Classic of Mountains and Seas

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Classic of Mountains and Seas
Traditional Chinese山海經
Simplified Chinese山海经
Literal meaning"Classic of Mountains and Seas"
Classic of Mountains and Seas illustration of a nine-headed phoenix (colored Qing dynasty edition)
Classic of Mountains and Seas illustration of Nüwa
Classic of Mountains and Seas illustration of Nine-tailed Fox, companion of the Queen Mother of the West

The Classic of Mountains and Seas or Shan Hai Jing,[1] formerly romanized as the Shan-hai Ching, is a Chinese classic text and a compilation of mythic geography[2][3] and beasts. Versions of the text may have existed since as early as the 4th century BC,[4][5] but the present form was not reached until the early Han dynasty a few centuries later.[5] It is largely a fabulous geographical and cultural account of pre-Qin China as well as a collection of Chinese mythology.[citation needed] The book is divided into eighteen sections; it describes over 550 mountains and 300 channels.


The exact author(s) of the book and the time it was written are still undetermined. It was originally thought that mythical figures such as Yu the Great or Boyi wrote the book. However, the consensus among modern Sinologists is that the book was not written at a single time by a single author, but rather by numerous people from the period of the Warring States to the beginning of the Han dynasty.[citation needed]

The first known editor of the Classic was Liu Xiang from the Western Han, who among other things cataloged the Han imperial library. Later, Guo Pu, a scholar from the Western Jin, further annotated the work.


The book is not a narrative, as the "plot" involves detailed descriptions of locations in the cardinal directions of the Mountains, Regions Beyond Seas, Regions Within Seas, and Wilderness. The descriptions are usually of medicines, animals, and geological features. Many descriptions are very mundane, and an equal number are fanciful or strange. Each chapter follows roughly the same formula, and the whole book is repetitious in this way.

It contains many short myths, and most rarely exceed a paragraph. A famous ancient Chinese myth from this book is that of Yu the Great, who spent years trying to control the deluge. The account of him is in the last chapter, chapter 18, in the 2nd to last paragraph (roughly verse 40). This account is a much more fanciful account than the depiction of him in the Classic of History.

Literary value[edit]

‘Shan Hai Jing’ is a book full of magical works. It has various kinds of contents. It has a rich knowledge of geography, mythology, folklore, history of science, religion, ethnology, medicine and other valuable information. Its academic value involves so many scientific areas. It largely and orderly records the features of natural geography and the content of human geographies, such as mountains, hydrology, animal, plant, mineral, national geography, economy, social culture. A lot of information can be explored if the reader searches deeply and carefully.[6]


Some scholars believe that: "Shan Hai Jing" is China's first geography. "Shan Hai Jing" is not a purely geographical book, however, the geographical knowledge is in the top position. It orderly describes the geographical features by location, including nature geography and culture geography. First, "Shan Hai Jing" has a natural geographical description. This includes the record of many mountains, such as "the mountain of the court", "mountain of niuyang", "blue hill mountain", "Kei tail mountain" and so on, and each mountain is named according to the mountain landscape, these mountains also reflect the direction of the mountain; as well as an extremely rich hydrological record and rivers are mostly marked with the source. The beginning of the river can be in some foothills, and its injection is far away from this mountain. The narrator also noticed the full picture of the river streams. Despite the river routes were not recorded, but their approximate flow through region can be known through the route of tributaries to the mainstream such as Huanghe and Weishui. Secondly, it also recorded the human geography. For example, in the "sea" section, it records lots of regional social and cultural customs, economic development, scientific and technological achievements at that moment.[7]


As a mythological literature, ‘Shan Hai Jing’ at least has three valuable facts:

1. Different kinds of records of seven categories of ancient Chinese mythology.

2. Left a reliable text in the relationship between the physical world and mythical world.

3. The preservation of a vast number of primitive items with primitive cultural information, it contains the potential mythological value.

