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Myths and Legends of China, by Edward T.C. Werner, [1922], at

Chapter III

Cosmogony-p’an Ku and the Creation Myth

The Fashioner of the Universe

The most conspicuous figure in Chinese cosmogony is P’an Ku. He it was who chiselled the universe out of Chaos. According to Chinese ideas, he was the offspring of the original dual powers of Nature, the yin and the yang (to be considered presently), which, having in some incomprehensible way produced him, set him the task of giving form to Chaos and “making the heavens and the earth.”

Some accounts describe him as the actual creator of the universe—“the ancestor of Heaven and earth and all that live and move and have their being.” ‘P’an’ means ‘the shell of an egg,’ and ‘Ku’ ‘to secure,’ ‘solid,’ referring to P’an Ku being hatched from out of Chaos and to his settling the arrangement of the causes to which his origin was due. The characters themselves may, however, mean nothing more than ‘Researches into antiquity,’ though some bolder translators have assigned to them the significance if not the literal sense of ‘aboriginal abyss,’ or the Babylonian Tiamat, ‘the Deep.’

P’an Ku is pictured as a man of dwarfish stature clothed in bearskin, or merely in leaves or with an apron of leaves. He has two horns on his head. In his right hand he holds a hammer and in his left a chisel (sometimes these are reversed), the only implements he used in carrying out his great task. Other pictures show him attended in his labours by the four supernatural creatures—the unicorn, phoenix, tortoise, and dragon; others again with the sun in one hand and the moon in the other, p. 77 some of the firstfruits of his stupendous labours. (The reason for these being there will be apparent presently.) His task occupied eighteen thousand years, during which he formed the sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth, himself increasing in stature day by day, being daily six feet taller than the day before, until, his labours ended, he died that his works might live. His head became the mountains, his breath the wind and clouds, his voice the thunder, his limbs the four quarters of the earth, his blood the rivers, his flesh the soil, his beard the constellations, his skin and hair the herbs and trees, his teeth, bones, and marrow the metals, rocks, and precious stones, his sweat the rain, and the insects creeping over his body human beings, who thus had a lowlier origin even than the tears of Khepera in Egyptian cosmology.  1

This account of P’an Ku and his achievements is of Taoist origin. The Buddhists have given a somewhat different account of him, which is a late adaptation from the Taoist myth, and must not be mistaken for Buddhist cosmogony proper.  2

The Sun and the Moon

In some of the pictures of P’an Ku he is represented, as already noted, as holding the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. Sometimes they are in the form of those bodies, sometimes in the classic character. The legend says that when P’an Ku put things in order in the lower world, he did not put these two luminaries in their proper courses, so they retired into the Han Sea, and the people dwelt in darkness. The Terrestrial p. 78 Emperor sent an officer, Terrestrial Time, with orders that they should come forth and take their places in the heavens and give the world day and night. They refused to obey the order. They were reported to Ju Lai; P’an Ku was called, and, at the divine direction of Buddha, wrote the character for ‘sun’ in his left hand, and that for ‘moon’ in his right hand; and went to the Han Sea, and stretched forth his left hand and called the sun, and then stretched forth his right hand and called the moon, at the same time repeating a charm devoutly seven times; and they forthwith ascended on high, and separated time into day and night.  3

Other legends recount that P’an Ku had the head of a dragon and the body of a serpent; and that by breathing he caused the wind, by opening his eyes he created day, his voice made the thunder, etc.

P’an Ku and Ymer

Thus we have the heavens and the earth fashioned by this wonderful being in eighteen thousand years. With regard to him we may adapt the Scandinavian ballad:

It was Time’s morning
When P’an Ku lived;
There was no sand, no sea,
Nor cooling billows;

Earth there was none,
No lofty Heaven;
No spot of living green;
Only a deep profound.

p. 79 

And it is interesting to note, in passing, the similarity between this Chinese artificer of the universe and Ymer, the giant, who discharges the same functions in Scandinavian mythology. Though P’an Ku did not have the same kind of birth nor meet with the violent death of the latter, the results as regards the origin of the universe seem to have been pretty much the same.  4

