Editor’s note: The writings that follow come from the original manuscript of Chinese archaeologist and anthropologist, Zheng Zhenduo. It has been translated and circulated in eight languages across twenty-five countries. Zheng Zhenduo’s original manuscript was written as a series of letters to the State Council following his appointment as head of the Cultural Relic Bureau (文物局), Director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and literary research institute, the assistant minister of cultural department, committee member of State Council scientific program committee and Chinese Academy of Science philosophical social sciences, the vice-chairman of Chinese folk literature and art research council, etc.
Ancient Chinese mythology is a rich and diverse narrative. According to the myths regarding scrolls dated to around the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 BCE), there was a time of tumult during pre-historical record that describe a potential threat to the safety of the world. This is not dissimilar with other cultures’ folk heroes. Chinese myth is curious in that multiple folk-heroes are indicated in this particular record, declared the “Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom.” The Middle Kingdom is a term for ancient China, which the reader may recognize from other Chinese mythology. The term will hereafter be used in place of “Ancient China.”
The Shang Dynasty’s influence shows in the record, considering the shape of the Middle Kingdom matches perfectly to the shape of the empire of the Shang Dynasty. At each end of the Middle Kingdom is a place where land gives way to chaos and adherence to an element: in the north, there are vast seas; in the south are vast plains of burning fire beyond a desert; in the west are great mountains that reach “unto the Heavens themselves”; and in the east is an endless forest.
Historical record shows that the heroes’ meeting was both inconspicuous and auspicious at once. The five original heroes of record – the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom – found one another at a tea house called The House of the Golden Leaf in a town called Five Roads. The scrolls are specific about the names of the heroes, stating them as being: Heng Li, a tall woman disguised as a man and an expert with the three-section staff; Hou Liangbei, a mysterious swordsman with reserves of strong internal qi that manifests as “blade magic”; Kun Qiang, a guandao spear fighter from the “southern nomad tribes” (probably ancient Mongolia); Tai Wei, a woman who was well-trained with the butterfly swords and occasionally called the “whirling steel dragon” in later record; and Zhang San, a martial artist going by a fake name with a troubled past.
Following a tense initial meeting, the House of the Golden Leaf was attacked by “servants of bone worn by the aging breath of time,” which are further described as skeletal martial artists. This is a fairly unprecedented find. It is rare to see folklore regarding corporeal undead creatures in Chinese mythology. See my colleague Xia Nai (Ph.D)’s work for further information on this topic in his excellent book, “Wuxia Pre-History, Vol. III: A Bestiary of the Five Fists Myth Cycle” for further information on this creature and the other creatures that are described further.
The patrons of the House of the Golden Leaf were slaughtered despite the best efforts of the Five Fists. The description of the battle of the House of the Golden Leaf is an example of the artistry of early Shang Dynasty poetry. Heng Li threw herself into the fray with little thought to her own safety. This is a running theme throughout the work. Kun Qiang was grievously injured during this fight, but used a reserve of energy to bring himself back from the brink. Zhang San stood firm against the attacks of the skeletal monks. Liangbei wielded his sword expertly; Tai Wei was able to beat back several skeletons with a swirl of steel.
Following the battle, the heroes went into the streets of Five Roads to view a man wearing a blindfold and his cohort of five fighters killing guards and townsfolk with impunity. With great dismay, the Five Fists left Five Roads for the mountains and forest beyond the town.
The record here describes the journey through the forest in great detail, including information about the different kinds of wildlife that were in the woods at that time, which seems to be an example of early Chinese magical realism.
Near the end of the first scroll, the Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom, worn and tired from their grand battle in Five Rivers, stop at the foot of an ancient Taoist monastery (ed. this may be a later addition to the scroll, as Taoism was not common during the time period of the Shang Dynasty) to discuss their next step. They decide to travel to the Imperial City (a reference to Anyang?) to warn against the army of the dead. Following their discussion, the five heroes rested. Another lengthy poem describes the dreams and nightmares of Kun Qiang, who was given the ability to see spirits of the dead.
This is the end of the first scroll.