The supernatural beings known as Yao (妖) and Mo (魔) appear quite often in Chinese cultivation novels.
But what exactly are they?
Yao (妖 yāo) is commonly translated as “Demon” or “Monster”.
- In these novels, they are often conflated with Magical Beasts – especially in the case of Demonic Beasts (妖兽 yāoshòu). Magical Beasts are animals capable of cultivation. They tend to be much more intelligent than mundane animals, and some are capable of speaking in human languages. Those which have reached a high stage of cultivation may even be able to take on a human form.
- Yao are very similar, but the main difference is that Yao can be more than just animals! Yao is a broad term for any animals, plants, or even inanimate objects that have gained spiritual awareness and magical powers (usually by absorbing Qi from the natural world over a long period of time). Yes, even a stone can become a Yao!
- The english word “Demon” is sadly tainted with an “evil” connotation, which doesn’t fit Yao very well. Yao are closer to the classical Daemons and Fae.
Mo (魔 mó) is commonly translated as “Devil” or “Fiend”. It is also translated as “Demon”, although this can cause confusion for readers trying to distinguish Yao from Mo.
- Mo are evil spirits/creatures of remarkable power and cruelty. They are actually very similar to the demons and devils of Western mythology.
- In some novels, evil cultivators emulate Mo by practicing devilish cultivation methods and committing atrocities in their pursuit of power. They are typically called Devil Cultivators (修魔者) and are contrasted with the more-standard Immortal Cultivators (修仙者).
Yao and Mo are sometimes grouped together or considered to be a single species (Yaomo 妖魔), and at other times they are considered to be distinct species (the Yao race 妖族 and the Mo race 魔族). Two examples of novels which prominently feature them are Way of Choices and World of Cultivation.
Let’s look at Yao a little more closely. The definitions and etymology of 妖 can provide clues to their nature.
The character 妖 is made up of two components: 女 (woman) and 夭 (young/tender)
妖 conjures up the image of a young woman. But wait, 夭 can also mean “to die young/prematurely”, which gives this image a strange and sinister twist.
Combining all of the above, we get a supernatural creature with the appearance of a young and alluring woman who potentially has sinister intentions.
This is actually an accurate description for many Yao in Chinese folklore/mythology. For instance, a prototypical example is the Fox Demon (狐妖 / 狐狸精).
Fox Demons are mythological foxes who gained spiritual awareness and magical powers. They are often capable of assuming a human form, and the malicious ones will transform into beautiful women in order to seduce and devour men.
It’s important to note that Yao are not inherently evil… but due to the antagonistic relationship they often have with humans and human society, they may sometimes seem that way.
And of course, despite the origin of the term, Yao aren’t all female.
The final conclusion is that Yao are a diverse group of supernatural beings which come from mundane origins. They might appear to be human, but they have a non-human true nature. They aren’t necessarily evil, but they often come into conflict with humans.
Let’s look at Mo a little more closely. The definitions and etymology of 魔 can provide clues to their nature.
魔 can mean “devil / evil spirit / an evil influence / magic”.
The character 魔 is made up of two components: 麻 (hemp/cannabis) and 鬼 (ghost/evil spirit)
Hm… that’s weird. China has certainly been growing hemp for thousands of years for perfectly mundane reasons (like making rope, paper and fabrics), but why would that be part of the Devil 魔 character? Well, they were also well-aware of the psychoactive effects of cannabis (see the “use of hemp as medicine in ancient China” section). That’s probably more likely what the 麻 component is referring to.
To make more sense of this, we have to dig into some history.
Long ago, when the first Buddhist missionaries came to China from India, all of their religious terms naturally had to be translated into Chinese in order for the religion to be spread. These Buddhist terms were all in Sanskrit, making the translation process somewhat awkward. The Sanskrit words were either phonetically transcribed into Chinese or, in some cases, entirely new Chinese characters were made to convey the meaning of the new terms.
When translating Mara (मार māra) the character 魔 was used. I can’t be sure, but it might have even been created explicitly for that purpose. The result was that Mara first entered the Chinese language as 魔 / 魔羅 (simplified: 魔罗).
Mara is a demon king and master of illusions and temptations in Buddhist mythology. When Siddhartha Gautama was in the process of attaining enlightenment and becoming a Buddha, Mara tried to lead him astray but ultimately failed.
With this context in mind, we can see how 魔 makes sense.
- 麻 – “Cannabis” – The psychoactive effects of cannabis as a reference to Mara’s illusions and temptations.
- 鬼 – “Evil Spirit” – A reference to Mara’s nature.
So Mara (魔) is literally an “evil spirit of illusions and temptations”. And you can see how this relates back to the modern definitions of 魔, which includes things like “magic” and “evil influences”.
Because of the strong connection between the character 魔 and the evil being known as Mara, over time many things considered magical or wicked started to use 魔 in their names. You can see some examples of this here.
- In fact, there’s a direct connection here between Mara and the “Internal Demons” (心魔 xīnmó – lit. “Heart Devils”) commonly seen in cultivation novels. Real-life Buddhists would refer to obstacles and hindrances preventing them from achieving enlightenment as “Maras”, and it’s easy to see how this made its way into Chinese thought. And so, when reading about cultivators struggling with their worldly attachments and internal demons, it’s interesting to think that 心魔 can be legitimately interpreted as “Devils/Maras residing in the Heart”.
With all that said, it can be concluded that Devils (魔) originate from the image of Mara. They are a cruel and powerful group of supernatural beings. And unlike the Yao, they are almost certainly inherently evil.