P’an Ku a Late Creation

But though the Chinese creation myth deals with primeval things it does not itself belong to a primitive time. According to some writers whose views are entitled to respect, it was invented during the fourth century A.D. by the Taoist recluse, Magistrate Ko Hung, author of the Shên hsien chuan (Biographies of the Gods). The picturesque person of P’an Ku is said to have been a concession to the popular dislike of, or inability to comprehend, the abstract. He was conceived, some Chinese writers say, because the philosophical explanations of the Cosmos were too recondite for the ordinary mind to grasp. That he did fulfil the purpose of furnishing the p. 80 ordinary mind with a fairly easily comprehensible picture of the creation may be admitted; but, as will presently be seen, it is over-stating the case to say that he was conceived with the set purpose of furnishing the ordinary mind with a concrete solution or illustration of this great problem. There is no evidence that P’an Ku had existed as a tradition before the time when we meet with the written account of him; and, what is more, there is no evidence that there existed any demand on the part of the popular mind for any such solution or illustration. The ordinary mind would seem to have been either indifferent to or satisfied with the abstruse cosmogonical and cosmological theories of the early sages for at least a thousand years. The cosmogonies of the I ching, of Lao Tzŭ, Confucius (such as it was), Kuan Tzŭ, Mencius, Chuang Tzŭ, were impersonal. P’an Ku and his myth must be regarded rather as an accident than as a creation resulting from any sudden flow of psychological forces or wind of discontent ruffling the placid Chinese mind. If the Chinese brought with them from Babylon or anywhere else the elements of a cosmogony, whether of a more or less abstruse scientific nature or a personal mythological narrative, it must have been subsequently forgotten or at least has not survived in China. But for Ko Hung’s eccentricity and his wish to experiment with cinnabar from Cochin-China in order to find the elixir of life, P’an Ku would probably never have been invented, and the Chinese mind would have been content to go on ignoring the problem or would have quietly acquiesced in the abstract philosophical explanations of the learned which it did not understand. Chinese cosmogony would then have consisted exclusively of the recondite impersonal metaphysics which the Chinese p. 81 mind had entertained or been fed on for the nine hundred or more years preceding the invention of the P’an Ku myth.

Nü Kua Shih, the Repairer of the Heavens

It is true that there exist one or two other explanations of the origin of things which introduce a personal creator. There is, for instance, the legend—first mentioned by Lieh Tzŭ (to whom we shall revert later)—which represents Nü Kua Shih (also called Nü Wa and Nü Hsi), said to have been the sister and successor of Fu Hsi, the mythical sovereign whose reign is ascribed to the years 2953–2838 B.C., as having been the creator of human beings when the earth first emerged from Chaos. She (or he, for the sex seems uncertain), who had the “body of a serpent and head of an ox” (or a human head and horns of an ox, according to some writers), “moulded yellow earth and made man.” Ssŭ-ma Chêng, of the eighth century A.D., author of the Historical Records and of another work on the three great legendary emperors, Fu Hsi, Shên Nung, and Huang Ti, gives the following account of her: “Fu Hsi was succeeded by Nü Kua, who like him had the surname Fêng. Nü Kua had the body of a serpent and a human head, with the virtuous endowments of a divine sage. Toward the end of her reign there was among the feudatory princes Kung Kung, whose functions were the administration of punishment. Violent and ambitious, he became a rebel, and sought by the influence of water to overcome that of wood [under which Nü Kua reigned]. He did battle with Chu Jung [said to have been one of the ministers of Huang Ti, and later the God of Fire], but was not victorious; whereupon he struck his head against the Imperfect Mountain, p. 82 Pu Chou Shan, and brought it down. The pillars of Heaven were broken and the corners of the earth gave way. Hereupon Nü Kua melted stones of the five colours to repair the heavens, and cut off the feet of the tortoise to set upright the four extremities of the earth.  5 Gathering the ashes of reeds she stopped the flooding waters, and thus rescued the land of Chi, Chi Chou [the early seat of the Chinese sovereignty].”

Another account separates the name and makes Nü and Kua brother and sister, describing them as the only two human beings in existence. At the creation they were placed at the foot of the K’un-lun Mountains. Then they prayed, saying, “If thou, O God, hast sent us to be man and wife, the smoke of our sacrifice will stay in one place; but if not, it will be scattered.” The smoke remained stationary.

