Pangu and divine intervention

‘Change doesn’t happen overnight’ will be a phrase familiar to many who have set out for some self-improvement. Spare a thought for Pangu, a deity whose body transformed into the stuff of the universe – from the sun and stars to grass and pearls. This great change was no less than 36,000 years in the making.

Image: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain

China’s earliest known story of creation was written down in the 3rd century AD by the Daoist Xu Zheng, whose works are known from quotations in later sources such as the Tang Dynasty encyclopaedia, the Yiwen Leiju (AD 624). The story itself must have undergone its own long process of transformation, handed down through the oral tradition, with different versions branching off over time and in different places.

Pangu was born in the midst of an egg-like chaos. After 18,000 years, the two muddled parts separated, and the Yin (which represents the negative, feminine, cool, dark, and wet) became the earth and the Yang (representing the positive, masculine, hot, bright, and dry) the sky, with Pangu between them. Over the next 18,000 years, Pangu changed nine times a day, becoming wiser and more capable than heaven and earth, while the sky and earth both expanded until they reached their full extent. In some accounts, Pangu has a more active role as a creator-god, cutting chaos in two with an axe, or becoming a pillar to separate the earth and heaven.

The great metamorphosis of his body parts came after Pangu’s eventual death. Tao Tao Liu writes: ‘His breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the thunder. His left eye became the sun, his right eye the moon. His head, arms and legs became the four cardinal points and the five mountains. His blood became the rivers, his sinews the features of the land, his flesh the earth’s soil. His hair and beard became the stars, the hairs on his skin grass and trees, his teeth and bones became metal and stones, his marrow pearls and jade. His sweat became rain; even the parasites on his body touched by the wind became the multitude of people.’

Popular as a benevolent creator and able to control rain, Pangu was – and still is – worshipped in numerous temples. He lends his name to a mountain in Henan province (possibly since before the Tang Dynasty), which is said to be the deity’s former abode. The mountain is home to a large temple devoted to Pangu and plays host to many pilgrims, who come for the festival in his honour, complete with incense offerings and dramatic performances, on the third day of the third month of the lunar calendar.