Ken Liu is an acclaimed author of both novels and short fiction, as well an an accomplished translator of Chinese SFF into English. Below, he shares his choices for five fantastic beasts from Chinese mythology that he’d like to see more of in speculative fiction. (Wonder if any of them appear in his next novel, The Wall of Storms, available in October?)
The only Chinese mythological creature that seems to make regular appearances in Western fantasy is the loong (often translated as the “Chinese dragon” though it has literally nothing to do with dragons). But Chinese mythology has a rich menagerie of evocative creatures whose meanings have evolved over time and who are still being invoked and reinterpreted by Chinese writers, game designers, and filmmakers as part of the cultural conversation.
In no particular order, below are five lesser known Chinese mythological creatures.
Usually depicted as a sort of winged lion—but with the wings folded to the sides of the body—the pixiu is said to be one of the nine children of the loong. Like the loong, it has antlers on its head (the male pixiu has two antlers and the female just one).
As one of the most auspicious Chinese mythological creatures, statues of the pixiu once stood at ancient city and palace gates as guardians. These days, the pixiu is more often seen in the form of small jade pendants dangling from rear-view mirrors or worn as jewelry for good luck. In this evolution lies a rather interesting tale.
In the oldest Chinese sources, the pixiu is depicted as a ferocious beast. The legendary Yellow Emperor recruited the fiercest animals into a special unit of his army in the war against the Yan Emperor, and the pixiu made the cut along with bears and tigers and similar apex predators (another interpretation of this passage is that the beasts were the totems of the tribes who followed the Yellow Emperor). In classical texts, the pixiu is thus often used as a metaphor for a powerful army.
But folklore also speaks of the pixiu violating the decorum of the heavenly court by pooping on the floor. To punish the creature, the Jade Emperor sealed the pixiu’s anus so that it could only eat but never defecate. The pixiu is supposed to go around devouring evil spirits and demons and convert their essence into gold and treasure, which it must hold in its belly forever. This explains the pixiu’s reputation as a bringer of wealth.
I like to think of the pixiu as a precursor for the modern military-industrial complex.
The story of the jingwei bird is told in Shanhaijing (or Classic of Mountains and Seas), a compilation of Chinese myths and legends composed over a period of time between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C.E. (If you’re interested in Chinese myths, this is one of the most interesting books to consult. It is something like a Chinese version of Hesiod’s Theogony and Herodotus’s travelers-tale-filled Histories. The original text also contained illustrations which, unfortunately, did not survive into modern times.)
Jingwei was once the youngest daughter of the Yan Emperor. A lively and rebellious sort, she swam out into the Eastern Sea to see the sunrise but drowned when she couldn’t return to shore during a storm. After her death, she turned into a small crow-like bird, with parti-colored head, a white beak, and bright red feet. The bird’s calls sound just like its name.
Vowing to avenge herself, each day the Jingwei bird flew to the Western Mountains and carried pebbles and twigs to the Eastern sea and dropped them in. The sea mocked her for this mega-engineering effort, but she swore to continue on until she filled in the sea, even if it took a million million years.
In Chinese, the tale of Jingwei filling the sea is often evoked as a byword for perseverance and diligence.
Xing Tian (刑天)
In another tale from Shanhaijing, Xing Tian was a giant who followed the Yan Emperor. Later, he rebelled against the Yellow Emperor and challenged him to a duel. The two fought an epic battle that shook the mountains to their roots and caused the gods to weep. Finally, the Yellow Emperor, using a trick to distract Xing Tian, managed to lop of the giant’s head with one sword stroke.
But the headless Xing Tian refused to die. Instead, he groped around on the ground for his head. The Yellow Emperor then split a mountain and buried the giant’s head, at which point Xing Tian stood up and used his nipples as eyes and his bellybutton as a mouth.
Though his new eyes could not see and his new mouth could not speak, Xing Tian warred on, defying authority eternally with his battle axe and shield.
The Nine-Tailed Fox (九尾狐)
Chinese myths about fox spirits (hulijing) eventually spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, and stories of fox spirits abound in all these cultures.
In China, the fox spirit is a skilled shapeshifter. The earliest legends speak of clever foxes who hide deep in mountains where they study and practice Daoist magic in an effort to gain immortality. The more wisdom they gain, the more tails they grow, and after a thousand years, the most skilled fox spirits grow nine tails and become immortal. They can take on the shape of any human—male, female, old, young—though their extra-bushy tails often give them away. (The idea of shapeshifters being frustrated by their tails is a recurring theme in Chinese myths. The Monkey King, for example, possibly the most skilled shapeshifter of all, always has trouble knowing what to do with his tail during his transformations.)
Though the fox spirit began as an auspicious creature, over time it took on more demonic aspects. By the Song Dynasty, it was fairly common to speak of the fox spirit in seductive guise leading the righteous astray (e.g., evil ministers who encourage the worst tendencies in the emperors they serve, or seductresses who cause kings to neglect their duty).
In early modern times, fox spirit tales evolved into paranormal romances. The eroticization of the fox spirit probably followed similar paths as the eroticization of the vampire in the West. Though these tend to be the most well-known hulijing stories, they represent only the latest stage in a millennia-long process of change and transformation.
If you are familiar with Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty bronze ritual vessels, you’ve no doubt seen the head of this horned beast.
The taotie is described as an extremely greedy beast with an outsized head. It is so ravenous that it ultimately swallowed the rest of its own body, leaving behind only a head. The very name of taotie has become a synonym in Chinese for a glutton.
Although the taotie is seen all over ritual vessels from Bronze Age China, there’s no evidence that the legend of the taotie existed during the Shang or Zhou Dynasties, or that these creatures were called by that name by those who made and used the vessels. Indeed, the first references to the taotie don’t appear until the Qin Dynasty (third century B.C.E.), though almost immediately the taotie were identified with these bronze figures. It’s a reminder that myth-making is an ongoing endeavor and involves re-interpretations and new meanings being poured into old vessels in every age. (Cf. the number of “Classical Greek myths” that are familiar to us only because Ovid, a Roman poet, reinterpreted them or made them up.)
The taotie makes an interesting cameo in Liu Cixin’s hard SF series, the Three-Body trilogy. In the third book, Death’s End, there are several allegorical fairy tales that are important to the plot. One of the fairy tales takes place in Taotie Sea (translated as “Glutton’s Sea” in English).
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Ken’s debut novel, is The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series. He also released a collection of short fiction, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.
In addition to his original fiction, Ken is also the translator of numerous literary and genre works from Chinese to English. His translation of The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, the first translated novel to ever receive that honor. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.