- Journey of A Goddess: Chen Jinggu Subdues the Snake Demon transed. by Fan Pen Li Chen
Fan Pen Chen continues to fill in information on Chinese puppetry and folklore studies with this 2017 work that joins her Marionette Plays from Northern China (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017) (reviewed by Annie Rollins in Asian Theatre Journal 35: 230–233) and other works in filling out Chinese puppetry knowledge. [End Page 502]
Like Victor Mair (1989), Wilt Idema (for example, 2010), and Robin Ruizendaal (2006), Chen takes as her topic under-researched oral/visual texts or performances ("folk" materials). The book provides intriguing elements of complex rituals with semi-obscure meanings that persist in contemporary folk culture. Chen's introduction entices: "Journey of a Goddess is a lively mythology of Chen Jinggu … one of the most important goddesses in Southeast China (the chief deity of the Lüshan sect). … A historical shaman priestess who became a cult, the goddess was a demon slayer (particularly of a snake sprite) before she filled the niche as protectress of women (during pregnancy and childbirth)" (p. 1). The historical shaman Chen Jinggu (766–790 ad) was promoted to goddess in the Song period. The earliest clear reference to her cult dates to 1342 ad, and Haiyouji (Record of Traveling among Seas and Lakes, which Chen translates) is taken from a 1753 ad woodblock reprint of a Ming novel (p. 3). Extensive color plates show puppets, temple statues, actors, priests, ritual paraphernalia, offerings for the puppet stage, and musical instruments. Translations of Haiyouji and two scenes from a local puppet play Biography of the Foster Mother become the body of the text. "Foster Mother" is the Goddess Chen Jinggu, also known as Lady Chen. Language is lively and extensive notes are included.
Fan Pen Chen agrees with the interpretation of Ye Mingsheng (Research Institute of Art of Fujian Province) with whom she has done research (see Chen and Clark 2010). Ye traces both the novel and puppetry about Lady Chen to ritual practices of the Lüshan shamanist/Daoist rituals (see Baptandier 2002 for a discussion of some of Ye's work on the cult and Baptandier 2008 for another interpretation of this goddess). For Chen the triumph of the Lüshan goddess over her female snake adversary represents the demotion of an indigenous snake cult by shamanism. The story also represents the balance of snake cults, shamanism/Daoism, and Buddhism (represented in this case by Goddess Kuanyin). The snake is a strand of Kuanyin's hair while Chen Jinggu is born of Kuanyin's nail, so both bow to the Buddhist goddess. Fan Pen Chen taps extensive research Ye did for a large project on Chen Jinggu and makes parts of play texts Ye collected accessible for Anglophone readers.
Watching a puppet performance of the tale, Chen describes how ritual mixes with theatre: "The audience exclaimed with excitement when, after performing an elaborate and extensive shamanistic ritual dance, the shaman priestess Chen Jinggu [puppet] drew the snake sprite onstage … commanding two celestial generals (who had been hovering in the air) to attack … [action] more easily executed through the use of string puppets than it would have been with human actors" (p. 13). Lady Chen's story is presented in a variety of forms—including [End Page 503] drum song, nuo opera, etc.—but string marionettes are most popular manifestation (pp. 13–14).
The book begins with Chen's thirty-five-page introduction. Next comes the translation of Haiyouji telling how a ravishing seductresssnake/white python is eventually subdued by the demure, hardworking Chen Jinggu whose eldest brother is imprisoned by the python and her tiger-demon male partner. Lady Chen's second, adopted brother, Haiqing, serves as her clown-sidekick during the rescue efforts. Chen Jinggu learns ritual techniques to save brother and others, overpowering the snake.
Chen Jinggu owns the narrative. She saves brothers and babies from demons. She must reason with the Buddhist goddess Kuanyin, who...