Myths and monsters of the Far East | Sunday Observer

Myths and monsters of the Far East

When observing a culture and its history, one of its most bizarre aspects are the demons and monsters that they create for themselves.

Be it straight forward creatures such as Werewolves or more universally abstract ideas; monsters and the like can be identified as an embodiment of a culture or society’s prevalent fears and anxieties.

Even today, modern monsters that are often created for purposes of entertainment could be what people of today value, their most deep-seated fears, and taboos. But before they became spectacles, there was less structure and sense in how these creatures came to be and the further back we go, the more nonsensical and yet visceral these monsters become.

While the West’s monsters have been immortalised and popularised to the point of losing all meaning, the East’s monsters are much more obscure and that much more bizarre, terrifying and more than anything, fascinating.

But despite the many differences, it is the similarities that can be interesting to compare and contrast. With a history that spans nearly four millennia it is expected for China to have relatively strange beliefs but what is unexpected is how common those beliefs really are, as in reality, China has influenced most of East Asia, including nations such as Japan and Korea.

China’s Hell

Japan is especially notable in that even a concept as universal as Hell didn’t exist in Shinto beliefs in the traditional sense before China introduced Buddhism to the nation. The closest approximation was Shinto’s Yomi or Yomotsu no Kuni was more an underworld similar to Hades, that was home to the multitude of unclean souls. China’s Hell, Diyu, is conceptually almost indistinguishable from Naraka, the Indian-Buddhist hell. This Hell inspired Japan’s Jigoku and even the judge of the afterlife, King Yama or Yan, was adopted from China, even inspiring Korea’s Yeom-ra.

One of the most famous Eastern myths, popularised through pop culture even in the West is that of the Nine Tailed Fox. But what is mostly missed about this is that there are at least three different versions of the same creature in the East, almost all of them independent of each other.

The first was from China, ‘Huli jing’ meaning fox spirit, also called the ‘jiuweihu’ meaning Nine Tailed Fox. The most popular of the three is the ‘Kitsune’ referring to the native Fox which the Japanese believed to be a divine creature though the more commonly known version is the ‘Kyubi no kitsune’, literally meaning Nine Tailed Fox. Lastly, Korea’s Kumiho/Gumiho, also means Nine Tailed Fox. Almost all three are indistinguishable from each other in terms of characteristics but the Japanese one originally referred to just real foxes which they believed to be emissaries to the Goddess Inari but later on adopted the nine tailed myth from China, even adopting their mostly malicious nature which exists today.

Yokai

Due to Japan’s tumultuous relationship with its own history, there was a long period of time that the Yokai, Japan’s supernatural monsters and spirits, were largely no longer present in the public consciousness but were brought back in a big way thanks to its pop culture, primarily Manga.

Shigeru Mizuki’s seminal manga classic ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’ is often credited for single handedly bringing back knowledge of Yokai to modern generations, even introducing dozens of new Yokai, which have since become part of the Yokai myth. The return of such a great part of their culture helped revitalize interest in Japanese mythology and in no small part helped Japan strengthen its cultural identity.

Nowadays, these myths no longer serve their original purpose, even in their culture of origin. They are barely remembered, if at all, thanks to them losing what made them relevant at the time. The only way for these myths to stay alive is to modernise it as a part of pop culture. It is clear that not only the myths of monsters should never be forgotten but also that adding to that myth should not be taboo. As these monsters are a reflection of the time they were born in, should they be left at that, they will become outdated and lose their purpose. By adding to these myths and creating new ones, their relevance and longevity in the future is assured.

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