Science and Civilization

This Saturday I joined the Science March in Munich to show support for scientific research and decision-making based scientific evidence. As a Sinologist I am no scientist in the strictest sense, but that is partly just a language problem: in German “sciences of spirit” (Geisteswissenschaften), i.e. Humanities, are a legitimate subset of sciences alongside “natural sciences”, “social sciences”, “economic sciences” or “legal sciences”.

Apart from a sense of belonging between me and sciences that the German language creates, I actually believe that scholars in the humanities should have some knowledge of basic scientific principles. Even though I focus on Chinese literature now, I was first attracted to Chinese Studies, because un Germany it forms part of Cultural Studies and as such combines such diverse fields of research as Literature, History, Philosophy and many more. Though I mostly read novels now, I still have frequent contact with other areas of Chinese studies: religious and philosophical thought, religious iconography, the technicalities of book printing and distribution, or literacy levels in society, to name just a few.

People are at the center of all these fields, and just like people today, they did not exist in a bubble of pure and disinterested “culture”, but were in a world shaped by scientific principles. Those in turn heavily influenced culture and arts, social structures and policies. In fact, most popular uprisings in Chinese history can be traced back to climatic and geological changes that let do crop failures. Therefore, effective flood control and the storage of grain became standard policies for famine prevention. Governments were supposed to provide people with the means to provide for themselves. The great tyrants of Chinese history as presented in historiography, philosophical treatises and popular literature, were therefore not only charged with excessive cruelty and moral transgression, but also with neglected towards their people. 民不聊生, “the people had no way to make a living” is an idiom 成語 from the Shiji 史記 (94 BCE) that found its way into many later texts.

But not every encounter with science is a life and death situation. On a smaller scale, it might be interesting to explore the natural phenomena behind popular religion and its iconography. One example might be the light observed on ships towards the end of storms at sea: This phenomenon is named St-Elmo’s-fire, after a Christian saint, in Western languages, but used to be called Mazu’s fire 媽祖火 (after the sea goddess), by Chinese sailors. As someone studying popular cults, I do not need to know the exact science behind this phenomenon, but it helps to know that I’m dealing with something that actually exists in the real world.

For Chinese literature, often a good knowledge of China’s geography is really helpful. Even fiction is usually set in places that actually exists and understanding the space often helps understanding the story. This is still true even today. China is also a massive and diverse country, and it makes all the difference to the feeling of a scene, if we are in humid marshland, on snowy forests or on sandy beaches. How people travel is also affected by this: In the Jiangnan 江南 region around Nanjing 南京 and Suzhou 蘇州 you travel by boat; on the plains and in the forests you might ride or walk; and if you want to cross mountains you do it during the day and in groups, otherwise you might fall prey to tigers, as people do regularly in Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin). These are recurrent motifs in Chinese literature, and they are not purely symbolic, but very much a result of nature shaping culture.

A basic grasp for science and technology is also necessary to understand the views and discussions of leading Chinese thinkers. For reformers at the end of the 20th c. who saw China lose to Western colonizers in the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1869), technological advancement and education were the only way to bring the nation forward. Their world view already was global: many of them studied or visited (or went into exile) abroad, in nearby Japan and Southeast Asia, but also in North America or Europe. They wanted to abolish the examination system that required prospective officials to be knowledgable in Confucian morals instead of modern politics. The wanted to establish and strengthen high-schools and universities. They also sought to teach scientific principles to the masses through science fiction novels, which lead to a first wave of Chinese science fiction around the year 1900. These reformers were not immediately successful, but they certainly helped push China forward. Also, they did not give up when faced with an inflexible state apparatus still living in the past.

I personally certainly don’t know as much science (other than “sciences of the spirit” of course) as I’d like to, but China’s scientific knowledge has already somewhat been studied in the West, especially in the book series Science and Civilization in China (1954-2015) that was initiated and largely edited by Jospeh Needham (1900-1995) and so far comprises 27 books in 7 volumes. While this book is a good start, there is definitely still room for further research into the history of science and technology in China and the interplay of technological progress and society. Let’s get to it!


Joseph Needham: Sience and Civilization in China in 7 volumes, check it out on Wikipedia.

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CHANG Man-Chuan’s 張曼娟 Updates of Classical Stories

When I was in highschool we read Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf” from the collection The Bloody Chamber, a rewrite of Grimm’s Little Red Riding Hood. The story stuck with me, despite the fact that I forgot both the title and the name of the author almost immediately and had to weirdly google “Little Red Riding Hood+Fairy Tales+Rewrites” years later. I think I was particularly fascinated by the combination of a familiar childhood story, unexpected turns, a self-confident protagonist and a matter-of-fact description of life-turning events.

