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Regular version of the site

A Dossier of Deities

HSE University scholars create electronic database of Chinese mythological characters

A depiction of the god of fortune and his companions standing in the heavens, Zhang Lu, 16th century / © Wikimedia Commons

The Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies (IOCS) at HSE University is developing an electronic database of Chinese mythological characters and motifs. Because nothing like it has ever been compiled, it meets an enormous demand. Project originators Elizaveta Volchkova, Olga Mazo, Aglaya Starostina and Alevtina Solovyova told IQ what they are attempting to accomplish and why Chinese mythology is both complicated and fascinating.

— How and why did this idea arise?

Alevtina Solovyova
Leading Research Fellow Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies Faculty of Humanities HSE University

Alevtina Solovyova: It all began eight years ago, gradually, in the process of our individual and joint research. Each of us was studying different areas, but all of which were connected in some way to Chinese folklore and religion. At some point, we thought it would be good to group everything together, classify it and make it accessible to researchers and anyone interested in Chinese traditions.

We discussed it publicly for the first time at a seminar in 2014 titled ‘Spirits and Souls in Chinese Culture.’ Our expeditions to different regions of China enabled us to gather a large volume of material.

The experience working with senior colleagues and instructors was also important. In particular, this includes the wonderful sinologist Boris Riftin (in memory of whom we organized the first Riften Readings event in 2019, and for whom we will hold a second in 2021) and the folklorist and researcher of Mongolian folklore Sergey Neklyudov, with whom we tried creating an Internet directory based on Mongolian field materials.

— Were there any databases of Chinese mythological characters at that time?

Aglaya Starostina
Leading Research Fellow Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies Faculty of Humanities

Aglaya Starostina: The world of Chinese mythology is extremely rich, but no good directory of it exists. Some reference works, mostly in print, do still exist — such as an old dictionary by Yuan Ke. Interesting attempts were made in the 1990s and 2000s to create something of a dictionary of Chinese guĭ (ghosts) culture or a dictionary of Chinese monsters. However, these were haphazard efforts, often listing several stories or descriptions of how a character looks without explaining their origins. The works lack a critical approach to sources or a clear geographical grouping.

The descriptions listed in many reference works include features specific to different eras. Consider the traditional god of thunder. The keyword describing it is ‘lei-shen’ (‘thunder spirit’), but it is depicted variously as having a snake’s tail, bird’s beak, wings or a hammer, and on the very next line it might be described as a pig with scales that falls from the heavens to attack people. The result is a hodgepodge of information and essentially the combining of several mythological characters.

— That refers to print publications. What about the information online?

Olga Mazo
Associate Professor Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies Faculty of Humanities HSE University

Olga Mazo: There are no open access and scholarly electronic databases of this type, although there is a huge demand for them. In addition to the large number of texts that exist, there is a living tradition among numerous local cults. Thus, even if a character is recognized everywhere by the same name, its features or the story connected with it will vary by region. Unlike dictionaries, the database makes it possible to sort and describe the characters according to any number of features, search for them using keywords and locate them according to geographic area or historical era.

Aglaya Starostina: There are two interesting examples in this regard. The first is the site www.Bestiary.us that lists a great deal of information, some of which is very useful. But the information on this site, including that concerning China, is not of a scholarly nature. Second, a few years ago, Dr Nathan Woolley of Australia defended his dissertation on religion and politics in the writings of Xu Xuan, author of the 10th-century volume ‘Notes on the Study of Spirits.’ The researcher mapped the location of these writings and made it an appendix to the dissertation. This was the first time I had seen something like this in a collection of medieval Chinese mythological stories, and it confirmed even more that we were on the right track.

— What do you mean by the 'right track’? Which parameters will you use in creating the database?

Elizaveta Vochkova
Associate Professor of Chinese History Institute of Asia and Africa Moscow State University

Elizaveta Volchkova: Because it is difficult to make an exhaustive description of a mythological figure, we discussed various approaches. In the end, we chose to employ the system of classification developed by Lyudmila Vinogradova. This is a clear and comprehensive system for describing Slavic traditions. We, of course, will adapt it to the Chinese subject matter.

The main parameters are the characteristics of the source (the period it was created, by whom, in which region, etc.) and the character itself: its name, appearance, hypostasis, attributes, companions, qualities, activities, etc.

