On the surface, this sounds like a rather vague question: who should it be important to? Well, the Chinese, obviously, but Chinese mythology is important all over the world. Don't you believe us?
If you work in international trade or have any business ties to China, you may find yourself having a hard time getting anything done between Spring Festival and Lantern Festival. The first, what we know as Chinese New Year, is the most anticipated, celebrated and revered of all Chinese traditions. It and the Lantern Festival, which takes place two weeks later, are firmly rooted in Chinese mythology.
You might have to put your business on hold as your Chinese partners revel in their traditions but, more importantly, you should know about the art of guan xi - the uniquely Chinese style of relationship-building rooted in Confucian doctrine.
On a more light-hearted note: who hasn't ever read their horoscope? Whether you're a Libra or a Gemini, you may get a chuckle out of your personal forecast... which you share with all the other Gemini or Libra people on earth. By contrast, if you're a water Dragon with a fixed element of wood, your forecast is likely to be much more specific.
And that's only the western interpretation of the Chinese zodiac; they are much more specific in China. Down to the day, in fact.
Reverting back to serious mode, now: how about learning how to speak Mandarin?
Mandarin is the second most-spoken language in the world today. Some people learn to speak Chinese so they can continue their education in China while others see learning it as a business advantage. Either way, wouldn't it be great to learn Mandarin?
If we agree on that point, then we should also agree on this one: Understanding Chinese culture is an essential part of learning its language. To understand that culture, you have to know about its traditions, myths and beliefs.
Now that we know why Chinese mythology is so important, let's take a look at particular aspects of it.
The Lunar Calendar
While most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese use a lunisolar calendar - one that indicates 'solar time' as well as the lunar phases.
As of February 12th, 2021, it's the year 4719 in China!
For millennia, China maintained its own system of keeping dates, which was established during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-476BC). After the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, China adopted the calendar we all use but it never really gained any traction until October 1st, 1949, when Mao Zedong declared that that date should be noted on the Gregorian calendar.
That date marks the founding of the People's Republic of China. It also kicks off what the Chinese call Golden Week, the country's second peak travel time. The first, of course, is Lunar New Year.
The calendar most everyone on earth uses pays homage to Romans. Did you know that July and August have the same number of days because Julius and Augustus Caesar were so fiercely competitive?
By contrast, the Chinese calendar is filled with amazing, entrancing beasts that imbue each lunar cycle with their unique characteristics. If you're thinking those creatures are the zodiac animals, you're only partially right. They are bound to heavenly stems, associated with a particular element and ordered according to the Earthly Branches. There's no equivalent for those in our timekeeping systems.
In Chinese mythology, all of one's fortune depends on where they land on the lunar calendar. For instance, a newly married couple would hold off on having a baby if s/he might be born during a Goat Year, especially if it's a 'water' year.
Water is one of the five elements guiding a variety of phenomena from political power to cosmic cycles. The other four are metal, wood, fire and earth. You might think that metal would be the strongest element but, surprisingly, it's fire. Water is the ebb of things; the low point and provides the weakest energy.
Couple water with the goat - one of the least desirable zodiac animals, and you'll have a year that every young couple will try to avoid having a baby in. Indeed, they might not even marry during a goat year.
Incidentally, the same logic applies when deciding to get married. Traditionally, fire Tiger would never consider marrying a water Snake or an earth Monkey, for example, as both the elements and the animals are incompatible.
The lunar calendar is a complex construction but, at least, its zodiac is clear! There's plenty of information on the zodiac animals and how the Jade Emperor chose them (why not a panda?); let's move on to other interesting aspects of Chinese mythology.
Also, learn everything you need to know about Chinese mythology.
Festivals Associated With the Lunar Calendar
Our celebrations are rather arbitrarily organised. Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day in the US) is on the 11th of November, the day the First World War ended. However, it's supposed to honour service members who died in the line of duty; it apparently includes those who died in every war after 1919, too.
By contrast, Chinese celebrations are logically established.
- On the first day of the first month, the Chinese celebrate the New Year.
- The second day of the second month denotes the Blue Dragon festival.
- The third day of the third month is the Shang Si Festival, traditionally Women's Day in China
- The fifth day of the fifth month is the Dragon Boat festival
- The seventh day of the seventh month is the Qi Xi festival
- The fifteenth day of the eighth month is Mid-Autumn Festival
- The ninth day of the ninth month is the Zhong Yang festival
Naturally, there are other celebrations scattered among these but even they maintain some precision. The aforementioned Lantern Day Festival takes place 15 days after the lunar New Year. The Qing Ming festival, the day to venerate one's ancestors, is calculated to fall on the 104th day after the winter solstice.
