Chinese Folktales You Need to Know

China is a place of long history, and long history creates many legends. Some of them explain popular phenomena in nature (like animal behavior) meanwhile others deal with the creation of universe and men. There are also some that talk about inventions and how the life of humanity was made easier thanks to some brave or smart heroes.

It would be impossible to list all the Chinese legends here. Therefore, we have picked for you three legends that are also our favorite. The first of them explains a strange behavior of a little bird; the second talks about the creation of Chinese characters; the third explains how humans were made and why they are different from one another.

  1. Jing Wei fills the sea.  精卫填海 (tr. 精衛填海)
Jing Wei is a little bird that drops stones into the sea.

Emperor Yan had a daughter. She was so well-behaved that the Emperor really loved her, and she was like the most precious jewel for him.

Once, she wanted her father to take her out to the East Sea to see how the sun rises. But the Emperor was always busy. Therefore, on one day, she took a small boat and went to the East Sea by herself without telling him. Unfortunately, the sea waves suddenly grew stronger and stronger because of the fierce wind and knocked the girl’s boat over. She fell into the sea and never returned. Emperor Yan missed his little girl, but was let alone with nothing more than his sorrow.

When the girl died, her spirit turned into a small bird with a colorful head, a white beak and red claws. The bird makes a sad cry “Jingwei, Jingwei”, so people called this bird “Jingwei”. Jingwei hated the merciless sea for taking her young life and wanted to avenge herself. She started carrying small stones from the hill where she lived and fly over the East Sea, throwing stones and branches to it, trying to fill it in. Until this day, she never gives up and keeps doing her work.

2. Cang Jie creates the characters. 仓颉造字 (tr. 倉頡造字)

Because he was so good at observing his surroundings, Cang Jie is often represented with an additional pair of eyes.

In the Central Plains, there is a river called Fanshui, and there was a tribe that lived along it. The tribe lived off planting crops and fishing. In the tribe, there was a man named Cang Jie. He has been very smart since childhood and liked to paint and draw.

At that time, people were using knotted rope to record things. Once, Cang Jie’s neighbor went to the market and Cang Jie asked him to help him exchange a horse for two carts. The neighbor was afraid that he would forget the details, so he took a rope, tied one knot in one end and then tied two knots in the other end.

The neighbor had a lot to do, so he went to the stables and then confidently led two horses to the market. After finishing his business, the neighbor went straight to the cart seller and exchanged the two horses he had brought with him for a cart. The neighbor found it strange that the owner of the cart had not only invited him to a meal and a drink, but also gave him a big hen when he was leaving.

A few days later, Cang Jie returned home after doing business and the neighbors brought the cart to him. However, Cang Jie realized that, although the neighbor knotted the rope, he confused the ends, so the original “a horse for two carts” was remembered as “a cart for two horses”. After this incident, Cang Jie was often thinking: how can we ensure that we will not make such a mistake again? He would draw on the sand every day, but he couldn’t think of both simple and easy way to remember things.


Soon after, he started to observe his surroundings. He would wonder at the distribution of the stars in the sky, the patterns of the mountains and rivers, the traces of birds and other animals, insects and fish, the shape of grass and wood utensils. He would look and draw, creating a variety of different symbols, and set down the meaning of each.

Cang Jie used symbols to put together several paragraphs and showed them to people, and after he carefully explained their meaning, many people could understand them. For example, the character “田” looks like a field so it represents the field, the character “日” represents the sun, and the word “口” is the mouth open. A tree should be “木”, a forest should be many trees, so it would be “森”, and people resting under the tree should be represented as “休”.  From then on, wherever Cang Jie went, no matter what he saw, he would create a symbol for it. He called these symbols “characters”.

3. The Mother Goddess (Nüwa) creates men. 女娲造人 (tr.女媧造人)

The Mother Goddes creates people

  When the sun and earth were separated, the Mother Goddess thought that such a big land should not be wasted.

  ”It would be a pity to create such a vast area of land without human beings living on it, and it would be too lonely for me to live alone.” she thought, “What material should I use to make new humans? Stone? Or tree branches? No, no, it’s better to use clay!”

She poured water into the yellow clay and began to make humans. Because she wanted to create many people and she had to make them one by one, she was not only very busy but also very tired.

  ”If only there was a way to make all people at once!”

  She thought for a while and finally came up with an idea: she put a rope into the mud and then swang it from side to side. The drops of the mud falling down became many human beings.

  So, among humans, some are carefully made and some are crudely made. That is why some people are better off in life and some are not. It is also said that the wise and the rich are carefully made, but the foolish and the poor were made without care.

Would like to know more about Chinese language and culture? Maayot can help. Check out more of our articles below:

  • Famous Chinese Singers You Need to Know
  • Chinese puns
  • Pinyin vs Mandarin

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