In Chinese mythology, Pangu (盤古) was a horned, hairy beast who is considered to be the very first living being of the universe. His story starts before the beginning of time and serves as an explanation for how the universe was created. Pangu is said to have been born from an egg that held the entire cosmos and when he broke free from it, released the universe and created the earth and sky. Because Pangu’s myth is one of the oldest stories in Chinese mythology, there are many versions of it, however, there are three common, widely-known retellings.
Pangu is comprised of the Chinese characters meaning to “coil,” pán (盤), and gǔ (古), meaning “ancient.” When Pangu was sleeping in the egg that held all the matter and forces of the universe, there was so little space that he had to curl up his body to fit inside of it. 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.
In art, Pangu is usually depicted as a short, stout creature completely covered in hair with a human face and rounded horns. He is usually represented holding a hammer and chisel or the sun and moon in his hands.
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 a shaggy, dwarfish, and wielding an immense hammer and chisel with which he is breaking the chaotic rocks.”
Because Pangu was the universe’s first living being and never had any children, Pangu doesn’t have any relatives. However, in one version of his myth where he raises the heavens through his sheer strength, he’s sometimes described as being aided by some celestial friends: the dragon, the phoenix, the tortoise, and the qilin.
There are a couple of popular versions of how Pangu created the universe. Pangu is an important figure to a number of minority ethnic groups in China and each has their own oral version of the story. Xu Zheng, an ancient Chinese author and government official who lived during the Three Kingdoms period, was the first person to record the myth of Pangu. Pangu and the universe are always described as being born from an egg, but there are discrepancies on how he managed to free himself and how the universe was subsequently formed.
Here are the three most common versions of Pangu’s myth.
Before the universe was born, there was absolutely nothing but chaotic darkness. Over the course of 18,000 earth years, the chaos swirled and gathered into the shape of an egg. Although all the substance of the universe was now confined into a single, tiny space, the inside of the egg was stormy and tumultuous. The opposing forces of yin and yang constantly battled and fought with one another until finally, they achieved balance. Pangu was formed from this first union of yin and yang.
Pangu, suddenly aware that he was stuck in a tiny space with no room to move, couldn’t bear how stuffy it was and wriggled and writhed until suddenly—crack! The egg split into two halves and the eggs’ whites and yolk leaked out. The light and fluffy whites floated upwards and became the clouds, sky, and stars while the heavy, dense yolks sunk downwards 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 and in the process, cleaved yin and yang down the middle. All the stars and planets of the universe burst forth from the broken egg. Yin and yang, now separated from one another, went their different ways. Yin settled downwards to form the earth while yang, the heavens, landed on top of the earth.
To avoid being trapped between the sky and earth, Pangu needed to keep yin and yang separate from each other. Using only his arms, Pangu raised the sky above his head, but only just barely. Over the course of 18,000 years, Pangu grew three feet taller and the earth ten feet thicker every day until the sky and the earth ended up where they are now. After Pangu finished growing, he died and his four limbs became the pillars that would hold up the sky.
Pangu’s Body Becomes the Earth
In this version of the myth, Pangu was so exhausted from struggling to free himself from the egg that he laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep.
As his body began to decay, 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 out of his body 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 deep ravines and canyons and his blood poured out of his body and became the rivers that would fill them. His hair fell off 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 would separate the sky from the earth.
A festival celebrating Pangu is held from March 1-7 of the Lunar Calendar at his most important temple, Pangu King Temple, in Guangdong Province. Though he’s an important figure in Chinese folk religion he’s not as popular other deities simply because of the fact that he had no children. Ancestor worship is an extremely important aspect of Chinese-Buddhism and Chinese society. Without any descendants, he loses a bit of status. However, Pangu is still widely beloved and seen as a largely benevolent and innocent deity.
The infamous Chinese programming group, Pangu team, who developed a jailbreaking tool that is effective on various Apple devices, takes their namesake from the universe’s first living being. Pangu is also featured in the video game Age of Mythology: Titan.