In Chinese mythology, Pangu (盤古) is a horned and hairy beast considered to be the first living being in the universe. His story starts before the beginning of time and serves as an explanation for the creation of the universe.

Illustration of Pangu featuring horns and a hairy appearance, from the 17th century Chinese encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui (三才图会) by Wang Qi.Public Domain

Pangu is said to have been born from an egg that held the entire cosmos. When he eventually broke free, he released the universe and created the earth and sky. As one of the oldest stories in Chinese mythology, Pangu’s myth has countless variations; many of these retellings follow one of three basic storylines.

Etymology

Pangu is comprised of the Chinese characters pán (盤), meaning to “coil,” and gǔ (古), meaning “ancient.” When he was inside the egg containing the entirety of the universe, Pangu slept in a curled up position due to space limitations. Pangu’s name, therefore, denotes both his ancientness and the unusual circumstances of his birth. In alternative systems of romanization, his name is written as P’an-ku.

Attributes

In art, Pangu is usually depicted as a short, stout creature completely covered in hair. He is normally portrayed with a human face and rounded horns, and is often shown holding a hammer and chisel or the sun and moon in his hands.

Pangu, sometimes referred to as Panku or, as in this illustration, Pwanku, is depicted with hammer and chisel alongside a tortoise in Samuel Wells Williams’ The Middle Kingdom (cropped and edited from the original).Internet Archive / Public Domain

When the Scottish missionary James Legge lived in Hong Kong, he was given the following description of Pangu:

P’an-ku is spoken of by the common people as ‘the first man, who opened up heaven and earth.’ In Taoist picture books I have seen him as shaggy, dwarfish, and wielding an immense hammer and chisel with which he is breaking the chaotic rocks.

Family

As the first living being in the universe, Pangu lived in solitude for the entirety of his existence. He never had any children, and as such lacks any familial relations. In one version of his myth—where he raises the heavens through his sheer strength—he is sometimes described as being aided by his celestial friends: the dragon, phoenix, tortoise, and qilin.

Mythology

Pangu is an important figure to a number of minority ethnic groups in China, and each has their own oral version of his creation myth. Modern versions of the myth can be traced back to Xu Zheng, an ancient Chinese author and government official who lived during the Three Kingdoms period, who was the first person to record it in writing. In all versions of the myth, Pangu and the universe are described as emerging from an egg; there are discrepancies, however, as to how Pangu manages to free himself and how the universe is formed.

The three most common versions of Pangu’s myth are presented below.

The Egg

Before the universe was born, there was absolutely nothing but chaotic darkness. Over the course of 18,000 years, the chaos swirled and gathered into the shape of an egg. With the entire substance of the universe was now confined into a single, tiny space, the inside of the egg became stormy and tumultuous. The opposing forces of yin and yang constantly battled and fought one another until they finally achieved balance. Pangu was formed from this first union of yin and yang.

Pangu holding the Yin-Yang symbol

Suddenly aware that he was stuck in a tiny space with no room to move, Pangu began to wriggle and writhe. The movement caused the egg to split into two halves, with the whites and yolk leaking from each. The light and fluffy whites floated up and became the clouds, stars, and sky while the heavy and dense yolks sunk down and became the earth. The two halves of the eggshell flew upwards and became the sun and the moon.

Pangu Raises the Heavens

After the forces of yin and yang settled within the egg, Pangu found himself trapped in the shell. He took up his great axe and cracked open the egg. In the process, he cleaved yin and yang down the middle. All the stars and planets of the universe burst forth from the broken egg. The now separated yin and yang parted ways, with yin forming the earth and yang forming the heavens above it.

Pangu, shown with hammer and chisel, in The Dragon, Image, and Demon or The Three Religions of China by Hampden C. DuBose (cropped and edited from the original).Internet Archive / Public Domain

To avoid being trapped between the sky and the earth, Pangu needed to keep yin and yang separate from each other. Using only his arms, Pangu raised the sky above his head. Each day, Pangu grew three feet taller and the earth grew ten feet thicker. Over the course of 18,000 years, the earth and the sky ended up where they are today. Pangu died after he finished growing, and his four limbs became the pillars that hold up the sky.

Pangu’s Body Becomes the Earth

In this version of the myth, Pangu was so exhausted from struggling to break free of the egg that he laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep.

As his body decayed, it started to change dramatically. As his last breath left his body, it coalesced and became the clouds. His spine became a great mountain range. His left eye drifted up and became the sun while his right eye became the moon. Pangu’s flesh melted off his body and became rich, arable soil. His arteries became canyons and ravines while his blood poured out of his body and became the rivers that would fill them. His hair fell off of his head and floated upwards to become the stars. Pangu’s teeth and bones turned into metals and precious stones while his limbs became the four pillars that separated the sky from the earth.

Pop Culture

A festival celebrating Pangu is held each year at Pangu King Temple in Guangdong Province. Though he is an important figure in Chinese folk religion, Pangu is not as popular as other deities due to his lack of children. Ancestor worship is an extremely important aspect of Chinese-Buddhism and Chinese society, and Pangu is ancestor to no one. Nevertheless, Pangu remains beloved by many and is usually seen as a benevolent and innocent deity.

Pangu team, the infamous Chinese programming group that developed a jailbreaking tool for Apple devices, takes their name from the universe’s first living being. Pangu is also featured in the video game Age of Mythology: Titan.

References

Bibliography

  1. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Pan Gu.” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pan-Gu.

  2. Wikipedia contributors. “Pangu.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangu.

  3. Yang, Lihui, Deming An, and Jessica Anderson. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

  4. Werner, E.T.C. Myths and Legends of China. World Book: A Scott Fetzer Company, 2015.