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Demonic WarfareDaoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel$

Mark R. E. Meulenbeld

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780824838447

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824838447.001.0001

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The Order of the Ming Novel

The Order of the Ming Novel

Hierarchies of Spirits and Gods

(p.168) 5 The Order of the Ming Novel
Demonic Warfare

Mark R. E. Meulenbeld

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the cultural sphere to which Canonization of the Gods belongs during the late Ming dynasty. It shows how the Ming vernacular novel offers a “relational framework” for explaining and emulating the hierarchical relationships of local spirits with higher gods. It also considers how local communities throughout Jiangnan defend their territory by appropriating the powers of martial gods from late Ming novels such as Canonization. The picture that emerges is one of a society that organizes itself on the basis of religious narratives of divine protection, with local militias assuming the status of demon soldiers in order to serve their martial gods. This chapter suggests that Canonization codifies the liturgical structure of late imperial Daoism and the martial gods of vernacular ritual as a well-structured army of divine warriors who belong to the authority of the Eastern Peak.

Keywords:   vernacular ritual, gods, vernacular novel, local spirits, martial gods, divine protection, local militias, demon soldiers, divine warriors, Eastern Peak

A Relational Framework

What is it that novels do? The answer to this question can be found by applying a historical perspective to the stories that Ming novels tell. Such a perspective necessarily has a double edge: not only do we need to situate the novel’s narratives in a historical context and relate them to it, but we also need to take seriously the fundamental fact that many Ming novels are essentially reworked versions of Chinese history. We must try to grasp the particular manner in which they recount their history. The specific presentation of Canonization may revolve around a hallowed episode of imperial history (perhaps the most hallowed), yet the morality of its classical narrative is blemished by the way it deviates from the official records. Canonization places gods of lowly origins against an exalted background of sacred history. Moreover, deviating even further from stereotyped ideas about classical civilization, it stipulates the coherence of these gods with the practice of Daoist, martial ritual in the Ming.

The problem of what Canonization does, then, is resolved by understanding the book as a textual elevation of a ritual repertoire of martial gods; although the book claims to be politically correct in its adherence to the exemplarity of the Zhou dynasty, it uses this orthodox history to codify the liturgical structure of late imperial Daoism—a form of Daoism that has absorbed local, martial gods within its actual practice, albeit as relatively lowranking guardians of “classical” Daoist ritual. This dual repertoire, vernacular and classical, is narratively coupled by means of the authority of the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak. While the book explicitly canonizes the martial gods of vernacular ritual, it codifies them as a well-structured army of divine (p.169) warriors who belong to the authority of the Eastern Peak. In turn it is the Eastern Peak who represents both the historical formation of temple networks and the point of access to the higher powers in the Daoist hierarchy of gods.

The novel addresses this particular ritual structure for a good reason: it offers a framework for coherently understanding the complex world of the sacred and the ritual professionals who work in it. In the religious landscape of late imperial China, with its hundreds of different gods and its hundreds of thousands of temples, any vantage point always offers a fragmented view or a sense of diversity without clear coherence. As Susan Naquin shows in her study of Ming and Qing dynasty Peking, temples are hardly ever explicitly linked with other temples, except for temples related to the Eastern Peak, which are “understood as parts of a network that radiated out from (and drew pilgrims to) one center.”1 But even in rare cases when such connections are manifest, each temple commonly lodges dozens of secondary gods in addition to the focal god on the main altar. How should we understand their relationship to each other? Local communities may know the social connections between temples as they are annually acted out in processions and pilgrimages, but what about the origins of these connections? What exactly are the sacred alliances between gods? It is in this variegated religious landscape that Canonization offers a substantive explanation, one that connects ritual repertoires to temple networks—a relational framework.

This relational framework explains the kinship between nominally unrelated entities and also functions as a model for emulation that structures the relationship of communal groups (such as local militias) with the gods who empower them.

Canonizing the Ritual Powers of the Eastern Peak

In the case of Canonization, the canonized object consists of an entire repertoire of martial ritual. This is a matter of broad concern in Ming society. Even though the subjection of the martial pantheons to the Eastern Peak may at first sight seem of relevance only to ritual professionals such as Daoist priests or vernacular masters, the rituals implied by these pantheons are so popular during the Ming, and temples for the Emperor of the Eastern Peak so ubiquitous and so tightly interwoven with local religious life, that the relational framework of the novel would offer a unified vision for the population at large who otherwise are not acquainted with systematic visions of their socioreligious environment. Therefore, rather than specifying the many individual gods that are associated with the Eastern Peak in different (p.170) localities, Canonization authenticates the ritual repertoire that is widely practiced under the auspices of the Eastern Peak by priests throughout the Ming empire.

The Eastern Peak temple is embedded in local society as a hub for local communities and their ritual masters. The basic features of this structure have been laid out for the Yuan and early Ming in chapters 3 and 4, but the abundance of sources for the Ming dynasty allows for a much more detailed analysis, especially in terms of the relationship between temples of the Eastern Peak, local society, and the vernacular narrative of Canonization. What we have already observed about ways the Eastern Peak is connected to local communities during the Yuan dynasty also applies to the Ming. Richard Von Glahn has argued that during the Ming dynasty the Eastern Peak constitutes much more than merely a Daoist temple for Daoist adepts. He shows that several communal festivals and seasonal ceremonies are celebrated at the Eastern Peak temple in Puyuan (Zhejiang), even if these are not nominally related to Daoism or the Eastern Peak. On those occasions the statues “of the gods in each [residential] ward were brought to the two main temples [of Eastern Peak and Dark Emperor] so that these lesser gods too could enjoy the spectacle.”2 Clearly the temple hierarchy of Daoism acts as the thread that connects these otherwise disparate communities.

To this integrative dynamic must be added the apotropaic function on which such a divine network is based; the Eastern Peak would offer local protection by means of its manifold armies of darkness. In turn it seems that this divinity would receive the largest share of sacrifices offered by territorial networks in much of Ming China. Temples of the Eastern Peak emerge as the sacred sites around which important communal festivals revolve, around which local communities organize themselves, and from which local defenses derive their divine protection. One important reason for this is of course that at least since the early twelfth century, the Eastern Peak is the divine authority that confers “dark soldiers” to Daoist priests.3 In the Eastern Peak’s capacity as supervisor over the souls of the deceased, his rule over an enormous reservoir of dark spirits makes him indispensable for the enlistment of spirits into the divine armies of ritualists. It is the Eastern Peak who stands at the apex of the trajectory that orphaned spirits must traverse before being reborn into a new status. It is also the Eastern Peak who commonly serves as the divine officer who must be petitioned for these troops to be dispatched. Regardless of the bureaucratic division to which they belong specifically (Thunder Division, Plague Division, etc.), the Daoist liturgies of the fourteenth century and after prescribe that they are directly supervised by the Eastern Peak.4

(p.171) On local levels the Daoist’s capacity to exert power over spiritual soldiers is remarked upon even by literati authors, although they condemn this practice. The compilers of one Ming local gazetteer from Hunan record that the local ritual masters of this region “collect dark soldiers to construct the lower altar,” thus explaining the practice of installing martial guards on the ground to protect the altar.5 Local records from that region also narrate the case of a ritualist who continues posthumously—deified as a local god—to deploy his martial spirits in order to chase away pirates.6 Cases of deified ritual masters who posthumously protect their locales are known elsewhere in China too.7

In general, however, records of local guardians who deploy dark soldiers against bandits usually mention only the god under whose tutelage the military expedition is executed, omitting the ritualists and even the local militias. As we have seen in previous chapters, however, that does not mean that the deployment of Daoist spiritual troops against outside intruders is not a matter of ritual protection during actual physical battle. That is, although the martial gods are credited with the victory, the actual battle is fought by real men—real warriors and real ritualists. Explicit examples of this configuration include a local god who “used his dark soldiers to help [the Song dynasty general] Xin Xingzong quell bandits.”8 Despite the god’s assistance, the battles fought by Xin’s troops are physically real. At other times local divinities are said to support their local militia. Take the case of the god named “Grand Protector Li” (Li Taibao), known as a “divinity who has led the righteous troops” against an outside invasion.9 Here the physical reality of the troops is acknowledged, but they are said to operate under the tutelage of the god. Many such cases are recorded.10

Much of the local reservoir of martial spirits is incorporated in the liturgical structure of Daoism. This recruitment of local spirits is an important area of interaction between so-called popular religion and Daoism. Literati have left a wealth of records that provide insights into the way this interaction and incorporation is imagined during the Ming dynasty. Yet the Daoist ritual structure is not always made overt; often it is merely implied. Take the following commemorative record of miracles performed by a divinity referred to as “Divine Lord Yu” (Yu Shenjun) of present-day Zhejiang, written by the Ming founder’s court historiographer, Song Lian:

Sometime during the Xuanhe reign (1119–1126), Fang La was rebelling. His reputation rocked the region east and west of the river Zhe, and many bad youngsters were willing to gang up and follow him. The Divine Lord descended into a medium and said: “The High God has summoned me to (p.172) lead the divine troops of the Ninefold Heavens and obliterate these bandits. Their ilk will have to change soon, lest they be turned into dust.” Before long, people came in from the roads, saying that when the bandits had heard a whooshing sound of wind and water, and when they seemed to see millions of armored riders descend from the sky, then they all abandoned their weapons and hid away. The official troops subsequently flattened them out.11

Note how it is the seeing of divine warriors that makes the enemy flee so that the regular troops can finish them off. Daoist priests appear to be entirely absent.

On the surface the story of Divine Lord Yu’s victory is very local. A rather obscure divinity of some anonymous locality in Zhejiang announces a miracle in words uttered by a temple medium—a miracle that ultimately is implemented physically by the “official troops.” However, in various ways the story reveals a much broader context. The mere fact that the feat of this god is recorded by the eminent Song Lian—who even defends the moral status of the god in a different part of the record—shows that the divinity is not so limited in the scope of his charisma. More pertinent for the god’s inclusion into the martial hierarchy of Daoism are the words ascribed to the spirit medium, who uses the same discourse as that used in Daoist ritual. In the first place is the Divine Lord’s subordinate position relative to the highest celestial authority, the High God, who was by Ming times understood as the Jade Emperor. In simple terms this means that we are not dealing with an unruly spirit who refuses to comply with celestial authority, one who has not yet been caught by the nets of the heavenly forces; he has already admitted to his lower position. That leads to the second point, namely the fact that the local god’s position of inferiority is perceived as an official, bureaucratic relationship: the High God “summons” (xi) the Divine Lord. Although it is common bureaucratic language, in the context of divine lines of command it is reserved predominantly for the exertion of Daoist ritual authority. The bureaucratic language would have no effect outside of a ritual hierarchy. Finally, the troops commanded by the local saint are labeled as “divine troops of the Ninefold Heavens,” a label largely associated with Daoist divinities.

Generally the incorporation of such local spirits into the liturgical structures of Daoism would fall under the authority of the Eastern Peak. Aside from the nameless masses of lonely spirits discussed in chapters 3 and 4, several famous figures from Chinese history are known for their deification as lieutenants of the Eastern Peak. Examples are abundant, such as the Tang (p.173) dynasty hero Zhang Xun (709–757), as well as his companions Lei Wanchun (?–757) and Nan Jiyun (712–757). Temples to Zhang Xun cum suis are found throughout late imperial China.12 Ritual manuals state that Zhang is one of the foremost servants of the Eastern Peak,13 while his companions are frequently invoked alongside him, sometimes manifested as a group of five Thunder Gods.14 In Huizhou, Zhang’s underlings are none other than the Five Furies (Wuchang), who are “placed at the bottom of local pantheons.”15 Among the many tasks Zhang performs is the pursuit of the City Gods, making sure that they arrive quickly when needed.16 This coupling between Zhang Xun and Eastern Peak is also reflected in the actual constellation of temples, as Zhang frequently has a shrine within the precincts of temples for the Eastern Peak.17 Zhang too is one of the historical subjects in an important late Ming novel that treats the founding of a dynasty, Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties (Sui Tang yanyi).

