Chinese Myth as Portrayed Through Tattoo Art

Author: John A. Rush
Artist: Kim Forrest, Wild Bills Tattoo, Roseville, California


The indigenous Chinese mythic tradition is currently overlaid with Confucius, Taoist, and Buddhist symbols and concepts with Amitabha Buddhism the most popular tradition in most areas of China. During a recent visit we encountered Santa Claus and Western Christmas music, without the images of Jesus, crosses, and the like.  When asked why so many images of Santa the simple reply was, “We like a holiday.”  Santa, of course, is the Christian pagan symbol of shamanism, that magic person through which all wonderful things are possible.

Understanding the early indigenous tradition is somewhat problematical in a similar manner as the Tibetan shamanic Bon tradition—there isn’t a great deal of written material. The earliest writings are magical spells incised on bone, shell, and deer or cattle scapula dating to 1400BCE. Scapulamancy is an age-old technique employed by shamans in northern climates. A deer scapula with inscriptions is thrown into a fire. The inscription burns and the smoke rises up to the spirits, who in turn leave burns and cracks for the shaman to interpret.

The mythic themes presented in the tattooing date to the earlier Zhou Dynasty (1027 to 256BCE), beginning with ruler Wu. This was a feudal period of relative stability, with noble warriors and court pomp and pageant. The king was mythologized as holding the land in trust; he owned everything. But, there is a catch. The gods have entrusted the king and his royal line to watch over his subjects’ wellbeing. To do this requires order and this order—the rules, laws, and so on—are passed from the gods to the king and then to his subjects. “As above, below.” Although these systems ultimately lead to abuse the king and the warriors would protect peasants from both two and four legged predators. Toward the end of this period there are various lords squabbling over land and control of people, and this nostalgic period came to an end. All is impermanent. Confucius and Laozi impart their ideas at this time, with Confusion principles more appealing during periods of stability while Laozi and his Taoist philosophy more popular during times of struggle and conflict. The Taoists were into alchemy, experimentation, and vitality. Conflict stimulates creativity and action. Confucius, on the other hand, was into filial piety, repeated ritual, proper procedure (micromanagement), so much ritual there is no time to run amuck. Confucius did feel that we should better ourselves in this life for our own sake—individual worth and accomplishment are important. Follow the rules and you will get there. This time period—representing the underpinnings of the Chinese culture—is rich in a philosophy open to new possibilities.

Creation out of Chaos

The general Chinese creation myth involves a state of Chaos.  This Chaos can be conceptualized in several ways.  It might be seen as a swirling mass of “stuff,” swirling so fast that it appears like a cloud or a pool of water, as in the Egyptian and Old Testament myths.  The second way of looking at this is that Chaos is everything and nothing happening simultaneously as represented by Atman or Brahman in the Hindu and the Singularity or Black Hole (leading to the Big Bang) of Western science.  In the Chinese myth a point is reached where “something” or some power decides that Chaos isn’t all that fun and pleasing and changes the pattern to it’s paired opposite; order appears. Another inflection states that two gods first emerged from Chaos and created Heaven and Earth and all the paired opposites.  Still another instructs us that Pan Gu (touch for picture) is the creator god who “hibernates” at the center of Chaos for countless centuries when he finally awoke.  In his hands was the cosmic egg, the singularity, within which reside all the paired opposites.  He is characterized as a short, strong man, who takes up chisel and axe, cracks open the cosmic egg, spilling forth the known universe. This, of course, is another Big Bang story and is analogous to the story as Amun, in the Egyptian tradition, who spills forth the paired opposites, Re and Hathor, who then assemble the tangible universe.  There is another interesting similarity with the Egyptian tradition and that is a cow, spangled with stars that holds up the sky, similar to Nut.  This suggests some type of contact between the two traditions. Osiris, who may have been a real person, is said to have traveled to the East imparting knowledge to all he encountered.

The Chinese Dragon (long—touch for picture)

The Chinese dragon differs from his European cousin in that the latter guards things that it cannot use, that is, virgins and gold.  The European Dragon can be seen as an obstacle to “riches” or a barrier (your demon) to success that must be overcome. The dragon in China, on the other hand, is loved and worshipped. Emperors would trace their lineage to some dragon ancestor of the distant past (we see this in Europe as well as King Arthur’s father was a dragon—Uther Pendragon or “luminous dragon’s head”). This is called a “mythical charter,” and we can see this in play in Islam, as legitimacy to rule (Sunni or Shiite) is based on genealogical closeness to Muhammad.  We encounter a similar mythical genealogy in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jesus, for example, is supposed to be from the house of David, but if he was fathered by God, then that genealogical connection does not exist, and in this instance we go right to the top in a similar way that Pharaoh was a god on Earth.  In the Chinese tradition the year of the Dragon takes place every twelve years; the next year of the Dragon will occur in 2012.  According to the Mayan calendar, the Fifth Era (our current era) will end on December 21, 2012, and at that time blood sacrifice will end—but that might also mean that everything will end.

