What Makes a Myth?
Despite a lengthy 10-year production cycle and a reported multi-billion yuan budget, the first volume of Beijing Culture’s “Creation of the Gods” trilogy failed to produce box office fireworks. Although the film, a gritty live-action reimagining of the Ming dynasty novel “The Investiture of the Gods,” fended off “Barbie” to earn a still-impressive 618 million yuan ($86 million) in its first seven days in theaters, the critical and commercial response has so far been muted.
Perhaps audiences are simply suffering from mythology fatigue. Although “Creation of the Gods” billed itself as “China’s first national mythological epic film,” it’s not even the first or best-known “The Investiture of the Gods” adaptation released in the past five years. That honor belongs to “Ne Zha,” which kickstarted the current mythology craze by earning over 5 billion yuan at the box office in 2019.
One of the biggest selling points of films like “Ne Zha,” its sequel “Jiang Ziya,” and the countless adaptations of “Journey to the West” released over the years is their appeal to audiences’ sense of national pride. These are Chinese movies based in Chinese myths, and thus represent the country’s authentic culture.
But are they really? Both “The Investiture of the Gods” and “Journey to the West” are works of early modern fiction. Although they are based on a mix of history and folk legends, they are more akin to fantasy than mythology, according to Ye Shuxian, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the head of the China Mythology Society.
Ye has spent years fighting against China’s tendency to group mythology studies as a subfield of literature, which he sees as a relic of early 20th century academic debates and the desire among scholars of that era to view traditional Chinese culture through a modern, Westernized lens. Instead, he has called for recovering a “mythological China,” in which the study of myth plays a crucial role in understanding the origins of Chinese civilization.
In a July interview with Sixth Tone, Ye explained the misperceptions surrounding popular recent films like “Creation of the Gods,” the origins of mythology’s current low status in Chinese academia, and why the field shouldn’t be seen as a subcategory of literature. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: In recent years, films like “Creation of the Gods” and “Ne Zha” have won big audiences by stressing their roots in Chinese mythology. Do you think that description is accurate?
Ye: Myths undergo a continuous process of encoding and re-encoding throughout history. The film and television works of today are re-encoding Ming dynasty (1368-1644) fantasy novels, such as “The Investiture of the Gods” and “Journey to the West,” which themselves were re-encoding older stories. For instance, “The Investiture of the Gods” begins with the myth of Nüwa, which dates to the Pre-Qin period (prior to 221 B.C.).
Taking a broader perspective on mythology, fantasy novels like “The Investiture of the Gods” can be regarded as mythological texts. However, researchers of mythology tend to put more emphasis on traditions that predate the advent of writing, as they’re the foundation of later cultural narratives. Regrettably, however, the understanding and perception of mythology among contemporary Chinese often remain confined to the literary domain.
Sixth Tone: Can you expand on that thought?
Ye: China undeniably possesses a rich mythology. However, the modern concept of “mythology” as a field of scholarship was only introduced to the country a little over a century ago, under the influence of Western learning.
When the term arrived in China via Japan, it spawned two main research trends: the study of mythology as a field of literature and the investigation of mythological legends in history.
From a literary standpoint, scholars of that era largely disregarded the diverse genres within Chinese literature and instead embraced Western modern literary approaches. They constructed a history of Chinese literature around a cognitive model that commenced with mythology and grew to encompass poetry, prose, fiction, and drama. Chinese mythology was placed within the Pre-Qin period, with representative works including the poetry of the “Chu Ci,” the mythic compendium “Classic of Mountains and Seas,” and the philosophically minded “Zhuangzi,” as well as specific sections of “The Book of Songs.”
For many years, the primary focus of researchers of Chinese mythology involved exploring Pre-Qin myths and orally transmitted mythological narratives circulating among various non-Han ethnic groups.
Sixth Tone: What about in the field of history? Did historians make use of myth in their research?
Ye: To answer this question, it’s important to first know a little about the major academic movement known as the “Doubting Antiquity School.” The school emerged in the aftermath of the the May Fourth and New Culture movements and was characterized by skepticism toward ancient myths and legends. Scholars like Gu Jiegang, influenced by modern Western scientific perspectives on history, advocated for the removal of unreliable mythological legends from Chinese ancient history, labeling them “pseudo-history.”
The ensuing debate had a profound impact on Chinese learning, leading disciplines such as history, philosophy, and archaeology in China to generally exclude content related to mythological legends in the pursuit of historical objectivity. Literary disciplines, being less bound by this objectivity, became the primary domain for mythology. Thus, early experts studying Chinese mythology were often literary figures, such as (20th century novelists) Lu Xun and Mao Dun. This has contributed to the prevailing belief in China that mythology is a subfield of literature. However, this perspective is mistaken.