We try to capture as fully as possible not only how the character looks, but also how it acts — with whom it interacts and how it contacts the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Ideally, once we describe and enter enough characters into the database, it will be possible to perform searches according to all the parameters. For example, we could search for spirits that appear at midnight and get a selection of such characters from different regions. Or else gods with the same name, method of communication or rituals. Of course, this opens up amazing possibilities.

Alevtina Solovyova: Our database will have several key differences. It should be diverse, fully text-based, and adhere strictly to academic standards in description, links, pointers and commentary. It is also an analytical tool designed to show connections between characters, motives, geographic locations, time periods and track the dynamics of individual stories and characters.

— Why is it difficult to describe mythological creatures and especially Chinese creatures?

Elizaveta Volchkova: Not all sources provide sufficient information for every parameter. It is difficult to identify a particular deity when each region describes it differently. A cult of the fox, for example, can differ completely from one village to the next, giving it new names and actions, and this requires painstaking work.

China is large and very complex in terms of regions and dialects. There is no single mythological tradition. The northern regions have their own and the southern regions another, and each has its own internal complexities. At the same time, all territories were united by a single written culture and often one label. But that one written name masks regional features; it is used as a blanket term covering all the local diversity.

— Can the deities themselves have any similarities? Do they share any typically Chinese features?

Alevtina Solovyova: There are several categories of characters. In particular, Chinese and, more broadly, Asian werewolves differ in some traits from European or Slavic werewolves. Or the souls of dead people — guĭ — are unique, or the genius loci who are responsible for a certain area.

Aglaya Starostina: If to consider the genius loci, then the equivalent of the Russian woods would be the Chinese mountains. Also, some creatures such as djinn or devas coming to China from other cultures often turn into guĭ. They are identified with the souls of the dead simply because this is a very wide category in China. And because the guĭ come from outside, they take on a strange quality that does not seem to be inherent to them.

Elizaveta Volchkova: I have always liked the fact that life does not end after death in the sacred world of the Chinese. All of them, and even the genius loci, have the power to transform themselves whenever they want to. They can gain merit and receive a 'promotion' from their local area to a higher status in the national pantheon. They can also advance from being a lower to a higher spirit in the afterlife. Thus, that life is dynamic: the spirits are not static but subject to change.

Aglaya Starostina: This is because the Chinese pantheon has reflected the human bureaucracy from the earliest centuries of the Empire. It is one of the few built as a bureaucratic hierarchy, replete with its own dynamics, prospects for promotion and even corruption.

Elizaveta Volchkova: In fact, this bureaucratic system mirrors the everyday world. For example, the ancestral spirits are analogous to a clan and below them are the restless spirits who are analogous to beggars, bandits and various marginal characters. Thus, the sacred world reflects the social strata of this world.

Olga Mazo: In China, there are many lower deities to whom people turn for various routine needs related to disease, childbirth, family troubles and so on. Because they are closer to mortals, they are seen as being practically family members, and this is reflected in their names. Their official name is augmented with a respectful name indicating their gender and age such as ‘grandmother’, ‘grandfather’ or ‘aunt’.

These are more prevalent in certain regions. In the eastern and northeastern provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Dongbei, there are lots of ‘aunts’ and ‘grandmothers,’ but it is not always clear exactly where their territory or ‘habitat’ begins and ends. And despite their popularity, they have not been studied much.

— This is a big job. Do you have any idea how large this database will be?

Olga Mazo: There are a great number of characters. There are many written sources and individual characters are often similar and have something in common, yet differ nonetheless. In addition, there is a huge variety of living traditions that change over time. You could add to this database endlessly.

— Does ‘living traditions’ refer to contemporary folklore?

Olga Mazo: There are several sources. The first is the material we gather on our expeditions to China. In interviews, people tell us which stories they know and which deities they worship. The deities might be old or new and it sometimes happens that their functions have changed over time. The second source is the Internet: sites, blogs and forums that actively discuss mystical topics and describe their impressions of otherworldly encounters. Some information is also found in comics.

— Do such creatures appear nowadays as well?

