Religion in China

Chinese temple, China

Modern China is not generally thought of a particularly religious place, so you might be surprised to learn that they have their own fair share of gods, deities, creation myths and other religion-related concepts - and they go back ridiculously far into antiquity (given that it's China, you might have expected that part). Believe it or not, ancient China was chock-full of different gods and diverse belief systems, but the particular bit we found most interesting was something almost all religions have in common: the myth of creation. For China's most prominent creation myth, social class plays a role.

The basic story goes that 女娲 (nǚ wā), a goddess (of sorts) who has been described in texts dating back some 3,000 years, created mankind out of mud and clay. First, however, she had to create animals, so she spent six days making a new animal each day, including chickens, sheep and horses. By the seventh day she was tired (sound familiar?), but hadn't even gotten around to creating people yet. So, 女娲 set about individually crafting people from the clay and mud, but as you can imagine, it got a bit tiresome, given that you need a few million people to get a society going. After a while, she gave up on individually molding every person and employed a classic shortcut, dipping a huge rope (we're not certain it was huge, but given that it created people, we feel like it's safe to assume that) into the clay and allowing the individual droplets to become people. Talk about efficiency! Here's the most interesting part though: the people that 女娲 had individually crafted from the clay with her hands became the wealthy, the noble, the privileged few of Chinese society, while those that merely dripped off the rope became the commoners. This is referred to as 拉绳抖泥 (lā shéng dǒu ní), or literally "pull rope, mud shakes out", a great term if we've ever heard one.

So why is social class, and the very different origins of people of different classes, such an important part of one of China's most well-known and enduring creation myths? It's hard to give a definitive answer, but it may well have something to do with Confucian values and the "five relationships" (五倫, wǔlún) that play such a big role in classical Chinese thought. The relationship between ruler and ruled is emphasized strongly in Chinese culture, and it may be related to a strong social hierarchy dating back to the very creation of mankind.

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