Turning my eye on Chinese “classical” stories, stories as familiar as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I was excited to see that one Taiwanese author in particular had devoted several books to updating traditional Chinese literature: Chang Man-Chuan 張曼娟 (Pinyin: Zhang Manjuan) has so far published four children’s books based on the late imperial novels Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, Xiyou ji 西遊記 and Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣, and the Tang chuanqi 傳奇 “Du Zichun” 杜子春, as well as a short story collection on various “demons” 妖.

Chang Man-chuan, as well as being a bestselling author, is a professor at the Department of Chinese Literature of Soochow University 東吳大學 in Taipei and specialises on classical novels, contemporary and mass literatures. It is therefore to be expected that she knows her source material very well, and indeed her familiarity with classical Chinese stories and monsters shines through her retellings. Interestingly, she (or the publisher) doesn’t quite trust her readers to be familiar in the same degree, that’s why we find “lessons” on the original novels at the end of her children’s books. The short story collection even includes reprints of the particular monster story that inspired her – in Classical Chinese straight from the 4-8th century zhiguai 志怪 original.

Zhiguai, literally “records of anomalies” were a popular genre during that time and told mostly stories of demons encounters or sightings. Chang is not the first author to be inspired by these fantastical tales. The Qing dynasty author Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715) rose to posthumous fame with his massive collection Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio).

The stories in Chang’s Yaowu zhi 妖物誌 (Chronicle of Demonic Matters) describe pig, snail, rainbow, bird, horse and fox spirits as well as mermaids in modern-day settings. I particularly liked, how the story of the water snail leaving her pool to prepare dinner for the homeowner was updated: in Chang’s version a negligent father simply accepts the woman who suddenly appears in his home as his son’s new nanny, without giving any thought to the newly set up aquarium.

There are even some instances, in which new monsters join the traditional Chinese ones. Here, the geography of contemporary Taiwan clearly left its mark: In Yaowu zhi we see the flower spirit of a tree prepare to battle a bird flu that deserted a whole city – the book was published in 2006, not long after East and Southeast Asia was hit by a bird flu pandemic in 2004 and SARS in 2003. Another great example is the Mould Monster 霉怪 that was added to Chang’s version of Journey to the West. Zhang Weizhong 張維中, her co-author for this book, explains that the inspiration for this character was his damp home during a rainy season.

Unfortunately, Chang doesn’t often indulge this kind of creativity; she approaches the stories too much like a scholar and teacher and her tendency to overexplain annoyed me after a while. What had excited me in Carter’s writing was her ability to strip the story down and evoke a whole world in a few sentences. Chang in turn takes slender zhiguai stories and spreads them out, delving into the minds of her characters and making sure the reader understands every aspect of the world that is described. I personally prefer literature that keeps things left unsaid. This sounds a lot like academic writing style, with its need to keep the reader absolutely informed of every possible implication.

Another problem is Chang’s take on romance and family dynamics which relies too much on stereotypes and a world view that was already outdated when the books were published a decade ago. In her children’s books you can clearly see her good intentions, but particularly Du Zichun’s story and the Fengshen yanyi rewrite lack insight into her characters’ psyche, leading to wooden, unconvincing interactions.

Overall, even if I didn’t always enjoy reading these books, I don’t regret that I did so. But I definitely I read them with scholarly interest, not necessarily for pleasure. And they definitely won’t stay with me the way Carter’s “The Werewolf” did.


Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber has its own Wikipedia page.

Pu Songling, Strange Tales from Liaozhai, translated by Sidney L Sondergard (This seems to be the only complete translation to date; translations of some selected stories are variously available.)

Zhang Manjuan: 張曼娟妖物誌

我家有個風火輪. 封神演義. 哪吒的故事, illustrated by 周瑞萍

水裡來, 火裡去. 唐傳奇. 杜子春的故事, with 高岱君, illustrated by 蘇子文

花開了. 鏡花緣. 唐小山的故事, with 孫梓評, illustrated by 潘昀珈

看我七十二變. 西遊記. 孫悟空的故事, with 張維中, illustrated by 王書曼

The Nezha Story in Fengshen yanyi: My Kaleidoscopic Research

Originally I wanted to give this post the title Why do PhD topics keep on changing? or, How my research mysteriously returned to my initial questions, but I was heavily influenced by Miriam Wharton on Thesiswhisperer who wrote about shifting research focus in Is your PhD like a kaleidoscope?. Wharton argues that PhD research is not like using a telescope to zeroing in on your research question, but rather like trying to identify patterns in a kaleidoscope which keeps on shifting with every movement you make. This image resonated strongly with me, since my own PhD dramatically changed its focus about halfway through.