Sixth Tone: What problems has this misunderstanding caused?
Ye: The main issue is that many people fail to realize that mythology is not only the source of Chinese literature but also the ultimate origin of disciplines such as history, philosophy, art, religion, and politics. In fact, I would go so far as to say that China itself is mythology!
Just look at the Chinese name for China, zhongguo, which literally means “middle kingdom” and originates from a mythological construct described in a 4th century B.C. text, the “Classic of Mountains and Seas.” Ancient Chinese envisioned the earth as a square surrounded by the sea on all four sides, with zhongguo signifying the central country within that landmass. This serves as a classic example of mythological geographic perception.
Moreover, numerous words and terms like han for the Han ethnicity and the tian in tianming (the Mandate of Heaven) all trace their origins to mythology. Additionally, the countless City God Temples, God of Wealth Temples, and Confucian Temples found in thousands of counties across the country illustrate the pervasive presence of the divine in Chinese social life. Mythology continues to permeate the daily lives of the Chinese people, from the tradition of exchanging old charms for new ones during Spring Festival to the dragon boat races each June.
Sixth Tone: Is this mythological character a distinctive feature of Chinese civilization?
Ye: I believe it should be viewed the other way around: It actually reflects a distinct feature of Western civilization.
Mythology functions as an ideological driving force within every civilized society. Whether it be kings and chiefs or ordinary individuals at the grassroots level, all of them were devout believers in the early stages of civilization. Mythology holds a significance beyond aesthetics or entertainment; it serves as a belief system that shapes the very foundation of people’s ideology and the core of their conceptual framework. Each civilization possesses its own distinct belief concepts, often serving as defining characteristics that set them apart from one another.
What stands out about Western civilization is its early confrontation with traditional mythology, dating back to ancient Greece. It was through Plato’s severe criticism and outright rejection of Homer’s epic poetry that an authoritative rational discourse, known as logos, was established. This paved the way for the development of scientific thinking represented by Aristotle and the metaphysical philosophical system.
No other ancient civilization combined science and philosophy in quite the same way. In China’s ancient history, there was no comparable breakthrough movement in experimental science, nor did China establish an ultimate authority similar to logos.
Sixth Tone: In recent years, archaeologists have reexamined their approach to mythology. Can you provide an example of how archaeology has intersected with the study of mythology?
Ye: Certainly. Let’s take the beginning of the “Thousand Character Classic” (a well-known poem containing 1,000 unique Chinese characters), for example.
In the early 21st century, archaeologists excavated a tomb at the Xipo site in what is today the central province of Henan. The tomb was dated to the late Yangshao period (roughly 5000 B.C.–3000 B.C.), well before the invention of Chinese characters. Above the head of the tomb’s occupant was a black jade axe, and a group of yellow pottery kilns were found beneath their feet. Notably, the black jade axe showed no signs of use, and the pottery kilns exhibited no traces of smoke or fire damage. These objects were evidently crafted solely for burial purposes. It is conceivable that our ancient ancestors believed the deceased’s soul would follow the path of the sun, setting in the west and ascending to heaven. Thus, they placed something black, symbolizing heaven, above the individual’s head and yellow objects, symbolizing earth, beneath their feet. The pottery kilns symbolized the elemental power of fire, facilitating the soul’s ascent to heaven.
The “Book of Changes,” which was written in the first millennium B.C., includes the saying that “dragon blood is black and yellow,” while the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” refers to “black jade from the Yellow Emperor.”
And when we look at the “Thousand Character Classic,” we immediately encounter the characters for heaven, earth, black, and yellow. In essence, the tomb allows us to trace the origin of Chinese mythological cosmology through cultural relics spanning five thousand years.
Sixth Tone: You’re also known for your study of jade. How does that relate to your work on mythology?
Ye: As early as 10,000 years ago, the beginnings of jade production and the jade ritual system emerged in China. At the Niuheliang Hongshan Culture Site in what is now the northeastern Liaoning province, a clay sculpture adorned with circular jade pieces was unearthed. Around 5,000 years ago, in the Yangtze River Delta region, the first relatively complete forms of jade ritual objects were crafted, marking the earliest systematic and extensive use of this combination. The jade ritual system persisted beyond the decline of the Yangtze-based Liangzhu culture 4,300 years ago and spread to the Huaihe River Basin, the lower reaches of the Yellow River, and eventually reached the Central Plains region, forming the core foundation of the jade ritual system during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.
This form of jade worship has fostered a distinctive value system within Chinese civilization, reflected in expressions like “a gentleman is like jade” and “it is better to be broken jade than unbroken pottery.” Understanding jade culture is crucial to grasping the very essence of China.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the 2023 film “Creation of the Gods: Kingdom of Storms.” From Douban)