Mythology: 女娲补天 – Nvwa Mends the Heavens

Doesn’t it seem like humankind has a collective memory of some prehistoric natural disaster built into our DNA? So many cultures have ancient myths about close calls with total destruction, be it Noah’s Ark, or the story of Atlantis, or in China’s case, “Nvwa Mends the Heavens” (女娲补天).

This ancient myth is old, very old. The goddess Nvwa is not really part of any modern Buddhist or Taoist pantheon, she appears to come from shamanistic folk legends that predate these religions. Early versions of this myth were included in texts from the Western Han (206 BC – 9 AD), so the story of Nvwa has been floating around for at least 2000 years. There are two main myths regarding Nvwa, our post today is one of them. In the other one, she creates human beings out of mud and clay.

Some language stuff

As always, I’ve highlighted the proper nouns. We’ve got the water god Gonggong (共工), the fire god Zhurong (祝融), Buzhou Mountain (不周山), and the heroine of our tale, the goddess Nvwa (女娲).

I didn’t see anything in here that might trip up advanced readers, probably just new vocab, but there was one weird thing: the placement of the character 晨 seems a little weird to me. It means “morning”, as in 早晨, but I’m only 80% sure I translated its usage in this context correctly. If you have more insight, let me know in the comments.







Show English translation »
Legend has it that when humans had just begun to multiply [upon the earth], a great battle suddenly broke out between the water god Gonggong and the fire god Zhurong, disrupting tranquility in every quarter. In the end, Zhurong was victorious, but Gonggong would not accept his defeat, and in a fit of anger, smashed his head against Buzhou Mountain.

Buzhou Mountain split apart, the giant pillars that held up the heavens were broken, and half of the sky caved in, leaving a large hole. Great cracks also appeared in the earth, the mountain forests went up in flame, floodwaters spurted forth from under the ground, and dragons and monsters came out and began devouring the people.

Mankind was facing an unprecedented catastrophe. When Nvwa witnessed the unexpected disaster that befell humanity, she was terribly agonized, and so she decided to patch up the sky, in order to put an end to the present calamity. She chose to use a selection of multi-colored stones, set a great fire to smelt them into a slurry, and used the smelted rock to paste over the hole in the firmament. Then she chopped the four feet off a giant tortoise, and used them as the four pillars to prop up half the heavens.

Nvwa also captured and slayed a great black dragon that was cruelly slaughtering human beings, putting a stop to the dragon’s arrogance. Finally, in order to stem the floodwaters, Nvwa collected many reeds and grasses, burned them into ash, and stopped up the streams that were spreading in all directions.

After Nvwa had toiled through the repairs, the sky was mended, the earth was even, the waters had been stopped, no trace remained of the dragons and monsters, and the people once again lived in peace and happiness. But of course, some vestiges of this huge calamity remained. From then on, the sky was slightly tilted to the northwest, and because of this the sun, moon and stars all naturally return to the west each morning, and also because the earth is tilted to the southeast, all of the rivers flow in that direction.

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