I was always going to write about Nezha 哪吒, and Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 was set as a starting off point. In fact, I was already somewhat familiar with my intended topic, having read the novel during my Masters and written my M.A. thesis on Nezha in Fengshen yanyi, Xiyou ji 西遊記 and two earlier zaju 雜劇 scripts (Yuan and early Ming dynasty opera). I had looked a bit into earlier religious sources to understand the development of the deity’s characterization and the novels brought me to around 1600 (presumably 1620s for Fengshen yanyi) in the history of Nezha in China. I had also looked into some contemporary movies and TV shows. Those pretty much followed the story of the novel versions, but were significantly different in their portrayal of the main characters. This is where my PhD was supposed to come in.

Obviously, the story in its Fengshen yanyi version was convincing enough to survive largely intact for 400 years, but some important details were changed to subtly create different character relations. I planned to look through different collections of Qing dynasty (1644-1911) theater and storyteller scripts for different versions of Fengshen yanyi adaptations to trace changes to the story there and see, whether a direct line could be drawn from these Qing dynasty to different contemporary versions.

As my research got underway and I started to collect all kinds of materials that even remotely mentioned Nezha, I found myself returning to one particular question: what are these adaptations changing from? The story told in Fengshen yanyi had a complexity that did not carry over into the shorter Qing dynasty scripts, and I felt that this was something never really explored in secondary literature. Here, all representations of Nezha were discussed as equal or even the same. I sometimes found myself yelling at books that gave a summary of Nezha’s story, thinking “That wasn’t in the book that I read!” It took me ages to realize that often scholars would merge Fengshen yanyi and Xiyou ji storylines to construct a “master narrative” that never existed in writing in late imperial China.

The things I was most interested in – why is he born from a flesh ball 肉球, why does he fight the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea or how can I understand the attempt at patricide and the superficial reconciliation – either were ignored as “just part of Nezha’s story, duh” or disappeared within a larger interpretation – mostly derived from psychoanalysis. So, since no one was likely to answer my questions, I decided to do so myself. At first, my goal was only to prepare the ground for a later analysis of adaptations, then, it became the main focus of my work and finally, I decided to let go of the adaptations altogether, because they wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the argument.

While it’s a bit of a shame that the Qing dynasty sources are still waiting for a proper read through, I am overall quite satisfied with the way my thesis turned out. I spend a good amount of time contextualizing Nezha’s story and digging through novels like Nanyou ji 南遊記, Beiyou ji 北遊記, Dongyou ji 東遊記, Xiyang ji 西洋記 and Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳, or local gazetteers 地方志. Most importantly though, I think I answered a lot of the questions I had when I first read Fengshen yanyi during my Masters; I very much remember being absolutely fascinated by this fantasy novel that followed none of the genre conventions I was familiar with. My overall feeling during the chapters about Nezha was “what is going on? what is happening? why did they just do that?”

I believe that to be a good scholar you need to be passionate about the things you research. And I definitely was (and still am) passionate about Nezha and Fengshen yanyi. I guess that’s why I am totally ok with the fact that my PhD journey was a much of a kaleidoscope as Wharton described. Because somehow I never lost sight of my objective, but rather found my way to the precise question that had been bugging me all along.

To everyone still staring through the kaleidoscope: I wish you all the best.

I’m Actually Not That Interested In Folk Religion

Lately I spend some months in Taiwan, a country that is very fond of Nezha 哪吒 – the deity at the center of my research. Known as the Third Prince (三太子 or 太子爺) or Marshall of the Middle Altar 中壇元帥, Nezha is present as a minor deity in most Taiwanese temples and even has temples dedicated to him, mainly in the southern Tainan 台南 region. One temple there, the Third Prince Temple at Xinying 新營太子宮, is also a very active sponsor of Nezha research: They funded two conferences, in 2002 and 2016, and I was lucky enough to be invited to present at the latter.

Nezha Temple 2016
Festivities at the Third Prince Temple Xinying 新營太子宮, December 2016

Speaking to people outside of academia about my research is easier in Taiwan than in Europe – everybody knows Nezha and has at least heard of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義. I usually feel that I’m in a better start position than even when talking to Sinologists from elsewhere. But after that initial understanding of what I’m talking about another communication problem inevitably creeps up: People wreck their brains searching for temples nearby that I could visit.

