Nanyou ji 南遊記

The Journey to the South did not always go by this name. Originally published as Wuxian lingguan dadi Huaguang tianwang zhuan 五顯靈官大帝華光天王傳 the story about the deity Huaguang (or Marshall Ma 馬元帥) was renamed by the prolific publisher Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 to be part of his Four Journeys 四遊記. The clever editing practices of the publisher family Yu from Fujian definitely deserves a post of its own. Here it suffices to say that the association of four novels and the renaming of three of them after the model of Xiyou ji 西遊記 was probably a good marketing decision at the time. Today, it mainly serves to make communication difficult. Most people I am likely to discuss Chinese literature with have never heard of either The Journey to the South or The Four Journeys and so simply assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I just got them mixed up with The Journey to the West. That notwithstanding, The Journey to the South is quite an interesting book to read.

The story centers on Huaguang and his continued struggle to reach some form of enlightenment. In true Buddhist fashion his greatest enemy in this endeavour is himself. Banished from the presence of the Buddha for becoming angry and trying to burn another desciple, he tries to regain entry through good behavior in life but fails repeatedly. Each failure is accompanied by his death, yet he is allowed chance after chance in a total of three reincarnations. Each life begins with his spirit entering the womb of a pregnant woman, adding the soul to the foetus and initiating birth. As a result of this some curious situations are described, such as the case where the poor mother was pregnant for years before his soul came along. His life is then filled with heroic deeds as he vanquishes different enemies.

Ultimately, however, his success invariably leads to his downfall by making him too arrogant. This arrogance creates altercations that end with his death. Huaguang’s arrogance is such a big problem, because it makes him a threat to the world’s order. Like most of the shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說, The Journey to the South presents a rather strictly hierarchcal universe, in which every being has its place. This is not to say that there is absolutely no mobility, yet there is very little self-determination. Characters like Huaguang challenge the status quo of their worlds by assigning themselves the place they feel they deserve and then demanding to be treated accordingly. This challenge is exemplified in Nanyou ji by two episodes: Huaguang wreaking havoc in Heaven (nao tiangong 鬧天宫) and freeing the mother of his last incarnation from the Underworld (fengdu 鄷都) whence she was punished for being a man-eating demon. Ironically it is precisely this last breach of heavenly rules that allows him to return to heavenly office, since by rescuing is mother he proved himself to be a filial (xiao 孝) son. Yet he remains in the middle realms (earth), answering the calls and prayers of the people.

The Journey to the South is interesting and fast-paced. Huaguang is a “fiery” character, starting out under the name “Single Flame” (獨火鬼 or 獨火大王), an imposing figure who burns his enemies. Fire and flames remain part of Huaguang’s repertoire who later even proceeds to burn down the Southern Gate of Heaven. This dependence on fire is not invincible though. Both the Buddha and the “Dark Emperor”  玄天大帝 are able to defeat him. (The Dark Emperor is the deity of the North and associated with the element of water. His appearance here is of special significance, since he is the protagonist of the Journey to the North as published by Yu Xiangdou. The episode is in both novels, undoubtedly to increase the impression that the Four Journeys were an actual story-cycle. I plan to go into detail on this in a later blog post.) When his powers fail him, Huaguang relies on trick and deception, often involving transformation into other persons, much like Sun Wukong in Xiyou ji. And much like the monkey, he also demonstrates a sense of humor in dealing with his enemies as he delivers his challenges in a mocking tone. At four juan 卷 the novel is also rather short, which makes for a nice change when dealing with Ming dynasty “full-length novels” 章回小說. All told quite a fascinating read.

Unfortunately, the novel has not yet been deemed worthy of scholarly attention. Apart from some rather short Chinese language essays, I am not aware of any stand-alone works on Nanyou ji or Huaguang. While some more general analyses of Ming dynasty literature or hagiograhical novels might discuss the Journey to the South, the only substantial publication is Ursula Angelika Cedzich’s study on the cult of Huaguang (who also goes by the name of Wutong 五通 or Wuxian 五顯). Even though the cult seems to have declined after the Ming dynasties, I still feel that the Journey to the South, which tells the hagiography of Huaguang, possess enough literary merits to be at the center of its own study.


Cedzich, Ursula Angelika. “The Cult of the Wu-t’ung/Wu-hsien in History and Fiction: The Religious Roots of the Journey to the South.” in Ritual and Scripture in Chinese Popular Religion: Five Studies (1995): 137-218. on Worldcat.

 

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BWitt

Barbara Witt 衛易萱, graduated with a PhD in Chinese Studies from LMU Munich, currently a Postdoc at NCCU 政治大學 in Taipei at the Center for Chinese Cultural Subjectivity 華人文化主體性研究中心.

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