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Legendary ancestral gods and mythical gods

WANG HUI | 2022-09-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Between the early 1900s and the 1930s, Gu Jiegang and Yang Kuan, scholars of ancient Chinese history, Mao Dun, a scholar of mythology, and some Western Sinologists such as Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet, all believed that there was a mythological and mythic theme hidden in the history of ancient China and the historical legends of the emperors, which was gradually transformed into historical events and figures. This has been called the “historicization of myths.” Bernhard Karlgren put forward an opposite view, that the mythical heroes in early Chinese literature were originally the ancestors of royal families, who were later mythologized by their descendants, i.e. “historical mythologization.” With Werfrarm Eberhard’s criticism of Bernhard Karlgren, the “historicization of myths” seems to have become the mainstream understanding among Western scholars. 

Difference between Chinese and Western myths
Many Western scholars have also noticed the difference between Chinese and Western “mythological issues,” as Western philosophers since Plato have tended to focus on interpreting the meaning of myths and the causes of their creation. However, Chinese philosophers during the Warring States Period (770–476 BCE) didn’t pay attention to these issues. Western scholars were confused by the paucity of Chinese myths, so they assumed that scholars of the Warring States Period either deleted the myths that were contrary to nature, or reluctantly explained them and filtered out the content of myths. Recently, some Western scholars still insist on the Chinese “from myth to history” thesis, and believe that “the legends of Yu establishing the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st century–16th century BCE) and Yao abdicating the throne to Shun were all developed and evolved from the myths of the Shang Dynasty.” They are even more puzzled by the way in which Chinese scholars have combined archaeology and historical documents, and are sharply critical of the results of adopting this method.
This paper believes that the reason why Chinese and Western scholars have different understandings of the origins of ancient history lies in their different cultural backgrounds.
Herodotus, the father of Greek history, wrote The Histories, marking the birth of Western history. However, according to this work, there was no precise method of dating in Greece at the time. Before [the creation of The Histories] there were the epics Iliad and Odyssey written by Homer in ancient Greece, which were records of myths and heroes. The myths were about gods, represented by Zeus and Hera, living on Mount Olympus, and heroes including Achilles, Agamemnon, and many others, who participated in the war between ancient Greeks and Trojans. Archaeological discoveries have proven that the Trojan War occurred in the period of the Mycenaean civilization between 1600 and 1200 BCE, so the heroes are believable historical figures. The myths are about those gods who caused the Trojan War. In these myths, victory in the war was totally determined by wrestling between gods such as Zeus and Hera. These are indisputable mythological content. There were no historical legends before the Trojan War in the Heroic Age, so it is possible that the Mycenaean civilization, and before, was the Age of Mythology.
The Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) in China roughly corresponds to the ancient Greek period. Ancient Greek civilization flourished from 700 to 200 BCE, roughly equivalent to China’s Spring and Autumn Period (770–221 BCE) and the Warring States Period. The earliest historical work in China, the Spring and Autumn Annals, also describes the first half of this period, without any mythological content. Other earlier writings, such as the Book of Changes, the Book of Songs, and the Book of History, only contain a few mythological stories, and the gods, if mentioned in these writings, are all ancestral gods. 
Ancestral gods
The unearthed oracle bone inscriptions often include the content of worshiping ancestors and kings, which is basically consistent with the lineage recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian. During the Shang (c. 16th century–11th century BCE) and Zhou dynasties, many bronze vessels were made for ancestors, and they were ritual vessels to be placed in ancestral temples. This also shows that the Shang and Zhou dynasties were indeed an era of theocratic worship, but these gods were basically ancestral gods. In fact, they were historical figures. It is quite different from Western Greek mythology, where gods are imaginary and unreal.
It should also be noted that the legends of ancient Chinese history were actually handed down in the process of worshiping ancestral gods in numerous clans and tribes at that time. In the Spring and Autumn Period, rulers of vassal states traced their great ancestors or distant ancestors either back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, or the Xia and Shang dynasties, more often to the Xia Dynasty or even the era of the legendary Five Emperors. Commemorating a tribe’s own ancestors was certainly not something that could be made up by later generations. “Gods do not worship non-human beings, and people do not worship non-tribe members.” These are historical legends passed down orally in tribes and vassal states, and therefore cannot be regarded as “myths.”
Wang Hui is a professor from the School of History and Civilization at Shaanxi Normal University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.