Now don’t get me wrong, I quite like visiting Taiwanese temples and years of reading up on Chinese deities has actually enabled me to correctly identify a number of them by looking at their statues. (A nice party trick if you want to impress Taiwanese friends.) But I’m neither a religious person who would go to a temple for prayers, nor am I conducting religious, sociological, anthropological, cultural or any other relevant studies that would make my visit to a multitude of temples worthwhile. I study Literature.

I read novels and short stories about Nezha, look at theater scripts and plays and maybe movies and TV shows. I don’t go to temples to do my research. As straightforward as this sounds, people don’t seem to understand. And the suggestions keep on coming.

Inevitably I will be told about that one temple they know, where you can communicate with the deity through a spirit medium 乩童. In this practice, the medium enters a trance which allows the deity to possess their body and answer questions verbally or in writing. (If you want to learn more about this aspect of Taiwanese folk religion: An excellent series based on this practice is Teenage Psychic 靈通少女. I absolutely love how the show incorporates the human aspects of folk practices into their narrative.) Their reasoning is that maybe I could ask pressing questions on my research to Nezha directly.

I have several issues with this proposal. First of all, I think the idea of me being in the presence of an actual deity is quite intimidating and I suspect that I would simply freak out. But apart from that, Nezha is famously a great fighter and a deity tasked with protecting and helping soldiers in battle; he is not a scholar-deity. Now most questions and insecurities I had about my thesis were related to literary theory. It somehow felt like Nezha would not be the obvious advisor for my questions. And since that is the case, I would rather not waste his time.

Professor Meir Shahar seems to have felt non of my scruples when he decided to interview Nezha through a spirit medium for his study Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and His Indian Origin. Since his main argument is that Nezha embodies a kind of “Chinese Oedipus, he directly asked the deity his opinion on the matter. Quite rude actually, to go to someones house and tell them you diagnosed them with an Oedipal complex before even meeting them…

I think ultimately, this refusal to see my research into the figure of Nezha as belonging to literary studies is closely tied to the refusal to see novels like Fengshen yanyi as texts with literary merit. These texts are heavily influenced by folk religious culture and are commonly seen as “popular” (with connotations of “lowly” rather than “well liked”). It is about time we looked past the subject matter and at the literary quality of the texts. Are all of them great works? Certainly not, but neither are all literati novels. If Journey to the West 西遊記 can be recognized as a masterwork, why is it so hard to accept the fact that there are also second-rate and third-rate works to be read, before reaching the abyss of cheap plagiarism?

I hope people will soon see the merit of traditional Chinese popular literature, so that they will finally stop sending me to random temples and hand me a book instead.


Both conferences at Xinying Nezha Temple led to the publication of essay collections:
第一屆哪吒學術硏討會論文集, 2003
哪吒與太子爺信仰文化研究, 2017 (not yet on worldcat)

Meir Shahar, Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and His Indian Origin.

 

恭喜發財 and a Happy New Year

I’m new to the whole blogging thing, seeing that I just started my blog last spring. So I was taken a bit by surprise when I saw a lot of bloggers posting end-of-year reviews in December. Luckily, my subject matter is China, therefore I decided to save my reminiscing for Chinese New Year, a.k.a. Spring Festival 春節, which will start on the 16th of February in 2018. So you’ve still got a couple of days to clean your house, prepare crazy amounts of food and decide which relative should get what amount of money in their Red Envelopes 紅包.

I started this blog not quite a year ago, riding on the wave of motivation that came with handing in my thesis. I had been thinking about starting a blog for some time, because I felt a little bit isolated with my research: hardly anyone in Germany has ever heard of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, much less read it. And while friends in Taiwan and China were familiar with the story, they mostly know it from TV shows or religious contexts, both of which differ significantly from the 17th c. novel. If I ever came across someone studying Fengshen yanyi or the story of Nezha 哪吒 (my focus) they were sure to be at the other end of the world.

My hope is that, by putting my thoughts on Fengshen yanyi and all the other novels no one else reads online, I could maybe get in touch with others who work on similar projects and maybe also sit in an office somewhere feeling lonely. So far some friends have left comments on my personal Facebook page, which is really great! But since I intend to keep that private, I would like to encourage everybody to leave their comments on the blog page so that they can be seen by more people.

