Every culture has its own origin stories, and the Chinese are no exception. According to Chinese folklore, the heavens and earth were created by a giant named Pan Gu. The legend of Pan Gu separating the heavens and earth, which was first recorded in a document dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (220 AD – 280AD), is as follows:
In the beginning, the heavens and earth were mixed together in a dark mass that was contained within an egg. Inside the egg, Pan Gu slept for tens of thousands of years. One day, Pan Gu woke up, and wished to escape from the darkness that surrounded him. So he picked up his axe, and with one fell blow split the dark mass in two. The lighter of the two halves rose up to form the sky and heavens, while the heavier half sank and became the earth.
In order to ensure that the heavens and earth remained separated, Pan Gu stood on the earth and held up the heavens with his own hands. With each passing day, the distance between the heavens and earth increased, and Pan Gu drew taller accordingly. After thousands of years, Pan Gu grew to be ninety thousand miles tall, and the heavens and earth were ninety thousand miles apart.
At this point Pan Gu knew that the distance between heaven and earth was enough to keep them separated, so he laid down on the ground to rest. He died of exhaustion in his sleep, and his body formed the features on the earth. His head, feet, right arm, left arm and torso became mountains in the north, south, east, west and center of the earth, which supported the sky like giant columns. His left eye became the sun, and his right eye became the moon. His hair and eyebrows became the stars in the sky. His breath became the wind and clouds, and his booming voice became the thunder. His muscles became the soil, and his tendons became roads. His bones and teeth became minerals and precious jewels buried underground. His blood became flowing rivers, and his sweat rain and dew. The hairs on his body became grasses, flowers, and trees, and his soul became the animals that inhabited the forests, grasslands, rivers and oceans of the earth.
Readers familiar with Greek mythology will notice parallels between Pan Gu and the Titan god Atlas. As punishment for leading the Titans’ failed rebellion against Zeus, Atlas was forced to stand on the western edge of the earth and hold up the heavens on his shoulders, in order to prevent the two from coming together. The figure of Atlas kneeling on the ground, struggling to hold up a globe that looks like it is about to slip off his shoulders has become an iconic image in western culture, immortalized by cultural references and works like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Similarly, the legend of Pan Gu is well known throughout China, and has been the subject of many poems, paintings and folk songs. There have even been a number of temples throughout history dedicated to Pan Gu, though most are no longer extant. As for why such a striking similarity is present in ancient Greek and Chinese legends, in the absence of relevant research, I can only surmise that the similarity arose from a common interest in pondering the universal and timeless questions of heaven, earth and human existence.
In additions, readers may also have noticed that the world which Pan Gu created does not include humans. Indeed, while Chinese folklore does address the creation of mankind, this task was not undertaken by Pan Gu. Rather, humans were created after Pan Gu’s death by a goddess named Nu Wa, who will be the focus of a later blog post.