THE CHINESE CREATION
Our knowledge of very early Chinese myth is fragmentary, thanks to a cultural revolution in about 213 BC when the Emperor Shi Huang Di, after unifying the country, ordered the burning of all but purely technical books to try and make a break with the past. Considering that the penalty for disobedience was death, a surprising number of scholars defied the ban and some 460 are known to have paid the price. The purge was ruthless but some of the proscribed literature survived. Among the remains was this account of the Creation, preserved and disseminated by the Taoists.
'Before the world came into being there existed only the Cosmic Egg that floated unchanging in the Void for untold ages. Yin and Yang was the Egg, opposites perfectly mingled. And it was because they were perfectly mingled that the world could not yet be.
'Then within the Egg was born P'an Ku, the primordial man who slowly grew and grew until the Egg felt too cramped for him. Impatiently he stretched out his limbs and his hand closed about an axe, coming from whence no one knows. Striking with all his might, P'an Ku split the shell of the Egg and burst free.
'He then began to fashion the material of Chaos, separating Yin and Yang into sky and earth, in which he was aided by the four most fortunate creatures who had emerged from the Egg with him: the Unicorn, the Dragon, the Phoenix and the Tortoise. They were engaged in this labour for 18,000 years and each day P'an Ku grew ten feet, using his own body as a pillar to force heaven and earth apart.
'When the separation was complete and they had settled in their places, P'an Ku died. His breath became the wind and clouds, his eyes became the sun and moon. His stomach, head and limbs became the principal mountains of the world, watered by the rivers of his sweat and tears; his flesh became the fertile soil and his hair the plants and trees which took root in it. The fleas on his body became the human race. Then P'an Ku drifted in space for a further 18,000 years before entering a holy virgin as a ray of light and being born into the world by her as Tien-Tsun, the First Cause.'
The four most fortunate creatures, also called the four intelligent beasts, were dispersed all over the world. In China, the Unicorn became known as the Ch'i-lin (also spelt Ki Lin, Chhi Lin or, from the Japanese, Kirin). Strictly speaking, Ch'i means the male Unicorn and Lin the female but usually the combined form is applied to both.
Like its Western cousin Ch'i-lin is an elusive creature which evades captivity and has an even greater reputation for gentleness and wisdom. The Ch'i-lin took a particular interest in government of China and its appearance at the Imperial Court was seen as a portent of either the beginning or the end of a glorious reign.
The Book of Rights describes the Ch'i-lin as: 'Chief among four-footed beasts. It resembles the stag but is larger. It has a single horn, the tip of which is fleshy, indicating that it is not used in battle. There are five colours in the hair of its back - red, yellow, blue, white and black - and the hair of its belly is dark yellow. It does not tread any living grass underfoot nor eat any living creature. It shows itself when perfect rulers appear and when the Tao of the King is accomplished.' That is to say, when the ruler's work is well done and his time has come, the Ch'i-lin arrives to bear his soul to Heaven.
After a similar description another ancient book, the Shu King, goes on to say: 'Its call in the middle part is like a monastery bell. Its pace is regular. It rambles on selected grounds and only after it has examined the locality. It will not live in herds or be accompanied in its movements. It cannot be beguiled into pitfalls or captured in snares.'
The Royal Ch-i-lin
The earliest recorded appearance of the Ch'i-lin was to the legendary sovereign Fu Hsi c.2900 BC. Fu Hsi is credited, among other things, with domesticating animals, breeding silkworms and teaching the art of fishing. He also invented music and the set-square and compasses to measure the earth. He and his wife Nu Kua restored order to the world after it had almost been destroyed by the monster Kung Kung, not least by their invention of marriage as a means of harmonizing the Yin and Yang of human nature.
The Lieh Tzu says of Nu Kua: 'In oldest times the Four Cardinal Points were out of place, the nine Provinces lay open, the sky did not wholly cover the earth, the earth did not wholly support the sky, fire burnt ceaselessly without dying out, the waters flowed on without ceasing, wild beasts devoured the peaceful people, and birds of prey carried off children and the aged. Then Nu-Jua smelted the stones of five colours to repair the azure sky. She cut off the feet of a tortoise to fix the Cardinal Points. She slew the black dragon to save the country of Chi and she piled up ashes of reeds to stem the overflowing waters. All was tranquil at that time, everything was at peace.'
