Though often portrayed in Western media as a monolithic, atheistic monoculture, China has one of the most complex histories of religion and spirituality among the world’s civilizations. Understanding the histories, myths, and enduring spiritual and pop-cultural appeal of China’s long list of deities is essential to understanding the country as it exists today, says Xueting Christine Ni, who has a book on the subject out on Friday (June 1).
Ni, also somewhat of an authority on Chinese pop culture (she wrote about ghosts and ghouls for us around Halloween), has put together a “shortlist” of 60 beings — gods and goddesses, along with “spirits, immortals, heroes, elementals, sages, guardians and so forth” — showing the connective tissue of deep-seated spirituality connecting figures From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao, as the book’s title has it, to Chinese society and culture.
Ahead of the book’s release, RADII caught up with Ni for a dive into China’s complex canon of mytho-historical legends, and to hear why she thinks getting a handle on them can help anyone hoping to understand the country’s role in the world today.
RADII: Let’s start off with a basic question: what does “deity” mean in the Chinese tradition? Your book covers a wide range of what people in the West might call gods or goddesses, immortals, folk heroes… How is this type of being in Chinese myth or history different from the Western conception of gods, such as the Greek pantheon, or other contemporary polytheistic traditions, such as Hinduism?
Xueting Christine Ni: The Chinese concept of gods fundamentally differs from a lot of Western cultures. It’s a big mix of traditional-type all-powerful spirits, embodiments of virtues, all the way down to real-life heroes who get referred to as gods in a similar way as the canonizing of saints. Very often, officially anointed deities don’t even live within just one canon, or religion. They have entirely separate lives in popular religion and folklore.
You see, China has been seen in the West as this great monoculture. That’s not entirely the West’s fault, because China has always tried to present this great united front to the outside world, but actually it’s a whole network of different peoples, and faiths — with there being maybe three big ones — which have not only coexisted for centuries, but intertwined with and enhanced each other.
China has been seen in the West as this great monoculture — that’s not entirely the West’s fault, because China has always tried to present this great united front to the outside world, but actually it’s a whole network of different peoples and faiths
Buddhism, which was not even from China to begin with, has developed unique branches there, with distinct Chinese god identities. Confucianism is treated like a religion, but it’s more of a way of governance, a code of behavior, than a belief, whilst Daoism, which is the largest of China’s natural belief systems, is all about the state of existence itself. That’s all on top of the complex collection of folk religion, which takes whatever it wants, wherever, and weaves it all together, spawning new gods when new troubles or technologies emerge.
To complicate things even further, the boundaries between these four morph and merge. Part of why I wrote this book was to help my readers start to make sense of China’s chaotic spiritual life. I think understanding how these belief systems have vied, compromised and settled is a very important insight into the Chinese Psyche as a whole.
Part of why I wrote this book was to help my readers start to make sense of China’s chaotic spiritual life
One of the beings you feature in the book, perhaps the best known in the West, is Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. This is a female deity that is also worshipped as the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in Indian Buddhist traditions. What do you think is particularly “Chinese” about Guan Yin, the way this deity is depicted or worshipped in China vs India (or elsewhere in Southeast/East Asia, where the same god is worshipped under different names)?
Absolutely, Guan Yin was among the first deities I selected when I was making my shortlist for this book — yes, 60 deities in Chinese religion is a shortlist. The reason why my US publishers wanted to have her name in the title, and retain that peculiar “Kuan Yin” variation of spelling in the text, is precisely because she has such a phenomenal following under that name in the States, but actually, she’s well known all through the West.
Guan Yin is in fact the Chinese translation of Avalokiteśvara, a shortened form of Guan Shi Yin, meaning “hearer of the world’s cries.” However, the Guan Yin we think of today is very different from her origins. Introduced into China around the time of the Three Kingdoms [220-280 CE], she’s developed a separate Chinese identity over several hundreds of years, as a sort of ambassador between the Chinese people and Amida Buddha.
One immediate clue is in the fact we refer to the deity as a “she” and a goddess. Bodhisattvas are meant to be asexual, but early Chinese versions were mainly male to begin with, and then became female during the Tang Dynasty [618–907 CE], which corresponded to an increase of female Buddhists, and legends surrounding women in the nobility taking on the faith, such as story of the death and resurrection of the devout Princess Miao Yin.