So far I was overall pretty successful in publishing an article every other week, the exception of course being the weeks leading up to my oral defence. I still have a lot of ideas for blog posts, mostly relating to the novels I read during my PhD journey, but I feel that once that is off my chest I’m going to slow down a bit. Since, however, this blog is called “Sino Literature” and not “my blog”, I’m very open to publishing others’ thoughts on traditional Chinese literature, especially the lesser read works. I hope to convince some colleagues I’m friends with to take some valuable writing time out of their day to share the insights they gained in the course of their research.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the progress the blog made in the half-year since I made it public and that people are actually reading what I write. With that in mind, I can’t wait to see what the Year of the Dog is holding in store for me!

(Todays header image of course needs to feature a dog. The handsome fella in the photo is Douzai ㄉㄡˇㄗㄞˇ , who used to roam the mountains around Taichung 台中 and has since resigned himself to indoor life and wearing jackets.)

[Resource] A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by William Edward Soothill 

Researching traditional Chinese literature, I often encounter books that are not readily available (except in sinological libraries) and mostly quite substantial in length, making them difficult to carry around. Enter digital resources. While not acceptable basis for citation in an academic context, they provide a good starting point for initial contact with a book. Here, I want to share how one such resource works: The Digital Soothill.

A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms With Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index by William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous, a.k.a The Soothill (though that may be a shorthand only used at my institute) is a reference book completed in 1937 that delivers exactly what its title promises. Though some of its entries are in need of updating, it still seems to be one of the most complete reference works in English for Buddhist terminology in both Chinese and Sanskrit (in transliteration) over eighty years later.

There are major drawbacks though and I imagine they mostly stem from the problematic business that was printing books in both Western and Chinese script until a few decades ago. Finding entries is made difficult, since they are arranged by stroke count and radicals of the initial character in a term and there is no Pinyin for any Chinese character. But a digital edition made in 2003 thankfully has made finding stuff so much easier.

Having fallen into the public domain The Soothill was digitized by Professor Charles Muller (Tokyo University) as part of his own Digital Dictionary of Buddhism which can be used as a guest (with limitations), as a contributor and via individual or institutional subscription. The digital edition of A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms may now be found both on its own homepage in html format, or as a free extension on the popular Pleco app.

The homepage is quite straight forward: you have the choice of looking for the desired character the same way as in the book by scrolling through one continuous document until you arrive at the entry using stroke count and radical order. More quickly you can find you character or the Sanskrit term through full text search.

Soothill digital

The only problem is that sometimes the Chinese characters seem to be encoded differently (maybe Japanese encoding?) and can not be found directly through this method. During digitization, place names etc. mentioned in the descriptions have been updated to Pinyin. The Sanskrit-Pali index was however removed, since the full text search (Ctrl+F) made it obsolete. A nice feature for anyone looking to quote the dictionary is that they included the page numbers of the original book in the document, marking each page turn with a horizontal line.

Another great version of the dictionary which actually can be searched using Pinyin, is the extension in Pleco. Pleco is a pretty handy app for Chinese that can be used as a dictionary and for language learning. It includes a great range of both free and paid for features. On the installed app you can find The Soothill based on Muller’s digitization in the menu at Add-ons -> Individual Add-ons/Dictionaries -> By Name/All Free. Then select A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms for download, wait until it is installed and you are all set.

Go back to your dictionary and look for characters or words the usual way (Pinyin, hand-written, radicals, OCR or English) and select the relevant entry. If the term is only in The Soothill you will be directly shown that entry. If it can also be found in other dictionaries you will need to scroll down until you come to the part headed by BUD:

I selected the word pusa 菩薩 (bodhisattva), which is included in most Chinese dictionaries. At the top you see the Pleco entry under PLC and I closed off the CEDICT entry by clicking on CC to make more room on the screenshot. At the bottom you can read the first sentence of the rather substantial explanation of The Soothill as well as a reference to an alternative translation of the Sanskrit term, which you might find in early Buddhist texts.

So there you  have it: The Soothill and two ways to use its digital version. Have fun reading you Buddhist texts!

 

Beiyou ji 北遊記

The Journey to the North is the third of the Four Journeys 四遊記 I’m going to introduce and the only one that has been translated into English. The story is not unlike that of the Journey to the South, which doesn’t come as a surprise since the publisher Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 is credited as author for both. Yet the characterization of the protagonists Zhenwu 真武 and Huaguang 華光 respectively makes them simultaneously very distinct from each other.