There's a beautiful logic - a mathematical precision to when these celebrations take place even if, to the uninitiated, those dates appear arbitrary because, from year to year, they never fall on the same (Gregorian) day.
The stories and people - the gods and goddesses behind these celebrations are fascinating.
Find out how to learn Mandarin London here.
Who Chinese Festivals Celebrate
Historical records can be lost or distorted when repeated over time. Today, people cannot tell with any real accuracy when certain historical or religious figures lived and died - even with all of the technology at our disposal.
The Chinese way of plotting celebrations makes moot when a person, hero, god or goddess lived or died. S/he has a place in their numerical system of remembrance.
Lunar New Year
The beast Nian always appeared during Spring Festival to eat the villagers, especially the children. One year, the villagers decided they would hide in the hills on the Year's eve. Just as they were leaving town, an old man appeared and told them he would best Nian.
When they returned to their village the next day, they were surprised to find the old man alive and their village intact. The ancient one had known that Nian was afraid of loud noises and hated the colours red and yellow. Thus, he draped the town in yellow and red, and set off firecrackers.
To this day, that is how Chinese New Year is celebrated.
Footnote: It's believed that the Lunar New Year coincides with Emperor Yao ascension to the throne. He is one of China's most important emperors so celebrating him and the new year dovetail nicely.
Blue Dragon Festival
In ancient Chinese mythology, the dragon is a deity that controls the rain - a necessary ingredient in agriculture. Thus, this festival, aptly named Dragon Raising its Head, signals the rainy season that kicks off the planting and growing season.
The Dragon King and Tu Di, a generally local deity are revered on that day, too.
Dragon Boat Festival
Qu Yuan was in despair. The (Zhou dynasty) Chu king had allied his state with the Qin state, a fierce and powerful rival. Qu Yuan, a statesman, protested the alliance and was banished from the royal house. Weighted down by the accusation of treason that followed him into exile, he wrote a lot of poetry.
His mournful verses did nothing to ease his anguish when, 28 years after the alliance, the Qin army invaded the Chu capital. Fatally aggrieved, he pitched himself into the river.
His admirers, who had witnessed his suicide raced out to the middle of the river in their longboats, trying to rescue him. As they were not able to locate his body, they threw rice into the water to keep the fish from eating their hero.
To this day, the Chinese hold dragon boat races in his honour. Zongzi, a glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves is the staple food of the day. In what was formerly the capital of the Chu state, you can find a magnificent statue of Qu Yuan.
Footnote: the number 5 is considered unlucky in Chinese mythology. That belief is woven into Qu Yuan's story of misfortune. In local parlance, the festival is called 'double-fives' because of where it falls on the calendar.
Qi Xi Festival
The cowherd, Niu Liang and the weaver girl named Zhi Nu were the epitome of star-crossed lovers. However, their love was forbidden so they were condemned to live apart, one on either side of the Silver River.
A flock of magpies felt sorry for them. For one night each year, they form a bridge across the river so that the lovers may meet.
Qi Xi is known as the Chinese Valentine's day. Newlywed couples traditionally pray to the celestial lovers to thank them for uniting them. These rituals promise a happy marriage. Note also that many singles consult fortune-tellers on 'double sevens day' to find out when they too will find their perfect love.
Footnote: Niu Liang is said to represent Altair while Zhi Nu is actually Vega. The river the magpies span represents the stars in the Milky Way.
Are the Chinese people sun worshippers, too? Discover all of the gods in China's heaven...
What's in a Name?
The Chinese people are not religious as we understand religion but they have plenty of tradition, lots of deities and gods, and a complex belief system that touches on every aspect of daily living.
We've already discussed choosing a wedding date and auspicious times to have a child. Now, let's talk about naming children.
First, the prevalence of family names such as Wang, Shen, Li, Song and others. Wang and Song translate to 'king' and represent the Song dynasty, respectively. Li, meaning 'plum' was such an important staple crop that ancient plums were found buried with past emperors.
So, whereas we get our names from our professions, locations and lineage, Chinese names derive from their mythology/religion.
Now, let's talk about given names.
Traditionally, the family elders had the privilege of naming new family members. These days, though, more parents are taking that pleasure for themselves. No matter who names the child, auspices feature heavily.
Popular names often include references to jade (yu), heaven (tian), dragon (long) and star (xing). Huang xing - Yellow Star would be a very appropriate name, for example. So would Yu Long - Jade Dragon, especially if the family name is Wang. That child would be King Jade Dragon - almost as powerful a name as Jade Emperor!
Chinese history and folk tales influence every aspect of human life in China, even today, though their belief system may not be as regimented as other religions'. Arguably, the people of China adhere more closely to their values and beliefs... because they are woven into the fabric of their everyday life.
Does all of this help you better understand what Chinese mythology is about?
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