One theme that you follow closely is how Chinese deities are being used today in a variety of popular media, such as TV, movies, and video games. Can you share one or two examples of this phenomenon that you’ve found the most interesting?
Chinese deities have never really been far from the popular imagination, and if any of your readers are gamers, they will have heard about the Monkey King and Guan Yu, even if they are otherwise unfamiliar with China. The stories of these two are so engaging that each generation can find their own take on them. One I found quite interesting is an adaptation of He Xian Gu, Celestial Healer and one of the Eight Immortals, who we see appearing as the Chinese zombie Lei Lei in Capcom’s classic ’90s arcade game Darkstalkers. This is a representation that has taken only a hint of her herbalist origins, and married it to the popularity of Chinese jiangshi [僵尸; zombie] films at the time, by putting her in a revamped, sexy version of a Qing Dynasty official’s uniform.
Another interesting one is Zhong Kui, China’s most famous demon slayer. As a demon slayer who is a ghost himself, the deity’s remarkable origins really lend themselves to versatile reinterpretations. Hong Kong cinema channelled the deity’s corrective and exorcist power into that of a modern day cop, killed on duty and revived, unleashed to the world in a sort of half-Robocop, half-Frankenstein being that has to find his killers and help his wife deliver the baby.
Recently, the Light Chaser Animation studio has produced a reinterpretation of the Men Shen, or door gods, released in the West as The Guardian Brothers and voiced by a Hollywood cast. The film portrays the gods as unemployed celestials fighting to retain their role as gods in a world that’s losing its belief in them. It’s a charming story, though I don’t think this fate is anything for the door gods to worry about in China.
How did some of these same figures circulate in the ancient equivalent of pop culture? Did you find any interesting cases of deities permeating song, dance, poetry, etc in earlier dynasties?
I have chosen to write about deities that had, and still have, major significance to people. A lot of my research on the origins and history of these gods led me to classics of mythology, such as the Classic of Mountains and Seas, Gan Bao’s In Search of the Supernatural, and historical texts such as Huai Nan Zi and Sima Qian’s Historical Records. However, a considerable amount of information on the evolution of the deities would inevitably come from poetry, theatre, and popular fiction, because those are the mediums through which veneration for the deities would manifest, if they are popular.
For instance, we know that many great Tang poets were inspired by Lu Yu, the Tea Sage, because they wrote about him in their poetry. Various legends of White Snake and Yuan Dynasty plays show us how the characteristics and appearance of Shou Xing, the god of longevity, have developed in the popular consciousness. The Hei Bai Wu Chang, minor gods in the Daoist canon, achieved their status in Chinese pop culture by being transformed into badass hunters of stray souls in urban legends. Part of their story would be told in the pages of works such as Li Qingchen’s Zui Cha Guai Shi, or Strange Tales of Drunken Reverie. In fact, there’s a whole tradition in China of the Chuanqi genre, a gathering of tales of the strange that have proved very useful when looking at deities who’ve risen out of folklore.
The Hei Bai Wu Chang, minor gods in the Daoist canon, achieved their status in Chinese pop culture by being transformed into badass hunters of stray souls in urban legends
You note in the intro to your book that China’s three major spiritual and philosophical traditions — Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism — overlap in many ways, but that Confucianism, which is more of a belief system guiding civil and social life than a “religion” as traditionally defined, is less concerned with the creation of gods. That said, what Confucian figures do you feature in the book?
I write about a few notable thinkers who created new branches based on their schools of thought, such as the Neo-Confucians Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who created Xin Xue, or Cultivation of the Heart. But few Confucian thinkers came close to achieving the god-like status of Confucius himself, whose veneration started off as an ancestral cult after his death, and which over a couple of centuries became nationwide in all schools, by imperial decree.
The Chinese are a civilization that have always placed great emphasis on scholarly excellence in whatever field. They have incredible reverence for wisdom and learning, so in a way it’s perfectly natural for the sages among them — not just Confucius, but the Tea sage Lu Yu, and Mei Ge, who are credited with inventing cloth dying — to be worshipped like gods, and to have the word sheng [圣; sage] in their titles.
