- Daoist Ritual, State Religion, and Popular Practices: Zhenwu Worship from Song to Ming (960–1644) by Shin-yi Chao
Among the vast pantheon of gods recognized and worshiped throughout Chinese history, Zhenwu stands indisputably as one of the most important. The earliest historical records of this god span all the way back to the Western Han (206 b.c.e.–9 c.e.) at the latest. Two thousand years later, Zhenwu temples are still found throughout virtually all parts of the Chinese world, and his worship continues to thrive. More interesting than the number of temples dedicated to him are the complex and variegated symbols and values attributed to him by different traditions at different times. Shin-yi Chao, in her book Daoist Ritual, State Religion, and Popular Practices, has provided the first detailed study of the formative period in which Zhenwu acceded to his lofty position in the front ranks of Chinese religion. She attempts to shed light on the human agents behind the formative history of Zhenwu and to show how the different symbolic values that they attributed to Zhenwu speak to the fluid religious landscapes of Chinese religion.
Chao’s study of Zhenwu focuses on the long period spanning the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (roughly 960–1644). She demonstrates a remarkable versatility in her handling of the immense collection of historical records at her disposal, including “scriptures, liturgical manuals, hagiographic accounts, government documents, epigraphy, iconography, gazetteers, anecdotes, and popular literature” (p. 7), and she does a marvelous job of letting these records speak for themselves by way of her superb translations. Throughout the course of her study, we begin to perceive the fascinating history lying behind Zhenwu, as he emerged into the major Daoist god of exorcism, a minor Daoist god of internal alchemy, a source of political legitimization for the ruling dynasty of the time, and a powerful target of popular worship, all of which led to his ultimate ascendancy as the central god of one of the most important holy sites of the Eastern world, Mount Wudang.
Chao’s study begins with a provocative introduction, to which I will return. Chapter 1 provides a historical examination of the pre-Song images and values attributed to Zhenwu. Initially associated with the northern constellations of the night sky, and called by the name Xuanwu before having his name changed to Zhenwu, he was located in one of the five palaces into which the sky was divided, according to the five-phase theory that became fully standardized in the Han dynasty. Soon this image was assimilated as one of the Four (or Five) Animals serving as directional indicators (p. 19). Chao makes a substantial contribution to the study of Zhenwu by successfully arguing that he began his career as a cosmological symbol, and it was not until the Tang dynasty that Zhenwu became anthropomorphized, specifically and initially as a Daoist god of exorcism (p. 27). Here, Chao demonstrates that, at first, Zhenwu was named as one of the four saints, [End Page 473] working under the authority of the north emperor in carrying out exorcisms. It was not long before Zhenwu was singled out by Daoists and laity alike as a god of outstanding efficacy in chasing off demons and providing other benefits to humans, and this led to his receiving individual worship. As Chao writes, “Xuanwu the exorcist general assimilated Xuanwu the cosmological symbol. From this point on, his godhead rapidly developed and mutated. Eventually he became a god of multiple faces that symbolized the interests of the various groups in society” (p. 28).
In chapter 2, Chao explores the historical documents dating from the Song (960–1279) that show the growth and spread of Zhenwu throughout virtually all parts of China. Briefly recalling the results of the previous chapter, Chao states, “The god’s debut in the Daoist pantheon in the mid-tenth century brought him to the attention of the public...