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The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jing)

The Legacy of The Classic of Mountains and Seas in Ancient Chinese Culture.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jing) is an essential Chinese text that combines mythic geography and mythical creatures’ descriptions. Its origins might date back to the 4th century BCE, but the format we recognize today was established in the early Han dynasty. This work gives a detailed geographical and cultural representation of pre-Qin China, enriched with elements of Chinese mythology. It consists of eighteen sections, describing over 550 mountains and 300 channels. The identity of its author or authors, a topic initiated by Sima Qian, has been debated for over two millennia.

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The text doesn’t follow a typical narrative structure. Instead, it offers comprehensive descriptions of various locations, from mountains and seas to wild areas. These descriptions touch on medicines, animals, geological aspects, and more. Some accounts are routine, while others are imaginative, with this pattern consistent throughout the chapters.

Among the various myths in the text, one stands out: the story of Yu the Great, who endeavored to control a vast flood. His portrayal here, especially in the penultimate paragraph of chapter 18, is notably more imaginative than in other classical works like the Classic of History.

Woodblock-printed views from the fifth volume of the Classic of Mountains and Seas, created during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), presented in a scrollable format

Historically, Chinese scholars perceived this work as both a bestiary and an encyclopedia, capturing China’s multifaceted culture, including history, philosophy, mythology, religion, medicine, folklore, and numerous sciences like astronomy and meteorology. Over time, opinions about its nature have evolved. Initially, during the Han to Tang dynasty periods, its content was viewed as factual. By the Ming to Qing dynasties, with the rise in novels and a broader understanding of the world, the book’s credibility diminished, with many leaning towards seeing it as a novel. In recent times, influenced by the introduction of Western anthropology, the book has been seen as a fusion of various disciplines.

In terms of its contribution to various fields, it has had a significant impact. Geographically, it offers an in-depth look at the Qin dynasty era, shedding light on ancient terrains, human activities, and ethnic migrations. Mythologically, it introduces seven categories of ancient Chinese myths, offering a glimpse into the ancient Chinese cosmological viewpoint. Zoologically, it provides a catalog of supernatural beings and over 400 ancient animals, aiding future research. Medically, the text mentions between 110-140 medicinal substances, offering a comparison of ancient and modern ailments and emphasizing the duality of certain plants used for both food and medicine. Lastly, its religious descriptions uncover the intricacies of ancient Chinese religious beliefs, with a particular focus on elements of Chinese shamanism.

Featured image: Colored Qing dynasty illustration from the Classic of Mountains and Seas depicting a nine-headed phoenix., Source

Topics: Significance of Shanhai jing, Legacy of The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Historical impact of Chinese myths, Overview of ancient Chinese geography, Portrayal of Yu the Great in literature

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Maritime History of Ancient China


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