Other famous generals are subsumed under the aegis of the Eastern Peak. In chapter 3 we saw several examples of Guan Yu enshrined in temples of the Eastern Peak. Daoist ritual manuals corroborate this association.18 And then there is Wen Qiong, whom we have seen in his military capacity as Marshal Wen (Wen yuanshuai).19 All of these martial servants of the Eastern Peak are commonly invoked by Daoist priests for the command they have over dark warriors. The degree to which these originally unrelated divinities have become recounted as a set that together belongs to the Eastern Peak is illustrated by the local gazetteer of Changshu (Jiangsu). In it the temples to Zhang Xun and Wen Qiong are grouped together with the temple of the third son of the Eastern Peak, Sire Bingling—all listed immediately after the Eastern Peak himself.20 The gazetteer claims that several millions of people annually convene for this god’s festival, referred to simply as “congregation of territorial cults” (shehui).21 Aside from these famous generals, less famous local warriors are given a shrine within the precincts of the Eastern Peak, such as the three warriors who died during their battle against pirates in Fujian.22

Communities in several regions have built temples for the Eastern Peak that are embedded in networks of a truly stunning magnitude. In previous chapters I described how in the two capital cities, Nanking and Peking, but also in the older capitals, Hangzhou and Suzhou, the Daoist hierarchy revolved around the temples of Eastern Peak and City God, accompanied by the potent Guan Yu. Sources record this hierarchy in various other locations. While local gazetteers are not commonly very generous with the overall exhaustiveness of their descriptions of temples, some at least list the most important temples of a particular region; often the Eastern Peak outweighs (p.174) others. Take Weishi County in Henan. The local gazetteer of the Jiajing reign (1522–1566) lists the major festivals of the region. It starts with the New Year’s sacrifices in the eastern suburbs (often also the location for the temple of the Eastern Peak), dedicated to the god Great Year and accompanied by the various professional guilds of the region, members of which display their skills and perform music and theatre.23 In the next months only three individual divinities are mentioned: Eastern Peak, City God, and Guan Yu. Their temples are the sites for music, theatre, and communal banquets. Virtually the same divinities are celebrated with theatrical performances during the great sacrificial festivals in other counties of Henan, namely Tongxu and Xiayi.24 In the gazetteer of Xuzhou, also Henan, the only temple festival mentioned among the various seasonal rites is that for the Eastern Peak.25

This paramount position of the Eastern Peak is also recorded elsewhere in southeast China during the same time. Von Glahn notes that in seventeenthcentury Suzhou “rural communities mounted processions to bring the statues of their local tutelary spirits to pay their respects to Dongyue [Eastern Peak].”26 He notes that these practices in Suzhou are called “paying court to Dongyue” (chaoyue). From records in local gazetteers elsewhere it appears that this practice is widespread. For example, communities belonging to Huizhou prefecture in Guangdong stage a “congregation of paying court and worshiping” (chaobaihui) for the Eastern Peak,27 listed as the sole religious festival of the entire region! In Ruizhou prefecture (Jiangxi) the same event is functionally referred to as “welcoming the gods” (yingshen).28 Many regions in Ming China appear to concentrate their religious services on the Eastern Peak.

This should remind us of the intersecting lines between Daoism and popular religion. Given the centrality of the Eastern Peak temples in the popular religion of entire regions generally speaking, there simply can be no doubt that it also specifically entails a central role as the point of convergence between local communities and Daoist liturgical networks. It is not just a matter of the Eastern Peak being a site where pilgrims or worshipers from many different localities may go; it is a hierarchical relationship with lower, local gods “paying court” to the Eastern Peak. Moreover, when it comes to local protection, it is by means of Daoist ritual that communities can witness the formal deployment of all those divine armies.

As if to drive home its crucial relevance within the fabric of local society, the Eastern Peak also frequently serves as the site where localities celebrate the welcoming of spring. Embodying a connection with the Eastern Quarter (ascendant yang, spring), it forms the site for sacrifices to the earth god Goumang. Local gazetteers of regions in Henan and Jiangxi, but also in Jiangsu, (p.175) Fujian, and Guangdong, mention this arrangement.29 Theatre plays an important role that offers further clues about martial aspects of these ritual activities. It may be easy to imagine the participation of various martial arts bands in the large-scale festivals that are dedicated to the Eastern Peak himself, with his clearly exorcistic function, but how does this work in the case of seasonal festivals such as the Spring Festival, which do not seem to emphasize martial prowess for communal protection? Examples from Guangdong suggest that even the celebrations of the Spring Festival could be the occasion to show off military power. In Qiongtai prefecture of Guangdong, several counties have a Temple of the Eastern Peak located in the eastern suburb, which is mentioned in these cases as the site for the Spring Festival.30 The local gazetteer provides the following description of military involvement in ceremonies for the Start of Spring (Lichun):

On the day that Spring is welcomed, the defense units of the prefecture wear splendid costumes and go to the “House for Greeting Spring” in the eastern suburbs. The lower ranking military officials compete with each other in performances of “variety plays” and “historical events,” and they show off their skills during the sacrifice to Goumang [the God of Spring]. After this is finished they lead the way into the city.31

Here military officials contribute to the annual celebrations of Spring Festival by staging “variety plays and historical events.”32 Even though the Eastern Peak is not mentioned here, it would be consistent with the predominant customs of this region (and others)33 to understand the Daoist Temple of the Eastern Peak as the location for the Spring Festival. Regardless, the military contribution to the stage plays of this seasonal festival is remarkable enough. In the same vein of connecting Daoist temples to martial powers, it surely is no coincidence that in Jiangyin county (Jiangsu), the temples of Eastern Peak, City God, and Guan Yu are all built or renovated by the same warlord, Wu Liang (1323–1381).34

It is the Eastern Peak who thus emerges as a unifying factor in this complex and multifaceted religious landscape, populated by local saints without recognition in the imperial Canon of Sacrifices. It is this same vision of order that is espoused by Canonization. Just as the actual temples of the Eastern Peak provide a general structure that can contain a very diverse panoply of local gods, the novel similarly offers a story that connects a vast pool of different spirits with the authority of the Eastern Peak. The focus is not on individual cults of worship. Instead Canonization maps out the vast expanses (p.176) of a more general, ritual reservoir of martial power that is offered by the liturgical structure around the Eastern Peak. Thanks to the narrative “King Wu’s Conquest,” it can situate the ritual repertoire of local ritualists against a sacred background.

Contesting the “King of Martial Perfection”

The endorsement of the Eastern Peak clearly signifies antagonism toward the imperial Canon of Sacrifices (sidian) with its narrow definition of gods that are deemed worthy of official recognition. In Canonization the character to be deified as Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak is Huang Feihu (“Flying Tiger Huang” or “Yellow Flying Tiger”). From the very beginning he is introduced as the head of the Shang dynasty’s martial bureaucracy with the epithet “King of Martial Perfection” (Wuchengwang). Early in the story he abandons his corrupt monarch and joins forces with King Wu, bringing along his considerable military reservoir. He is one of the most memorable characters of the story, not only for his martial prowess but also for the unusual compassion with which he repeatedly treats his subjects and enemies.

This royal title for the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak, the “King of Martial Perfection,” has a long pedigree in the actual Canon of Sacrifices. However, it is used for an entirely different character, one that also figures prominently in Canonization, namely Jiang Ziya. It is for this ancient military strategist that the title “King of Martial Perfection” is first used, in the year 760. This title must be understood as an exalted epithet because it designates Jiang Ziya as the military counterpart to the “King of Civil Perfection” (Wenchengwang), none other than Confucius himself.35 From that moment onward Jiang Ziya becomes the eminent center of the military temples that are established throughout the empire. The book on warfare called The Six Sheaths of the Grand Duke (Taigong Liutao), attributed to Jiang Ziya, becomes a widely cited book. It is almost entirely formulated as a dialogue between Jiang Ziya and his monarch, King Wu.

Jiang Ziya remains the object of martial veneration throughout much of the Tang and Song dynasties, until the Ming founder suddenly challenges his position during the late fourteenth century. In 1387 Zhu Yuanzhang abolishes sacrifice to Jiang Ziya in the martial temple and divests him of the title “King of Martial Perfection”36—an act that is reminiscent of his earlier demotion of the militarized City Gods. This demotion may be related to Zhu’s victory over the resistance in Sichuan and Yunnan and to his subsequent attempt to present himself as a ruler who privileges the civil over the martial, as (p.177) one scholar has suggested.37 Yet it may just as well have something to do with the Ming founder’s project of marshaling the powers of unruly spirits by relegating them to the domain of the Daoist god of the Eastern Peak and taking them out of the hands of the more Confucianistic Jiang Ziya.

Regardless of Zhu’s motivation, the abolition of Jiang Ziya’s title is not ubiquitously followed: until at least the middle of the fifteenth century he still receives military sacrifices.38 And in 1536 a memorial is submitted to reinstate Jiang Ziya as the recipient of worship in a new “Temple for the King of Martial Perfection,” to be built immediately.39 The suggestion is carried out. Jiang Ziya is to be accompanied by other famous military men, such as Master Yellow Stone, Zhang Liang, Han Xin, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Li Jing, Yue Fei, and other figures, almost all of whom play a role in some historical novel or other. The memorial accentuates Jiang Ziya’s allure by claiming that the ancient strategist is regarded as the patriarch of all military discourse.

Thus we can barely miss the significance of the fact that, in Canonization, Jiang Ziya is never referred to as the “King of Martial Perfection,” whereas the novel insists on using this title for the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak. In doing so the novel does not merely speak out in favor of the Daoist liturgical structure, but it does so by taking a clear stance against the classicist interpretation of the Canon of Sacrifices. One can barely come to a different conclusion than to say that the novel sides with a Daoist interpretation of popular religion.

In the realm of martial ritual there are indications that the title “King of Martial Perfection” is already used for the Eastern Peak in local settings where communal defenses are mobilized. The following example from Hangzhou in 1555 describes in some detail a case where a “King of Martial Perfection” is invoked as the first of more than thirty other martial divinities who accompany an expedition of rural troops against a pirate attack. The narrator is the literatus Tian Yiheng.

Gods Help the Battle Formations

In the year 1555 there was a vast occurrence of Japanese pirates who directly attacked the city and gathered there. I then brought together a thousand rural troops in order to plan our defenses. Yet I feared that the minds of the people would still not be at peace. Thus we selected an auspicious day and built a grand altar in the western suburbs in order to facilitate the cold killing airs of the Quarter of Metal.40 We prepared a sacrifice and smeared blood, and we composed a document for reporting to Heaven, in (p.178) order to ask for the help of the famous generals from past to present: more than thirty men, from the King of Martial Perfection down. Thereafter the pirates encroached upon Mt. Fang and stayed put for four days. When the regional troops went to fight them, the pirates fled without giving battle. Those [countrymen] from the neighboring regions who returned after having been taken captive, said: “When the bandits looked to the west they saw great masses of divine troops: golden shielded divine generals with enormous bodies, their banners and insignia clearly distinguishable. That is when they did not dare to engage in battle and departed.”41

The bandits are facing the “rural troops,” yet again it is the sight of “divine troops” that makes them flee—a visual process reminiscent of many cases hitherto discussed.