On the same note, you mention Mao Zedong in the book’s title. In what ways do you think he has been mythologized or deified?
Mao Zedong was a combination of many things. He was a very charismatic person, a great scholar, exceptionally adept at his use of language, and, of course, he was photogenic and very paintable. His Analects — aka the little red book — is a much better read than a dry party manifesto. All of these attributes made him very easy to venerate. If you add to the mix a nation with a spiritual void, just pulled out of prolonged, severe trauma by this very savior, a country full of fired-up hormonal teenage red guards, it’s the perfect recipe for godlike worship. Mao still has a considerable following in China today, which can be seen in how his image is presented in contemporary iconography.
If you add to the mix a nation with a spiritual void, just pulled out of prolonged, severe trauma by this very savior, a country full of fired-up hormonal teenage red guards, it’s the perfect recipe for godlike worship
I think the way that a lot of fans around the world venerate the stars of music, movies and sports, with their personal iconography of posters and pin badges, raise these celebrities to a super-human, god-like status. So this kind of worship of real people is certainly not something relevant only to China.
Early in the book you mention the Cultural Revolution, a period during which much of China’s religious infrastructure was systematically destroyed. You say that religion, or the innate desire to create and worship deities, never went away. How did people maintain faith or belief during such a tumultuous period of China’s history?
The Chinese are a passionate and emotional people who’ve been through a lot. They are always looking to entrust their hopes and fears in some external, higher spirit. I don’t think you can stop people from having faith, only perhaps change its focus. Around Mao’s time, the majority of people were very invested in the idea of the new China, formed after Communist victory in the Civil War. It’s something that really comes through in the kind of fervent optimism that pervades film and art during the 1950s. That peace and seeming prosperity lasted for about a decade. Then there’s the cult of Mao, which, as we have seen from history, proves that faith can cause destruction as well as hope and creativity.
Now that China is relatively more open, and more prosperous, do you think belief has taken a new form in the country? Is there an increased focus on some gods — of wealth, for example — over others in this era?
There definitely has been a resurgence of spirituality in this more open and prosperous China. I’m noticing several strands. With a need to reconnect with roots and heritage, and with China’s new-found confidence in its place in the world and therefore in its own culture, there is definitely an increased veneration of deities that represent indigenous Chinese civilization, such as creator gods Nüwa and Pangu, and Huangdi, the legendary founder of Chinese civilization. The traditional staples — such as Fu Lu Shou, the gods of happiness, Wen Chang, god of scholarly success, and as you say, Cai Shen, the god of wealth — are all still doing very well, understandably.
In terms of forms of worship, that has become a lot more commercial, in the sense that imagery of these deities is being used in branding and advertising. There is also a lot of corporate involvement, with companies paying collective tribute, and even holding events on feast days. Another new area of veneration is one that has developed with the flourishing of China’s MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games]. Currently, domestic video games enjoy huge popularity, and online communities are ever-growing. Older deities such as the gods of the elements, with their alternative beast forms, have become beloved avatars and supporting guides for China’s gaming youth.
Finally, the protectors, which make up a big section of my book, have always enjoyed a lot of veneration. China is changing at an astonishingly fast pace, and people are feeling the need to seek help from guardian spirits. There are many protector gods of various kinds to choose from in the Chinese pantheon.
China is changing at an astonishingly fast pace, and people are feeling the need to seek help from guardian spirits
What does one stand to gain in their understanding of today’s China by reading your book?
First of all, I hope they will enjoy the book. For anyone seeking to understand alternative religions and Chinese spirituality, I hope to have provided them with an accessible and open-minded introduction that also conveys the depth of the subject, and points them in directions they could investigate, should their interests take them.
I have written about how every single deity featured in the book has evolved through time, and their place in contemporary society. China’s spirituality is intimately connected with the land, the mindset, the society, and the daily lives of its people, and therefore inseparable from its culture. I hope that those interested in China will be able to make more sense of its complex cultures through my book.
