At every occasion, Chinese lay stress on the age of their culture, and for good reasons. As a very advanced civilization, China was probably not the earliest one, but the only one of the ancient cultures that has survived until today: "5000 years of history, and 7000 years of culture" (wuqian nian de lishi, qiqian nian de wenhua 五千年的歷史，七千年的文化).
History clearly is not that old. The oldest traces of history (as a cultural stage that makes use of a script - see Chinese script) can be found in the 13th century BCE. Stories of older events and people cannot be proved by archaeology, but some little truth might be behind the tales that cover the time up to the "manufacturers" of the world.
Although there is no myth (shenhua 神話) of a god having created the universe like in many cultures, there numerous popular tales of persons that helped to build up and to repair the world during a time of chaos and uncertainty. The mythical persons acting in such myths are by no means godlike, but are rather part of the world they helped to construct. The most famous of these persons is Pan Gu 盤古, but there are also figures of lesser importance, like Nü Wa 女媧 and her brother (and/or husband) Fu Xi 伏羲 who jointly repaired the world with dividers and ruler; or the heroical archer Lord Yi 后羿, who shut down eight of the nine existing suns to prevent the soil from burning out.
There is also a large number of inventors like Sui Ren 燧人, who first used the fire; Hou Ji, the "Lord of Millet" 后稷, and Shen Nong 神農, the "Divine Husbandman" - persons that introduced agriculture and the use of medical herbs; Chi You 蚩尤, the inventor of metallurgy and weapons or warfare; Bo Yi 伯夷 (also written 柏翳 or 伯益), who first tamed domestic animals; Can Cong 蠶叢, the inventor of sericulture in the state of Shu 蜀; or minister Cang Jie 倉頡, who invented writing, and minister Ling Lun 泠綸 (or 伶倫), who invented music and the pitch pipes for musical tuning. Nü Wa is said to have invented matrimony, and she shaped the first men of clay.
A great part of Chinese mythology has its origin in the southern kingdoms of Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越. Here, in the water-rich regions of the Yangtze area, the prevention of inundations was a crucial task for the survival of communities. It was here that myths of the water-controllers Gun 鯀, Gong Gong 共工, Yu the Great (Da Yu 大禹), and Shun 舜 found their origin.
Tales of these heroes are also the first that appear in Chinese literature, for example in the "Poetry of the South" (Chuci 楚辭, especially the poem Tianwen 天問 "Asking Heaven"). In the oldest books of the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" and Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", it is only stated that the dynasties Xia 夏 and Zhou 周 came from the west, and the Shang 商 from the east. The people of the Zhou (Ji 姬 family) intermarried with people from the Jiang 姜 family, other families in prehistoric times were the Sanmiao 三苗 barbarians in the south and the Zhongli or Chongli 重黎 family.
Many tales and myths were only written down or were invented in early imperial times (from 2nd cent. BC), like the myth of the River God (He Shen 河神) Ju Ling (Juling) 巨靈, who was annually offered a virgin; or the Goddess of River Xiang (Xiang Jun 湘君), venerated in what is today Hunan; the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母), who was believed to reside in the western paradise on Mount Kunlun 崑崙. Other immortals are thought to live or have lived in the island paradise of Penglai 蓬萊 in the Eastern Sea.
The tales of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝), Tai Hao 太皞 (Fu Xi 伏羲), Shao Hao 少昊 (Zhi 摯), Zhuan Xu 顓頊 (also called Gao Yang 高陽), Di Ku 帝嚳 (also called Gao Xin 高辛), the holy and virtuous rulers Yao 堯 and Shun 舜, and the founder of the Xia Dynasty 夏, Yu the Great, who tamed the floods, divided the empire into the nine provinces (jiuzhou 九州) and characterized the soil of every province, - all these persons only became prominent subjects of mythology during the Spring and Autumn 春秋 period (770-5th cent. BC).
The origin of these stories must be traced to tales of mythologiccal rulers, gods or tribal ancestors of prehistoric tribes or families (zu 族) like the Ji 姬, Si 姒, Jiang 姜 (Qiang 羌), Mi 芈, Miao 苗, or Ying 嬴. Many of these names are written with the radical "wife" 女 (like the word for surname, xing 姓), expressing the possible cognatic character of the ancient tribal groups. Tribal heroes or mythological tribal ancestors (zongshen 宗神) of different tribes and periods later merged to a unified pantheon of ancestor deities that became relatives of each other within a constructed lineage, with the Yellow Emperor at its head. The result of this unified pantheon can first be seen in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 "Classic of the Mountain and Seas", a bizarre pseudo-geography.
