In From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao, Xueting Christine Ni takes the reader through a survey of more than 60 figures and creatures from Chinese mythical, historical, and religious sources. In the introduction, after describing her early life experience in Guangzhou with a grandmother who first taught her the basic spiritual images and rituals well-known to many (particularly older) Chinese, Ni straightforwardly suggests that “this native spirituality is still very much alive in China” (p. xiv). She goes on to contrast this with a “Western concept of a Judeo-Christian god, or even a Greco-Roman father god,” claiming that “In Chinese religion, there is no concept of a single omniscient being” (p. xiv). (This claim will be discussed later.)
Through the 17 chapters (plus a bonus chapter) organized primarily by class or kind, Ni hopes to introduce readers to both well-known and obscure deities worshiped at various times, in various ways, and at various geographic locations, providing valuable details about their history, imagery, abilities, or power, and how one might properly acquire their blessings and benefits, or avoid their meddling, which varies from mere nuisance to fearsome anger.
I will leave discussion of each section’s details to the reader, and here focus on a few important and salient features that regularly appear throughout the book.
The audience for the book is clearly English-speaking, largely Anglo-American readers. Ni does well to point out the numerous appearances many of the deities make in contemporary media, particularly video games and movies. The publisher is also worth mentioning here. Weiser Books (an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser), and the namesake bookstore in New York City connected with the publishing house, “has a long history as publishers of esoteric, occult teachings from traditions all around the world and throughout time.” Ni’s presentation of Chinese deities is well-tuned to the general audience of Weiser Books, as will be seen below. Although it is not an academic book, Ni appears to have done a substantial amount of homework, and a brief bibliography in the back points the reader to more authoritative sources.
The description of each deity follows a regular pattern. First, a concise and rarified recounting of the story of how the deity came to be revered and worshiped (usually quite fictional or mythical) is presented, followed by or interwoven with explanations of the deity’s power or particular area of expertise. While Ni is well aware that there are often conflicting stories and attributes for each deity, she harmonizes the incongruencies into a well-told story (see Introduction, p. xvii), while occasionally including well-known variations. She goes into sufficient detail regarding the appearance of each deity in material culture so that a neophyte could easily distinguish the deity from others in a lineup. The exposition usually includes very practical suggestions for worship of the deity, giving dates and prescriptive sacrifices that would garner the deity’s attention, or placate one that is displeased. Ni concludes most sections by highlighting various contemporary cultural manifestations of the deity, quite often mentioning video games, movies or other popular (usually Anglo-European) mediums that feature the deity.
Another interesting feature common to many of the stories is an instability that is presented as almost inherent to Chinese thinking on spiritual beings. Ni straightforwardly says, “Chinese gods evolve. They move about or come into being along with socio-economic trends and changing social roles. The new gods of our age are being born as we speak—pop stars, screen icons, literary giants, and athletes. And the old gods are evolving to support the needs of modern society; their young devotees are creating new forms of worship” (p. xviii).
The myths, legends, and stories Ni presents are a helpful resource for exploring many aspects of the complex pantheon of the Chinese spiritual landscape, especially for someone unfamiliar with the territory. Nevertheless, a significant pitfall in her presentation is the narrow perspective from which she approaches the subject. But this, too, can be instructive, with a little assistance.
It is quite common in China to encounter an essentialist understanding of Chinese culture. This view regards cultural traditions as static and unchanging, and regards certain elements to be entirely representative of Chinese culture, and other elements to be “foreign” and most often, incompatible with the “native” elements. Three religious traditions that are usually considered “native” to China are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Ni clearly holds this understanding, as indicated in her introduction (referred to earlier in this review), and unquestioningly indicates that belief in a monotheistic deity has not been, and is not presently a spiritual perspective held by Chinese people. And yet both history and the tens of millions of Chinese Christians today (not to mention Muslims) clearly indicate otherwise. So, while Ni’s presentation is a helpful resource for some Chinese deities, we should keep in mind that it does not tell the whole story.
In closing, I would like to offer a reflection for those who do or are considering doing ministry among Chinese people. Each of the spiritual beings Ni presents offers a particular advantage to one’s life (wealth, longevity, power, and so on), and practical ways to obtain the benefits that that deity offers. Christian ministers to Chinese ought to reflectively consider how they present the Christian deity when sharing the gospel. Do we hastily present a “god of salvation,” that gives us eternal life after death (and has more to do with our next life than with our present life), provided we placate him with offerings of a few songs on Sunday morning, and the jingle of coins in the offering box? Or do we take the time to develop an understanding of God as a present and active, unique, rich, and multifaceted being, full of love and grace, truth and power, humility and glory, that calls us back into intimate and transformative relationship and full participation in the Heavenly Kingdom?
Image credit: photosforyou from Pixabay
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