By Elaine Dunn
Last month’s “Story” column dealt with China’s version of the creation of heaven and earth by Pangu (盤古). The story ended on the premise that we human beings came from mites off Pangu’s hairy body. Not exactly a pleasant thought. So this month, I’ll offer up an alternate, and I hope, a more palatable version of how human beings were created according to Chinese mythology - the story of Nüwa.
The myths of human creation
In the west, there’s Darwin’s evolution theory. For Christians, it started with God creating Adam and Eve. In Chinese mythology, Nüwa takes credit for origin of the species. And there are quite a few versions of the Nüwa story. I will include two of the best-known ones.
After Pangu created heaven and earth, the kind goddess Nüwa visited the earth. She found the environment pleasing and attractive. However, she thought earth lacked life. She thought, “The sky has stars; the ocean has fish; the earth has animals, but I have nothing.” She felt lonely and yearned for some company.
While strolling along the river, she caught sight of her own reflection in the water. An idea came to her and she excitedly sat down and went to work. She scooped out a handful of clay and started making dolls modeled after herself – with one modification. Nüwa is supposed to have the head and torso of a woman, but her bottom half is that of a snake! Thus, the modification to the mud dolls she made was they all had feet so they could stand erect.
Then she breathed air into the mud dolls and put them down on the ground. The ones she breathed masculine air into became males and the ones she breathed feminine air into became females. They sang and danced and Nüwa found them quite amusing and enjoyed watching them. She was so taken by her handiwork that she diligently made more mud dolls day and night. Then she breathed life into them so they could enjoy each other and to entertain during her stay on earth. However, making the mud dolls proved painstaking and her hands and fingers soon started hurting. Yet, as there was still not enough “dolls” to populate the earth, she had to figure out how to create more dolls in a more efficient way.
One day, she dipped a cord into the mud and then swished it in the air. Droplets of mud fell to the ground and turned into little people! Delighted with the outcome, she continued with the dip-cord-and- swish method, splashing mud droplets all over until the mountains and plains in all corners of the earth were fully populated.
In order that she never had to hand-make mud dolls or dip and swish a cord again, Nüwa set up a marriage system so males and females would get married and procreate. This would ensure earth would be forever populated.
Satisfied with bringing life to the beautiful earth, she returned to heaven.
One day, Nüwa heard a loud noise. The gods of water and fire were fighting. The god of water was losing the fight and angry. He bumped his head on one of the mountain pillars that supported the sky. The pillar collapsed and half the sky caved in. Thunder and lightning followed. The earth was getting flooded by torrential rain. Part of the earth split open and giant flames burst through! People were dying; crops and animals were scorched.
Nüwa could not bear to see “her children” suffer so she tried to block the hole in the sky with a huge boulder. Unfortunately, the heavy rain washed away the boulder in no time. Nüwa returned to earth, selected five colored stones from the river and put them into a boiling cauldron where they melted into a dense liquid. She proceeded to patch the hole in the sky with this liquid. It took her nine days to complete the task. Finally, the sky was mended and the sun shone again. She did not want to risk the sky falling again, so she found a giant sea turtle from the East Sea. She used its four legs to hold up the sky. She also took the ashes from the burnt crops to dam up the flooding banks and restored peace to “her children” on earth. And she once again returned to heaven.
Legend has it that the hand-made dolls became aristocrats and learned scholars. The mud droplets became peasants and common folks.
Nüwa has various roles in Chinese mythology: goddess, creator, repairer, sister, wife … In this Han version of the creation of humankind story, Nüwa is both sister and wife of Fuxi (伏羲).
There was a great flood on earth and Nüwa and her brother Fuxi were the only two survivors left. They knew they had to procreate to keep the human race going, but were afraid and ashamed of the incestuous act. Unable to resolve the hard choice with which they were faced, they went to Mount Kunlun to seek the gods’ advice. They asked the gods to send a signal. If the gods give permission for brother and sister to marry, they asked the gods to let smoke hang above their prayer offering. Smoke indeed hung over the offering, so brother and sister married. To cover her embarrassment on wedding night, Nüwa covered her face with a fan she had woven from grass. Therefore, to this day, Chinese brides often hold a fan on their wedding night!
Mud dolls or mites, take your pick.