Tian Yiheng justifies the invocation of martial divinities in Hangzhou as a special measure to put the people’s minds at ease, but it may very well be a blanket apology for his responsibility in condoning practices that normally deserve to be labeled crude and anomalous. This very unusual way of marshaling heaven’s support—a local official who appears to usurp the prerogative of the emperor to address heaven—suggests that we must infer the participation of other ritualists, namely Daoists: only they are known to address heaven and invoke martial gods.

To drive home the claim of superiority of Daoist martial arts over the imperially endorsed cult for the “King of Martial Perfection,” Canonization provocatively narrates that Jiang Ziya himself is transformed into a Daoist adept. Having spent many decades on Mt. Kunlun studying the Dao, he is portrayed as a disciple of the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning. The Daoist genealogy that Jiang Ziya here receives is representative of Ming dynasty traditions, particularly in the epithets used for the Celestial Worthy. The full title that Canonization offers, “Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, in Charge of the Daoist Rituals of the Promulgating Teaching of the Palace of Jade Vacuity on Mt. Kunlun,” contains important clues for analysis.42 Remarkable above all is the association with the “Palace of Jade Vacuity” (Yuxugong). Although this term has some pedigree within Daoism, during the Ming dynasty it is commonly associated with the Dark Emperor. This commander of demonic armies is himself known as “Chief Minister of Jade Vacuity” (Yuxu shixiang), and Ming dynasty temples dedicated to him are similarly entitled “Palace of Jade Vacuity.” A good example of this is his main temple on Mt. Wudang, but also one of his temples in Ming dynasty Peking—not coincidentally a temple founded by a military family with members serving in the Imperial Bodyguard.43

(p.179) The other crucial aspect of Jiang Ziya’s Daoist identity is the category of ritual methods with which he is associated through the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, namely the martial methods of the Dao that we have seen throughout this book: daofa. This daofa is exactly the kind of ritual that has provided the title for the biggest single compendium within the Daoist Canon, the Daofa huiyuan (Unified Origins of the Dao and Its Rituals). Its fa is the kind of method represented in the title of its shorter companion, Fahai yizhu (Forgotten Gems from the Sea of Rituals). Most of the rituals compiled in these works purport to exert power over violent gods and their belligerent foot soldiers. It is the ascription of these martial rituals to the this-worldly and otherworldly organizers of the plot, Jiang Ziya and the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, that reveals Canonization to be a ritual book: not only has Canonization been built with ritual blocks, but it makes this foundation explicit and codifies it in the divinization lists at its conclusion.

Indeed the very first act by which Jiang Ziya reveals his ritual training is one that testifies to the kind of power usually associated with the ritual practices of the Dark Emperor. In chapter 16, when Jiang Ziya subdues the Gods of the Five Roads (Wulushen), he does so with his hair disheveled and his sword drawn, yelling out intimidating spells in the fashion of ritual masters. When the Gods of the Five Roads yield to his power, he instructs them to obey his talismanic commands in the future. Moreover he promises them a splendid reward in the form of spiritual attainment on the day that they complete their duties and thus fulfill their merit.

The text describes the Gods of the Five Roads as having faces in colors that correspond to the Five Quarters, a detail that puts them on an equal footing with the other demonic soldiers we have witnessed so far, be they humans or spirits. More poignantly this type of relationship between ritual master and martial pentads is also strongly reminiscent of the most basic ritual in the repertoire of vernacular masters, the consecration of ritual spaces by means of “settling the garrisons” (anying). It is almost as if Canonization intends to present Jiang Ziya as a ritual master, showing that he has accomplished the most elementary ritual skill: the command over martial spirits who are ordered to protect local territory.

This is the point at which the military aspect of Canonization needs to be elaborated. Despite his degradation in early Ming history and in the novel, Jiang Ziya is presented in Canonization as the one who wields the central banner of official military authority, called the “Precious Black Banner” (Baodaofan). This banner is itself a divinity and frequently receives sacrificial offerings throughout the story. Spirited objects often appear in Canonization, and one might be tempted to think that they are an example of this (p.180) particular mode of Chinese fantasy that supposedly exemplifies the fictitious nature of the Ming novel, as I mentioned in the introduction. The Black Banner, however, is yet another example of the intertwinement of history, religion, and vernacular narrative. It is an object that figures very prominently in the military history of late imperial China, at least since the Yuan.44 During the Ming dynasty it is codified as the spirit that commands the armies from its vantage point in the central division of the army. There is no indication that we should construe the Black Banner as a secular object in the modern, disenchanted way.

The Black Banner is used to exert power over other banners that are also divine. Apparently based on Song dynasty precedents, the Yuan dynastic histories contain long lists with configurations of sacred military banners that are grouped together, many of them on the basis of the Five Quarters.45 Immediately after the Black Banner come the banners of the four heraldic animals with a golden streamer at their center, each of them depicting one animal in the correct colors. Farther down are other groups of banners: those representing Uncle Wind, Master Rain, Sire Thunder, and Mother Lightning, immediately followed by the banners of the Five Planets, the Twenty-eight Lunar Lodges, the Five Sacred Peaks, the Four Celestial Kings, and another set of the four heraldic animals, this time with the banner of the Golden Drum at its center. The list of banners concludes with the most basic set of all military banners, the Divine Banners of the Five Quarters. The Ming dynastic histories mention similar configurations. Though less elaborately described than in their Yuan dynasty precedent, the command of the Black Banner remains the central banner within a group of subordinate banners similar to the aforementioned.46 In the Ming dynastic histories some of the more prominent divinities who operate in conjunction with the Black Banner are the Great Year, the Five Furies, and, of course, the Divine Banners of the Five Quarters.

The Divine Banners of the Five Quarters are relevant throughout Canonization. At various points in the story Jiang Ziya arranges his troops in a grid according to the Five Quarters and commands them with his Banners of the Five Quarters.47 Significantly his loyal general Huang Feihu—the future Emperor of the Eastern Peak—uses the same arrangement.48 Chapter 42 describes the banners (and troops) of the Five Quarters in great detail. They are situated within a slightly larger grid, that of the Eight Trigrams, and this configuration is also used by one of their opponents, the awesome general Deng Jiugong, who ends up joining the Zhou founders.49

Jiang Ziya’s martial underlings are all enmeshed in the epistemology of the Five Quarters and Eight Trigrams. First and foremost among those adjutants (p.181) is Li Nezha. His role is particularly relevant in that he defends the spaces that are patterned after the Five Quarters and Eight Trigrams. This role is manifest within spatial realms of various magnitudes, ranging from houses or villages to cities and, ultimately, the world. As far as Li Nezha is concerned, he is associated with many such spaces, including the city. In a recent study Chan Hok-lam has shown that a common epithet for the capital of the Yuan dynasty is “City of Nezha” (Nezhacheng). This name is a reference to the fact that the Yuan capital’s topography is based on the bodily outline of the god. At that time Li Nezha’s roots in esoteric Buddhism are still quite prominent, and even the Daoist ritualist Bo Yuchan still clearly classifies Li Nezha as a Buddhist divinity.50 Yet the ritual process that transforms Li Nezha into a Daoist divinity has already started. At least as early as the twelfth century it is no longer reasonable to take him as a straightforward signifier of Buddhism because he is becoming deeply absorbed in Daoist liturgies.51 Daoist ritual manuals from the thirteenth and fourteenth century show him as the first of the “Eight Kings Who Are Fierce Generals” (Bawang Mengjiang).52 These Eight Kings are said to correspond to the Eight Trigrams and are deployed to protect Daoist ritual spaces, which are usually patterned after the Eight Trigrams (with the Great Ultimate in the center, together forming the celestial grid of nine quadrants).53 They act as a martial “vanguard” (xianfeng) of the priest who invokes them, and “in the four quarters their great forces are stationed as clouds.”54 This originally Buddhist divinity is thus quickly transformed into a guardian of Daoism.

These ritual manuals also show that Li Nezha, in his new position as one of the Eight Kings, is subordinated to an important god who also contributes prominently to the story of Canonization, Zhao Gongming.55 We have already seen this tiger-riding, demonic god in a classic Daoist pentad of protective deities, which the Yuan dynasty Plain Tale of King Wu’s Conquest features. In Canonization he is registered on the lists of canonization and deified as a celestial warrior with the specific function of protecting sacred spaces. In particular Zhao Gongming is given the responsibility of protecting the “Dark Altar” of the Daoist patriarchate on Mt. Longhu in Jiangxi. Both figures, Li Nezha and Zhao Gongming, thus share the function of protecting (earthly) space.

The coupling of Li Nezha with Zhao Gongming in Canonization suggests possibilities about the way the narrative may have transmitted religious information to its audience by means of relating gods that originally have no ties to each other. Because Li Nezha’s transformation into a Daoist god and his subsequent absorption into Daoist liturgy is a ritual process, and because (p.182) his connection with Zhao Gongming also is entirely a ritual creation, the lack of actual historical ties requires a narrative that authenticates their affiliation. The late Ming novel thus plays the role of explaining ritual in a way similar to hagiographies. The narrative recounts the stories of individual gods that are connected through (and within) ritual, and it articulates the ways these gods belong to one and the same historical episode. To put it differently, Canonization presents the relationships between gods as if they are hallowed by history. It is therefore easy to understand why Canonization would have used the most sacred period of Chinese history to canonize its protagonists.

Li Nezha’s ritual role as a protector of space during the fourteenth century indeed presages the Li Nezha we know from the seventeenth-century novel Canonization. And this role as protector of space is reflected beyond ritual manuals. As early as the fifteenth century Li Nezha is known in Fujian by a name that echoes his role described in the ritual text, as “Vanguard Li” (Li Xianfeng). There he functions as the leader of the “Divine Kings of the Five Quarters” (Wufang Shenwang), commanding a group of four other gods that are identical to those summoned in vernacular rituals in Fujian and on Taiwan.56 By the late Ming Li Nezha’s role as controller of the Five Quarters is clearly not limited to any single region. Canonization provides the most detailed descriptions of him and his close link to the “platoons of the Five Quarters” (Wufang duiwu).57 As in the ritual manuals, these troops are arrayed on the basis of the Eight Trigrams, and Li Nezha is portrayed as the first among a total of eight gods who oversee the platoons. But his fame is not limited to Canonization. In Journey to the West Li Nezha is referred to as the “vanguard” of the gods of the Five Quarters.58 Moreover a reference to him in yet another novel invokes him in relation to the banners of the Five Quarters: “Nezha wields the Banners of the Five Quarters.”59 In other words, although Li Nezha’s association with the spatial order of the Eight Trigrams is still visible in the late Ming, it seems that by now he has become much more widely associated with command over the Five Quarters. On the basis of these popular narratives from the late Ming, Li Nezha may even be the god most popularly associated with the Five Quarters. To my knowledge no other narrative exists that articulates the construction of the Five Garrisons with as much detail as chapter 42 of Canonization does. Furthermore chapter 62 provides an independent rationale for the efficacy embodied by armies that are divided into Five Garrisons.