China is a civilization with a fundamentally different outlook, set of aesthetics, and ways of thinking than the West. Creatures that symbolize evil in Western culture, such as bats and spiders, are auspicious in Chinese culture. And the Western idea of the purity of white clothing is reversed, as it’s a funereal color in China. I hope that anyone working with China in any way will find this book useful as a guide to understanding the country and its people.
As a writer based in the UK with a long history of covering Chinese myth, have you noticed a shift in the average English person’s perception of China or Chinese culture? What do you think are the major misunderstandings about Chinese culture that still persist in the West?
I think the average Western person used to be afraid of China because it felt alien to them, but now, with China wielding immense economic power, they’re terrified. A lot of that comes out in some quite ingrained racism, labelling every bit of macro-governance as human rights abuse, and seeing every product stamped with “Made in China” as a soulless copy-cat product, or shoddy goods churned out cheap enough to run everybody else out of jobs.
China isn’t a dragon that’s going eat their countries, and whilst that monoculture view of China does make it look like a large, scary economic powerhouse, China is no longer the same country it was 20 years ago. Every day we are seeing a little more progress, towards a more secure, balanced, greener society in the making. The first laws protecting the environment, charities, the disabled, and LGBT groups have all been passed in the last decade or so. With so many innovations on individual and commercial levels, in all kinds of designs, technology, and sciences, China is also developing the breathing space to explore its social responsibility, alongside its spirituality. What is needed at this point, from everybody, is a great deal more understanding.
From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities is out on June 1 in the US, available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. It can be pre-ordered now for a July release outside the US, and will also be available in select bookstores in the US and UK.
Discover the latest leap in Chinese animation, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’. In this special advanced screening, guest speaker Xueting Ni discusses Chinese animation and mythology.
“It is a world within our world, unseen by any human. On the day Chun turns sixteen, she is transformed into a dolphin to explore the human world. Through adventure and sacrifice, love grows. This is a groundbreaking move in Chinese animation.”
Join Goldsmiths Confucius Institute in this special advanced screening of the Chinese animated movie ‘Big Fish & Begonia’, ahead of it’s official UK launch in April. As part of Gold on Film, this special screening will invite an expert on Chinese animation and mythology Xueting Ni, who will talk about Chinese animation (donghua) and how it differs from the more well-known Japanese animation (anime). She will also discuss the mythos behind the movie, and how it relates to Chinese culture and superstitions. There will also be a special short animation screening, making this advances screening one to not be missed.
About Xueting Ni:
Xueting (or Christine) Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Her translation work has ranged from comics, poetry, essays, film, fantasy and science fiction. Born In Guangzhou, Christine moved to the UK in 1993, and expresses her love for Britain and China equally. Her aim is to show the West that there is more to Chinese culture than kung fu and Monkey (though she thinks both ARE pretty cool). Xueting began giving talks on Chinese culture at Amecon 2008, where she unveiled the western premier of the animated feature “Stormriders:Clash of Evils”. She has spoken on tea culture, Chinese animation, CN punk, classical literature, Chinese food, film and science fiction at festivals around the UK. She is currently writing a book on Chinese spirituality and preparing further samples of Chinese science fiction.
FROM THE NANFANG
PRD PEOPLE: TRANSLATOR AND POP CULTURE EXPERT CHRISTINE NI
Christine Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Born in Guangzhou, she moved to London in 1993 when she was 11 years old. Now she lives between the two worlds and describes Chinese culture as “both very different and very similar to your own.”
Since 2008, she has been giving talks on Chinese tea culture, animation, punk music, classical literature and cuisine at festivals around the UK. She is currently working on a collection ofmanhua, a form of Chinese comic book.
Her blog “Snow Pavilion” (a literal translation of her Chinese name) covers developments in Chinese arts and sets out her intent of creating understanding between China and the West.
Promoting Chinese culture
Having studied English at Queen Mary’s University London and classical Chinese literature as a post-graduate at Beijing’s Central University of Nationalities, Ni would habitually attend pop culture conventions, usually around music or animation. At these conventions, she seldom saw her own culture being represented.
