Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 has been the center of my academic world for the last five years. Two months ago I was finally able to hand in my dissertation about the character of Nezha 哪吒 in said novel and I see him go with mixed feelings. I am glad the dissertation is over, but I know I will miss Fengshen yanyi as I move on to other projects. The novel is not up there with the most famous works of Chinese literature such as Xiyou ji 西遊記 or Sanguo yanyi 三國演義, but it is worthwhile in its own right. It is funny and full of excitement, rigid in its morals while at the same time keen in its depiction of grotesque violence.
The novel is set at the transition of the Shang 商 dynasty to the Zhōu 周 dynasty. (I give the tone for the transcription of the latter dynasty because of this guy:) King Zhòu 紂 of the Shang is your typical bad ruler: lusting after beautiful women, killing upright ministers and heeding the advice of sycophants. His actions are amplified by the latest addition to his household, the fox spirit Su Daji 蘇妲己, a cruel and scheming woman – your typical dynasty-toppling beauty with the added benefit of excessive bloodlust.
After a series of dramatic scenes at the Shang court, a clear opposition arises in the duchy of Zhōu under the lead of Ji Chang 姬昌 and his son Ji Fa 姬發 who will go on to become the founders of the Zhōu dynasty and become known as King Wen 文 and Wu 武 respectively. These guys are both of the so benign, honorable and righteous that they would never be able to topple the Shang by themselves. In fact, they are so morally upright that the mere thought of overthrowing their sovereign repeatedly sends them into a state of shock and panic.
So how did they conquer the bad ruler then, you might ask? Enter Jiang Ziya 姜子牙, protagonist of the Fengshen yanyi, a man with a mission and without scruples. He knows about the fate of the dynasties and is sent by his Daoist master to make sure that the Zhōu dynasty is established. Furthermore, he is tasked with something called fengshen 封神. Fengshen gives the novel its name, permeates its narrative, and is the culmination of all action in the penultimate Chapter 99. It is furthermore notoriously difficult to translate and has been rendered as “Creation of the Gods” (Gu Zhizhong), “Canonization of the Gods” (Mark Meulenbeld), “Investiture of the Gods” (most) or – in reference to European antiquity – “Metamorphoses of the Gods” (Wilhelm Grube). Even though these translations are rather divers. they all make it clear that this book is about the establishment of a pantheon. (Actually, my favorit translation of the novels title can be found in the English abstract of a Chinese language Master thesis by one Han Meifeng: The Apotheosizing Tales, “apotheosizing” meaning “to deify”. Not a very memorable title, but it makes me smile every time I see it.)
The “creation” of the gods in Fengshen yanyi is a rather strange affaire. for they are neither born of Chaos nor rise up from within humanity. Instead they are humans predestined to be established as gods after their death during the Shang-Zhōu transition. With over 300 names on the list this makes for a lot of deaths over the course of the novel’s 100 chapters, mostly in the shape of supernatural warfare with magic weapons (the so called baobei 寶貝), impossible mounts (tigers, “Wind and Fire Wheels” 風火輪 and even a “nondescript” 四不像) and strangely ritualistic traps (zhen 陳).
This part of the novel has often been accused of being formulaic and repetitive, which is true to some part, but for me personally that does not make reading them any less enjoyable. It is the enjoyment of seeing an established cast of characters enter exciting yet somewhat predictable situations. I would assume that this is also the reason why so many viewer regularly tune in for the modern TV adaptation of the novel (that mostly go by the title Fengshen bang 封神榜): familiar entertainment.
The story does not end on the battle field, but with the conquest of the Shang capital Zhaoge 朝歌, the suicide of King Zhòu, the execution of fox spirit and sycophants, and the victorious return to the Zhōu capital Xiqi 西岐. There two ceremonies of enfeoffment are held: the first to appease those who died by giving the heavenly office, thereby making them gods; the second to thank all those who supported the Zhōu army. The foundation for the new dynasty is laid.
In retrospect, I think it is fitting that the center of my PhD was a novel that is concerned with the beginnings of the Chinese state, morals and identity. At the same time this novel is – like so many of its contemporaries in the Ming – the culmination of literary traditions and narrative developments. In the case of Fengshen yanyi, it had such an effect on its reader that it may still be observed in present day literature, performing arts and religious practices. Not a bad choice then for my first obscure book. I can’t wait to see what other treasures I will stumble upon.