Canonization further situates its explications of Li Nezha and his Five Garrisons within a larger complex of relationships. In chapter 42 he is not only associated with the encampments of the Five Quarters and the Eight (p.183) Trigrams; he is subordinated to Jiang Ziya. More significant is his association with other gods in configurations similar to those known from Daoist ritual: the Eastern Peak, the Celestial Worthy of Thunder, and the four main Thunder Gods, Deng, Xin, Zhang, and Tao. They too are staged as agents who contribute to the battles fought by Li Nezha. In other words, Canonization situates Li Nezha within a martial hierarchy that combines the authority of the Eastern Peak with the power of Thunder Gods. More and more we see emerging the contours of a specifically ritual configuration of divinities.

Such configurations correspond to the basic layout of a Daoist ritual area, with the lower gods arrayed into standard formations that protect the higher gods. One ritual manual dedicated to the Dark Emperor, for example, situates the gods of the Eight Trigrams just below the Four Celestial Kings (which would include Li Nezha’s father, Li Jing) and on the same level as the four major Thunder Gods (Deng, Xin, Zhang, and Tao).60 Also present in this ritual pantheon are the Eastern Peak (with the City God), as well as several other martial divinities also known from Canonization, including Yin Jiao and Zhao Gongming. As is typical of the Daoist liturgical structure, even Guan Yu is present.

Finally, Li Nezha is relevant in the environment of the Black Banner of the Ming army, albeit in a way that may seem peripheral. We encounter him in his full, dramatic glory in a record from the sixteenth century by Tian Rucheng (1503–1557; father of Tian Yiheng). He describes military officials and soldiers bringing sacrifices to the God of the Black Banner in the city of Hangzhou during the Jiajing reign.61 His account first lists the spectacular display of weaponry on the occasion of the sacrificial festival, as military officials show off their skills during a parade in the honor of the God of the Black Banner. Li Nezha is embodied in one of the acts performed by soldiers as “the Six-Armed Nezha” (Liubei Nezha). Unfortunately the description mentions only this title, and no further details are revealed. However, another act, entitled “Yakṣas Patrolling the Sea” (Yecha tanhai), may similarly point to Li Nezha. This performance may refer to the encounter between Li Nezha and the yakṣa (a kind of spirit with roots in India) protecting a dragon palace in Canonization, but it may also relate to a similar encounter between Sun Wukong and a dragon-protecting yakṣa in Journey to the West. “Yakṣas Patrolling the Sea” is also known as a specific posture in the martial arts forms practiced by the late Ming military.62 At the very least this military embodiment of divine models refers to the same cultural sphere as the late Ming novel, and Li Nezha explicitly figures in the context of military sacrifices to the Black Banner.

(p.184) What we are beginning to see repeatedly is the formation of hierarchical relationships between “outsiders” (unruly spirits, Buddhist gods, etc.) and higher divine authorities that are “insiders” within a liturgical structure. This becomes the mold for fitting locally autonomous forces into an order that allows their efficacy to be ritually channeled. We know from the late Qing dynasty that this is exactly the model for deploying the Five Furies, demonic gods who operate under the aegis of the Ming army’s Black Banner no less than under the command of local exorcists. They too are made to serve other divinities, such as Zhao Gongming (chapter 2). But even the Buddha may make use of this order and the violent gods it contains. In his study of the religious functions of local theatre, David Johnson quotes a source from Anhui in which the “Buddha commanded the city god to send the [Five Furies]” to seize a dangerous ghost.63 This suggests that the liturgical structure is available for summoning by other authorities than Daoist ones alone.

A more recent study by Guo Qitao provides similar observations about the enmeshment of the Five Furies within the liturgical structure of Daoism. His work describes the Five Furies participating in the festivals of other, greater gods. Guo shows that a procession of Five Furies in Huizhou (Anhui) typically is “part of the preliminary ceremonies for a grand showing of ritual operatic performances.”64 More important, Guo unwittingly confirms the liturgical structure when he observes that the Five Furies are minor pawns in the Daoist hierarchy: “During exorcism rites, … Wuchang was ordered to capture the head demon at the behest of the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak, who was flanked by the state-sanctioned city god and earth god (and the Daoist four heavenly marshals).”65 Tanaka Issei has shown for other regions that Daoist gods are also known to be in command of the Five Furies, Five Demons, and so on.66 In other words, pentads like the Five Furies (or other pentads that often correspond to the Five Quarters) may be commonly known as autonomously operating gods, yet it nonetheless appears that this does not exclude their (ritual) subordination to more complex relational frameworks, often headed by a narrow range of usual (Daoist) suspects.

One source from the sixteenth century even suggests that the Ming military Five Banner Gods are made to revolve around a pentad of martial gods that is well established within Daoist ritual. This pentad is headed by Efficacious Officer Wang, whom we have seen in the liturgies of the Golden Book by Zhou Side. Representing the Divine Banners of the Five Quarters, each banner has a depiction of a divine warrior. With Officer Wang at its center, this pentad further consists of other, very famous warriors: Marshal Wen Qiong (East), Marshal Guan Yu (South), Marshal Ma Sheng (West), and (p.185) Marshal Zhao Gongming (North). The configuration is included in a book of military tactics from the sixteenth century by Qi Jiguang (1528–1587).67 These five gods parallel the occurrence of Officer Wang together with the other four marshals in the liturgies of Zhou Side, suggesting that Yongle’s Daoist advisor may have been instrumental in imposing this order on the military.68 This suspicion is corroborated by the Ming Histories, which mention that after Yongle’s reign the sacrifices to the Black Banner are exclusively in honor of Efficacious Officer Wang.69 The imperial armies of the Ming are organized by the same division of troops into five garrisons, but the gods to which they report are not mentioned.70 Even the local defense stations (weisuo) are divided into five garrisons, on the level of the capital city as well as on the local level.71 While the specific pentads are not always mentioned, it is unlikely that imperial armies or local defense stations would embody entirely different gods; most likely they would include Li Nezha or other gods that have been fit into the Daoist liturgical structure. Narratives like Canonization would typically play a role in explicating these ritual hierarchies.

The “Banner Gods of the Five Quarters” thus appear to represent a particular relationship between the armies of terrestrial demons and the martial gods who command them. On the one hand, the Banner Gods are ferocious powers that may be made to engage with demonic adversaries and overcome them. On the other hand, they are lowly foot soldiers who must obey the orders of Daoist authorities. As such, Banner Gods are not too different from the demons they fight. In both senses they are suitable models for appropriation by actual soldiers who enact them in their battles.

Transforming Local Spirits into Daoist Gods

The significance of Canonization does not end with the association of Li Nezha with Jiang Ziya and with the Five Garrisons, or with the description of their rationale and application. The book forges many other relationships between lower gods and higher powers. Among those Li Nezha’s complete subordination to Daoist authority is even more conspicuous than his association with the Five Quarters ordered by Jiang Ziya. In particular the book represents Li Nezha as an adept of the Perfected Person of the Great Monad (Tai Yi zhenren). It is the latter who literally transforms the unruly spirit Li Nezha—who, historically speaking, has Buddhist origins—into a Daoist god.

The model that Canonization constructs in order to elucidate the subordinate relationship of Li Nezha to Daoist authority is exactly the kind of relationship that informed the Daoist liturgical order, namely the relationship (p.186) between an unruly spirit and a ritual master. Just as we saw with Yin Jiao in the Yuan dynasty Plain Tales, Li Nezha also is a violent young boy who rebels against his parents and yet ends up as a paragon of filial piety. The story relates that by killing the son of a great Dragon King, Li Nezha brings danger to his father, Li Jing, a powerful divinity in his own right, with temples all over the empire. While the dynamic between father and son is complicated as always, their relationship ends when Li Nezha cuts the flesh from his bones and returns it to his parents.72 In a most literal sense, Li Nezha severs the blood relationship between parents and child—he dispossesses himself of a family. Of course this effectively marks the beginning of Li Nezha’s existence outside the lineage of his parents. Deprived of parental care and ancestral offerings, he becomes an orphan spirit in search of a substitute body and sacrificial offerings. That is when the liturgical structure of Daoism becomes relevant.

At the end of chapter 13 Li Nezha’s spirit does what countless spirits before him supposedly have done. Without a body to rely on, and without an altar as his dwelling, he floats betwixt and between the realms of life and death. Formulated in virtually the same language as used for the Altar for Baleful Spirits during the early Ming, Li Nezha’s case remains at all times within the Daoist theological precepts explained in previous chapters. He is truly a roaming soul, lost and hapless. Then an auspicious wind blows his spiritual aggregate to the Mountain of Primordial Beginning.

Now speaking of Nezha, his cloud-souls (hun) had nowhere to rely upon, his bone-souls (po) had nothing to stand upon. Originally he was the transformation of a precious gem. Because he borrowed essences and blood, that is why he could possess cloud-and bone-souls. Nezha floated and drifted along on the wind, arriving straight at the Mountain of Primordial Beginning.73

It soon becomes clear that his arrival at this mountain with the ominous name marks the occasion for Li Nezha to make a fresh start. He is brought before the Daoist divinity known as “Perfected Person of the Great Monad,” a short name for the Daoist divinity of spiritual salvation, the “Celestial Worthy of the Great Monad, Savior from Suffering.”74 Beyond the novel Canonization this divinity is known to preside over ceremonies for the dead, including those staged for orphan souls.

There is only one way to appease the wretched Li Nezha: his roaming spirits need to be lodged and nurtured by becoming the recipient of a sacrificial (p.187) cult. This is exactly what the Perfected Person of the Great Monad conveys to Li Nezha. He tells the orphaned soul to appear to his mother in a dream and tell her that she should build a temple on Mt. Cuiping in his honor: “Once you have received incense for three years, you can establish yourself again among the living and assist a True Ruler.”75 If his mother agrees, Li Nezha may establish himself as a local divinity, with his own temple and community of worshipers.

After initial refusals his mother does as required. She builds a grand temple that lodges a statue of her son. He quickly succeeds in establishing himself as a responsive divinity within the particular constituency of people who live on or around Mt. Cuiping: “When Nezha started to manifest his sainthood on Mt. Cuiping, people came from everywhere near and far to offer incense. Massively like ants, every day more, they never ceased to come. Prayers for blessings as well as for the averting of disasters, none would not be answered.”76 The reciprocal relationship between sacrificial offerings and miraculous responses has an immediate effect, and Li Nezha’s powers increase. Within half a year he starts to recuperate some of the body he previously lost. Nothing seems to stand in the way of a glorious return of Li Nezha as a tutelary saint on Mt. Cuiping.

However, Li Nezha’s fate as a local divinity is cut off early, when his father discovers the temple of his son and immediately destroys it, smashing his statue in the attack. Desperate, the lad’s spirit returns to the Perfected Person on Mt. Primordial Beginning. The Daoist now takes Li Nezha’s fate in his own hands and applies the knowledge transmitted in Daoist manuals since the fourteenth century: he sublimates the spirits of Li Nezha. First the Perfected Person builds a substitute body out of two lotus flowers and three lotus leaves. At least symbolically Li Nezha’s original identity as Buddhist god is thus preserved. The body that the Perfected Person constructs from the stems, petals, and leaves of the lotus is a stereotypical cosmic body that represents the “Three Powers” (Sancai) of Heaven, Earth, and Man. In order to infuse this substitute body with the spirits of Li Nezha, the Perfected Person of the Great Monad applies Daoist alchemical formulas that echo the sublimation methods for restoring orphan souls that we have seen during the early Ming:

The Perfected placed a pellet of Golden Cinnabar in the middle. Using the ritual methods of the Former Cosmos,77 and turning his breath through nine cycles,78 he separated the Dragon of Fire from the Tiger of Water, seized the cloud-and bone-souls of Nezha, and pressed them into the (p.188) lotus-body, yelling: “Nezha, if you do not assume human shape now, then until when will you wait!”

