While most of us have some passing familiarity with the myths of ancient Egypt, Scandinavia and the Classical world, more obscure are the gods and monsters of the Far East. The great world religions founded in West and Central Asia all influenced the indigenous beliefs of East and South-east Asia. However, the host countries tended to make the encroaching deities their own, embracing them within their own mythologies by a process of adaptation and assimilation. China, the so-called ‘Mother Civilisation of the East’, did not view the incoming gods and goddesses as a threat. The immensely stable structure of Chinese society meant that, rather than feeling threatened by outside beliefs, the Chinese were able to modify and absorb outside influences while maintaining their own culture. Elements of Chinese mythology and philosophy have made it into the mainstream consciousness in fragmentary form through films like Big Trouble in Little China and television series like Kung Fu. Most people have heard of the 14th century novel, Journey to the West, which tells how the Monkey King went up to heaven, where he stole the peaches of immortality and incurred the wrath of the gods. What is perhaps less well known is the complex structure underpinning all of these various fables, myths and legends.
China has its origins in the second millennium BC, when the Shang kings founded a state which formed the basis for all subsequent development. During the ancient Shang dynasty, ancestor worship was already in evidence, and numerous gods were also venerated, including the great Shang Di. Worshipped as the ancestor of the dynasty, Shang Di came to have an important role in Chinese religious thought. The Zhou invaders, who overthrew the Shang dynasty in about 1050 BC, worshipped a deity known as Tian, or ‘Heaven’. It was in the sixth century that Confucianism, which propounded a belief in a highly structured society and stressed the importance of the bonds of family life, emerged. The founder of this belief system was Kong Fuzi (better known in the West by the Latin rendering of his name, Confucius), who was noncommittal about the existence of supernatural beings and instead placed benevolence at the centre of his doctrine. Whereas Confucianism drew its adherents from all social classes, Taoism, which emerged at about the same time, tended to appeal to the underprivileged. Taoists seek out the ‘Way’, a type of divine principle underlying nature. Its followers aim to achieve harmony with the principle by stilling and emptying the mind. During the first millennium AD, Taoism developed an elaborate pantheon of deities, foremost among whom was the Jade Emperor, whose supremacy in heaven mirrored that of the emperor on earth, with whom he was said to correspond directly.
China had a widespread cultural influence on its neighbouring countries, including Japan. Shintoism, the early religion of Japan, took much of its cosmology, including that of an egg-shaped cosmos, from Chinese sources. However, whereas the Chinese regarded their Jade Emperor as a reflection of the earthly emperor, the Japanese claimed that the members of the imperial family were descended from their chief rival deity, the sun goddess Amaterasu, giving them a divine right to govern. In the sixth century AD, Buddhism entered Japan, spreading from China its consoling message about the transience of suffering and the possibility of eventual salvation. In Japan, Buddhism was used to complement Shintoism, giving it its own distinctive flavour and deities. Chinese civilisation also influenced South-east Asia, in particular Vietnam, while Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia were all affected by the advance of Indian culture, and especially by the cults of the the great Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva. On the island of Bali, for example, Shiva and Buddha were sometimes worshipped as a joint deity.
However, despite the impact of these major religions, indigenous beliefs persisted. Even on Bali, where Hinduism is the official religion, mediums still communicate with deities and spirits; among the peoples of Borneo, the indigenous animistic beliefs continue to produce a mythology peopled by ghosts and spirits connected with natural phenomena. In other areas of East Asia, traditional beliefs have been lost under the force of incoming religions. Many of the shamanic myths of Mongolia were lost after the introduction of Buddhism to the country in the 13th century. In Siberia, shamanism came under threat from Muslim missionaries from the tenth century onwards. However, while Islam won many converts, a reverse process also took place, with certain Central Asian Sufi orders being influenced by shamanism. Later, shamanism declined in the face of the missionary activity of the Russian orthodox church in the 19th century and Communist persecution after the Russian revolution in 1917. Today, however, there are movements to revive shamanism to the level of influence it held in times gone by.
In general, the countries of the Far East have contributed to the already rich mythologies of the religions to which they have become hosts. In China, Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, evolved out of the Indian bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and became a powerful mother goddess. Amitabha, the buddha of boundless light, became an important deity in both China and Japan. As Omito Fu in China and as Amida in Japan, he came to have an immense impact, in particular on the Japanese mind. Initially identified with the great Shinto goddess Amaterasu, Amida became the focus of a school of Buddhism that teaches that all of those who call on the Buddha in faith will gain entry to his wondrous paradise. By confidently looking forward to a glorious hereafter, Chinese and Japanese devotees came to view earthly life as simply transitory. The figure of Omito Fu/Amida, thus demonstrates the manner in which an incoming deity can both be transformed by and, in turn, come to transform the society in which it makes its home.