China has a diverse set of regional cultures throughout the country. Therefore, it is no surprise that Chinese folklore and myths are varied and vast. Chinese government and universities embarked on a mission to collect folklore stories and songs from all over China in 1949. To date, they have gathered 1.8 million stories and over 3 million folk songs. These folk songs can be classified into epics (Shishi) and narrative poems (Xushishi), similar to long ballads and fairy tales. Spoken narratives include folktales (Minjian Gushi), legends (Chuan Shuo), myths (Shenhua), animal tales (donwu Gushi), among other styles of stories.
For centuries, the Chinese have followed the teaching of Confucius in their religious beliefs. Still, the common people turned to fiction and folklore and developed a pantheon of Gods intended for the uneducated masses. The people of China believe in everything divine, related to Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism.
The Eight Chinese Fairies
Chinese tradition tells stories about Eight Fairies who were human beings but achieved immortality by practicing Taoists' esoteric discipline. Chinese art and fiction portrayed these fairies with such life-like characters that they appealed to the Chinese people as Santa Claus for westerners.
Lu Tung-ping was born in King Chiao in the Tang Dynasty. After passing the Imperial Civil Examination, he was appointed magistrate twice. After the uprising of Huang Chiao, he retired from public life and moved to the solitude of Chung Nan mountain. Thenceforth, he led a hermit's life, devoting himself to the spiritual cultivation as a Taoist. A legend says that he once met a fairy who taught him the esoteric scriptures of Taoists. Later on, he became capable of magic and achieved divinity. In Chinese mythology, he is represented as a handsome-looking man who always carries a two-edged sword on his back. His sword is known to be magical and, when let go, would shoot off like an arrow to kill any flying dragon or genie in a single stroke.
Another version of the story is that Han Chung-li, one of the eight immortals, stayed at an inn during his visit to the world. There he met Lu Tung-ping and tried to convince him to embrace Taoism. When his efforts went in vain, Han Chung-li bid him to take a short nap. When Lu Tung-ping fell asleep, he dreamt that he became a high official of great wealth and influence. An unfortunate event caused him to lose everything, and the Emperor exiled him. He awoke from his dream with a start and realized the futility of life. He then followed Han Chung-li, and there he was taught the art of immortality and turned into a divine person. He was known in Chinese mythology as Master Lu.
A nephew of Han Yu, Han Hsiang-Tze was a prominent scholar-statesman of the Tang Dynasty. He embraced the religion of Taoism and studied under Lu Tung-ping and Han Chung-li legend has it that he often filled a pot with earth, and with his magic touch, he would make a fresh plant shoot out from the earth. Once, Han Hsiang-Tze climbed up on a tree to pick the fruit of immortality but fell when the branch snapped from his weight. He transfigured into an immortal at the exact moment that he fell to the ground.
Ho Hsien-Ku is the youngest daughter of the Ho family of the Tang Dynasty. Legend says that one day, she was given a peach by a stranger on the street. She ate the fruit with relish and later found that she had been granted supernatural powers. From that day on, she never felt hunger or thirst and made prophesies and divinations without the smallest error. Her fellow countrymen held her in high esteem for her unusual achievement and built a house especially for her.
Another version relates that Ho Hsien-ku's expertise as a magician amassed fame far and wide until it reached Empress Wu, who invited the girl to her Court. While journeying to meet the Empress, she suddenly disappeared from mortal view and joined the ranks of the Eight Immortals. She is known as Sister Ho in Chinese mythology.
Han Chung Li
In Chinese folklore, Han Chung-li is described as scantily-clad, bearded and fat, and holding a feather fan in his hands which can turn into a magical weapon. He lived in a stone house on the top of a mountain peak to seclude himself from the frivolities of the secular world. Legend has it that one day as he was meditating on the mystery of the universe, a beam of light suddenly streamed through his body and soul and the divine truth dawned on him. One day, as he was practicing the art of immortality, Erelong, a heavenly stork came to his abode and carried him away to the saintly palace.
In Chinese mythology, Lan Tsai-Ho is described as a handsome, cheerful, and young boy. He was often seen walking around, singing songs about the Chang An City and the metropolis of the Tang Regime with a basket of flowers in hand. One day, he came to the Ho Liang Wine Shop, bought himself a drink, and then rode off on a stork to the spiritual palace.
Born in Shansi in the Sui Dynasty, Li Tieh-kuai was often seen begging and hobbling on the streets with his crutch. He changed the crutch into a flying dragon and rode on it to the celestial palace one day. Another version tells him to be a man of stout figure and a bulky build.
Chang Kuo-Lao lived in the Chung Tao Mountain, away from the amusements of the world. A Taoist of the Tang Dynasty, he was often seen traveling between Shensi and Shansi provinces. Chinese folklore presents him riding on a white donkey facing its tail, and the animal would carry him for thousands of miles within a few hours. When he would stop at an inn or reach his destination, his white donkey would transform into a sheet of paper with a touch of magic.
Legend has it that one day Tsao Kuo-Chiu met Han Chung-li and Lu Tung-ping. The two immortals asked him pertinent questions relating to the invariable truth and divinity. Satisfied by his answers, they began teaching him the art of immortality as their believer. With time, he joined the ranks of the Eight Fairies and became immortal.
China's rich written history of folk songs dates back to the 5th century BC. These folk songs have been incorporated into orchestral music, modern films, and other types of media. Mythology in China has been collected from the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. These include myths about creation, religion, legend, deities, cosmology, mythical places, substances, plants, and creatures.