Nüwa

Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Nüwa (Traditional Chinese: 女媧; Simplified Chinese: 女娲; Pinyin: nǚwā, also Nügua) is mythological character best known for creating and reproducing people after a great calamity. Other later traditions name this as a creation myth attributed to either Pangu or Yu Huang.

Nüwa primary sources

Nüwa was referred to in many books of songs. Below are some of the common sources that describe Nüwa, tabled in chronological order. The list below did not include those of local tribal stories or modern reinterpretations, often adapted for screenplay. (Note: please maintain pattern of date, author, book, chapter, account, and detail for future additions.)

1) (475 - 221 BC) author: Lie Yukou, book: Liezi, chapter 5: "Questions of Tang" (卷第五 湯問篇), paragraph 1: account: "Nüwa repairs the heavens" detail: Describes Nüwa repairing the imperfect heaven,. detail: The haven was imperfect at the begining, Nüwa use five colored stones to repaire the haven, cut the legs of a tortoise and use them as the struts of sky. But later, Gonggong bump into the moutain "buzhou"---- which holds sky, so the world inclines again, all river run to the east and stars begin to move. 2) (340 - 278 BC) author: Qu Yuan, book: "Elegies of Chu" (Chuci), chapter 3: "Asking Heaven" (天問, or Wentian), account: "Nüwa Mends The Firmament" detail: The name Nüwa first appeared here. This story states that Nüwa molded figures from the yellow earth, giving them life and the ability to bear children. Demons then fought and broke the pillars of the Heavens. Nüwa worked unceasingly to repair the damage, melting down the five-coloured stones to mend the Heavens.

3) (179 - 122 BC) author: Liu An, book: Huainanzi, chapter 6: Lanmingxun (覽冥訓), account: "Nüwa Mended the Sky" detail: In remote antiquity, the four poles of the Universe collapsed, and the world descended into chaos: the firmament was no longer able to cover everything, and the earth was no longer able to support itself; fire burned wild, and waters flooded the land. Fierce beasts ate common people, and ferocious birds attacked the old and the weak. Hence, Nüwa tempered the five-colored stone to mend the Heavens, cut off the feet of the great turtle to support the four poles, killed the black dragon to help the earth, and gathered the ash of reed to stop the flood. Variation: The four corners of the sky collapsed and the world with its nine regions split open.

4) (145 - 90 BC) author: Sima Qian, book: Shiji, section 1: BenJi (本紀), chapter 1: prologue detail: Nüwa is described as a man with the last name of Feng. He is related to Fuxi; and possibly related to Fenghuang (鳳凰, pinyin: fènghuáng).

5) (58 - 147 AD) author: Xu Shen, book: Shuowen Jiezi, entry: Nüwa detail: The Shuowen is China's earliest dictionary. In it, Nüwa is said to have been both the sister and the wife of Fuxi. Nüwa and Fuxi were pictured as having snake like tails interlocked in an Eastern Han dynasty (+25 +220) mural in the Wuliang Temple in Jiaxiang county, Shandong province.

6) (618 - 907 AD) author: Li Rong, book: Duyi Zhi (獨异志); vol 3, account: "opening of the universe" detail: There was a brother and a sister living on the Kunlun Mountain, and there were no ordinary people at that time. The sister's name was Nüwa. The brother and sister wished to become husband and wife, but felt shy and guilty about this desire. So the brother took his younger sister to the top of the Kunlun Mounatain and prayed: "If Heaven allows us to be man and wife, please let the smoke before us gather; if not, please let the smoke scatter." The smoke before them gathered together. So Nüwa came to live with her elder brother. She made a fan with grass to hide her face. (The present custom of women covering their faces with fans originated from this story.)

7) (618 - 907 AD) author: Lu Tong, book: Yuchuan Ziji (玉川子集), chapter 3 detail: characters: "與馬異結交詩" 也稱 "女媧本是伏羲婦", pinyin: "Yu Mayi Jie Jiao Shi" YeCheng "Nüwa ben shi Fuxi fu", English: "NuWa originally is Fuxi wife" (note late date)

8) (618 - 907 AD) author: Sima Zhen, book: Four Branches of Literature Complete Library (Siku Quanshu) , chapter: "Supplemental to the Historic Record – History of the Three August Ones" detail: The three August Ones (San Huang) are: Fuxi, Nüwa, Shennong; Fuxi & Nüwa were brother & sister and have the same last name "Fong" or Feng. note: SimaZhens commentary in included with the later Siku Quanshu compiled by Ji Yun (紀昀) & Lu Xixiong (陸錫熊).

9) (960 - 1279 AD) author: Li Fang, collection: Songsi Dashu, series: Taiping Anthologies for the Emperor (Taiping Yulan), book: Vol 78, chapter "Customs by Yingshao of the Han Dynasty" detail: States that there were no men when the sky and the earth were separated. Nüwa used yellow clay to make people. The clay was not strong enough, so she put ropes into the clay to make the bodies erect. It was also said that she prayed to gods to let her be the goddess of marital affairs. (Variations of this story exist.)

Nüwa in various roles

Since Nüwa is presented differently in so many myths, it is not accurate to tie "her" down as a creator, mother, goddess, or even female. Depending on the myth, "she" is responsible for being a wife, sister, man, tribal leader (or even emperor), creator, maintainer, etc. It is not clear from the evidence which view came first. Regardless of the origins, most myths present Nüwa as female in a procreative role after a calamity.

Nüwa as a repairer

The earliest literary role seems to be the upkeep and maintenance of the Wall of Heaven, whose collapse would obliterate everything. Also note the association to Deluge traditions below.

