One of the joys of reading shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說 (“hagiographical novels”) is the host of characters you encounter again and again. For example, Nezha 哪吒 is a major character in both the Xiyou 西遊 story cycle, the Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 and is also mentioned in Xiyang ji 西洋記, Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳 and Huliyuan quanzhuan 狐狸緣全傳. I’m sure there are plenty of other novels I’m not yet aware of that also feature this deity, mostly along his prominent father, the Heavenly King Pagoda-Bearer (Tuota tianwang 托塔天王). How did this happen? Where writers during the Ming dynasty too lazy to invent new characters? Not quite.
The reason for this kind of crossover can be found in the nature of hagiographic novels, since for audiences in Late Imperial China (i.e. the Ming and Qing dynasties, 1368-1911) they describe a real world, not a fictional one. Recurring characters are easily recognizable as one reads the novels, since they also feature heavily in Buddhism, Daoism and folk beliefs. For the author this might have facilitated descriptions of these characters since they had access to descriptive poems already in circulation and readers were in all likelihood already familiar with statues and paintings of these deities. A shared knowledge made their reading experience so much richer. A lack of this knowledge similarly greatly confuses our reading today and makes understanding frustratingly difficult.
So what are some of the common features of these novels? Firstly, this world is peopled with characters who are virtually immortal. The Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi 玉皇大帝) and most of his court, the Buddha (fo 佛) and his disciples, Guanyin 觀音 and her acolytes or the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) are fixtures of this world order. It does not matter what dynasty the story is set in, these deities are always understood to be present somewhere in this world, even if they do not appear in the narrative itself. They are also representatives of rather rigid hierarchies. Their acolytes and courtiers are held to high standards of conduct and transgressions are severely punished. These are not soft-spoken divinities but all-powerful rulers of their respective realms that need to be feared and respected.
It is within this seemingly inflexible world order that new heroes are presented and new deities made. The carve out their place in history and heaven by challenging the powers that be while at the same time bringing blessing to the common people. (Or striking fear in their hearts – whatever they like best…, sometimes both.) Examples for this kind of hero would be Sun Wukong 孫悟空 in Xiyou ji, Huaguang 華光 in Nanyou ji 南遊記 or the Eight Immortals 八仙 in Dongyou ji 東遊記. The shared cast of characters help readers to recognize both the struggle of the protagonist and understand the place they ultimately achieve within the Heavenly hierarchy.
Yet there is a perplexing exeption to this world-building that is shared by many authors: the crossover between Nanyou ji and Beiyou ji 北遊記. Huaguang and Zhenwu 真武 share an episode in their respective novels, in which Huaguang flees Heaven through the Northern Gate. Here he is apprehended by Zhenwu who defeats him only to send him back through Heaven and out of the Southern Gate. This episode that ultimately leads to nothing might have come about as an editorial decision: both novels were grouped (and renamed) as part of the Four Journeys 四遊記 by publisher and editor Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 who might have tried to create the appearance of coherence in his random assembly of a tetralogy. While the shared setting (i.e. the real world of deities as perceived by a Ming dynasty audience) certainly made this grouping possible, it was interestingly not a common way of publishing these hagiographic novels.
Lastly, what is rather frustrating in researching these “bookhopping characters” is the fact that there is almost no secondary literature on them. Sure, there are studies of the Jade Emperor through the ages, the Buddha in Chinese scriptures or discussions of artwork relating to the Queen Mother of the West. But what is sorely missing are comprehensive works focused on the role these deities play in different novels. There so much to be found in studying how they essentially fulfill exactly the same role in each novel, yet represent something different every time. This is achieved through subtle changes to the narrative or characterization associated with these deities.
I feel that when we look at these shared characters who happen to be also deities, we should not focus exclusively on the religious background. While it can still serve us as a point of reference for our research, we should really be concentrating on the different novels, many of which were also written around roughly the same time. Any changes present are therefore likely the result of a concious decision on part of the author. Comparing the same character in different novels may therefore inform us about the different views on those deities and the make-up of the world that were held at the time.
In my PhD thesis I tried something to that effect in looking at the role of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea 東海龍王 and his role in Fengshen yanyi, Xiyou ji, Nanyou ji and Dongyou ji. While there is certainly still a lot to be learned about this particular character (and I am looking into this at the moment), the results already point to a very deliberate use of this figure in characterizing the protagonists of the respective storylines (Nezha, Sun Wukong, Huaguang and the Eight Immortals). A familiarity with the character of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea is essentially indispensable for understanding the role of the protagonist of each particular novel. Not too bad for a minor character as far as impact factor is concerned.
This is also were the feeling of joy comes in that I mentioned at the beginning: the more I read these novels, the more familiar these bookhopping characters become – and the more I understand the novels I read. What’s more, this understanding also extends backwards to the novels I have read before that now appear in a whole new light. And as an added bonus, I also broaden my knowledge of possible world views in Late Imperial China.