Fuxi, Nuwa, and the Creation of Humanity
Fuxi (伏羲) and Nuwa (女娲) are a pair of important deities found in Chinese mythology. They are credited with the creation of humanity. In addition, Fuxi is believed to have introduced several innovations that benefited humanity immensely, while Nuwa is said to have saved humanity from a great calamity.
Therefore, Fuxi and Nuwa are considered to be culture heroes by the Chinese. These two deities have been revered by the Chinese since ancient times and are often considered to be two of the legendary Three Sovereigns.
The Creation of the World
According to traditional Chinese belief, Pangu (盘古) was the first living being, and the creator of the world. Pangu is said to have emerged from chaos, which was in the form of a cosmic egg. In one version of the myth, Pangu actively participates in the creation of the world. Using his knowledge of Yin and Yang, Pangu separated the earth from the sky, set the heavenly bodies in place, divided the seas, and created the valleys and mountains.
In another version of the myth, the world was created as a result of Pangu’s death. Like the other version, Pangu emerges from a cosmic egg, and separates the sky from the earth. Pangu holds the sky for 18,000 years, after which he dies of exhaustion. From the various parts of his corpse, the world is created.
For instance, Pangu’s left eye became the sun, while his right became the moon. His blood became rivers, while his body became fertile soil. His bones turned into rocks, while his hair turned into trees and plants.
In one version of the myth, human beings were originally the fleas on his body. Another version, however, states that the fleas became animals and humans were created at a later date.
There are various versions of the origin myth of Fuxi and Nuwa. One version, for instance, states that the two of them were the first two human beings who appeared when Pangu created the world, while another states that they were the two sole survivors of a great flood that destroyed humanity.
In yet another account, Fuxi and Nuwa were the children of a little-known goddess, Huaxu (华胥), who became pregnant as a consequence of stepping on the footprint of the thunder god. As a result of these various origin myths, the subsequent myths about these two deities are diverse in nature as well.
Nuwa and Fuxi, two of the ‘Three Divine Rulers’. (Guss / Public Domain)
Fuxi and Nuwa - Parents of Humanity
Fuxi and Nuwa are commonly portrayed together and they are traditionally regarded to be siblings. This is presented as a dilemma in the myth where the two of them are the first human beings, as well as in the one where they are the sole survivors of a great flood. In both myths, the pair find themselves on the mythical Kunlun Mountains, and sought the advice of heaven as to whether they should get married and (re)populate the earth with human beings.
Therefore, they resorted to divination. According to one version of the tale, Fuxi and Nuwa each climbed to the peak of two different mountains and lit a fire. They agreed that if the smoke went straight up, it would mean that their union was not approved.
On the contrary, if the smoke intertwined, it would mean that heaven approved of their marriage. The smoke from the two fires intertwined and the couple got married. In one myth, the couple had a child in the form of a myth, whom they cut up and scattered across the world, thus resulting in the human race.
Fuxi and Nuwa, creators of humanity are usually pictured intertwined. (Kepautile~commonswiki / Public Domain)
Nuwa Creates Humans
A much better-known myth, however, is that human beings were created from clay. Nuwa is the primary character in this myth, as she is the one who initiates the creation process, while Fuxi is usually presented as her assistant. In the myth, Nuwa is wracked by loneliness and decided to create creatures out of mud to keep her company.
According to one version of the story, Nuwa created a different type of animal for six consecutive days – the chicken, dog, boar, sheep, cow, and horse. On the seventh day, she created human beings. This myth is the basis for the celebration of ‘Human Day’, which falls on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year.
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Nuwa, Chinese creator goddess. (Guss / Public Domain)
Nuwa’s creation of human beings is also used as an explanation (and perhaps a justification as well) for the existence of a hierarchy in Chinese society. In a variation of the myth, Nuwa began creating humans by forming clay figures with her own hands. After some time, however, her hands began to hurt.
Therefore, she took a rope, dipped it in the mud, and swung it around her head. As a result, blobs of sticky mud were formed around her. The Chinese say that the clay figures formed by Nuwa’s hands became the nobility, whereas the blobs of mud became the common people.
Fuxi Helps Their Creation
Although Fuxi did not play a major role in the creation of humanity, he is credited with introducing a number of innovations and inventions that made significant improvements to the lives of his wife’s beloved creations. One of these, for instance, is the invention of fishing.
Fuxi teaches his humans to fish. (Cold Season / Public Domain)
According to the tale, Fuxi noticed that human beings were completely reliant on hunting wild animals for their food. When the hunts were successful, they had food to eat. On the other hand, unsuccessful hunts meant that the people would go hungry.
When Fuxi saw that some of his children were starving, he felt pity for them. He went to a nearby stream and caught several fish with his hands. He brought the fish to his children and taught them to fish with their hands as well.
Thanks to Fuxi, mankind now had a constant supply of food. The fish, however, were the subjects of the Dragon King, the ruler of the oceans and rivers. The Dragon King was furious when he learned that his subjects were being eaten by human beings and was worried that he would soon have no one to ruler over.
