Gong Gong

Chinese mythology and folklore is filled to the brim with dragons and serpentine creatures which generally represent the power of water, ranging from life-giving wells to the terrible destruction of tsunamis. One such figure is Gong Gong, often depicted as a malevolent, red-haired god with the tail of a sea monster.

According to Chinese legends, Gong Gong is responsible for knocking the Earth’s axis off centre, having smashed his head against Mount Buzhou in a fit of rage and caused a great flood. His actions required the intervention of the Goddess Nuwa to help repair the sky, and it’s said this is why most rivers run southeast, and why the sun, moon and stars move northwest across the heavens.

Sun Wukong

Sun Wukong – also known as the Monkey King – is one of the best-loved figures of Chinese mythology and literature. One of the Immortals of Heaven, Sun Wukong spent much of his life getting himself in and out of trouble, and the tales of his antics reveal him to be a proud, reckless, and cunning character. He is usually described as a golden-furred macaque with supernatural abilities such as immense strength, shapeshifting, spellcasting and cloning, and wields a fighting staff called Ruyi Jingu Bang. He became a powerful warrior through Taoist practices, eventually earning a place among the gods, and the trust of the Buddha. Though he is best known for his role in the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, his origins can be traced back to the worship of monkeys in the Chu Kingdom around 2,500 years ago. Other cultural influences have helped shape Sun Wukong over time, including the Hindu deity Hanuman, himself a monkey-like figure.

The legend of Sun Wukong began when he was said to have emerged from the womb of a magical stone, befriending a tribe of monkeys and later becoming their king. Over time, he gets bolder and bolder, challenging and defeating various demons and sacred guardians. Obsessed with immortality, he defies Hell’s attempts to collect his soul, and erases his name from the Book of Life and Death, bringing his deeds to the attention of the Jade Emperor. To keep a close eye on him, the Jade Emperor invites Sun Wukong to Heaven, but gives him a series of unwanted jobs. The Monkey King retaliates by causing havoc, rebelling against Heaven and single-handedly defeating most of its army. Exasperated, the Jade Emperor asks the Buddha for help. Buddha is able to outwit Sun Wukong, trapping him in a mountain for 500 years until he is willing to repent for his actions, and take an honourable role in Heaven.

Xihe

In Ancient Chinese folklore, Xihe was a solar goddess, and one of the wives of Di Jun (supreme deity of the Eastern Heaven). By Di Jun, she was mother to the ten Yángwū (Sun-crows), mythical three-legged birds with supernatural properties. Each day, the Sun-crows would take a turn to be bathed by Xihe in the Eastern Sea, then ride in her chariot as it was pulled by six dragons across the sky, bringing light to the world and allowing crops to grow. When a Sun-crow returned to the mulberry tree on which they all lived, the next would take flight in the chariot, thus continuing the cycle of day and night. However, around 2170 BC, it is said that the Sun-crows grew unhappy with this arrangement, and all ten flew into the air at the same time. Their combined radiance scorched the Earth, and things were only returned to normal when Houyi – the Archer – shot down nine of them, leaving a lone Sun-crow alive to perform its duty, too afraid to misbehave again. This was how the Ancient Chinese explained the movement of the Sun, and related Xihe to the fertility of their crops.

Yama

In several prominent East Asian religions, Yama is the Lord of the Underworld, a judge or shepherd of the dead. Attestations of Yama appear in the Rigveda, a collection of sacred texts dating back more than 3,000 years, making him one of the oldest continuously-worshipped deities on Earth. Also called Yamaraja or Imra, his name translates as “Twin”, believed to relate to him being the twin brother of Yami, goddess of the sacred river Yamuna. Depending on the religion, he can be depicted as having colourful skin or multiple arms, wearing beautiful gems, or riding a buffalo.

Yama is closely associated with how a soul is purified in the purgatorial realms, or returns to the living world. It is said that he was the first mortal to die, and was granted the honour of ruling all those who came after. In Hinduism, he has a pair of four-eyed hellhounds who wander among the living as messengers. He uses these dogs to lead the dead to him, so that he may direct them to Heaven, back to Earth, or temporarily to the appropriate level of Naraka (the Underworld) for their sins to be cleansed. In Buddhism, meanwhile, Yama is a wrathful god who presides over Naraka (in this case, the levels of Hell), where souls have been reborn to atone for the sins of their past life. Comparable beliefs also exist in Sikhism, not to mention derivations in Chinese and Japanese religions, and Yama is venerated every day by millions worldwide.