But though Nü Kua is said to have moulded the first man (or the first human beings) out of clay, it is to be noted that, being only the successor of Fu Hsi, long lines of rulers had preceded her of whom no account is given, and also that, as regards the heavens and the earth at least, she is regarded as the repairer and not the creator of them.

Heaven-deaf (T’ien-lung) and Earth-dumb (Ti-ya), the two attendants of Wên Ch’ang, the God of Literature (see following chapter), have also been drawn into the cosmogonical net. From their union came the heavens and the earth, mankind, and all living things.

Nŭ Kua Shih
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Nŭ Kua Shih

These and other brief and unelaborated personal cosmogonies, even if not to be regarded as spurious imitations, certainly have not become established in the Chinese mind as the explanation of the way in which the p. 83 universe came to be: in this sphere the P’an Ku legend reigns supreme; and, owing to its concrete, easily apprehensible nature, has probably done so ever since the time of its invention.

Early Cosmogony Dualistic

The period before the appearance of the P’an Ku myth may be divided into two parts; that from some early unknown date up to about the middle of the Confucian epoch, say 500 B.C., and that from 500 B.C. to A.D. 400. We know that during the latter period the minds of Chinese scholars were frequently occupied with speculations as to the origin of the universe. Before 500 B.C. we have no documentary remains telling us what the Chinese believed about the origin of things; but it is exceedingly unlikely that no theories or speculations at all concerning the origin of themselves and their surroundings were formed by this intelligent people during the eighteen centuries or more which preceded the date at which we find the views held by them put into written form. It is safe to assume that the dualism which later occupied their philosophical thoughts to so great an extent as almost to seem inseparable from them, and exercised so powerful an influence throughout the course of their history, was not only formulating itself during that long period, but had gradually reached an advanced stage. We may even go so far as to say that dualism, or its beginnings, existed in the very earliest times, for the belief in the second self or ghost or double of the dead is in reality nothing else. And we find it operating with apparently undiminished energy after the Chinese mind had reached its maturity in the Sung dynasty. p. 84

The Canon of Changes

The Bible of Chinese dualism is the I ching, the Canon of Changes (or Permutations). It is held in great veneration both on account of its antiquity and also because of the “unfathomable wisdom which is supposed to lie concealed under its mysterious symbols.” It is placed first in the list of the classics, or Sacred Books, though it is not the oldest of them. When exactly the work itself on which the subsequent elaborations were founded was composed is not now known. Its origin is attributed to the legendary emperor Fu Hsi (2953–2838 B.C.). It does not furnish a cosmogony proper, but merely a dualistic system as an explanation, or attempted explanation, or even perhaps orly a record, of the constant changes (in modern philosophical language the “redistribution of matter and motion”) going on everywhere. That explanation or record was used for purposes of divination. This dualistic system, by a simple addition, became a monism, and at the same time furnished the Chinese with a cosmogony.

The Five Elements

The Five Elements or Forces (wu hsing)—which, according to the Chinese, are metal, air, fire, water, and wood—are first mentioned in Chinese literature in a chapter of the classic Book of History.  6 They play a very important part in Chinese thought: ‘elements’ meaning generally not so much the actual substances as the forces essential to human, life. They have to be noticed in passing, because they were involved in the development of the cosmogonical ideas which took place in the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D. p. 85