[Nezha jumps up and bows down for his master; the Perfected tells Nezha to follow him into the Peach Orchard]

The Perfected gave Nezha a Fire Spear, and in no time Nezha had acquainted himself with it and refined his mastery over it. Nezha then wanted to descend from the mountain [and take revenge on his father]. The Perfected said: “Now that your skills with the Spear (qiang fa) are mastered, I will give you a Wind and Fire Wheel to stand on. Furthermore, I will teach you efficacious charms and secret spells.” The Perfected moreover gave him a sack from leopard hide; in the sack were a Cosmic Ring, a Cloth to Cover Heaven, and one Golden Brick.79

Crucially in this passage Li Nezha is not only given a new body but is also initiated into the arts of martial ritual. He receives a “spear method” (qiang fa) along with “efficacious charms and secret spells” (ling fu mijue). This initiation thus resembles actual ordinations of acolytes who have mastered martial ritual, ceremonies that revolve around the “receiving of [martial] ritual” (shoufa). Just as with ordinations of ritual masters, Li Nezha receives martial attributes that allow him to conquer demonic adversaries with the violent ways of war: a spear (accompanied by the esoteric method to handle it) and more mysterious objects like the Wind and Fire Chariot, the Cosmic Ring, and the Golden Brick. These three objects, similarly carried by a single divinity, are known from ritual manuals used almost two centuries before the printing of Canonization.80 Sometimes the Golden Brick is used in vernacular rituals for imprisoning demons.81 Thus the bestowal of “methods” upon acolytes by Daoist authorities comes to the fore as one of the ways in which stories like those narrated in different episodes of Canonization draw their content from ritual practice, including even the fantastic weaponry. Viewed from the perspective of such ritual methods, Canonization models itself on existing religious practices by which Daoist adepts can deploy unruly spirits that have been captured in a ritually constructed hierarchy.

THIS ritual weaving of local spirits into the fabric of a Daoist hierarchy can be observed beyond the limits of the novel. The following example is fully relevant within the narrative framework of Canonization, but it draws on a tract on popular customs written by the famous official Wang Zhideng (1535–1612). In his detailed account of festivals practiced in the region (p.189) around Suzhou, Compilation on the Territorial Cults in the Region of Wu (Wushebian, published before 1571;82 hereafter Compilation), he pays special attention to the festival for the “Holy Saints of the Five Quarters” (Wufang Xianshenghui). Although the tract is intended as a diatribe against the many regional deviations from ritual propriety, it is an invaluable document for analysis of local religion.

Wang Zhideng lists the many facets of the festival for the “Holy Saints of the Five Quarters.” He describes the various laymen involved, mentions some of the theatrical repertoire performed, discusses statues carried in the parade, and, in passing, also reveals temples included in the itinerary of the procession. The starting point is the temple of the Five Dragons. It is safe to assume that this is the temple dedicated to the “Holy Saints of the Five Quarters,” because, as Wang explains, the Holy Saints are thought “by some” to represent Five Dragons.

Significantly Wang names the two main figures whose statues are carried around during the procession. They are Quanshan and Kuangfu. The second name is the most important in the present context. It is the name of a Daoist patron saint most commonly known as the Perfected Person of Mt. Kuangfu (Kuangfu zhenren),83 or by his canonical title of “Perfected of Tranquil Luminescence from Mt. Kuangfu, Patriarch who Harmonizes the Plague.”84 His comrade Quanshan, or, more fully, the “Great Master Do-Good of Bright Enlightenment,” often accompanies him.85

In Daoist texts as well as in popular hagiography, the Perfected Person of Mt. Kuangfu has jurisdiction over several groups of plague divinities. These include the “Saints who Spread Diseases in the Five Quarters” as well as the “Thirty-six Divine Lords” and the “Holy Crowd of the Seventy-two Hours.”86 In itself this relationship between Kuangfu and his various pantheons of demonic underlings is enough to make a case for the relevance of reading Daoist sources in order to challenge the widespread notion of popular religion as an autonomous sphere of discourse. Yet his story does more than offer a contrast. It shows how the Daoist liturgical structure has been applied to marshal unruly spirits from the local earth.

Several narratives illustrate that the Daoist patron saint is not merely associated with the plague gods but is reputed for having domesticated them and given them employ as martial servants in the “Plague Division.” Similar to the transformative dynamic underlying the divine lists in Canonization, popular hagiographic records describe the act of domestication by narrating how Kuangfu “captured the Five Plague Gods and made them into Generals of the [Plague] Division.”87 Another hagiography in the same collection emphasizes (p.190) the formal character of their employment by stating that a local magistrate erects a shrine to Kuangfu in order to suppress the gods of the Plague Division.88 Both hagiographies thus represent Kuangfu’s plague gods as belonging to one of the divisions of the Daoist ritual hierarchy.

For Kuangfu, the story complex “King Wu’s Conquest” is entirely relevant. The act of canonizing spirits that this hagiography shares with Canonization is based on a body of narrative antecedents that relate Kuangfu to the same foundational history as narrated in the novel. Without exception each of the late Ming hagiographies situate Kuangfu in the time of King Wu’s battle to establish the Zhou, and two hagiographies state that Kuangfu repeatedly declined the king’s requests to take up office.89 Similarly one early Ming Daoist manual even declares that Kuangfu attained the Dao on the same day that King Wu conquered the empire.90 Significantly in Canonization the Perfected Person of Mt. Kuangfu plays a role in the vernacular narrative of King Wu’s conquest. Here Kuangfu is himself included as a leading figure within the Plague Division listed at the end of the novel. He is honored with his canonical epithet “Daoist Master who Harmonizes the Plague” (Hewen Daoshi). Moreover in the novel too his friend the “Great Master Do-Good” (Quanshan dashi) accompanies him. In other words, the local configuration of Kuangfu as Daoist patriarch of a Plague Division—known from earlier hagiography and from a literati tract—is formally acknowledged in the novel and in all cases related to the sacred history of King Wu’s conquest.

The cases of Li Nezha and Kuangfu reveal a great deal about the relational frameworks that accommodate divinities of different standing and provenance. Li Nezha’s origins as an unruly being who is dangerous because of his orphaned status—and perhaps also because of his Buddhist otherness—are made to function within a relationship that is subordinate to Daoist authority. In an explicit sense it is a transformation by means of Daoist methods (sublimation) that allows Li Nezha’s rough powers to be channeled in an orderly way. From a reverse perspective, Kuangfu represents just the kind of ritual authority that establishes him as a being in control of lower spirits and of the chaotic powers latent in their unruly nature. In both cases the relationship between these various elements is manufactured after they have existed independently. Therefore a narrative is needed to establish the relationship, explain it, and codify it. Once that has been achieved, the relationship can be put into practice. From that moment onward books such as Canonization inform the practices endorsed by religious communities.

(p.191) Military, Militias, and Sacred Narratives

The relational frameworks provided by novels have contributed to structures of perception for actual, lived experience. On a general level this means that novels establish patterns for understanding a reality that is canonized as historical in nature. Thus novels authenticate the reality of everyday life as if it were directly built on the sacred grounds of the past.

Moreover these frameworks are not presented as passive symbols of a past long gone; they can be actively imitated. The period immediately following the publication of the late Ming novel reveals it as a repository for practical knowledge that can be applied. This is not easily observable in official histories, even though it certainly is not for nothing that an imperial regulation from 1602 prohibits the usage of language from novels for the composition of petitions to court, and that a military official in 1728 is stripped of his rank and imprisoned after using language from Three Kingdoms in his petition to the emperor.91 These two first hints point us toward official and even specifically military applications of the novel’s discourse. Indeed I argue that some of the language and concepts used in novels have structured the practice of war—for military officials no less than for rebelling villagers. The evidence is not abundant, but the few extant references are clear enough.

The end of the Ming dynasty would be unthinkable without the involvement of local militias who construe themselves on the basis of religious worldviews that novels like Canonization put forward. Yet the importance of religion for military, militias, and rebel armies alike has not been acknowledged. The fact that religion has largely been unnoticed by traditional scholarship is exemplified by James Parsons’s standard work on Ming rebellions. He concludes that uprisings in the seventeenth century are devoid of “any religious orientation revolving around a popular cult.”92 However, it should be clear from the preceding chapters that traditional warfare could hardly ever be that straightforward. Even if we merely review the available records, it immediately becomes clear that the religious lore codified in novels plays a paramount role for local militias.

Martial arts traditions that emerge during the late Ming uprisings, such as the “Plum-Flower Fist” (meihuaquan), make use of weapons that are by that time quite uniquely associated with Li Nezha, like his “Wind and Fire Wheel” (fenghuolun).93 As shown in Zhou Weiliang’s study of martial arts, the Plum-Flower Fist tradition is deeply rooted in the practice of rural militias that bring sacrifices to their gods. This correlation continues into the Qing dynasty, (p.192) and the divinely strengthened warriors of the Plum-Flower Fist tradition end up participating in the Boxer Rebellion.94 As I explained in the introduction, the Boxers represent martial traditions that revolve around trance possession by gods known from novels like Canonization, Three Kingdoms, and Water-margin. In reference to the specific martial arts tradition of the Plum-Flower Fist, Meir Shahar remarks that the north China plains witnessed “the spread of military brotherhoods with religious overtones, which were sometimes referred to as [associations] and sometimes as [religion].”95 Clearly these brotherhoods perpetuate models of practice that correspond with those of the religious militias of the Yuan, with warriors fighting under the tutelage of gods.

One of the rebellious movements examined in Parsons’s work is the one led by Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647) around the year 1630. On close consideration religious overtones may not be so hard to find. The first sobriquet by which Zhang chooses to make himself known is possibly a reference to the Eight Kings led by Li Nezha, namely “Eight Great Kings” (Badawang). Parsons corroborates the likelihood that this sobriquet originates in the religious sphere.96 Although our sources are not forthcoming with data about Zhang’s worldview, his reliance on divine figures is made clear when he leads “his entire retinue” to a Daoist temple for worship of Lao Zi.97

But there exist very concrete ties to the lore of novels. Interestingly Parsons points to the possibility that popular novels “exerted some influence” on late Ming rebellions. He mentions that in 1642 the emperor ordered the novel Watermargin to be destroyed, perhaps because of its dissemination of the “general idea of opposition to an oppressive and corrupt government, for there is no evidence that it served as a source of late Ming rebel policies or tactics.”98 However, aside from the question of whether opposition against a disintegrating government would need to be popularized as a novel idea at all, Parsons’s suggestion is not more than speculation. Fortunately we do in fact have evidence that Zhang uses novels as a source for emulation. The following record by an early Qing observer ascribes the provenance of Zhang’s tactical knowledge directly to late Ming novels: “The shrewdness of Zhang Xianzhong included him making people read books like Three Kingdoms and Watermargin every day. For any ambush or surprise attack they would imitate those.”99 Similar readings of Three Kingdoms are said to have occurred in the army of Li Dingguo (1621–1662), an ally of Zhang.100 Thus these two late Ming rebels’ knowledge of martial practice appears to be based on vernacular narrative.

