When I was young, my mind was at its most creative whenever the lights went out. Demons and monsters of all sorts leapt from the shadows outside my window, just as they lurk in the shadows of children’s minds all over the world. But in China, these beasts have names. They have stories. Some are scary, and some are just plain weird. The Chinese people have been imagining mythical creatures for thousands of years, and the tradition continues to this day.
Of course, the dragon is obviously number one on any greatest hits list of Chinese mythological beasts. And most people already know that dragons are an auspicious symbol of royalty, not the same as the princess-kidnapping monsters of Western lore. But did you know the dragon also had nine sons? You’ve seen these guys before; many look more or less like dragons crossed with other animals. They’re all over Chinese temples because, while only the emperor’s palace could have depictions of dragons, the dragon’s sons could be carved anywhere. On top of the official nine sons, there are also nine other subtypes, because—according to a Ming Dynasty text—”the dragon’s nature is very lewd. He copulates with all animals.”
And things only get weirder from there. The annals of Chinese mythology aren’t just limited to dragons. There’s the Qilin (麒麟), the dragon-headed horse-like beast that appears only in places ruled by the wise, and punishes the wicked—sometimes by breathing fire! There’s Bashe (巴蛇), the gigantic snake whose regular diet consists exclusively of elephants. There are the Jian (鹣), cyclops birds with one eye and one wing who must pair with another bird to survive (an ancient symbol for the bond between husband and wife). There’s the Kui (夔), a one-legged ox beast that hops its way through Chinese mythology.
Then there are the real monsters. When you die, for example, the first things you’ll meet in hell are the gruesome (and aptly-named) Oxhead and Horseface (牛头马面 Niútóu Mǎmiàn)—if they haven’t come to get you first, that is. In “Journey to the West,” these guys leave hell to collect Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. He bests them of course, but most poor souls aren’t so lucky.
The Chinese underworld is full of demons, many of whom are looking to gain immortality by eating souls, especially the souls of holy men. What’s more, many of these demons, called Yaoguai (妖怪), can take human form with ease to trick their victims. (The White Snake Lady from last issue’s “Legends of China” was a yaoguai.) Their true forms were generally more bizarre. The Jiutou Zhiji Jing (九头雉鸡精) would appear like a beautiful woman to you or me, but it was actually a nine-headed pheasant.
There’s a lot of shape shifting in Chinese mythology—enough that you begin to wonder what the authors of these books had against beautiful women, since they seemed to think all women were actually demons underneath the skin. The most massive shape shifter must have been the Kun Peng (鲲鹏), an absolutely monstrous animal that could take the shape of either a bird (called Peng) or a fish (called Kun). According to the “Zhuangzi,” this beast was so massive that no one knew its exact size, but in bird form it was so powerful that it could travel 3,000 li (around 1,000 miles) with a single flap of its wings, and could fly for six months without resting.
Modern science may be skeptical about the existence of the dragon or the Kun Peng, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese people from inventing new and clever mythical animals. The internet has proved an extremely effective method for disseminating this new “mythology,” and the beasts invented by netizens—whose names are often based on puns—can become popular overnight.
For example, there’s the Ancient Dove, a newly-invented mythical bird whose name Guge (古鸽) sounds a lot like the Chinese translation of Google (谷歌 Gǔgē). When Google suggested leaving China in early 2010, one Chinese newspaper even ran a fake news story about the “migratory patterns” of the “Ancient Dove.” And what was taking over the habitat of the fleeting “Ancient Dove?” It was the “Paidu bird,” a near-homophone forBaidu,China’s biggest search engine.
Most of these new creatures have names that are similarly based on puns, if a bit more vulgar. Last year’s biggest hit has a name we could never mention in polite company, but a back-story that’s every bit as rich as the stories of ancient monsters like Oxhead and Horseface. There are songs and videos about it, as there are about many of these new mythical animals. Folktales and mythology, it seems, are as alive now as they were thousands of years ago when Zhuangzi was writing about the Kun Peng.