On a superficial level the stories seem almost identical: just like Huaguang, Zhenwu goes through repeated cycles of life, death and rebirth before finally attaining enlightenment. What makes this story distinct from the Journey to the South are the differences between Huaguang and Zhenwu that are apparent from the beginning: while Huaguang was banished from the presence of the Buddha and thus began his cycles of rebirth, Zhenwu actually chose this ordeal himself. Zhenwu 真武, “True Warrior”, is actually another name for the important Daoist deity of the north, Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝, “The Dark Emperor”.

At the beginning of Journey to the North, the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝 contemplades turning towards Buddhism which can only be achieved through rebirth in the mortal world, when his eye is caught by a precious tree in the distance. A feeling of greed kicks of a cycle of rebirths for one of the Emperor’s hun 魂 souls (according to Daoist believes every living person possesses three hun and seven po 魄 souls). In each incarnation this soul, which slowly forms into the Dark Emperor, is challenged to overcome  earthly feelings such as greed, sexual attraction, affinity to power, riches etc.

This endeavour is complicated by the fact that our protagonist never remembers his original identity nor his previous lives and is therefore dependent on the intervention of heavenly personas who time and again make sure he stays on track. There is an interesting progress within his self-cultivation that lead from Daoist studies on Penglai 蓬萊 to Buddhist studies on Gṛdhrakūṭa 靈鷲山. A breakthrough moment occurs when the Dark Emperor, in his latest incarnation actually understands himself the need for self-cultivation after witnessing greed, lust, violence and intoxication in a scene reminiscent of the initial enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. He then removes to Wudang Mountain 武當山, an actual place in China and, among other things, since Song times (960-1279) center of the cult of the Dark Emperor.

After achieving enlightenment, Zhenwu is readmitted into Heaven and given the position of leader of 36 Heavenly Generals 三十六員天將. However, in absence of a leader, the previous have all left Heaven, and so Zhenwu is now tasked with roaming the earth, fighting demons, subduing them and recruiting them to his ranks. Among his newly formed retinue are illustrous persons, such as Zhao Gongming 趙公明, whom I routinely encounter in these types of novels, Guan Yu 關羽, the famous general-turned-deity from the Three Kingdoms (184-280) (one of the heroes of the celebrated historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義), and Huaguang 華光, the protagonist of Journey to the South. The scene in the novel, which (due to both novels having the same author) mirrors the same episode in Journey to the South, where Huaguang tries to escape Heaven through its Northern Gate, is intercepted and defeated by Zhenwu, and made to submit to his command.

Even though the Journey to the North, like its “southern” counterpart, features a lot of fights against demons and repeated supernatural rebirths, I felt it was somewhat subdued compared to Huaguang’s story. This is partly due to Zhenwu being a lot more serious in his behaviour, lacking Huaguang’s wit and irreverence. Maybe owing to the fact that this journey was his own decision, Zhenwu does not go about his lives with the same impatience as Huaguang, which furthermore also correspond very well with the cardinal directions assigned to them: Huaguang’s south is associated with the element of fire, while Zhenwu’s north is the realm of water.

But putting the character of the protagonist aside, I actually feel like this is a novel that is much more qualified to show an unfamiliar reader what the Chinese pantheon is all about, than maybe even the more famous Journey to the West 西遊記 can. The reason is, that the monkey king Sun Wukong 孫悟空, much like Huaguang, is a very rebellious protagonist and in these novels we only learn about the Jade Emperor, Heavenly Troops and the like in an antagonistic role. In Journey to the North, once Zhenwu is given the task of working for Heaven, we see him regularly subdue demons and helping the ordinary people – usually on the order or the Jade Emperor himself. (It is acknowledged and then ignored, that he used to be one of his souls.) In a crisis, Zhenwu can always count on the help of his master Miaole tianzun 妙樂天尊 or the Three Pure Ones 三清. Occasionally, he also turnes to Buddhist deities, who are more than willing to help. Thus, the novel shows the workings of the Chinese syncretistic pantheon without the disruption of an unruly god like Huaguang or Sun Wukong.

It is great then that this novel has actually been translated into English, as the only one of the Four Journeys. The book by Gary Seaman also includes an introduction of Zhenwu and a discussion of authorship. The annotations are very sparse though and, as it was published in 1897, you should be able to make sense of Wade-Giles (as opposed to Pinyin). Definitely check it out, if you want to get a clearer picture of how people in the Ming dynasty (1386-1644) imagined the Chinese pantheon and the ways of their deities.


Yu Xiangdou, Journey to the North: A Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk-novel Pei-yu-chi, translated by Gary Seaman, 1987.