The Chinese dragon also stands for wisdom and they are often consulted for advice, King and commoner alike.  Dragons are somewhat vain and easily insulted if their advice is not followed. This invokes their dark side, a violent storm perhaps through their thrashing about. A certain amount of juvenile delinquency occurs among immature dragons who, instead of t-peeing your house, cause a roofs to leak or plumbing to backup.

The dragon (as well as the phoenix below) was redrawn by Kim Forrest from ceramic-on-brass vases (cloisonné) purchased in Beijing as cremation vessels.

The Phoenix (Feng-Huang)

In ancient Egypt Re, in the form of the phoenix (Benu Bird), appears on the benben stone at the creation of the universe. In the Western traditions the phoenix dies and reemerges from its own ashes, just as Re, the sun, re-emerges from the Underworld as the morning sun.  The Chinese phoenix, however, is different. The second of four wondrous creatures, the phoenix, together with the dragon, symbolize the Empress and the Emperor, for the Emperor (yang) is in balance with the female force (yin). The dragon and phoenix also symbolize husband and wife. On another level the phoenix represents the universe of the household and nature—its feathers are of the five colors of nature: white (water), red (fire), blue (air/space), green (wind), and yellow (earth). Red-colored substances (oxides and precious stones) were used in Taoist alchemy. The dragon, on the other hand, dealt with a different universe, the universe of the politic and the dictates of the gods.

Crane (He)

The crane is a symbol of longevity and, like Thoth in the Egyptian tradition, wisdom. The crane is connected to the Taoist story of seven ordinary men and one woman who, through spiritual perfection, became immortal. Spiritual perfection was achieved through meditation, proper breathing, avoiding foods that encourage disease, ageing, death (the “three worms”), and control of sexual energy. The crane, representing longevity and happiness, traveled with the immortals on their journey. Multiple representations of the crane, or the crane with other birds and animals, have different symbolic values. For example, the crane, phoenix, mandarin duck, heron, and wagtail together represent the five relationships between people, that is, ruler and servant, father and son, man and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. Two cranes flying toward the sun represent not only wisdom but the ability to see all things.  The expression “turning into a feathered crane” is a reference to the death of a Taoist priest who flies into the heavens.

Crow (Wu)

The crow shares a similar place in the Chinese myths as the Benu Bird and Re of the Egyptian tradition. As the story goes, the sun produces a crow and it is the crow’s duty to transport the sun to the top of the world tree (axis mundi) each dawn.  In some renderings the crow is also a creator who comes down to the ground, lays an egg, which is consumed by a young lady named Chien Ti.  She, of course, became pregnant and gave birth to Ch’i.  Ch’i had marvelous talents one of which was controlling rain and flood waters. He was rewarded by Emperor Yu (Xia Dynasty) who gave to him the Shang fiefdom and the title, Tzu-shin. The crow is also depicted as having three legs with the number three having several reference points: the trinity of heaven, earth, and man; loyalty, respect, and refinement; happiness, long life, and riches; and the three teachings (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism). The crow represents the male element but the three legs also reflect the female in that the vagina is sometimes referred to as a woman’s “third eye.”

Bat (Pian-Fu)

The bat was demonized in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church; anything that hunts at night—cats, bats, and owls—was considered the work of the Devil. The Chinese bat, on the other hand, symbolized happiness and good fortune. The reason for this might be that the word for good fortune has the same sound as fu.  Five bats grouped together represent long life, health, riches, love of virtue, and a natural death (rather than being murdered or dying from the plague).

The Smallness of Humankind in Nature

The diminutive structures (shrines, lower right corner) are a reminder of how small humans are in nature.  Western art portraying scenes that include groups of people usually accentuate the individual. The purpose is to place humankind in its proper perspective, that is, part of but not dominating nature.

Artist’s Signature

Tattoo artists rarely if ever sign their work.  In this case, in keeping with Chinese paintings, the artist’s signature is found within a square or oval.  Traditionally future owners of the painting likewise add their signature and it is not uncommon to find several squares representing not only the artist but a history of ownership. The Chinese characters spell out “gold forest,” which equals Kim Forrest.

Art by Kim Forrest, Wild Bill’s, Roseville, CA