As their imagination grew, it was natural that the Chinese should begin to ask themselves what, if the yang and the yin by their permutations produced, or gave shape to, all things, was it that produced the yang and the yin. When we see traces of this inquisitive tendency we find ourselves on the borderland of dualism where the transition is taking place into the realm of monism. But though there may have been a tendency toward monism in early times, it was only in the Sung dynasty that the philosophers definitely placed behind the yang and the yin a First Cause—the Grand Origin, Grand Extreme, Grand Terminus, or Ultimate Ground of Existence.  7 They gave to it the name t’ai chi, and represented it by a concrete sign, the symbol of a circle. The complete scheme shows the evolution of the Sixty-four Diagrams (kua) from the t’ai chi through the yang and the yin, the Four, Eight, Sixteen, and Thirty-two Diagrams successively. This conception was the work of the Sung philosopher Chou Tun-i (A.D. 1017–73), commonly known as Chou Tzŭ, and his disciple Chu Hsi (A.D. 1130–1200), known as Chu Tzŭ or Chu Fu Tzŭ, the famous historian and Confucian commentator—two of the greatest names in Chinese philosophy. It was at this time that the tide of constructive imagination in China, tinged though it always was with classical Confucianism, rose to its greatest height. There is the philosopher’s seeking for causes. Yet in this matter of the First Cause we detect, in the full flood of Confucianism, the potent influence of Taoist and Buddhist speculations. It has even been said that the Sung philosophy, which grew, not from the I ching itself, but from the appendixes to it, is more Taoistic than Confucian. As it was with the P’an Ku p. 86 legend, so was it with this more philosophical cosmogony. The more fertile Taoist and Buddhist imaginations led to the preservation of what the Confucianists, distrusting the marvellous, would have allowed to die a natural death. It was, after all, the mystical foreign elements which gave point to—we may rightly say rounded off—the early dualism by converting it into monism, carrying philosophical speculation from the Knowable to the Unknowable, and furnishing the Chinese with their first scientific theory of the origin, not of the changes going on in the universe (on which they had already formed their opinions), but of the universe itself.

Chou Tzŭ’s “T’ai Chi T’u”

Chou Tun-i, appropriately apotheosized as ‘Prince in the Empire of Reason,’ completed and systematized the philosophical world-conception which had hitherto obtained in the Chinese mind. He did not ask his fellow-countrymen to discard any part of what they had long held in high esteem: he raised the old theories from the sphere of science to that of philosophy by unifying them and bringing them to a focus. And he made this unification intelligible to the Chinese mind by his famous T’ai chi t’u, or Diagram of the Great Origin (or Grand Terminus), showing that the Grand Original Cause, itself uncaused, produces the yang and the yin, these the Five Elements, and so on, through the male and female norms (tao), to the production of all things.

Chu Hsi’s Monistic Philosophy

The writings of Chu Hsi, especially his treatise on The Immaterial Principle [li] and Primary Matter [ch’i], leave no doubt as to the monism of his philosophy. In this work p. 87 occurs the passage: “In the universe there exists no primary matter devoid of the immaterial principle; and no immaterial principle apart from primary matter”; and although the two are never separated “the immaterial principle [as Chou Tzŭ explains] is what is previous to form, while primary matter is what is subsequent to form,” the idea being that the two are different manifestations of the same mysterious force from which all things proceed.

It is unnecessary to follow this philosophy along all the different branches which grew out of it, for we are here concerned only with the seed. We have observed how Chinese dualism became a monism, and how while the monism was established the dualism was retained. It is this mono-dualistic theory, combining the older and newer philosophy, which in China, then as now, constitutes the accepted explanation of the origin of things, of the universe itself and all that it contains.

Lao Tzŭ’s “Tao”

There are other cosmogonies in Chinese philosophy, but they need not detain us long. Lao Tzŭ (sixth century B.C.), in his Tao-tê ching, The Canon of Reason and Virtue (at first entitled simply Lao Tzŭ), gave to the then existing scattered sporadic conceptions of the universe a literary form. His tao, or ‘Way,’ is the originator of Heaven and earth, it is “the mother of all things.” His Way, which was “before God,” is but a metaphorical expression for the manner in which things came at first into being out of the primal nothingness, and how the phenomena of nature continue to go on, “in stillness and quietness, without striving or crying.” Lao Tzŭ is thus so far monistic, but he is also mystical, transcendental, even p. 88 pantheistic. The way that can be walked is not the Eternal Way; the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name. The Unnameable is the originator of Heaven and earth; manifesting itself as the Nameable, it is “the mother of all things.” “In Eternal Non-Being I see the Spirituality of Things; in Eternal Being their limitation. Though different under these two aspects, they are the same in origin; it is when development takes place that different names have to be used. It is while they are in the condition of sameness that the mystery concerning them exists. This mystery is indeed the mystery of mysteries. It is the door of all spirituality.”

