Pan Gu and Nü Wa

Pan Gu and Nü Wa


This creation story comes from classical Chinese mythology. It is rewritten from Classic of Mountains and Seas, an anthology of stories collected in the first century BC that were nearly as ancient then as the anthology seems to us today.

Pan Gu and Nü Wa

Long, long ago, when Heaven and Earth were still one, the entire universe was contained in an egg-shaped cloud. All the matter of the universe swirled chaotically in that egg. Deep within the swirling matter was the huge giant, Pan Gu. For eighteen thousand years he developed and slept in the egg. Finally one day he awoke and stretched, and the egg broke to release the matter of the universe. The lighter purer elements drifted upwards to make the sky and heavens, and the heavier impure elements settled downwards to make the earth.

In the midst of this new world, Pan Gu worried that Heaven and Earth might mix again, so he resolved to hold them apart, with the heavens on his head and the earth under his feet. As the two continued to separate, Pan Gu grew to hold them apart. For many more thousands of years he continued to grow, until the heavens were thirty thousand miles above the Earth. Then for much longer he continued to hold the two apart, fearing the return of the chaos of his youth. Finally he realized they were stable, and soon after that he died.

With Pan Gu’s death, the Earth took on a new character. His arms and legs became the four directions and the mountains. His blood became the rivers, and his sweat became the rain and dew. His voice became the thunder, and his breath became the winds. His hair became the grass, and his veins became the roads and paths. His teeth and bones became the minerals and rocks, and his flesh became the soil of the fields. Up above, his left eye became the sun, and his right eye became the moon. Thus in death, as in life, Pan Gu made the world as it is today.

Many centuries later, there was a goddess named Nü Wa who roamed the wild world that Pan Gu had left behind, and she was lonely in her solitude. Stopping by a pond to rest, she saw her reflection and realized that there was nothing like herself in the world. She resolved to make something like herself for company.

From the edge of the pond she took some mud and shaped it in the form of a person. At first her creation was lifeless, but as soon as she set it down and it touched the soil it took life, and started dancing to celebrate its new life. Pleased with her creation, Nü Wa made more of them, and soon her loneliness disappeared in the crowd of little people around her. For two days she continued to make more of them, and still she wanted to make more. Finally she pulled down a long vine and dragged it through the mud, and then she swung the vine through the air. Droplets of mud flew everywhere, and wherever they fell they became people that were nearly as perfect as the ones she had made by hand. Soon she had spread humans over the whole world. The ones she made by hand became the aristocrats, and the ones she made with the vine became the poor common people.

Even then, Nü Wa realized that her work was incomplete, because as her creations died she would have to make more. So she divided the people into male and female, so that they could reproduce on their own.

Many years later, Pan Gu’s greatest fear came true. The heavens collapsed so that there were holes in the sky, and the earth cracked, letting water rush from below to flood the earth. At other places, fire sprang forth from the earth, and everywhere wild beasts emerged from the forests to prey on the people. Nü Wa drove the beasts back and healed the earth.

To fix the sky, she took stones of many colors from the river and built a fire in which she melted them. She used the molten rock to patch the holes in the sky, and she used the four legs of a giant turtle to support the sky again. Exhausted by her labors, she soon lay down to die and, like Pan Gu, from her body came many more features to adorn the world that she had restored.

From Classical Chinese Myths, published by China Books & Periodicals, 1984, translated by Jan Walls and Yvonne Walls. Reprinted with permission from the translators.

Illustrated by BAI CHONGMING

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