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Two Wonderfully Mythical Places from Chinese Folklore

Sep. 23, 2021

Last time we talked about 5 Mythical Chinese Creatures beyond the world of Chinese dragons and it’s about time you discovered some of the mythical places from Chinese folklore and literature including heaven and hell. Whether these places are real or not, you must decide on your own. But they are places that can give you a glimpse into China’s vast past and perhaps gain another puzzle piece that is necessary for beginning to understand the culture and history of such an expansive and rich society.

We must start with “天 (tiān) heaven” since heaven is a fundamental concept in Chinese mythicism, philosophies, and spirituality. It was believed to transcend all other spirits and gods. Heaven is also a synonym for “上帝 (shàng dì) Supreme Deity”, or simply, an “emperor”. The Chinese term for “天 (tiān) heaven”, derives from the name of the supreme deity of the Zhou Dynasty.  Interestingly enough, the original Chinese Zhou Dynasty Oracle script for “天” depicted a human with a big skull and may be easily interpreted in the root word of the Chinese word for heaven.

HSK 3 quiz

The Chinese Character for “天 (tiān) heaven” (from left to right) Bronze script, Seal script, Oracle script, and modern simplified.

It’s necessary to note that is also a synonym for sky and day.

Example sentences for 天 (tiān) day, sky, heaven

Wǒ fù qin zǒng shì shuō tiān zhù zì zhù zhě.
我   父  亲   总   是    说    天   助   自  助  者。
My father always said that heaven helps those who help themselves.

Zài zhōng shì jì shí qī,  shī rén cháng bǎ tiān kōng jiào zuò “cāng qióng”.
在      中   世 纪 时 期,诗  人   常     把    天    空    叫   作   “苍     穹”。
In medieval times, poets often called the sky “the vault of heaven”.

There are various Chinese ideas about heaven. In Confucianism, the idea of “天 (tiān) heaven” is prevalent. Confucius had a strong faith in Heaven and thought that it had the last say over human endeavors. He also thought that he was carrying out Heaven’s desire and that Heaven would not let its servant, Confucius, die until his task was completed.

As for Chinese political philosopher Mozi, he believed that Heaven is the divine ruler, just as the Son of Heaven is the earthly ruler and that spirits and lesser demons exist, for social reasons, but that their purpose is to carry out Heaven’s will, keeping an eye out for evildoers and punishing them. Mozi preached that Heaven loves everyone equally and that everyone should love everyone equally, without differentiating between his own family and those of others.

Like western semantics for the words ‘heaven’ and ‘paradise’, the lines are also blurred in Chinese etymology and concepts of these places real or imaginary. This includes “天堂 (Tiān táng) Paradise” and the stories that accompany it.

Etymology for 天堂 (Tiān táng) Paradise

●天 (tiān) day; sky; heaven

●堂 (táng) main hall; large room for a specific purpose; the relationship between cousins on the paternal side of a family; of the same clan; measure word for classes, lectures, etc; measure word for sets of furniture

Example sentences for 天堂 (Tiān táng) Paradise

Zhè ge hǎi tān shì chōng làng zhě de tiān táng.
这   个  海   滩  是    冲      浪    者  的   天   堂。
This beach is a paradise for surfers.

Rén jiān ruò yǒu tiān táng, fēi cǐ mò shǔ!
人    间    若  有    天   堂, 非 此 莫   属!
If there’s a heaven on earth, this is it!

Quite the opposite of paradise would obviously be some version of “地狱(dì yù) hell”, the subterranean realm populated by the souls of the dead and other supernatural entities. The word “地狱” can be literally be translated as “earth prison” or purgatory.

“地狱 (dì yù) hell” is a purgatory that serves to punish and rejuvenate spirits in preparation for reincarnation, according to Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese folk religion.

HSK 3 quiz

After Buddhism impacted Chinese folk religion, the notion of the “十殿阎罗 (shí diàn yán luó) Ten Courts of Hell” was born. In Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor tasked “阎王 (Yán wáng) Yama”, the wrathful deity who rules Hell in Buddhist mythology, with supervising “地狱 (dìyù) hell” activities.

During the Tang Dynasty, the concept of eighteen hells “十八层地狱(shí bā céng dì yù)”began.

Example sentences for 地狱(dì yù) hell

Tōng wǎng dì yù de lù,  dōu shì yóu shàn yì pū chéng de.
通        往   地 狱  的 路,都   是  由    善  意  铺    成   的。
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Piào liɑng de nǚ rén shì yǎn jīng de tiān táng, líng hún de dì yù,  qián bāo de liàn yù.
漂     亮     的  女  人  是  眼    睛  的   天  堂、  灵   魂   的 地 狱、  钱   包  的  炼  狱。
A beautiful woman is paradise for the eyes, hell for the soul, and purgatory for the purse.

Perhaps you should go back and read about “天堂 (Tiān táng) Paradise” so that you don’t have nightmares later tonight!

Can you describe your paradise and your hell in Chinese? Try in the comments below.

You May Want to Learn More :

“5 Mythical Chinese Creatures That You’ve Never Heard of”

“Three Chinese Dances Go Viral”

“Why do Chinese people eat with chopsticks?”

HSK 1 quiz

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