As further evidence of the far-reaching role played by novels in situations of battle, several later rebellions are pervaded by language and concepts from (p.193) Watermargin, Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Canonization. For example, the nineteenth-century Taiping Rebels are known to have drawn on Three Kingdoms and Watermargin for their strategies.101 Yet most concrete is the example of the Boxers at the beginning of the twentieth century. In their battle against foreign invaders it is not just that their powers derive from gods who are famous protagonists of novels. Clearly their practices of spirit possession are acquired through the lore transmitted in novels.102 Some of the specific hierarchical relationships by which the Boxers abide are known only from late Ming novels, such as the subordination of Li Nezha to Jiang Ziya. One source records that Li Nezha is one of the most commonly invoked gods among the Boxers in Peking, whereas they dedicate their altars to gods such as Jiang Ziya.103 In other words, Li Nezha is made to participate in actual battle, whereas Jiang Ziya is allowed to remain in the safe distance of his altar sanctuary. The late Ming novel thus provides key elements in the epistemological framework for the Boxers’ martial practice. In the words of Joseph Esherick, “It was especially [novels and] operas like Canonization of the Gods that provided the ‘narrative context’ for the actions of the possessed Boxers.”104

BUT let us return to the late Ming. The question that needs to be asked is this: How have vernacular novels provided an episteme for the way warriors have imagined themselves and gone about making war? It may very well be that novels such as those esteemed by the Boxers hold the answer. Two graphic examples from woodblock illustrations are included in the 1610 Rongyutang edition of Watermargin. The first one shows how the rebel Gongsun Sheng defeats his opponents by ritually deploying a Thunder God (see fig. 8; originally in chapter 60 of Watermargin). Significantly, although Gongsun Sheng is presented in the book as a man skilled in Daoist methods, the story itself does not mention his specific application of Thunder Ritual. The picture thus represents an important aspect of the epistemological framework within which battle could be imagined. Gongsun is shown to wield ritual power even though the rituals are not mentioned in the written text!

This same ritual dynamic informs the second picture, of Song Jiang in his decisive battle with the rebel Fang La (see fig. 9; originally in chapter 117). Here too we can see the two antagonists battling each other with their divine warriors depicted in the air above them. Fang is aided by a warrior in golden armor, and Song has requested help from a local Dragon God (who looks suspiciously like a Thunder God). The tips of the weapons visible just above the clouds suggest that these divine warriors are in command of larger armies. While it is not clear who the Dragon God’s opponent is, there is no reason to (p.194)

The Order of the Ming NovelHierarchies of Spirits and Gods

Figure 8. Song Jiang battling Fang La, with their respective divine warriors depicted above them.

From Shuihu Zhuan (Watermargin), 1610 Rongyutang edition.


The Order of the Ming NovelHierarchies of Spirits and Gods

Figure 9. Gongsun Sheng defeats opponents by deploying Thunder.

From Shuihu Zhuan (Watermargin), 1610 Rongyutang edition.

(p.196) suspect this god is exclusively associated with Fang. What we see is the ritual subservience of a certain type of god (martial) within a certain type of relationship (commander and soldier, or ritual master and belligerent spirit) and for a particular context (battle). What we also see is the widespread importance attributed to Thunder Gods and Thunder Ritual in a novel other than Canonization.

The second novel mentioned as a source for Zhang Xianzhong’s tactics, Three Kingdoms, also contains models for structuring actual practice, and they are even more concrete. One of the models narrated in Three Kingdoms coheres with the practices of martial theatre and martial ritual that we have seen since the twelfth century, namely soldiers who fashion themselves after divine beings. The novel equates mortal soldiers with the spiritual troops of martial gods. In chapter 102 Zhuge Liang prepares a decisive battle. He orders his soldiers to dress up like “divine troops” (shenbing) in order to scare off their opponents:

You lead the five hundred soldiers; let them all dress up like the divine troops of the Six Nails and the Six Shields, with demon heads and animal bodies. Use five colors to paint their faces, and let them assume all kinds of strange shapes. In one hand let them hold an embroidered pennant, in the other a precious sword. … When the people of Wei see all this, they will certainly think you are gods and demons and not dare to chase after you.105

The logic behind this masquerade is explained as visually tricking the opponent into believing that Zhuge’s troops are in fact “gods and demons.” With their demonic faces painted in five colors and their bodies dressed as animals, their appearance is highly reminiscent of the military actors described in the twelfth-century Dongjing menghua lu and of the martial arts groups that are a standard aspect of present-day temple processions. All this seems to suggest that the same logic of visibly representing demonic warriors is a widespread aspect of the ritual warfare carried out by militias and the military. It is demonic warfare pure and simple.

Again the divine model proposed by Zhuge Liang is a Daoist one. In Three Kingdoms the very first part of the first chapter describes the revelation of a “Celestial Book” (Tianshu) that Zhuge Liang later receives. In chapter 101 this revelation is further specified as the “Celestial Book of the Six Shields” (Liujia Tianshu) that allows Zhuge Liang to “spur on the Spirits of the Six Nails and Six Shields.”106 These gods are firmly associated with Daoist ritual; (p.197) they are part and parcel of the divine powers that are commonly conferred upon Daoist initiates during their ordination. Moreover the practice of dressing up as the Six Nails and Six Shields has been a part of Nuo exorcisms since at least the thirteenth century.107

Rebels throughout late Ming history apply this format of warriors who are guided in battle by a leader who has received celestial revelations. In 1619 a “man of witchcraft” (yaoren) called Li Wen leads a rebellion in Guyuan (present-day Shaanxi). With a movement that uses Daoist labels such as “Celestial Perfection” (Tianzhen) and “Murky Origins” (Hunyuan), he claims possession of Celestial Books that include a work entitled “Flying Swords of the Six Shields” (“Liujia feijian”).108 In addition to the Six Shields, we have already seen in the 1348 example of the sorcerer Peng Guoyu discussed in chapter 3 that the “flying swords” also have a long pedigree in rebel movements—and in Daoist ritual. It looks very much as if the practices described in late Ming novels are not merely fictions of a single literary genius.

The model of the relationship between local militias that fight their demonic warfare in the name of a martial god, described in Three Kingdoms, is the same as the Yuan dynasty martial rituals discussed in chapter 3. In both cases living warriors are transformed into demonic warriors, and in both cases they make this transformation visible by means of painted faces. This model uses the visible faces of demonic warriors to point to the visually ambiguous (or simply invisible) component of divine leadership. That is to say, the painted faces of the soldiers are recognizable as demons, but they belong to common mortals. However, the god in whose honor they fight their battles is not necessarily embodied by a mortal frame. In the Yuan dynasty example the commander is really a priest who ritually transforms himself into the Dark Emperor, but in the narrative of Three Kingdoms there is no need to transform Zhuge Liang into a god; he is already perceived as one by the late Ming. There are yet other cases that reveal fascinating possibilities for the way communal battle practices are structured by the narratives of late Ming novels.

One such case entails enactment of divine models in Xiangfu county (Henan) around 1640, almost twenty years after the first known edition of Canonization. It clearly demonstrates that alliances with divine powers need to be embodied through ritualized patterns of organization that equate mortal soldiers with divine troops and relate them to a specific martial divinity. In the particular example that follows, territorial militias are divided into five encampments that correspond to the Five Quarters, while the ritual that consecrates their collective power is executed before the shrine of Guan Yu.

(p.198) The events take place during the disintegration of the Ming empire in the early 1640s.109 It is a time when local rebels are competing for power, plundering towns as well as the countryside. The standard historical narrative has it that the armies of the Qing dynasty defeat the rebels in Henan. In fact the “soldiers of the territorial cult” play a crucial role. They start out by naming themselves after Guan Yu’s epithet “Righteous and Brave” (Yiyong). Organized in five encampments, they report to the martial commander over the spirits of the earth, Guan Yu, and take a blood oath in his presence:

County Magistrate Wang Lian put in place the martial law of the territorial cult. He organized the territorial cult on the basis of the earthly quarters. In each of the eighty-four territorial cults, every territorial army would contribute fifty soldiers to make four thousand two hundred soldiers. …

A banner was erected above the gate of the local administrator: “[Call to] form the ‘Great Cult Association of the Righteous and Brave.’ Those who wish to follow, assemble beneath this banner.” From all corners the good and brave flocked together, as well as the strong and educated of the local soil. Within several days they reached ten thousand men. After creating banners and insignia, preparing weapons, arraying troops, and distributing tallies of trust, they divided over Five Garrisons on the basis of the five colors. …

They all took an oath by smearing blood at the temple of Guan Yu.110

The blood oath that the Five Garrisons of local soldiers take before the statue of Guan Yu represents the brotherhood they as territorial troops forge with this martial god. They fashion themselves after his image, consecrating their kinship with him in a ritualized bond of blood. As described earlier, the local militias equate themselves with the armies of terrestrial spirits that dwell within the Five Quarters of their territory and subsequently make themselves subordinate to a god with tremendous martial appeal. And Henan is not the only region where this type of pattern is enacted. During the same period there are reports about identical formations of “Righteous Troops of the Five Garrisons” (Wuying yibing) who swear blood oaths before Guan Yu in Anhui.111

Most likely the Five Garrisons of these local militias also understand themselves in reference to a pentad of demonic gods. Given the popularity of Li Nezha as lead commander of the Five Garrisons during this time, it is (p.199) tempting to project him into the record. But alas, the data neither deny nor confirm this. What matters more is that only Canonization is known to contain a widely available narrative about the relational framework to which the divine institution of the Five Garrisons belongs. Only Canonization comprehensively explains the Five Garrisons as belonging to the authority of higher gods, hallowing this complex against the background of classic history. If the situation during the modern age is any indication, statues of the Gods of the Five Garrisons led by Li Nezha are installed as guardians in temples dedicated to all kinds of gods (see figs. 10, 11). Thus, for the local militias in Henan to have a local configuration of the Five Garrisons under the authority of Guan Yu would fit well into the general emphasis of Canonization on the particular format of relationships between gods rather than the sanctity of individual gods. The abundant lists of pantheons in Canonization show the general format of a divine hierarchy, of configurations of different gods into types of relationships that are functional in the context of ritual. It is the endorsement of the hierarchy that opens up possibilities for understanding these relationships in local terms, so that originally anonymous, local demons may be assigned to Daoist ritual authority. That is exactly how the novel’s relational framework is best emulated.

Back to the Beginning: How Spirits Accumulate Merit

Beginnings often indicate the direction of stories. In the case of Canonization, the beginning reveals not only where the story will go but also where it comes from. The book opens with the beginning of all beginnings: the Big Bang by which the primordial totality of Hundun is differentiated and subsequently divided into different aspects of the cosmos. A long poem at the start of the first chapter describes a transition from the natural and unordered unity of precosmic antiquity into the complex reality of a world that is ordered by humans. Canonization begins with what can be called a creation myth:

  • When Hundun originally split open, Pan Gu was the First,
  • The Great Ultimate, the Two Modalities, and the Four Images were fixed.
  • Heaven was born in the first hour, Earth in the second, and Man emerged during the third.112

This is an old story, usually told as the birth of the primordial ancestor, Pan Gu, after the breaking of the cosmic egg, Hundun. It is perhaps less a creation (p.200) myth than the story of spontaneous self-generation: the world is not actively created by a god but comes to be by the immeasurable force of an impersonal cosmos that engenders the known world in a process of transformation from “chaos” to “order,” from the universal shape of an egg to the distinct shapes of individual being. Originally, this story implies, the world was autonomous; only after the appearance of human beings does it become the subject of their order.