It is inappropriate to classify Chinese mythology based on the principle of western mythology classification which is based on the presentation of human consciousness and spiritual growth process. It should be classified based on the main contents, basic spirit, inner structure and important features which formed by above. ‘Shan Hai Jing’ does not have too many records about the mythology that is looking for the origins of content (the origins of world, tribes, and cultures), but it has many records of heroic mythology and tribal warfare and it reflects the basic feature of Chinese historical culture and the value orientation of cultural spirit.[8]


‘Shan Hai Jing’ has rich and varied literary value and it can be explored from many aspects. Reader can discover, understand and interpret the literary value from the perspective of the influence of the traditional romantic creation literature, the expression of the original logic, the rich emotional experience in the humanistic care and the judgment of the pragmatism and all these can be understood by mythical thinking (ie, the original thinking). ‘Shan Hai Jing’ has a rich of mythology thinking, it has a huge and far-reaching impact in the tradition of the romantic literary. In-depth study of mythological thinking and reveal this impact is not only good for discovering the reasons for the creation of romantic literary, but it also helps clarify the development of various literary phenomena.

There are at least three facts can explain how mythical thinking impacts the tradition of romantic literature:

1. The impact of the rich intuitive imagination on the creation of romantic literature.

2. The mythologies which contain abundant mythological thinking are always the creative material of romantic literature.

3. The primitive concept of the life of mythical thinking profoundly impacts on the creation of romantic literary.[9][10]


Lots of myths and legend in "Shan Hai Jing" are extremely rare materials for current religious studies. From these myths, not only present the activities of the wizard, but also the ancient nation's faith, worship and so on. There are a lot of magical animals recorded, these animals are mainly birds, animals, dragons, and snakes. They usually have some magical powers. These animals are probably the ancients' totem worship. According to "Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: West", "Wuxian nation is north to Nvchou, the right-hand holds the green snake, and the red on the left". Snake may be the totem of Wuxian country. "Shan Hai Jing" is the critical material for ancient Chinese religious study.[11]


Earlier Chinese scholars referred to it as a bestiary, but apparently assumed it was accurate. In fact the information in the book is mythological. It is not known why it was written or how it came to be viewed as an accurate geography book.


The Classic of Mountains and Rivers has 18 chapters (巻). Chapter 4 has 12 subsections (次一), 2 and 4 have four, and chapters 1 and 3 have three.

Chapter Chinese Mandarin Pinyin Translation
1 南山經 Nánshān Jīng Classic of the Mountains: South
2 西山經 Xīshān Jīng Classic of the Mountains: West
3 北山經 Běishān Jīng Classic of the Mountains: North
4 東山經 Dōngshān Jīng Classic of the Mountains: East
5 中山經 Zhōngshān Jīng Classic of the Mountains: Central
6 海外南經 Hǎiwàinán Jīng Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: South
7 海外西經 Hǎiwàixī Jīng Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: West
8 海外北經 Hǎiwàiběi Jīng Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: North
9 海外東經 Hǎiwàidōng Jīng Classic of Regions Beyond the Seas: East
10 海內南經 Hǎinèinán Jīng Classic of Regions Within the Seas: South
11 海內西經 Hǎinèixī Jīng Classic of Regions Within the Seas: West
12 海內北經 Hǎinèiběi Jīng Classic of Regions Within the Seas: North
13 海內東經 Hǎinèidōng Jīng Classic of Regions Within the Seas: East
14 大荒東經 Dàhuāngdōng Jīng Classic of the Great Wilderness: East
15 大荒南經 Dàhuāngnán Jīng Classic of the Great Wilderness: South
16 大荒西經 Dàhuāngxī Jīng Classic of the Great Wilderness: West
17 大荒北經 Dàhuāngběi Jīng Classic of the Great Wilderness: North
18 海內經 Hǎinèi Jīng Classic of Regions Within the Seas

