What’s the story? Pangu (盤古)
by Elaine Dunn
A new year, a new series – on Chinese myths and folktales.
Myths are generally organic, they serve as a basis for social order and rules and customs, and therefore, they change and develop in tandem with the society in which they exist. The Chinese have never been clear in their separation of myth and reality. Sometimes, historical figures are transformed into gods and myths are recounted as history!
As a child, I was fortunate to have the luxury of nightly bedtime stories delivered by my paternal grandmother or an amah. The memory of those stories provide the ideas and most of the content of this series. My disclaimer: if my version of the story is different from yours, it’s probably because it’s based on my reality / fantasy or my faulty memory. So, here we go …
How the world came to be
Scientists have their Big Bang Theory. Christians believe God created heaven and earth. And the Chinese? Their creation story is tied to a semi divine being – a big, hairy giant named Pangu (盤古).
In the beginning, there was only darkness and chaos in the universe. The universe was in the shape of an egg. Within this egg, a creature, Pangu, was being nurtured. For 18,000 years, Pangu slept and grew within the egg. One day, he woke up and realized he was trapped inside this swirling chaotic mass. He stretched his arms and the egg cracked.
With the eggshell shattered, the lighter, purer matter rose up to become the heaven. The heavier, more impure matter sank down to become the earth. Fearing that heaven and earth would come together again, Pangu used his head to support the heaven and pressed his feet down on the earth to keep the two elements separated.
For the next 18,000 years, Pangu continued to hold them apart. Each day, the heaven rose 10 feet higher, the earth grew 10 feet thicker below ground, and Pangu grew 10 feet taller in order to keep them separated! It is also popular belief that spring and summer were warmed by Pangu’s open mouth, and the cold and frost of autumn and winter came when he closed his mouth. He also had control over the weather: when he was in a pleasant mood, the sky was clear and blue; however, if he were in a foul mood, look out!
By the time heaven and earth grew to approximately 30,000 miles apart and seemed to have stabilized, Pangu was completely weakened and totally exhausted. He lied down to take a well-deserved sleep from which he never awoke.
Upon this giant’s death, different parts of his body became different elements of heaven and earth: his arms and legs were the four directions; his breath became the wind and clouds; his blood, the oceans and rivers; his sweat, the rain and dew; his veins, the roads and paths; his flesh became the soil; his teeth and bones became minerals and rocks; his marrow, pearls and jades; his voice turned into thunder; his left eye, the sun; his right eye, the moon; the hair on his head became the stars; his skin and other bodily hair became the grass and flowers.
As for how the earth came to be populated, I’m not sure I like this version: we human beings were the mites on Pangu’s body! (Watch for a more palatable version next month!)
Pangu and creation myths
The version above first appeared in “Sanwu Liji” (三五曆記) written by Xu Zheng (徐整) in the Three Kingdoms Period. There are many variations to the Pangu myth.
Both of the Miao and Yao people look upon Pangu as their ancestors. The Zhuang people (part of the Buyei ethnic group) honor Pangu as the creator of the world. They still sing "Song about Pangu Creating the Heaven and Earth,” which goes like this: Pangu split the heaven and the earth, and created the sun, moon and other stars. It is thanks to Pangu that human beings can get brightness …
In Buyei legend, Pangu became an expert in rice farming after creating the world, and subsequently married the daughter of the Dragon King. The couple had a son named Xinheng who was disrespectful to his mother. Xinheng angered the mother so much she returned to heaven and never came back to earth, despite repeated pleas from Pangu and Xinheng. When Pangu eventually remarried, Xinheng's nightmare began. Then Pangu died on the sixth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar. The stepmother constantly mistreated Xinheng so Xinheng threatened to destroy her rice harvest in return. This promted the stepmother to apologize and make peace with Xinheng. Since then, they paid their respect to Pangu on the anniversary of his death. Therefore, the sixth day of the sixth lunar month is an important traditional Buyei holiday for ancestral worship.
Despite the diversity of cultures, the myths surrounding how the universe came to be are eerily similar. From the Chinese, to the Indians, to the South Koreans and the people of the Mediterranean, the stories all revolves around the cosmic egg. Pangu is the Chinese version.