In chapter 3 we saw that Pan Gu and Hundun are important points of reference for the type of vernacular ritual that emerged into historical view during the Song and Yuan dynasties. In those rituals Pan Gu and Hundun serve as the theological underpinning of the cosmic unity that pervades all these different local rituals. All divine beings originate in Pan Gu or, more abstractly, in Hundun. Indeed Canonization’s opening verse about the cosmic genesis from Hundun to Pan Gu continues with the sacred appearance in the world of the Three August Ones (San Huang) and the Five Emperors (Wu Di). The poem concludes by stating that Canonization is a tale that relates the sacred origins of all the demons, spirits, and gods that play a role in the story. The other great late Ming novel of demons, spirits, and gods, Journey to the West, also begins its narrative with the cosmic transition from Hundun and Pan Gu to the Three August Ones, Five Emperors, and the world of the stone spirit who calls himself Monkey King, later canonized as one of the “Five Saints” (Wusheng).

Several decades before Canonization is first printed as a book in one hundred chapters, this same story about the cosmic origins of gods is enacted during communal rituals in Hunan. Here, during the local Pan Gu Festival (Pan Gu sai) recorded in a gazetteer from the Jiajing reign (1522–1566), the “ritualists” (wu) use a scroll that graphically depicts Pan Gu’s genesis as the point of origin from which all the gods have evolved:

The ritualists have a big cloth of two to three zhang long. On it are painted, downward from Pan Gu, the Three August Ones and the Five Emperors, the Three Kings and all the gods. Nothing is omitted. That day they hang their scrolls from long poles, sound gongs, beat drums, and blow pipes. One of the ritualists has a long drum with which he dances around by turning in circles. Two others, in turn, dance with short drums while facing each other.113

This graphic representation of the genesis of the known world with its gods is the center of the ritual dance that is offered to Pan Gu. This god of gods—the (p.201)

The Order of the Ming NovelHierarchies of Spirits and Gods

Figure 10. Marshals of the Five Garrisons with Li Nezha in the center. Daoist altar in Sanchong, Taipei.

Photograph by author.

The Order of the Ming NovelHierarchies of Spirits and Gods

Figure 11. Five Generals of Five Garrisons, based on Fengshen yanyi (Canonization of the Gods). From left to right: Wu Ji, Yang Jian, Li Nezha, Nangong Shi (focus), Leizhen Zi. Altar of Wanxian Gong, Singapore.

Photograph by author.

(p.202) personification or embodiment of Hundun—is placed at the origin of “all the gods”; he is the origin.

While this local gazetteer is relatively specific about this one ritual, elsewhere it makes a much broader statement about the narratives enacted by the ritualists of this region: “As for the lyrics with which the ritualists serve the gods, these illustrate the loyalty and affection that [the gods] represent.”114 Thus the ritualists of Hunan are known to narrate the origins of the gods in relation to Pan Gu, and at least during the festival in his name they are more generally known as the specialists who narrate the “work of the gods” they serve by singing and dancing.

The coherence between the poem that opens the novel and the ritual lyrics sung about Pan Gu as the ancestor of the gods is suggestive. The fact that this same myth occurs at prominent positions in these two seemingly disparate genres—the narratives of a novel and the ballads sung during a sacrificial ritual—drives home the argument that the genres of novel and ritual may not be as disparate as they might seem. In the novel Pan Gu is presented as the point of departure from which the world develops, including the hundreds of gods, spirits, and godlings that participate in the episodes of the story. In the ritual Pan Gu is presented in the same way, as the primordial ancestor from which the gods develop.

It is not difficult to find other instances of ritualists who similarly sing about the origins of the gods to whom they sacrifice. Kristofer Schipper has suggested the possible kinship of novels with incantations recited during vernacular ritual on Taiwan.115 Similarly Kenneth Dean has observed that the vernacular master “leads spirit mediums in recitations of chants detailing the hagiographies of the local gods.”116 Identical practices are described for the Ming dynasty. In a record from the Zhengde reign (1505–1521) that describes the religious customs of Suzhou, ritualists also sing the ballads of the gods’ origins on sacrificial occasions: “In the songs of the ritualists, the lyrics all describe the provenance of the gods. It is said that the gods rejoice when they hear them. They call this a ‘Tea Banquet.’”117

In this one source alone the particular gods to which these narrative songs and sacrifices are offered are known by many names: “Five Saints,” “Five Lads” (Wulang), “Five Manifestations” (Wuxian), and several more of these demonic gods. In Suzhou too the painted representations of these variously named gods are present during the ceremony. The procedures are acted out by ritualists and are said to be widely popular already during the fifteenth century.118 As always these pentads are also known for their capacity to marshal dark warriors and chase away intruders.119 In short, we witness here the (p.203) narrative content of rituals dedicated to the same type of deities one would find in vernacular novels.

Although the issue of fiction remains a moot point, the ballads sung by ritualists are said to be original creations. One source suggests that ritualists from the greater Hangzhou and Suzhou region themselves “put together” their ballads of the origins of the “Holy Saints of the Five Quarters” (Wufang Xianshengzhe). We have encountered these gods in Wang Zhideng’s Compilation; they are the same gods as those subjugated by the Perfected Person of Mt. Kuangfu: “They sing the ballads of praising the gods, providing narratives that cover origins and endings, so detailed and so extraordinary. It is unclear from where they got them. Probably these are just put together by the ritualists.”120 These cannot have been short ballads, as the author exclaims that they are “so detailed and so extraordinary.” Narratives that tell the stories of gods as part of sacrificial ballads dedicated to five local saints appear to have been widespread. Records indicate that the ritualists of Jiangxi, located between Hunan and Suzhou, act out similar sacrificial performances for groups of five gods with different names, including the “Five Penetrations” (Wutong).121 According to the gazetteer, these are alternatively known as the “Furies” (Chang). Although the record from Jiangxi does not mention the narrative content of the sacrificial ballads that are sung and danced before these five gods, it is more than likely that the ritualists of Jiangxi would also praise their gods by narrating their sacred deeds—literally the “work of the gods.”

The remarkable thing about these records is that in the regions of Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Hunan there are ritualists who sing sacrificial ballads about (the provenance of) the gods that they sacrifice to and that their gods are otherwise well known from novels. Moreover they are all active during the sixteenth century, before the printing of the bulk of vernacular novels. The inclusion of hagiographic explanations in religious ballads is quite common in late imperial China, and the fact that they are put into a narrative format is to be expected. In that sense they are blueprints for the novel; even a long religious narrative like Canonization does not suffer great injustice if defined as a large compilation of hagiographic explanations.

So it seems that Canonization of the Gods and other Ming novels are best understood as intimately connected with their ritual environment—not merely in terms of ritual affiliation but even in terms of narrative content. This reinforces my earlier conclusion that the novel is based on ritual antecedents, as shown by the congruence of the pantheons that the novel shares with martial ritual. All the unruly spirits that are promoted into divine pantheons at the (p.204) end of Canonization correspond to the pantheons that are commonly invoked by the ritualists described earlier. We have seen that the Thunder Division headed by Marshal Deng is one of the most important of those pantheons, yet other celestial divisions also play important roles in vernacular ritual. The Plague Division headed by Kuangfu is an additional example of a pantheon that is invoked by ritualists during the Ming dynasty and before. And other gods promoted in Canonization—Zhao Gongming, Yin Jiao, and Li Nezha—are similarly indispensable in the same sphere of vernacular ritual. Just as in the ballads for the Five Saints, the gods canonized in the novel are addressed by means of narrative spells when their presence needs to be invoked by means of actual ritual.

Spells for invoking gods follow predictable patterns. At the heart of these spells, even the shortest ones, lies a brief reiteration of the god’s background and the special powers or deeds that have qualified him for canonization into divine ranks. The narratives of the spells thus reconstitute the gods by stipulating their identity and their divine works. For example, the spell of Marshal Deng states:

  • Fierce General of Thunderclap, God of Scorching Fire,
  • During the time of the Yellow Emperor you served as General.
  • You fought Chi You to death and thus established your merit,
  • So that the Jade Emperor ordered you to preside over Thunderclap.122

A relation is forged between merit achieved in battle and the divine rank or function bestowed by the Jade Emperor. This principle is also at work in the spells for other violent protagonists of Canonization, such as Yin Jiao and Zhao Gongming.123 In short, the invocation narratives repeat the now well-known fact that martial prowess leads to divine status for spirits with demonic origins—as long as they subsequently are loyal to the Daoist hierarchy. The ferocious officers of the Thunder Division or the Plague Division, whose violent powers are at once the prerequisite for their inclusion within the celestial hierarchy and also the impediment that prevents them from climbing too fast or too high within that hierarchy, have all started out as unruly spirits, as orphan souls, as deviant essences.

Despite the pervasive rhetoric of the need to annihilate devious spirits, Daoists are well aware of their martial guards’ demonic origins. One thirteenth-century Daoist, Lu Ye, admits very generally that the troops of the celestial bureaucracy are “evildoing and wicked demons.”124 Another Daoist (p.205) author states more pointedly, “The Thunder Gods are violent and savage, one needs bloody sacrifices when offering to them.”125 Demonic warriors enlisted by ritualists are commonly feasted with extensive banquets.

War—demonic warfare—ultimately is the narrative premise of Canonization; without it the road to divinization would be much longer. It is this principle of meritorious battle that informs the actions of these same characters in the novel. In order for the hundreds of historical and unhistorical protagonists of Canonization to become suitable candidates for canonization as divinities, they too will need to engage violently in battle confrontations. Ultimately they will need to die prematurely and become orphan spirits. From the beginning, all the wars waged in the story are conceived as part of the plan that is to lead to the canonization of the gods. The Daoist Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning (Yuanshi Tianzun) compiles his “List of Canonizations” for this particular purpose, and King Wu’s eminent strategist Jiang Ziya is appointed as the performer of the ritual of canonization. The author almost constantly reminds the reader of the teleology driving unruly spirits to participate in this dynastic battle. Starting right away in chapter 1, the author introduces the two sons of King Zhòu, Yin Jiao and Yin Hong, as examples of these gods-to-be. The author immediately connects them to the “List of Divine Canonizations” at the end of the novel: “This Yin Jiao later would be the Great Year on the ‘List of Divine Canonizations’; Yin Hong was to be the God of the Five Grains—both famous divine generals.”126 This preemptive announcement of certain characters to be included on the list of canonizations is repeated throughout the story, sometimes even phrased as “receiving offerings on the Altar for the Canonization of the Gods.”127 But until the victims of untimely death can be invested with divine rank and position, they are still impure—they can be seen from afar as “noxious energies” (liqi), “fiendish energies” (yaoqi), or “anomalous energies” (guaiqi).128 They correspond entirely to the class of spirits that Zhu Yuanzhang had wanted to contain on his Altar for Baleful Spirits. In order to attain their transformation from unruly spirit to divine officer, many fierce battles have to be fought. Each time a character dies, “one ray of his spirit enters the Altar for the Canonization of the Gods.”129

The demonic opponents that need to be defeated are inserted into the historical plot by the highest celestial authorities. They serve as adversaries by which protagonists establish merit. In that sense the dynamic that drives the plot of Canonization is identical to that of Journey to the West and Watermargin, whose unruly protagonists are similarly inserted into a historical plot in (p.206) order for them to accumulate merit and attain (or regain) a divine appointment. The gods are made to work for their exalted positions.

Three unruly beings in Canonization—the spirits of a fox, a pheasant, and a jade lute—are told explicitly that the chaos they will produce to unsettle the last king of the Shang dynasty will gain them recognition. In other words, what will result in celestial promotion for them is their mere participation in the story as “occasions” for other protagonists to display martial prowess.

Once King Wu attacks [King] Zhòu, you will complete your merit by the help you offer. …

After the events have ended, I will let you attain true fruition as well.130

When King Wu’s conquest is complete, his new reign will bring reward to the supporters of King Zhòu’s old dynasty—an approach to inimical gods highly reminiscent of the Han dynasty versions of “King Wu’s Conquest.”

