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.

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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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