Aglaya Starostina: There is a special demon, for example, that appears when you are playing a computer game at midnight and a screenshot or black screen suddenly comes up. They open a portal to another world. Such ‘high-technology’ beings might take the name of a well-known mythological character and share certain traditions with them, but they will definitely have modern characteristics as well.

Elizaveta Volchkova: Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state, is an example of a real person who has been transformed into a deity. Truckers will hang idols bearing his image in their cabs in the belief that even after death, the 'Great Helmsman' has the power to protect them from problems.

This is also a business. Retailers in the funeral services market cater to people who want miraculous assistance, selling them such magical items as amulets, talismans and charms. In the process, new meanings become associated with these items.

— Which places have you managed to visit and what have you found in your expeditions to China?

Olga Mazo: The longest was in 2016. We were in China for one month, first in Hebei province in the north, and then in Macau in the south. We interviewed residents and visited temples where we spoke with the spiritual leaders. We collected a huge amount of material — texts, photos and videos, some of which we then presented at seminars and conferences. We later made another, shorter trip.

Alevtina Solovyova: On the one hand, our goal was to get acquainted with those living in the temple shrines in the north and south to learn which beliefs were more popular and where. On the other hand, we wanted to study the Tudishen — the patron saints of the soil and earth — that are a particularly prominent element of Chinese daily life. Every morning, we saw people carry offerings of sweets to him at the altar of a nearby store. Of course, such observations greatly supplemented our written sources.

I’ll cite another example, which is our expedition to Beijing in 2013 to investigate ghosts. I think Algaya, who has lived in Beijing and has ‘gotten acquainted’ with the local ghosts, could tell many interesting things about them.

Aglaya Starostina: Beijing is famous for ghosts. They appear in different places, sometimes for no apparent reason. One woman we interviewed told us how bruises would appear on her husband’s body at night and that he fell from the bed several times. She said this happened because they lived on an avenue popularly known as ‘Ghost Street.’ They say the air there is too thick with Yin, making it a bad place with lots of ghosts that cause various strange phenomena.

It was then that I really had an experience that marked the beginning of several years of research in the field. I realized what I should do and in which areas. My family and I were in the Pinggu District. Among the attractions listed in the guidebook was a certain ancient horse of an unknown era. We went to see it. They told us all about it and said this was no ordinary horse, that it was currently located in the park but that it used to stand at the village gate and would constantly move at night: it would turn up in a different place and no one knew where it would wind up next.

I didn’t realize at first how literally everyone believed this and thought they were just kidding around with me. I asked how that was possible considering that a sign hung on the horse and tourists came to this spot. My guide patted the horse and said, ‘We put its feet in cement.’ That was the moment when I realized that I had greatly underestimated this whole thing. From then on, everything went differently and I became inquisitive.

Olga Mazo: Some of the most popular characters are the deities of wealth. Many exist, but they did not all have the same qualities at first. Some menacing deities gained this quality later. In one of the temples in Macau, which is the only region of China with casinos, they showed us not just a god of wealth, but also a god of unearned wealth to whom people would turn if they wanted to win at gambling, playing the lottery or investing profitably in stocks.

— Will the expeditions continue until the database is completed?

Aglaya Starostina: We had been planning to go this summer, but the borders are still closed and we have no plans for the current year.

— How much time is this project expected to take?

Aglaya Starostina: The plan is two years. We’re just getting started now. We have selected the main sources, identified the parameters and are honing the methodology and technical aspects. It is difficult to say how quickly the rest will go.

Olga Mazo: I think we will not limit ourselves to two years. We have received a grant and the Higher School of Economics supports it. However, we will continue to work regardless of how much support we receive in the future. I hope we can involve sinology students who could not only make use of the existing translations into Russian but also translate and make descriptions themselves. Next year, the IOCS will launch a bachelor’s programme, The Language Literature and Culture of China. Students will study the Chinese language, mythology, folklore and religion.

Algaya Starostina: Ideally, we can present the database to the public when we have a few hundred entries. Plans call for offering it in three languages to make it accessible outside of Russia and for mapping everything, preferably automatically by tags. Unfortunately, that won’t happen quickly — this is a long-term project — but we hope to eventually have something that is truly useful for sinologists and everyone who studies mythology.


Author: Svetlana Saltanova, November 19, 2020