by Mineke Schipper, Humanity’s End as a New Beginning: World Disasters in Myths
5. Primeval chaos and the battle between water and fire
In China there are many variations on the deluge theme in the many cultures within the country’s borders, stories about creation and destruction. In myths the primeval being, Pangu, is often presented as the one from whose decomposing body everything body is being created, and the goddess Nüwa as the one who creates humans from clay. In one myth Gonggong, the god of water, destroys the perfection of creation.
Pangu’s body set the stage. His left eye turned into the sun and his right eye into the moon, his body, arms and legs became the mountain ranges and the valleys. His blood formed the rivers and his muscles sank down into the earth and became rich soil. His hair turned into precious stones, and his bones into metals. Thanks to the body of Pan Ku the original chaos changed into a perfect habitat. From the earth, his former body, first gods came forth. Nüwa was the first one, she had a woman’s head and a snake’s body, but she was able to metamorphose seventy times a day. From yellow clay Nüwa shaped people which she put on the earth. She taught people how to love each other and how to procreate. Nüwa became the goddess of marriage. After Pangu and Nüwa, other gods appeared on earth, such as the god of fire, Zhurong, and the god of water, Gonggong.
For a long time peace reigned on this first earth until the god of water Gonggong decided to wage war against the god of fire Zhurong. Gonggong had a snake’s body with a human head and bright scarlet hair. His two closest advisers were no less frightening. One was Xiang Liu who was as powerful as he was wicked: out of his green and scaly body wove nine heads with dark, shifting eyes. His other advisor was Fu You. We do not know what he looked like, but what we do know is that he turned into a terrible red bear when he died.
Now Gonggong was famed for his bad temper and cruelty, but who knows how the devastating battle with Zhurong began? People simply explain the disaster by telling that the god of water wanted to dominate the god of fire.
It was Gonggong who led the attack on Zhurong from a magnificent cart drawn by two spirited dragons. Close behind him were his advisers Fu You and Xiang Liu followed by sea nymphs and underwater creatures. These troops looked frightening, but could not withstand the terrible heat as they approached closer and closer to the god of fire. Soon they began to melt and burn, and finally they scattered in various directions. And so it happened that the god of water, who rose from the dark fearful depths, was finally overcome by the scintillating, dancing god of fire.
War and battle never go without loss, no matter how glorious the victory may seem. Gonggong’s malicious adviser, Fu You, had leapt burning into the Huaishui River and has never been seen again. Gonggong’s eldest son, also burning, killed at the height of the battle, became a ghost roaming the earth and haunting people. The nine-headed monster, Xiang Liu, fled in terror and hid in Mount Kunlun. He may still be there, too ashamed to show himself ever again.
But it was Gonggong’s uncontrolled behaviour that caused the greatest disaster. Seeing his troops scattered before the fierce flames, his hopes of domination evaporated. In a fit of rage he ran towards Mount Buzhou, the pillar which had supported the sky since ancient times. With all his power Gonggong banged his head against the mountain, so that the pillar cracked and broke into pieces, cutting deep rifts in the earth.
For one silent moment time held its breath and stopped. Then the sky collapsed and crashed down, causing chaos everywhere, and leaving gaping holes in the vault of heaven. The world began to shake and shift, the forests and mountains caught fire, birds and beasts of prey screamed and fled in terror, attacking and devouring people. Rivers overflowed and floods burst from cracks in the earth, and submerged the plains with filthy water. A sea without borders came into being. The people did not know where to flee. Threatened by tidal waves and wild beasts, they lived in perpetual encounter with death.
And what happened to Gonggong? The blow made him faint and when he was conscious again he stumbled away, not to appear again until the next flood.
Nüwa looked upon her children and felt distressed. She decided to mend the sky with her own hands. She gathered stones of different colors from all the rivers and refined them to mend the destroyed heaven. When she had mixed the mortar the goddess began to fill the gaping holes in the sky, pressing and smoothing plaster into the cracks. She then cut the feet of a giant turtle as pillars to hold up the sky. She thus turned the sky into a great canopy over all the people and it has never fallen down again.
Nüwa also burnt the grasses of the plains and used the ashes to stop the flooding. Thanks to her energetic efforts Nüwa helped her children and salvaged the world from the disastrous war between fire and water.
But even though mended, the world was never the same again.