History of Chinese Mythology
The writing of such stories 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.
But the dawn of fiction, in the true sense of the term, came much later, in the middle of the Tang Dynasty, when many well-known writers and poets went in for story-writing. Their stories have 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 appeared an 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.
Features of Chinese Mythology. Scholars and critics have written about the special features of Chinese mythology. Among the most obvious are:
• 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.
• They sing the praises of labour and creation.
• They extol perseverance and self-sacrifice.
One typical example is the story of Gun and Yu trying to tame the floods. Gun steals the "growing earth" from the Heavenly God with which to stop the floods, but the god has him killed. Out of his belly Yu is born, who continues his cause. Yu goes through countless hardships, remains unmarried until he is thirty, and leaves his wife only four days after their wedding to fight the floods, and finally brings them under control.
• They praise rebellion against oppression.
One such story is about a boy whose eyebrows are one foot apart. Ganjiang, who is good at making swords, is killed by the king of Chu. His son Chibi is determined to take revenge. For this he kills himself so that a friend may take his head to see the king and then kill him.
• They eulogize the yearning for true love.
"The Cowherd and the Girl Weaver" is certainly one of China's earliest love stories. Many of the mythical stories written by intellectuals tell stories of how men and goddesses, fox fairies or ghost women love each other passionately and sincerely. Such stories reflect, in an indirect way, the yearning for true love when it was stifled by feudal ethical codes.
• They encourage good deeds and warn against sin.
This is an important theme of the mythical stories produced after the Wei and Jin. Their writers may have been motivated by Confucian teachings about humanity and righteousness, and the Buddhist tenet that good will be rewarded with good and evil repaid with evil.
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.
Style and Art of Writing
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. Take The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains. After he heard that the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain had begun digging the Taihang and Wangwu Mountains,
The Wise Old Man at the River Bend came to stop him. He laughed and said, "How unwise you are ! At your age and with your energy, you cannot even remove one hair on the mountain, let alone so much earth and so many rocks!"
The Foolish Old Man of North Mountain heaved a long sigh and said, " You are so conceited that you are blind to reason. Even a widow and a child know better than you. When I die, there will be my sons, who will have their sons and grandsons. Those grandsons will have their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. But the mountains will not grow. Why is it impossible to level them?" The Wise Old Man at the River Bend could not answer him.
What vivid dialogue this is! And there are descriptive touches here and there, such as "He laughed and said" and "The Foolish Old Man Heaved a long sigh".
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