Gods of China Past and Present8 min read

Kevin McGeary talks to Xueting Christine Ni about Chinese deities

From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities by Guangzhou-born author Xueting Christine Ni is a mystery tour of mythical figures from China’s long past. It serves as a reference book on the deities Chinese people have worshipped through the country’s long history, how they have changed and evolved, and how this relates to present-day China. I caught up with Ni Xueting to answer some questions about the book:

What drew you to the topic of Chinese deities? How are they unique compared to other cultures?

There are very few books in English on the subject that are accessible and at the same time provide sufficient depth. It tends to be either academic research or glib guides that merely skim the surface. Chinese spirituality is one of the best facets through which Western readers can understand China’s society. Its observation and practice have completely integrated with China’s social customs and everyday life, and are also very much linked to broader economic and political developments in history.  Chinese gods have evolved through centuries, from multiple belief systems, some indigenous like Confucian philosophy and Daoism, others foreign, such as Buddhism and even Persian religions. Not to mention the 56 officially-recognized ethnic groups in this vast country, each with their own languages, cultures and beliefs. This process is only really possible in a climate unique to China, and is one of the reasons why Chinese spirituality is so diverse. Whilst there are many unique elements, it’s by no means alien to anyone on the outside, and I do think that letting people in on this subject is a key for better understanding.

In the book, you say “there is a wonderfully egalitarian quality to Chinese deities – who represent a meritocratic pantheon in which anyone can become a god.” You mention figures like Lü Dongbin, the Tang Dynasty scholar and poet regarded by some as a healer of the poor and a slayer of evil spirits, whose appeal lies in his fallibility. Do you find Chinese theology more fluid and more democratic than Western monotheism?

First of all, there are two strands to this question. With Lü Dongbin, you have a typical example of Daoist recruitment, putting forward the idea that you don’t have to fulfill those goals which society expects of you – i.e. become one of the small percentage of imperial exam passers – to be an immortal. On the other hand, you have real people, folk heroes, such as Guan Yu, son of a tofu seller, who became a warrior and then a god; and Lu Ban, a carpenter and inventor who became the god of crafts. These figures reached their places in the pantheon through the sheer force of popular belief. Even though they were adopted into the cannons later on, it was popular faith that brought them there. It is certainly amusing and poignant that this popularity contest, which underpins Western democratic political systems, can still be found at work in a communist country.

There is a chapter on Pan Gu, a central figure in Daoist creation myths, said by some to have separated Heaven from Earth. In it, you say “Pan Gu’s skin and hair became the grass, while his sweat and blood fell as rain and flowed as rivers, which eventually merged to form the sea.” Did you research other cultures’ foundation myths? How does this one compare?

I know a little about Norse and Greek mythology, and the idea of bodies of deities turning into parts of the human world as a world-forming process is shared by other cultures. But this was never a book on comparative religion. It’s a guide to Chinese gods as a stand-alone tradition, as part of my aim to represent Chinese culture as it is. If you talk to kids in the West, many of them will already be well acquainted with the Roman gods or Egyptian ones, because there is a lot of accessible literature on these gods, whether the classic is retold for children or written into modern fantasy fiction. I hope that one day, in people’s conversations on mythology or gods, the name of Pan Gu and Nü Wa will be flying around as casually as those of Ymir and Osiris, without anyone batting an eyelid.

Nü Wa is the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, credited with creating mankind and repairing the pillar of heaven. In your chapter on her, you mention that in depictions she normally wears very little, and that this is unusual in Chinese culture, which prefers a “willowy femininity” and to cover up the female body. Is China just going through a prudish period in its history or is this a historical norm?

I think it’s important to look into any culture without preconceptions. Traditional Chinese aesthetics has always favoured the subtle, elegant and delicate. The nude has never featured prominently in the arts. Far more skill is needed in depicting those flowing silk robes than a bit of bare skin. In modern times, when the rest of the world was undergoing the sexual revolution, China went through the Cultural Revolution. So to a large extent, there is very much a 1950s feel to what is socially acceptable in contemporary Chinese society. In some computer games, there is now a tendency toward a more sexualized view of women. So depicting deities like Nü Wa gives them some diegetic license for titillation. Personally I don’t think it detracts from her. She’s always presented as a very strong and powerful figure, and showing her as even partially nude just gives her an elemental strength.

You mention the Chang’e space probe is named after Chang’e,  the moon goddess celebrated in many novels and poems. One of the key devices on the probe was Yutu, named after the mythical jade rabbit, due to its ability to endure on the moon. Is China’s leadership, a nominally atheistic organization, embracing traditional Chinese theology?

First of all, let me clarify that Chang’e is the satellite, and Yutu the lunar rover. Their naming has far more to do with associations with the moon in the Chinese psyche. China does tend to borrow from mythology when naming its new technology. But then NASA has had a whole Apollo space project. China has always looked to its past to validate its present. And naming a satellite after an ancient goddess who went to the moon gives it validity and cultural relevance. The state is also actively encouraging indigenous industries and the preservation of heritage. This is why we are seeing a revival in veneration of a lot of the older deities, like Lei Zu, Mother of Silk, and Xi Wang Mu, Supreme Goddess, who have come to symbolize native civilization and crafts.  

You mention that in traditional Chinese culture the pursuit of wealth is something that goes hand-in-hand with charity, citing the peddlers who go door-to-door during Spring Festival to usher in Cai Shen, the god of wealth. Are perceptions of “traditional Chinese culture” tailored to fit the needs of the present, in this case a prosperous one in which “to get rich is glorious”?  

Yes, China has definitely gone through the equivalent of the “greed is good” stage. Whilst charity in the 90s was often connected to conspicuous display of wealth, nowadays there is a definite push towards social responsibility. Charity has always been present in China, like it has been everywhere else. At present, there is a marked change towards social and environmental awareness, both on organizational and individual levels. And whilst this stands separately from the deities, some of them are being invoked as a continuation with history. It’s not just China that reinterprets its traditions to fit the needs of the present. That is what every country does. And that is one of the reasons why we read history.

The final chapter of the book is on Chairman Mao. Can Maoism be described as a “political religion”?

My concern is not with the political philosophy of Maoism, but Mao Zedong as an individual, a personality, the phenomenon of him being treated like a deity by the Chinese, and the historical and cultural reasons behind this phenomenon. Mao was an exceptionally charismatic leader during an era where there was a faith vacuum. A lot of Mao’s teachings tried to make the people of China give up their beliefs in external unseen agencies and believe in themselves and the state, but those who weren’t ready to found themselves attracted to the new image of power.

You end by stating that the court of heaven is “yet to be fully staffed.” Will the next generation of Chinese gods be athletes, actors, musicians, etc.? Or will there perhaps be a Xi Jinping cult of personality?

Of course it will be actors, singers and film stars. There will be some leaders, and perhaps even some businessman. Jack Ma, in his head, is already halfway there! I can well imagine a statue of Ip Man outside a temple. And there’s already at least one statue of Bruce Lee. ∎

Xueting Christine Ni, From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities (Weiser Books, June 2018)