This tao, indefinable and in its essence unknowable, is “the fountain-head of all beings, and the norm of all actions. But it is not only the formative principle of the universe; it also seems to be primordial matter: chaotic in its composition, born prior to Heaven and earth, noiseless, formless, standing alone in its solitude, and not changing, universal in its activity, and unrelaxing, without being exhausted, it is capable of becoming the mother of the universe.” And there we may leave it. There is no scheme of creation, properly so called. The Unwalkable Way leads us to nothing further in the way of a cosmogony.

Confucius’s Agnosticism

Confucius (551–479 B.C.) did not throw any light on the problem of origin. He did not speculate on the creation of things nor the end of them. He was not troubled to account for the origin of man, nor did he seek to know about his hereafter. He meddled neither with physics nor metaphysics. There might, he thought, be p. 89 something on the other side of life, for he admitted the existence of spiritual beings. They had an influence on the living, because they caused them to clothe themselves in ceremonious dress and attend to the sacrificial ceremonies. But we should not trouble ourselves about them, any more than about supernatural things, or physical prowess, or monstrosities. How can we serve spiritual beings while we do not know how to serve men? We feel the existence of something invisible and mysterious, but its nature and meaning are too deep for the human understanding to grasp. The safest, indeed the only reasonable, course is that of the agnostic—to leave alone the unknowable, while acknowledging its existence and its mystery, and to try to understand knowable phenomena and guide our actions accordingly.

Between the monism of Lao Tzŭ and the positivism of Confucius on the one hand, and the landmark of the Taoistic transcendentalism of Chuang Tzŭ (fourth and third centuries B.C.) on the other, we find several “guesses at the riddle of existence” which must be briefly noted as links in the chain of Chinese speculative thought on this important subject.

Mo Tzŭ and Creation

In the philosophy of Mo Ti (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), generally known as Mo Tzŭ or Mu Tzŭ, the philosopher of humanism and utilitarianism, we find the idea of creation. It was, he says, Heaven (which was anthropomorphically regarded by him as a personal Supreme Being) who “created the sun, moon, and innumerable stars.” His system closely resembles Christianity, but the great power of Confucianism as a weapon wielded against all opponents by its doughty p. 90 defender Mencius (372–289 B.C.) is shown by the complete suppression of the influence of Mo Tzŭism at his hands. He even went so far as to describe Mo Tzŭ and those who thought with him as “wild animals.”

Mencius and the First Cause

Mencius himself regarded Heaven as the First Cause, or Cause of Causes, but it was not the same personal Heaven as that of Mo Tzŭ. Nor does he hang any cosmogony upon it. His chief concern was to eulogize the doctrines of the great Confucius, and like him he preferred to let the origin of the universe look after itself.

Lieh Tzŭ’s Absolute

Lieh Tzŭ (said to have lived in the fifth century B.C.), one of the brightest stars in the Taoist constellation, considered this nameable world as having evolved from an unnameable absolute being. The evolution did not take place through the direction of a personal will working out a plan of creation: “In the beginning there was Chaos [hun tun]. It was a mingled potentiality of Form [hsing], Pneuma [ch’i], and Substance [chih]. A Great Change [t’ai i] took place in it, and there was a Great Starting [t’ai ch’u] which is the beginning of Form. The Great Starting evolved a Great Beginning [t’ai shih], which is the inception of Pneuma. The Great Beginning was followed by the Great Blank [t’ai su], which is the first formation of Substance. Substance, Pneuma, and Form being all evolved out of the primordial chaotic mass, this material world as it lies before us came into existence.” And that which made it possible for Chaos to evolve was the Solitary Indeterminate (i tu or the tao), p. 91 which is not created, but is able to create everlastingly. And being both Solitary and Indeterminate it tells us nothing determinate about itself.