“I would hear a talk about Osamu Tezuka, godfather of Japanese manga, with absolutely no mention that he found so much inspiration from Wan Laiming,” Ni told The Nanfang. Wan Laiming (1900-1997) was the director of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. He was one of the most important pioneers of animation of the 20th century but is barely known in the West.
“There are a lot of bad new stories about China and on the whole we’re not so good at promoting the good things that are happening, or even understanding what the good things are,” Ni added. With support from her friends, she decided to devote her free time to promoting little known areas of contemporary Chinese culture, such as its punk music scene. “My Peking Into Punk Talk is always very well attended and I’m currently working with a film maker on a documentary on China’s underground music.”
“Yes, as China becomes more successful, the West will become increasingly less dismissive. I think the desire to understand China, not just to fear it, will grow.”
Attachment to the PRD
As well as it being the place of her birth, Ni cites two main reasons why the PRD is an interesting place. “Firstly, it is the area that the West first encountered and secondly, it is relatively free from government control,” she told The Nanfang.
Although the first reason explains why Cantonese culture has informed how the West views China, Ni thinks that internally, it is not quite recognised how distinct Cantonese culture is. “Whilst northern Han culture is seen as the main high culture, and the Miao, Zhuang and Yi are held up to show our internal ethnic diversity, I think Cantonese culture sort of gets lost in the middle.”
Ni talks with fondness about her time in Guangzhou. When asked what her favourite location in the city is, she couldn’t decide between the Yuexiu park district and the area around Haizhu Square.
Her best memories of growing up in Guangzhou include the flower market (which is going on right now), and meandering through the streets of the old city. The worst memory? “One Spring Festival when leaving Guangzhou, we decided to take the ferry back to Hong Kong. I was detained at length by the borders guards who took away my passport. Whilst everything was in order, but they simply couldn’t believe that somebody who had “made it out” would still want to travel by boat.”
Living between two worlds
Although those border officials described emigrating as “making it out,” she is far from finished with China. “I feel both foreign and at home everywhere. It’s quite upsetting how England is becoming more xenophobic,” she said, citing the “pointed looks” she gets from employees of the UK Border Agency. A YouGov poll a year ago found that only 11 percent of Britons agreed that immigration had been good for the country compared to 67 percent who viewed it as bad.
Supporting herself with a day job in publishing, she gives her time to projects that may otherwise not find support or funding. To her, the most likely art form to have crossover appeal is film. “There’s a reason why Run Run Shaw was given a CBE,” she says.
China also has cultural industries with latent potential. “The Chinese have yet to really take pride in their computer game and animation industries, even though in the West, that is increasingly where the money is,” according to Ni.
But as for publishing, the English Lit graduate thinks there is still a long way to go in Western publishers dealing with Chinese books. “Whilst there are some great Chinese authors, Western publishers tend to only pick very worthy titles.” If you’d like to learn what Chinese fiction and poetry was published in English during 2013, see here.
Another problem is finding translators who are up to the job. “There are very few translators who’ve got a good enough grasp of both cultures to really convey the author’s meaning. Some of the best fiction coming out of China still seems as unpalatable to Western distributors as thousand year old eggs or snake wine,” Ni told The Nanfang.
But who knows, maybe some day there will be enough Christine Nis in the world for there to be a genuine movement.
FROM THE NEWHAM RECORDER
Colourful vessels competed in Dragon Boat Festival at Royal Docks
One of the dragon boats at the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival 2013
Else Kvist, ReporterMonday, July 1, 2013 7:54 PM
Second only to the Chinese New Year in the Chinese festival calendar, the event marks the beginning of the rainy season and the summer solstice when farmers traditionally began to sow their seeds.
According to legend, the first Dragon Boat Festival took place in southern China over 2500 years ago around the same time as the First Olympic Games in Greece. Today dragon boat racing is one of the most popular water sports not just in China but around the globe.
Now in its 18th year, yesterday’s London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, organised by The London Chinatown Lions Club, coincided with similar events across the world.
Around 40 vessels, each around 30 foot long and with 16 rowers and a drummer on board, raced through the water. The winning team was called the Expendables.
Kung-fu demonstrations and lion dance were also part of the event.
FROM THE GEEK SHOW
28th April 2011
2nd May 2012