The classification of the saints and rulers of highest antiquity, with "Three Augusts" and "Five Emperors" (San Huang Wu Di 三皇五帝), took only shape during the Warring States 戰國 (5th cent-220 BC) and Han 漢 (206 BC-220 AD) periods. It was especially the Confucianists which stressed the virtuous character of Yao, Shun, and Yu the Great, and regarded them as morally exemplarious rulers of the antiquity. These divine rulers were collectively called the "Two Emperors and Three Kings" (Er Di San Wang 二帝三王: Yao, Shun, Yu the Great - founder of the Xia dynasty, Tang the Perfect 成湯 - founder of the Shang dynasty 商, and King Wen 周文王, founder of the Zhou dynasty 周).
Apart from these "great" dynastic founders, the different books of the Warring States period mention dozens of deities and mythical rulers whose names later disappeared and were meaningless in contrast to this Confucian pentade. It was especially in the late Warring States period, when new deities came up that were projected into the time before the Yellow Emperor, gods like Sui Ren, Fu Xi, Nü Wa, and Shen Nong. Other deities like Tai Hao, Shao Hao and Yan Di disappeared. The latest Chinese deity appearing in the pantheon was Pan Gu, the founder of the universe. Quite ironically, he was believed to have been the first deity and creator of the world.
Many deities were believed to have transformed into stars, and a number of starry constellations have the name of a deity. Quite famous is the story of the Cowherd (Qianniu 牽牛 or Niulang) and the Weaver Maid (Zhi Nü 織女), or Chang E 嫦娥, who ascended to the moon and transformed into a toad. In the southern myths, a crow carrying the sun determines sunrise and sunset.
Before the identification of certain persons with these rulers, they belonged to a pantheon of a group of tribal heroes and ancestors that were often associated with cardinal directions:
Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), Yan Di 炎帝 (the Red Emperor), Bo Yi, Gong Gong, Gun, Yu the Great, the Four Sacred Mountains (Siyue 四嶽 or 四岳), Hou Ji 后稷 (also called Qi 弃), Gao Yu 高圉, Tai Wang 太王, Xuan Ao 玄囂, Jiao Ji 蟜極, Chang Yi 昌意, Qing Yang 青陽, Di Hong 帝鴻 and Jin Yun 縉云 are associated with the west. Tai Hao, Shao Hao, Zhuan Xu, Di Ku, Yao, Yi 羿, Zhuo 浞, Jiao 澆, Jun 俊 (i.e. Shun 舜), Xie 契, Ming 冥, Jin Tian 金天 and Lie Shan 烈山 were associated with the east.
Several of these deities were also associated with astronomical constellations or with the colors corresponding to the Five Agents (wuxing 五行), like the Yellow Emperor, the White Emperor (Baidi 白帝, i.e. Zhi), the Blue-Green Emperor (Qing Di 青帝, Cang Di 蒼帝, i.e. Fu Xi), the Black Emperor (Hei Di 黑帝, i.e. Zhuan Xu), and the Red Emperor (Chi Di 赤帝, i.e. Yan Di).
Criticism of these mythologies came up during the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) periods, but it was especially from the late 19th century on, that scholars like Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858-1927), Xia Zengyou 夏曾佑 (1863-1924), Miao Fenglin 繆鳳林 (1899-1959) and Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 (1893-1980) began to analyze the creation of these old myths and detected that they were composed of different local tales or myths of tribal ancestors and that thepantheon of these "deities" had taken shape during the late Warring States and the Han periods.
Fu Sinian 傅斯年 (1896-1950), Meng Wentong 蒙文通 (1894-1968), Yang Kuan 楊寬 (1914-2005) and Xu Xusheng 徐旭生 (1888-1976) constated that the mythical tales originated from three cultural spheres: Hua 華 (Zou-Lu 鄒魯, Dongyi 東夷) in the east, Xia 夏 (Jin 晉, Huaxia 華夏) in the west, and the barbarian tribes (Miao 苗, Man 蠻, Chu 楚) in the south. In the 1930s and 1940s a group of historians tried to derive social structures (idealiter: the primary communist society, yuanshi shehui 原始社會) on the background of these traditional myths and tales.