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Chuang Tzŭ’s Super-tao

Chuang Chou (fourth and third centuries B.C.), generally known as Chuang Tzŭ, the most brilliant Taoist of all, maintained with Lao Tzŭ that the universe started from the Nameless, but it was if possible a more absolute and transcendental Nameless than that of Lao Tzŭ. He dwells on the relativity of knowledge; as when asleep he did not know that he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly, so when awake he did not know that he was not a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.  8 But “all is embraced in the obliterating unity of the tao, and the wise man, passing into the realm of the Infinite, finds rest therein.” And this tao, of which we hear so much in Chinese philosophy, was before the Great Ultimate or Grand Terminus (t’ai chi), and “from it came the mysterious existence of God [ti]. It produced Heaven, it produced earth.”

Popular Cosmogony still Personal or Dualistic

These and other cosmogonies which the Chinese have devised, though it is necessary to note their existence in order to give a just idea of their cosmological speculations, need not, as I said, detain us long; and the reason p. 92 why they need not do so is that, in the matter of cosmogony, the P’an Ku legend and the yin-yang system with its monistic elaboration occupy virtually the whole field of the Chinese mental vision. It is these two—the popular and the scientific—that we mean when we speak of Chinese cosmogony. Though here and there a stern sectarian might deny that the universe originated in one or the other of these two ways, still, the general rule holds good. And I have dealt with them in this order because, though the P’an Ku legend belongs to the fourth century A.D., the I ching dualism was not, rightly speaking, a cosmogony until Chou Tun-i made it one by the publication of his T’ai chi t’u in the eleventh century A.D. Over the unscientific and the scientific minds of the Chinese these two are paramount.

Applying the general principles stated in the preceding chapter, we find the same cause which operated to restrict the growth of mythology in general in China operated also in like manner in this particular branch of it. With one exception Chinese cosmogony is non-mythological. The careful and studiously accurate historians (whose work aimed at being ex veritate, ‘made of truth’), the sober literature, the vast influence of agnostic, matter-of-fact Confucianism, supported by the heavy Mencian artillery, are indisputable indications of a constructive imagination which grew too quickly and became too rapidly scientific to admit of much soaring into the realms of fantasy. Unaroused by any strong stimulus in their ponderings over the riddle of the universe, the sober, plodding scientists and the calm, truth-loving philosophers gained a peaceful victory over the mythologists. p. 93


93:1 Cf. Aristotle’s belief that bugs arose spontaneously from sweat.

93:2 For the Buddhist account see China Review, xi, 80–82.

93:3 Compare the Japanese legend, which relates that the Sun-goddess was induced to come out of a cave by being tempted to gaze at herself in a mirror. See Myths and Legends of Japan, F. Hadland Davis, pp. 27–28.

93:4 See Myths of the Norsemen, by H. A. Guerber. These resemblances and the further one—namely, the dualism in the prechaotic epoch (a very interesting point in Scandinavian mythology)—illustrate the danger of inferring identity of origin from similarity of physical, intellectual, or moral results. Several remarkable parallelisms of Chinese religious and mythological beliefs with those recorded in the Hebrew scriptures may also be briefly noted. There is an age of virtue and happiness, a garden with a tree bearing ‘apples of immortality,’ guarded by a winged serpent (dragon), the fall of man, the beginnings of lust and war (the doctrine of original sin), a great flood, virgin-born god-men who rescue man from barbarism and endow him with superhuman attributes, discipleship, worship of a Virgin Mother, trinities, monasticism, celibacy, fasting, preaching, prayers, primeval Chaos, Paradise, etc. For details see Chinese Repository, vii, 520–521.

93:5 Cf. the dwarfs in the Scandinavian myth.

93:6 See Legge, Shu ching, ii, 320, note.

93:7 In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is as well to note that the mention of the t’ai chi in the Canon of Changes (I ching) no more constituted monism the philosophy of China than did the steam-driven machinery mentioned by Hero of Alexandria constitute the first century B.C. the ‘age of steam.’ Similarly, to take another example, the idea of the earth’s rotundity, though conceived centuries before Ptolemy in the second century, did not become established before the sixteenth century. It was, in fact, from the I ching that the Chinese derived their dualistic (not their monistic) conception of the world.

93:8 “Formerly, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flying about and feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was myself again, the veritable Chou. I did not know whether it had formerly been Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Chou.” Chuang Tzŭ, Book II.

Next: Chapter IV. The Birth of the Soul