Thursday, March 12, 2020


I have a lot of guides to Chinese mythology, religion and myth on my shelf. Most are academic and little dry. They are all informative, but often not terribly engaging. And they rarely delve into details like how a given deity is managed in Chinese pop culture or video games. From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities, does all these things and is a pleasure to read. 

Written by Xueting Christine Ni the book describes 60 Chinese deities, dividing them  into clear and manageable chapters. It also has a bonus chapter on Ma Shen (Horse Gods). The author addresses the reader directly at times and brings her own background to the subject in a way that helps explain how these beliefs look at the ground level. This is useful because she is describing a living pantheon and living legends, stories that get told and retold in various ways. So it gives the reader a strong sense of how varied each deity can be from region to region or from one era to the next. 

You don't just get a single version of a given deity here. Multiple accounts and legends are explored, often with the author weighing in on her personal favorite. I enjoyed the way this was handled. It isn't unusual to have these sorts of variations in a book like this, but here the personal touch and ground level view helped. You see variations in daily life, but also in less expected places, like video games. I found the case of Chang'E, the moon goddess, interesting. The author describes how she has been transformed in some video games like Xuan Yuan Sword or League of Genesis to be bunny-eared warrior maiden. For me this was an interesting point of connection because while I haven't played the video game, I have seen the television series based on it. 

The book also does a good job of exploring how gods and legends are significant across different media. From novels, to movies to video games, the author explains how these figures are depicted and how they are often changed or evolve in a given medium. I think this is part of the book most people will find quite useful. It helps you understand the logic behind some of the visual depictions that are not immediately obvious to a person from a culture outside China. 

I believe this attention to media is an aspect of the book a lot of people will like. For example, it comments on Kuan Yin's depiction in Journey to the West, the classic novel, but also her use in a graphic novel. She also explores Chinese deities use in western pop culture, like Yu Shi the Master of Rain's appearance in Big Trouble Little China. For me personally, making these sorts of connections helps in mapping out concepts and remembering them. So it is not just an interesting bit of trivia, it really helps the reader navigate things. 

The prose is quite good. It is energetic and carries the reader from one page to the next. I found this to be the kind of book you want to read cover to cover (which is normally not how I feel about books on this topic; I tend to use them more as reference guides, or read entries across a long period of time). The writing is also very approachable. Things are carefully explained. It does not appear to assume anything about the reader's level of knowledge. But it still engages the topics on a high enough level that more well versed readers will find it interesting. I think this can appeal both to someone just developing an interest in Chinese deities and to a person who is more knowledgeable. 

Gamers will find this book especially useful. There is a lot in it that will be helpful to anyone running an RPG in a Chinese setting. I think Chapter 10: Protectors and Guardian Spirits will be especially helpful. But the book covers everything from Sun Wukong to Immortals and major gods. There is also a very useful appendix with Chinese festival days.  

People who enjoy Chinese media of all types will definitely find something in this book for them. For instance, the to two minor gods responsible for conducting souls to the underworld, Hei Wu Chang and Bai Wu Chang, often appear in movies without elaboration on their nature (but viewers will recognize them for their highly distinctive pointy hats and long tongue). For readers who have seen such films, but do not know about the Wu Chang, their entry should prove enjoyable. 

I am not a scholar, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the book. But I can say that by bringing in her own experiences and accounts of how these gods are venerated, it provides insight that more academic books sometimes lack. I am not suggestion readers should avoid academic texts on gods and legends. But I think this is a valuable addition to the shelf if you have an interest in the topic of Chinese deities.  

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