Towards the end of his industrious life Fu Hsi was sitting one day on the bak of the Yellow River. He was pondering mortality and the problem of how to record his thoughts for posterity (writing was yet to be invented). Suddenly a Ch'i-lin rose out of the waters and approached him. On its back it carried certain magical sigils from which Fu Hsi was able to devise the first written language of China. The script has evolved so naturally that today it is still possible for a reader of modern Chinese to understand something written 2,000 years ago.
The signs which inspired Fu Hsi were the Pa Kua or eight trigrams. These symbolic combinations of broken and unbroken lines are the basis not only of Chinese writing, but also of the philosophic and divinatory system which has been handed down to us as the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Fu Hsi is one of its four credited authors, along with King Wen, the Duke of Chou and Confucius.
Fu Hsi's trigrams have led an enormous and continuing influence on Chinese thought and culture. The I Ching conveys a distinct and original philosophy that helped create one of the world's great civilizations. The Pa Kua may have fallen from favour somewhat in modern China but many of the ideas they gave rise to live on. The symbols themselves are familiar to many Western eyes from their presence on the Korean national flag.
The Pai Hu T'ung written in the first century AD (by, curiously enough, one Pan Ku) was not exaggerating popular opinion when it stated: 'In the beginning there was as yet no moral or social order. men knew their mothers only, not their fathers. When hungry, they searched for food; when satisfied they threw away the remnants. They devoured their food, hide and hair, drank the blood, and clad themselves in skins and rushes. Then came Fu Hsi and looked upward and contemplated the images in the heavens and looked downward and contemplated the occurences on earth. he united man and wife, regulated the five stages of change, and laid down the laws of humanity. He devised the eight trigrams in order to gain mastery over the world.'
Thus the Ch'i-lin, who helped create the world, also played a significant part in making it bearable for mankind.
Fu Hsi was followed as sovereign by Shen-nung, who taught his people the arts of agriculture and herbalism. Despite this, he offended Heaven in some way because the Ch-i-lin made no appearance and his land suffered a severe draught. He was saved in the end by the personal intervention of the Lord of Rain.
Huang Ti came next, known also as the Yellow Emperor or the August Sovereign. He was the first of five semi-divine Emperors who ruled pre-dynastic China, and is credited with the invention of the chariot wheel, magnetic compass and potter's wheel. He also wrote a classic treatise on medicine, and is said to have found the recipe for a pill which conferred both immortality and the ability to make gold from base metals. Some copies of his book were believed to contain the recipe but none have survived, despite the prolonged searching of many of his successors.
Warfare and weapons also came into being during Huang Ti's reign, when the son of his predecessor, and now one of his ministers, staged a rebellion against him. The Yellow Emperor countered the insurrection by devising weapons and armour to protect his men. Various deities were also drawn into the contest on both sides and used their mastery of the weather to influence the course of the battle. In fact, it was a thick fog conjured up by his enemy that inspired Huang Ti to invent the magnetic compass to guide his armies.
In the end Huang Ti was victorious and went on to become one of the most revered of all Chinese rulers. The Bamboo Books record the appearance of a Ch'i-lin at his palace in 2697 BC, shortly before his death; and during the reigns of the following four Emperors, in what came to be seen as a Golden Age of peace, justice and good government, the Ch'i-lin often appeared as a mark of approval.
The last of the Five Emperors was Shun and his chief minister of justice was named Kao- yao. His judgements were so highly praised that he adopted the Ch'i-lin as his emblem and was often assisted by a Unicorn in his court. Whether this was a true Ch'i-lin is uncertain. It may well have been one of the several other species of one-horned beast known to the Chinese. Some accounts suggest a single horned ram or goat, but one which possessed a spark of the true Ch'i-lin power to tell right from wrong. When unable to decide a case, Kao-yao would present the plaintiffs to this beast and with his horn it would choose between them. Its decision often resulted in the execution of the guilty party.