The “true fruition” of these demonic spirits refers to their future transformation into a divinity with canonical status. The other protagonists in the story are not given this information, but the reader is frequently reminded that the death of a protagonist leads to a direct transfer of the deceased’s soul to the Altar for the Canonization of the Gods. On the altar the soul joins the other deceased spirits, and together they await their final apotheosis. In the end almost all of the roughly four hundred characters in the novel receive a divine title and celestial office. In the true spirit of King Wu’s canonization of the inimical forces that belonged to the defeated Shang dynasty, redemption is made available even for the greatest offender. After all, their only crime was loyalty to the existing world order. Thus the book ends with long canonization lists that include both the “good” and the “bad” and that render those categories irrelevant by focusing on the tangible contributions of protagonists in battle. What matters is not ideology but active loyalty to the powers they belong to. This is what allows for an unruly spirit to become a reformed servant in the divine hierarchy that Daoists support.

The end of Canonization of the Gods is written to fit the beginning of rituals as they have existed since the Song dynasty. There can be no doubt that this late Ming version of Canonization refers to an extensive body of martial rituals in the vernacular language. But while this certainly should make us rethink the validity of exclusive categories such as “literary fiction,” we should not end there. In fact the mislabeling of “King Wu’s Conquest” as a literary novel is more generally due to the currency of modern Western (p.207) categories (literature, novel, religion, ritual) in academia. It is beyond the already broad scope of this study to offer a new theoretical language for discussing cultural phenomena from late imperial Chinese history. Yet if this study has shown anything, it is that we should be less adamant in adhering to the categories that our respective academic disciplines imply.


(4.) DZ 1227:2.6b–9b. See the more extensive treatment by Poul Andersen in Schipper and Verellen, The Taoist Canon, 1058.

(5.) Hangzhou fuzhi, 4.23ab: 收陰兵以作下壇‎.

(6.) Ibid., 9.11b

(7.) Linding zhi, 1280. In Central Hunan this is still common today.

(8.) Chun’an xianzhi, 7.9a: 以陰兵助辛興宗討賊‎.

(9.) Jianning fuzhi, 11.20ab: 神率義兵‎.

(11.) Song, Song Lian quanji, 285: 宣和間,方臘作亂。聲搖浙東西,惡少年欲嘯眾從之。神君降於巫曰:「上帝檄吾率九天神兵破賊。此曹宜速改;弗改必令虀粉。」未幾,人自衢來,言賊聞瀟瀟風水聲,疑有鐵騎百萬自天而下,咸棄戟遁。官軍遂平之‎.

(p.234) (16.) DZ 1220:258.7a.

(17.) Jianning fuzhi, 11.27b; Ningzhou zhi, 9.3a; Guangxin fuzhi, 9.15a–17b. Before the Ming this configuration had emerged already; see Xianchun Piling zhi, j. 14, 3073.

(18.) See DZ 1166:43.2a, where Guan Yu is referred to as a “General of the Peak” (Yuejiang).

(19.) See Katz, Demon Hordes and Burning Boats, 136. This book is a detailed study of Wen Qiong. Also see the untitled manual included in DZ 1166:37.9a–11a. For an entire scripture dedicated to Wen Qiong in the service of the Eastern Peak, see DZ 1220:254. Also see Linding zhi, 1281; Hangzhou fuzhi, 47.28a.

(20.) Gusuzhi, 28.11b–12b. This grouping is all the more significant because the temples are not in the same location.

(21.) Ibid., 28.12a

(29.) Qiongtai zhi, 26.30b; Zhenyang xianzhi, 1.10a (p. 657); Fengcheng xianzhi, 5.19a; Songjiang fuzhi, 15.13b (this record lists several temples of the Eastern Peak; it is the one on Mt. Gan where the people of the prefecture gather for the Spring Festival). For Zhangzhou (Fujian), see Zhangzhou fuzhi, 2.10a.

(30.) Qiongtai zhi, 26.16a: Lin’gao; 26.27a: Wanzhou; 26.30b: Yaizhou.

(31.) Ibid., 7.13b迎春日,府衛官盛服,至于東郊迎春館。武弁各競辦雜劇故事。會聚逞衒。俟祭勾芒神畢,前導

(32.) Ibid.雜劇故事

(36.) Ibid., 204–216

(40.) In the scheme of the Five Phases the Quarter of Metal represents the West. It is the location of death, winter, and pale corpses.

(41.) Tian, Liuqing rizha, 28.4a: 【神助陣】 嘉靖乙卯,倭寇大作,直攻會城。余鳩集鄉兵千人為保障計。猶恐人心不安,乃擇日築高壇于西郊,以順金方肅殺之氣。刑牲歃血,為文告天,以求助于古今名將,自武成王而下三十餘人。後賊臨方山,四日不退。鄉兵迎敵,不戰而遁。四方被擄人回云:「賊人西望,見雲中神兵眾多:金甲神將,形甚長大,旗幟分明。是以不敢交戰而去也。」‎.

(42.) 崑崙山玉虛宮掌闡教道法元始天尊‎.

(45.) Ibid., 1957–1972

(47.) Chapters 36, 38, 40, 42, 62, 76, 95.

(48.) Chapter 62.

(49.) Deng Jiugong in chapter 53.

(50.) DZ 1307:1.11b. Nezha is here written as Necha Taizi.

(54.) Ibid., 234.6b四方大力如雲屯

(55.) Ibid., 232–236

(57.) Chapter 42.

(58.) Chapter 5.

(59.) Can Tang Wudai shi yanyi zhuan, chapter 38: 哪吒搖動五方旗‎; also see chapter 5.

(65.) Ibid., 6

(69.) Ming Shi, 1302. One of Efficacious Officer Wang’s epithets is “God of Fiery Thunder” (Huoleishen). See DZ 1220:242.1a, 243:1a. The record in Ming Shi states that Black Banner sacrifices are exclusively offered to the God of Fiery Thunder.

(72.) For an extensive discussion of Li Nezha and the relationship to his father, see Shahar, Oedipal God.

(73.) Fengshen yanyi, 96: 且說哪吒魂無所依,魄無所倚。他原是寶貝化現;借了精血,故有魂魄。哪吒飄飄蕩蕩,隨風而至,逕到乾元山來‎.

(75.) Fengshen yanyi, 96: 你受香煙三載,又可立於人間,輔佐真主‎.

(76.) Ibid., 97哪吒在翠屏山顯聖,四方遠近居民,俱來進香。紛紛如蟻,日盛一日,往往不斷。祈福禳災,無不感應

(77.) That is, he draws on the primordial powers that belong to the stage of cosmic development when things are still full of potential to develop into anything possibly conceivable.

(78.) This alchemical trope represents the nine-month gestational period of an embryo inside the womb.

(79.) Fengshen yanyi, 98: 真人將一粒金丹放於居中,法用先天,氣運九轉,分離龍、坎虎,綽住哪吒魂魄,望荷、蓮裏一推,喝聲:「哪吒不成人形,更待何時!」 真人傳哪吒火尖鎗,不一時已自精熟。哪吒就要下山報仇。真人曰:「鎗法好了,賜你腳踏風火二輪。另授靈符秘訣。」真人又付豹皮囊,囊中放乾坤圈、混天綾、金磚一塊‎.

(81.) Zhao Gongming uses the Golden Brick to lock demons in bottles or jars: DZ 1220:240.11a. Coincidence or not, this text is one of the earliest instances where Zhao Gongming and Li Nezha act within the same ritual context.

(82.) Wang, Wushe bian. The date of 1571 can be determined thanks to a reference to Wang Zhideng in Changzhou xianzhi, 1.10a. The gazetteer is from 1571.

(84.) DZ 1220:221.4b: 和瘟教主匡阜靜明真人‎.

(85.) Ibid.勸善明覺大師

(86.) Ibid.五方行瘟聖者三十六神君七十二候聖眾DZ 1220:220.4a, 221.2b

(87.) Sanjiao yuanliu soushen daquan, 157 (Wuwen Shizhe): 收伏五瘟神為部將也‎.

(88.) Ibid., 324 (Lushan Kuangfu Xiansheng)

(97.) Ibid., 189

(98.) Ibid., 251–252

(99.) Quoted in Ma, Shuihu ziliao huibian, 391: 張獻忠之狡也,日使人說《三国》、《水滸》諸書,凡埋伏攻襲皆效之‎. Originally from Liu, Wushihu.

(104.) Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 329. In the original, Esherick translates Fengshen yanyi as Enfeoffment of the Gods. For the sake of consistency I have used my own translation.

(105.) Sanguo yanyi, 1337: 汝引五百軍,都扮作六丁六甲神兵,鬼頭獸身。用五彩塗面,妝作種種怪異之狀。一手執繡旗,一手仗寶劍。 . . .  魏人見之,必疑是神鬼,不敢來追趕‎.

(106.) 能驅六丁六甲之神‎.

(109.) For detailed descriptions of the broader historical period, see Wakeman, The Great Enterprise, 225.

(110.) Xu Henan tongzhi, 78.4b–5a: 知縣王燮創立社兵法。以地之方為社。凡八十四社,每社兵五十人為兵四千二百。‎ … 樹旗曹門上,結義勇大社。願從者,集旗下。四方豪勇及土著壯士雲會。不數日得萬人。製旗幟、備器械、編隊伍、給信票,以五色分五營。‎ … 咸歃血盟於關壯繆廟‎.

(112.) Fengshen yanyi, chapter 1: 混沌初分盤古先。太極兩儀四象懸。子天丑地人寅出‎.

(113.) Hangzhou fuzhi, 4.22ab: 巫有練帛長二三丈。畫自盤古而下三皇五帝三王及諸神。靡所不有。是日以帛畫懸之長竿,鳴鑼擊鼓吹角。巫一人以長皷遶身而舞。兩人復以短皷相向而舞‎.

(114.) Ibid., 4.22a巫者事神之辭,以寓其忠愛之意

(117.) Lu, Gengsi Bian, 51: 巫者嘆歌,辭皆道神之出處。云神聽之則樂。謂之「茶筵」‎.

(p.237) (119.) Several examples from the thirteenth century are mentioned in Nanxiong junzhi, 2561–2564.

(120.) Li, Tanyuan ji, 8.13a: 讚神之詞, 敘置始末, 甚詳甚異。不知何所本。大要巫者傅會之耳‎.

(122.) DZ 1220:80.14b–15a: 雷霆猛將歘火神,黃帝之時為將軍。戰死蚩尤立功勳,玉帝敕命主雷霆‎.

(123.) For a spell that narrates Yin Jiao’s persona as a “crown prince” (Taizi), see DZ 1220:37.2ab. For Zhao Gongming, see 1220:240.18b–19a. For a spell that situates the Perfected of Kuangfu in the time of King Wu of the Zhou, see DZ 209:2b–3b.

(124.) DZ 1220:267.1a: 乃操惡兇狂之鬼‎; also 250.9a. For the scarce details we know about Lu Ye, see Schipper and Verellen, The Taoist Canon, 1111, 1113.

(125.) DZ 1220:101.5b: 雷神猛烈,須用血食祭之‎.

(126.) Fengshen yanyi, chapter 1: 那殷郊後來是「封神榜」上直年太歲;殷洪是五穀神,皆有名神將‎.

(127.) ibid., chapter 11祭封神臺

(128.) Ibid., chapters 5, 6

(129.) Ibid., chapter 39一道靈魂進封神臺去了

(130.) Ibid., chapter 1俟武王伐紂,以助成功。事成之後,使你等亦成正果