12/2/09 - the great beginning

In today's excerpt - for the ancient Chinese, God did not create the heaven and the earth, it just happened. And man came from the worms of the decaying Pan Gu's body:

"Though by no means a godless people, the ancient Chinese were reluctant to credit their gods—or God—with anything so manifestly implausible as the act of creation. In the beginning, therefore, God did not create heaven and earth; they happened. Instead of creation myths, China's history begins with inception myths and in place of a creator it has a 'happening situation.' Suggestive of a scientific reaction part black hole part Big Bang this was known as the Great Beginning.

"According to the third-century BCE Huainanzi: 'Before Heaven and Earth had taken form, all was vague and amorphous. Therefore it was called The Great Beginning. The Great Beginning produced emptiness and emptiness produced the universe. The universe produced qi [vital force or energy], which had limits. That which was clear and light drifted up to become Heaven while that which was heavy and turbid solidified to become earth ... The combined essences of Heaven and Earth became the yin and yang.'

"A more popular though later version of this genesis myth describes the primordial environment as not just amorphous but 'opaque like the inside of an egg'; and it actually was an egg to the extent that when broken, white and yolk separated. The clear white or yang ascended to become Heaven and the murky yolk or yin descended to become Earth. Interposed between the two was the egg's incubus, a spirit called Pan Gu. Pan Gu kept his feet firmly in the earth and his head in the heavens as the two drew apart. 'Heaven was exceedingly high, Earth exceedingly deep and Pan Gu exceedingly tall' says the Huainanzi. Though not the creator of the universe, Pan Gu evidently served as some kind of agent in the arrangement of it. ...

"Less relevant still in Chinese tradition is the origin of man. In another version of the Pan Gu story it is not Pan Gu's lanky adolescence which suggests a degree of personal agency in the creative process, but his posthumous putrescence. In what might be called a decomposition myth as Pan Gu lay dying it is said that:

" '[His] breath became the wind and the clouds; his voice became the thunder; his left eye became the sun and his right the moon; his four limbs and five torsos became the four poles and the five mountains; his blood became the rivers; his sinews became geographic features; his muscles became the soils in the field; his hair and beard became stars and planets; his skin and its hairs became grasses and trees; his teeth and bones became bronzes and jades; his essence and marrow became pearls and gemstones; his sweat became rain and lakes; and the various worms in his body touched by the wind became the black-haired commoners."



John Keay


China: A History




Copyright John Keay 2008 and 2009


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