From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao
by Xueting Christine Ni
Anyone who has sat down in a restaurant and ordered a dish of phoenix (chicken) or dragon (lobster) has experienced a taste of the poetry of Chinese language and culture. The richness of the cultural imagination, built upon millennia of continuous civilization, has created an incredible breadth of cast that makes the Chinese pantheon easily overwhelm the outsider looking for an easy entry point.
When we look at the mythology of the Western world we are often encountering the pantheons of long past civilizations. Sifting through the strata of history, we encounter pieces of Roman, Nordic, Egyptian, or Aztec myth, whether in the tales of Ovid, the legends of Irminsul, the great temple of Edfu or the pyramids of Tenayuca. Often what we piece together ends up being a composite image, a collage that we have artfully arranged into an order that makes sense. Gods and goddesses have concise origin stories and cooperate in a narrative history where each deity has their own proper place and various hierarchies of lesser powers with their respective dominions at their disposal. Of course, anyone who takes their research further soon finds where the images in the collage overlap – more often than not there are multiple origin stories, many names, and attributes shared by deities, who waxed and waned in influence over different periods. Although Chinese mythology is a similarly syncretic edifice, the continuous process of the Chinese civilization has kept the mythologies and pantheons alive and vibrant and confusing, unlike the frozen strata of the past. Only in the pastiche of orientalism do we get to recreate the easy shapes we are used to.
The mythology of the East is both dizzyingly complex and infuriatingly vague. One reason for this is that China is not just one people but of many. A giant country with such great variation in landscapes and climate necessarily springs forth a variety of supernatural beings and world views which have mixed together over the millennia of China’s history. The tapestry woven by successive tides of imperial conquest and reconquest, dynastic sponsorship, cultural domination and appropriation, has only heightened this rich bouquet while the continuation of the written Chinese language through almost 5 thousand years has largely preserved it till this day. Another reason for the dizzying array of Asian mythology of course is the syncretic nature of Asian religion itself. Chinese culture is built on the foundation of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which have learned to coexist with one another just as they have been enriched on the bedrock of folk belief and shamanism they rest on. In this matrix of belief the new does not necessarily wipe out the old, but co-opt and change it for the changing needs of the people. It is this bubbling cauldron – where ascended philosophers such as Lao Tzu share the stage with Buddhist deities, dragons, ancient emperors and heroes, and even the late Chairman Mao – that can make Chinese myth as baffling as it is compelling.
It is into this forest that author Xueting Christine Ni has cleared a path for us to enter with a nicely organized who’s-who of Chinese myth and legend. Her book covers over 60 deities in 219 pages (not including appendixes) in a format that is too readable to an encyclopedia, but too well organized to be a narrative. Obviously “From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao” is neither a comprehensive review nor a very deep investigation of each deity, but it charts a middle ground with a personal voice. Each deity is treated with a synopsis over four pages, describing their various origins and evolutionary history. She guides us through how these stories have changed from their earliest inceptions (often in China’s animist tribal past) through imperial history to their contemporary incarnations in the internet age, reflecting social changes along the way. She points out the ways social and political interests have morphed these deities over time.
However, it is the author’s approach to the living deities that I enjoy the most. Ms. Ni describes how these deities are still alive in the modern world through festivals and monuments still celebrated today as well as popular culture and media such as tv, film and manga. It was this more than anything that separates her book from others I have read and which had me constantly looking up images on the internet.
If there is a disappointment to the book, it will be that it is not encyclopedic in scope or thorough as a textbook. It also does not manage to avoid the pit fall of every book of far eastern mythology – that of the morass of strange names that sound so much alike to the western ear they are hard to tell apart. But undoubtedly these are faults brought by the reader, not the book itself.