All 18 chapters can be classified into 4 categories: Classic of the Mountains (contents 5 chapters), Classic of the Seas (contents 8 chapters), Classic of the Great Wilderness (contents 4 chapters), and Classic of Regions Within the Seas (contents 1 chapter). It recorded more than 100 diplomatically related realms, 550 mountains and 300 rivers, along with the geographic and cultural information of the nearby realms. The Classic of Mountains and Seas also recorded up to 277 different animals. Scholars believe the records of animals in Classic of the Mountains are somewhat exaggerated due to the long history of people compiling them in different dynasties; yet they still have a certain degree of authority, because they were generally written by sorcerers and Fangshi based on the experiences they gained from their trips.

The ancient Chinese treated the Classic as a record of geography.[12] The Classic was classified under the category of geography in both Book of Sui and Comprehensive Examination of Literature of Duanlin Ma. It was also an important reference material of Chinese historians through the long history of China.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas is also the source and origin of the ancient Chinese mythology. Some of them are popular and well known in Asian culture, such as Kua Fu, Nüwa, Houyi and Yellow Emperor. There were up to 450 gods and deities mentioned in Classic and they used something called Jingmi (精米) or Jing (糈) which is similar to sorcery.

Chinese scholar Ming Hua Zhang claimed that the Zhulong, which was a mythical creature mentioned in Classic of the Great Wilderness: North, is symbolizing the aurora (northern light).[13] The Zhulong is (according to Classic) "red, with a human face and a snake body that is thousand mile long. It is the god of Zhong Mountain." He believes that this description matches with the characteristics of aurora.

See also[edit]

Media related to Shan Hai Jing at Wikimedia Commons

  • Bai Ze - titular figure of the lost treatise on demonology which has similarities to some of the Shanhaijing.
  • Shi Yi Ji (拾遺记) by Wang Jia - a 4th-century work containing "apocryphal" versions of some of the stories in the Classic of Mountains and Seas.


  1. ^ "Shan Hai Jing". Chinese Text Project.
  2. ^ Lewis, Mark Edward (2006). The Flood Myths of Early China. State University of New York. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-7914-6663-6.
  3. ^ Mark Edward Lewis (2009). China's Cosmopolitan Empire: the Tang dynasty, Vol. 4 (illustrated ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 202. ISBN 0-674-03306-X. Retrieved February 8, 2012.
  4. ^ Leo Bagrow, R. & A. Skelton (2009). History of cartography. Transaction Publishers. p. 204. ISBN 1-4128-1154-6.
  5. ^ a b Lust, John (1996). Chinese popular prints. Brill Publishers. p. 301. ISBN 90-04-10472-0.
  6. ^ "中国神话的分类与『山海经』的文献价值--《文艺研究》1997年01期". Retrieved 2017-10-01.
  7. ^ 四面环海:《山海经·山 经》呈现的世界构想
  8. ^ "中国神话的分类与『山海经』的文献价值--《文艺研究》1997年01期". Retrieved 2017-10-01.
  9. ^ "中国国学网-- 试论《山海经》的神话思维对浪漫主义文学的影响(二)". Retrieved 2017-10-01.
  10. ^ "中国国学网-- 试论《山海经》的神话思维对浪漫主义文学的影响(一)". Retrieved 2017-10-01.
  11. ^ 07/24/content_18194842.htm 探秘古书《山海经》的神奇世界
  12. ^ 孔子 家語·執轡篇》有「子夏曰:商聞《山書》曰:地東西為緯、南北為經 」一語,呂子方指出,「在《家語》成書時人們已承認《山海經》是一部地理書了 (Chinese scholar Zi Feng Lui pointed out, "during the era of Confucius, people already viewed the as a book of geography.")」(Zi Feng, Lui. (1997.) 讀〈山海經〉雜記. pg.5. )
  13. ^ 四川省社會科學院 (1986) 山海經新探 (pg 308-314) 成都市. 後收錄《學林漫錄》第8集

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