The Dragon King’s prime minister, a tortoise, came up with a solution for his liege. He suggested that the Dragon King meet Fuxi and tell him that his children can no longer catch fish with their hands. Fuxi was disappointed when he heard the Dragon King’s orders and spent several days trying to find a solution to this problem.
One day, as Fuxi was resting underneath a tree, he saw a spider weaving a web, which caught some insects, and was struck by an idea. He collected a bunch of wild reeds, wove them into a net, and ran down to the river, into which he threw his net. When he hauled his net in after several moments, he was delighted to see how many fish he had caught and immediately showed his children the new invention.
Another innovation that Fuxi introduced to humanity in order to overcome the unpredictability of hunting was the domestication of animals. Fuxi realized that by keeping animals, human beings would have a more stable access to meat. Apart from that, animals also provided secondary products, such as eggs, milk, and labor. In addition to these innovations, which satisfied the basic needs of his children, Fuxi also introduced those that became the basis of a civilized society, including currency, writing, and marriage customs.
Fuxi teaches humans domestication of animals. (Maksim / Public Domain)
Nuwa, on the other hand, seems to have been much less of an inventor than her husband. Unlike Fuxi, she is not known to have introduced any new inventions to human society. Nevertheless, she cares for her children as much as her husband. In Chinese mythology, Nuwa’s work was not exactly complete after the creation of human beings, as she had to save them from a terrible disaster.
Nuwa’s Sacrifice for Her Creation
According to the myth, a great battle was fought between Gonggong (龚工), a water god, and Zhurong (祝融), a fire god. When Gonggong realized that he was losing the fight, he was furious, and bashed his head on the mythical Buzhou Mountain. This was no ordinary mountain, as it was one of the four pillars that held up the heavens.
As a result of Gonggong’s action, the mountain collapsed and ripped open the sky. This in turn caused half the sky to fall on the earth, which trembled and cracked open. Forests were burnt, the earth was flooded, and fierce creatures emerged from the earth. Many people were burnt, drowned, and devoured.
Seeing the suffering of her children, Nuwa was heartbroken and immediately did something to save them. First, she collected five colored stones and melted them. Using the molten mixture, Nuwa patched the sky. Next, she went to Ao, the sky turtle, and asked for his help.
The turtle agreed to aid Nuwa and allowed her to cut off its four legs. These were used to replace the pillar that Gonggong had destroyed earlier on. After that, Nuwa caught and killed a dragon, which scared the other creatures that came out of the earth, thereby stopping them from making further attacks on human beings.
Finally, she burned a large quantity of reeds and used its ashes to stop the floods. In one version of the story, the work drained Nuwa’s strength, and after laying down to rest, the goddess died of exhaustion. In another version, Nuwa realized that she did not have enough stone to cover the patch in the sky. Therefore, she decided to sacrifice herself and filled the remaining gap with her own body.
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Nuwa repairing the pillar of heaven. (Rephinx / Public Domain)
As a result of Nuwa’s intervention and sacrifice, the world was saved, and humanity could live in peace once more. Interestingly, the myth is used as an explanation for the curious fact that the rivers of China flow from the west to east. In the myth, despite Nuwa’s best efforts, she was unable to get the earth and sky aligned exactly as they were prior to the disaster.
As a consequence, the earth and sky are permanently tilted in opposite directions. This is said to be the reason why the rivers of China flow from west to east, while the sun, moon, and stars move from the east to west.
While Nuwa is thought to have died after patching the sky, Fuxi is believed to have lived for almost 200 years. He is also said to have died somewhere in Huaiyang county, in the central Chinese province of Henan. His alleged tomb has been in existence since the Spring and Autumn period.
Around the tomb is a large compound where buildings and plants are arranged in a manner that reflects the Eight Trigrams, another of Fuxi’s inventions and gifts to mankind. In 1996, the site was included by China’s State Council in its folk culture legacy protection program.
In some sources, Fuxi and Nuwa are described as hybrid creatures, both having the upper body of a human and the tail of a snake. Artistic representations of the two deities in this form can be found in ancient Chinese works of art. When the two are depicted in this form, they are normally shown with their tails entwined, which indicates their union.
Nuwa and Fuxi depicted on Chinese murals of the Wu Liang shrines, Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). (Miuki / Public Domain)
In addition, they are often shown holding a compass and a ruler, which are the instruments of an architect. These may be considered to symbolize their role as architects of human society. In other instances, Fuxi and Nuwa are depicted as completely human in form.
Considering the role played by Fuxi and Nuwa in Chinese mythology, it is unsurprising that the two of them have been highly revered by the Chinese since ancient times. The worship of these two deities, however, is not limited to the Chinese. The Miao people, an ethnic minority of southern China, for instance, consider themselves to be the descendants of Fuxi and Nuwa as well.
Today, Fuxi and Nuwa continue to be worshipped by the Chinese. The Tomb of Fuxi, for instance, is still a tourist attraction, while there are numerous temples dedicated to either Fuxi or Nuwa. Apart from that, the two deities have made an entrance into popular culture, being featured in a number of video games, which may be regarded as a sign of their continuing popularity and significance.
Top image: Fuxi and Nuwa are responsible for creation of humanity in Chinese mythology. Source: Stout256 / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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