What on Earth are “shenmo xiaoshuo” 神魔小說?

A term I have been using quite a lot in my posts is shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說, so I thought it might be about time to explain what that is supposed to be. The term, which is often translated to “Novels about Gods and Demons”, was first coined by Lu Xun 魯迅 in his Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe 中國小說史略 (A Brief History of Chinese Fiction). This book grew out of a series of lectures Lu Xun (sometimes written Lu Hsün; pen name of Zhou Shuren 周樹人, 1881-1936) gave in 1920 at the prestigious Peking University 北京大學, which was published as drafts during the 1920s and as a book in 1930. It has been republished multiple times and you will not have a problem finding a Chinese version in book shops today.


The book was pretty groundbreaking, since Chinese scholars traditionally favoured genres like poetry, philosophy and historiography and had little interest in fiction. This is already obvious in the term xiaoshuo 小說 which nowadays refers exclusively to novels, but etymologically means “little talk” or “little narrative”, with “little” clearly meaning “inferior”. This lack of appreciation meant that there was also a lack of proper terminology for the various genres of prose fiction. Thus, Lu Xun does not only introduce and categorize a huge number of novels, he also invents names for these categories – names he bases on what he sees as defining features of these novels.

In the case of shenmo xiaoshuo these are the deities shen) and various “monstrous” or “demonic” characters (mo). While this name has not been unchallenged and despite several suggested alternatives, it is still widely used today. I personally also quite like the Chinese term shenmo xiaoshuo, but find the English translation “Novels about Gods and Demons” rather clunky. The same goes for the German translation “Romane über Götter und Dämonen”, which is why I took the liberty of shortening it to “Götterromane” (deity novels) in my PhD thesis. Apart from being shorter, I also find the term more fitting for reasons I will go into in a minute.

As the title suggests, these novels are full of supernatural elements. There are miraculous children, mysterious Buddhist or Daoist masters, fantastical fight scenes, magical objects, demons in human form, demons with monstrous appearance and so on. Yet besides the dazzling sub plots, the novels essentially tell the reader about the origins of and legends surrounding certain actual Chinese deities.

Therefore, I view shenmo xiaoshuo along the lines of “hagiographical” novels, novels that tell us about the origins of certain deities. Some novels, like Journey to the South (about Huaguang 華光),Journey to the North 北遊記 (about Zhenwu 真武), or The Story of Mother Heavenly Consort 天妃娘媽傳 (about Mazu 媽祖) are focused on particular deities, while others, like Journey to the East or Investiture of the Gods narrate the creation of pantheons. In this view I have been influenced by Mark Meulenbeld’s theories on “civilized demons” and “demonic warfare”, which helped me greatly in writing my PhD thesis.

Like me, Meulenbeld looked at Fengshen yanyi (which he translated as Canonization of the Gods), but his focus was a lot wider than mine: while I narrowed my research on the three chapters exclusively concerning Nezha 哪吒, he cast his net rather wider and compared the “cast” of Fengshen yanyi to deities discussed in various Daoist scriptures. Generally speaking, the “deity novels” introduce one or more deities and showcase their powers by letting them fight a range of demons and sometimes also other, mightier deities. Through this the readers can familiarize themselves with the characters, powers and “fields of expertise” (e.g. childbirth, merchants, warriors) of various gods. In this sense the novels are basically the narratives behind the liturgy. Their subjects may be Daoist (like in Fengshen yanyi), Buddhist (like in Xiyou ji, which tells the story of how the sutras came to China and Sun Wukong became a Bodhisattva), or focused on popular local deities (like The Story of the Mother Heavenly Consort).

I realize that this post turned rather more technical than I imagined and may not give anyone a good idea of what shenmo xiaoshuo actually are. So let me just say in conclusion that they are great fun to read and research. They are generally a synthesis of the legends surrounding the deity/deities at their center, told in a way that is meant to be entertaining. And I find that, overall, they generally are. Unfortunately, though Lu Xun’s efforts helped to raise the status of novels as a literary genre in China, shenmo xiaoshuo are as an object of serious study are still somewhat looked down upon.The current scholar favours literati novels with their subtle character portrayal. But I think that precisely because they are somewhat full of stereotypes and quite action packed, the more interesting aspects of shenmo xiaoshuo are regularly overlooked. Just because something is fun and accessible it doesn’t mean that it is not worth a serious look. So stay tuned for more shenmo xiaoshuo on this blog!

Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, translated by Gladys Yang Yang Xianyi and Moss Roberts. On Worldcat.org

Mark Meulenbeld, Civilized Demons: Ming Thunder Gods From Ritual to Literature. On Worldcat.org

Mark Meulenbeld, Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel. On Worldcat.org

I have already introduced some shenmo xiaoshuo on this blog and will certainly continue to do so. See my earlier posts on Fengshen yanyi here and here. You may also want to read up on the novels Xiyang ji, Nanyou ji, or Dongyou ji here and here. Some general musings on shenmo xiaoshuo can be found in my post on Bookhopping Characters.

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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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