There was a quarrel between two of the more powerful gods, and they decided to settle it with a fight. When the water god Gong Gong saw that he was losing, he smashed his head against Mount Buzhou (不周山), a pillar holding up the sky. The pillar collapsed and caused the sky to tilt towards the northwest and the earth to shift to the southeast. This caused great calamities, such as unending fires, vast floods, and the appearance of fierce man-eating beasts. Nüwa cut off the legs of a giant tortoise and used them to supplant the fallen pillar, alleviating the situation and sealing the broken sky using stones of seven different colours, but she was unable to fully correct the tilted sky. This explains the phenomenon that sun, moon, and stars move towards the northwest, and that rivers in China flow southeast into the Pacific Ocean. (this account is similar to the Huainanzi account; it was added as The Upkeep and Maintenance of Heaven )

Other versions of the story describe Nüwa going up to heaven and filling the gap with her body (half human half serpent) and thus stopping the flood. According to this legend some of the minorities in South-Western China hail Nüwa as their goddess and some festivals such as the 'Water-Splashing Festival' are in part a tribute to her sacrifices.

Nüwa as a creator

The next major role of Nüwa is of a creator deity. However, not many stories ascribe to her the creation of everything; they usually confine her to the creation of mankind. It is said that Nüwa existed in the beginning of the world. She felt lonely as there were no animals so she began the creation of animals and humans. On the first day she created chickens. On the second day she created dogs. On the third day she created sheep. On the fourth day she created pigs. On the fifth day she created cows. On the sixth day she created horses. On the seventh day she began creating men from yellow clay, sculpting each one individually, yet after she had created hundreds of figures in this way she still had more to make but had grown tired of the laborious process.

So instead of hand crafting each figure, she dipped a rope in clay and flicked it so blobs of clay landed everywhere; each of these blobs became a person.

Nüwa as wife or sister

By the Han Dynasty, she is described in literature with her husband Fuxi as the first of the San Huang, and often called the "parents of humankind". However, paintings depicting them joined as half people - half snake or dragon date to the Warring States period.

Nüwa as a goddess for Miao people

Nüwa is also the traditional divine goddess of the Miao people.

Nüwa and Deluge traditions

Details of the Nüwa flood stories clearly share commonalities with other global Deluge traditions, and are worthy of note:

  • flood or calamity (Gong Gongs destruction)
  • similarity of names (Nuwa, Noah, Nu, Manu, Oannes, etc.)
  • colorful heavenly object (5 colored pillar)

Many other comparisons are possible, but the scattered and indirect nature of the evidence makes any harmonious explanation difficult. Additionally, although the earliest Judeo-Christian influence in China is about 600 AD, there is also the undocumented possibility of earlier arrivals who could have influenced the development of the myth. For more detailed comparisons and treatment, please see Deluge and Pangu.

Is Nüwa related to Noah?

There could be some parallels from the elements of the story to some of the story told in the book of Genesis. These are:

  • Nüwa's creation of humans from mud has similarities with the story of Adam's creation from soil (and other earth origin myths, such as the Greek myth of Deucalion-Pyrrha who created humans by flinging pebbles)
  • The Fuxi-Nüwa brother & sister element is similar to Adam and Eve coming from the same body
  • The Fuxi-Nüwa have a half snake element. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent.

Those who read the Bible literally usually consider it plausible that such shared resemblances are derived from ancient legends of a common ancestral tribe whose descendants dispersed widely from Mount Ararat (Genesis 6-11). However, these elements could be coincidences or respond to shared mythic elements present in Creation and Deluge myths around the world. It is also possible that some of these elements have been exchanged between the two traditions and inserted into existing myths.

Nüwa in history

Paintings of Nüwa, and her consort Fuxi, date to the Warring States period.

Although Nüwa is typically represented as a woman in mythology, the noted Chinese historian Sima Qian (in the Shiji, Chapter Benji or prolog) clearly identifies Nuwa as a man with the last name of Feng. Some scholars consider Nüwa a tribal leader (or emperor); others consider the name Nüwa a title.

Cultural references

In Fengshen Yanyi

Nüwa is featured within the famed ancient Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi. As featured within this novel, Nüwa is very highly respected since the time of the Xia Dynasty for being the daughter of the Jade Emperor; Nüwa is also regularly called the "Snake Goddess". After the Shang Dynasty had been created, Nu Wa created the Five-colored stones to protect the dynasty with occasional seasonal rains and other enhancing qualities. Thus in time, Shang Rong asked King Zhou of Shang to pay her a visit as a sign of deep respect. After King Zhou was completely overcome with lust at the very sight of the beautiful ancient goddess Nüwa (who had been sitting behind a light curtain), he would write a small poem on a neighboring wall and take his leave. When Nüwa later returned to her temple after visiting the Yellow Emperor, Nüwa would see the foulness of King Zhou's words. In her anger, she swore that the Shang Dynasty will end in payment for his foulness. In her rage, Nüwa would personally ascend to the palace in an attempt to kill the king, but was suddenly struck back by two large beams of red light.

After Nüwa realized that King Zhou was already destined to rule the kingdom for twenty-six more years, Nüwa would summon her three subordinates -- the Thousand-Year Vixen (later becoming Daji), the Fat-Belly Guitar Jade Pipa, and the Nine-Headed Pheasant. With these words, Nu Wa would bring destined chaos to the Shang Dynasty, "The luck Cheng Tang won six hundred years ago is dimming. I speak to you of a new mandate of heaven which sets the destiny for all. You three are to enter King Zhou's palace, where you are to bewitch him. Whatever you do, do not harm anyone else. If you do my bidding, and do it well, you will be permitted to reincarnate as human beings." Thus, with these words, Nüwa would never be heard of again, but would still be a major indirect factor towards the Shang Dynasty's fall.

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