produced.
In style and art of writing, both early and later mythical stories are superb. Classical Chinese is extremely concise. A few hundred, even a few dozen words are enough to tell a story complete with dialogue and behavioral and psychological descriptions.
God of moats and walls. Every village and town had its own Ch'eng-Huang, most often a local dignitary or important person who had died and been promoted to godhood. His divine status was revealed in dreams, though the gods made the actual decision. Ch'eng-Huang not only protects the community from attack but sees to it that the King of the Dead does not take any soul from his jurisdiction without proper authority. Ch'eng-Huang also exposes evil-doers in the community itself, usually through dreams. His assistants are Mr. Ba Lao-ye and Mr. Hei Lao-ye -- Mr. Daywatchman and Mr. Nightwatchman.
God of fire. Chu Jung punishes those who break the laws of heaven.
God of war. The Great Judge who protects the people from injustice and evil spirits. A red-faced god dressed always in green. An oracle. Kuan Ti was an actual historical figure, a general of the Han dynasty renowned for his skill as a warrior and his justness as a ruler. There were more than 1600 temples dedicated to Kuan Ti.
Goddess of mercy and compassion. A lady dressed in white seated on a lotus and holding an infant. Murdered by her father, she recited the holy books when she arrived in Hell, and the ruler of the underworld could not make the dead souls suffer. The disgruntled god sent her back to the world of the living, where Kwan Yin attained great spiritual insight and was rewarded with immortality by the Buddha. A popular goddess, Kwan Yin's temple at the Mount of the Wondrous Peak was ever filled with a throng of pilgrims shaking rattles and setting off firecrackers to get her attention.
God of thunder. Lei Kung has the head of a bird, wings, claws and blue skin, and his chariot is drawn by six boys. Lei Kung makes thunder with his hammer, and his wife makes lightning with her mirrors. Lei Kung chases away evil spirits and punishes criminals whose crimes have gone undetected.
The Eight Immortals of the Taoist tradition. Ordinary mortals who, through good works and good lives, were rewarded by the Queen Mother Wang by giving them the peaches of everlasting life to eat. They are:
Goddess of prostitutes. As a mortal, she was a widow who was much too liberal and inventive with her favors, and her father-in-law killed her. In death she was honored by her more professional associates and eventually became the goddess of whores.
The Lords of Death, the ten rulers of the underworld. They dress alike in royal robes and only the wisest can tell them apart. Each ruler presides over one court of law. In the first court a soul is judged according to his sins in life and sentenced to one of the eight courts of punishment. Punishment is fitted to the offense. Misers are made to drink molten gold, liars' tongues are cut out. In the second court are incompetent doctors and dishonest agents; in the third, forgers, liars, gossips, and corrupt government officials; in the fifth, murderers, sex offenders and atheists; in the sixth, the sacrilegious and blasphemers; in the eighth, those guilty of filial disrespect; in the ninth, arsonists and accident victims. In the tenth is the Wheel of Transmigration where souls are released to be reincarnated again after their punishment is completed. Before souls are released, they are given a brew of oblivion, which makes them forget their former lives.
God of mercy. Wandering in the caverns of Hell, a lost soul might encounter a smiling monk whose path is illuminated by a shining pearl and whose staff is decorated with metal rings which chime like bells. This is Ti-Tsang Wang, who will do all he can to help the soul escape hell and even to put an end to his eternal round of death and rebirth. Long ago, Ti-Tsang Wang renounced Nirvana so that he could search the dark regions of Hell for souls to save from the kings of the ten hells. Once a priest of Brahma, he converted to Buddhism and himself became a Buddha with special authority over the souls of the dead.
God of wealth who presides over a vast bureaucracy with many minor deities under his authority. A majestic figure robed in exquisite silks. T'shai-Shen is quite a popular god; even atheists worship him.
God of the hearth. Every household has its own Tsao Wang. Every year the hearth god reports on the family to the Jade Emperor, and the family has good or bad luck during the coming year according to his report. The hearth god's wife records every word spoken by every member of the family. A paper image represents the hearth god and his wife, and incense is burned to them daily. When the time came to make his report to the Jade Emperor, sweetmeats were placed in his mouth, the paper was burned, and firecrackers were lit to speed him on his way.
Local gods. Minor gods of towns, villages and even streets and households. Though far from the most important gods in the divine scheme, they were quite popular. Usually portrayed as kindly, respectable old men, they see to it that the domains under their protection run smoothly.
Lord Yama King - Greatest of the Lords of Death. Yeng-Wang-Yeh judges all souls newly arrived to the land of the dead and decides whether to send them to a special court for punishment or put them back on the Wheel of Transmigration.
Father Heaven - e August Supreme Emperor of Jade, whose court is in the highest level of heaven, originally a sky god. The Jade Emperor made men, fashioning them from clay. His heavenly court resembles the earthly court in all ways, having an army, a bureaucracy, a royal family and parasitical courtiers. The Jade Emperor's rule is orderly and without caprice. The seasons come and go as they should, yin is balanced with yang, good is rewarded and evil is punished. As time went on, the Jade Emperor became more and more remote to men, and it became customary to approach him through his doorkeeper, the Transcendental Dignitary. The Jade Emperor sees and hears everything; even the softest whisper is as loud as thunder to the Jade Emperor.
- by D.W. Owens
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