Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Architect of Heaven

Yesterday we got on a serious roll with finalizing one of the chapters, so we didn't want to let up for blogging time, but today we don't have that problem. So let's head east for some awesome badassness today! A write-in request reads Can you write a Wednesday post about an awesome Chinese goddess? You pick. Oh, boy, can I. (Okay, not on Wednesday, apparently, but I can definitely find you an awesome Chinese lady.)

It's hard to pick just one, but today I'm going to talk about Nüwa, ancient Chinese goddess of creation and authority, because she's an amazing and powerful lady and also a giant snake, so there's basically nothing not to love.

Nüwa is one of the oldest of all Chinese deities, originating in oral myth and folklore long before modern established Chinese religions, and a creator and parent figure to not only all of humanity but also the divine god-emperors who came after her. Because of her age, a lot of information about her has been lost to time; we don't even really know what her name means, beyond the fact that "Nü" means "woman", so it's most likely a title describing her as an important or influential lady (other linguistic theories attempt to tie her name to "water" or "valley", most likely because she is instrumental in the creation and maintenance of these things). She was the first being to exist at the beginning of the universe, the original Empress of Heaven who was later succeeded by younger gods who followed her, and the source from which all life and nature originally came thanks to her creative exploits. Her serpentine body, which might be meant to be a snake but also might represent early dragon legends,

Nüwa is one of the Three Sovereigns, who are the rockstars of ancient imperial Chinese mythology. The Sovereigns were considered the most virtuous and powerful of beings, benevolent and always willing to use their skills to better the world and the lot of humanity, and to that end Nüwa, along with her fellow Sovereigns, helps not only stabilize a chaotic cosmos to better allow life to proceed within it, but also invent and provide access to important things that civilization will need to survive. Nüwa occasionally gets left off the list of the Three Sovereigns, especially in later versions of it that replace her with Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, but this is likely a later development responding to a cultural shift that made people want to recognize the growing popularity of Huangdi and also no longer want a lady in their position of Oldest and Most Important Universal Emperor. (Which is a shame, because obviously this is a lady who gets things done.)

In addition to being the original universal badass, Nüwa is often accompanied by Fuxi, her brother and consort, who also appears as a great dragon-serpent-person; their serpentine attributes both mark them as obviously extremely old, from the earlier, more zoomorphic strata of Chinese myth, and also suggest again their connections to floods, water and primal creation, all of which were associated symbolically with snakes and dragons. Interestingly, Fuxi has a designated birthplace in Chinese myth, as well as a suggestion that he was once human and ascended to divinity, which is a common theme for divine emperors and warriors. Nüwa, however, does not. She is not and never has been mortal; she is the force that underlies the universe itself.

In China's oldest flood myths, a devastating flood was brought about by Gong Gong, a malevolent dragon who sought to rebel against heaven when the powers of the universe attempted to reign in his powers over destruction. The majority of the inhabitants of the world were killed, the life-bearing parts of the land were flooded and drowned, and eventually Gong Gong smashed Buzhou Mountain, which collapsed, causing the sky to suddenly list and crack from the lack of support. He also tore a hole in the heavens themselves, disordering all the heavenly bodies, and continued to rampage until the fire god Zhurong defeated and quelled him.

Nüwa, seeing the massive cosmic destruction, acted quickly to counter it; she cut the legs from the great cosmic tortoise Xuanwu and placed them at the corners of the earth to become the new pillars holding and stabilizing the heavens, and then sealed the gaping hole in the skies with five colors of precious stones, which she gathered from the earth itself - or, in another version, using her own dragonish body to seal the hole, so that she is herself the cement that prevents the universe from coming apart and is constantly halfway between the worlds of the mortal and the divine. She also stopped the floods by diverting and dissipating the waters with the ashes of the reeds that had been destroyed in the disaster, and in some older versions actually killed Gong Gong herself, thereafter using his body to recorrect the courses of the rivers.

So clearly, Nüwa does not mess around, nor does she allow chaos or destruction to reign over her creations.

She's also very strongly connected to the idea of family, especially marriage; after the flood, only Nüwa and Fuxi remained in the decimated world. Although they were brother and sister, and therefore any marriage between them would be incestuous, Nüwa decided to go ahead and marry her brother anyway, the better to repopulate both heaven and earth (in alternative versions of this story, there was a first primordial flood before Gong Gong after which there was literally no one in existence except Nüwa and Fuxi, so her decision to break the rules is understandable). Chinese myth is very careful to remind us that it's not okay for humans to marry their siblings and that Nüwa and Fuxi are exceptions because of the dire circumstances of their union, but nevertheless the goddess became the representative of marriage as a stabilizing and creative force in society.

Nüwa also further establishes her role as uncontested mother and authority of all things in existence by creating, well, all things in existence. In addition to having children with Fuxi, she created all kinds of animals (in some alternative versions of the myth, she does this at the very beginning of the universe when even Fuxi does not yet exist in order to alleviate her own loneliness), followed by sculpting the first humans out of yellow clay. Although she carefully formed the first few, she eventually grew bored with the mundane manual task, and thereafter dipped a rope in the clay and used it to spray globs of it all over the place, each of which became a new human being. As the myth goes, the people Nüwa spent her personal time and loving care on became emperors, nobles and privileged people, while the ones made from haphazard rope-flicking became peasants, thus allowing ancient Chinese society to claim that there was an inherent divine reason why one class of people had more power and wealth than another.

Later myths about Nüwa place her as the daughter of the Jade Emperor, who by the Song Dynasty had become the preeminent deity in charge of all the other gods of the heavens, allowing her to remain an ancient and highly important figure but placing her within the hierarchy being established by Taoism at the time, which was rising back to prominence after being recognized officially by the government during the preceding Tang Dynasty. In this form, she appears in the classic Chinese mythological novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods), where we also get to discover that she is not at all interested in anyone disrespecting her overwhelmingly impressive self.

In that particular myth, after Nüwa has saved the world from flooding and officially supported the new rulership of the Shang Dynasty (the second of all Chinese dynasties, so you know this was a very long time ago), Emperor Zhou visited her in order to pay her his respects and offer his gratitude for all she had done for the empire. Upon encountering her for the first time, however, he was overwhelmed by her incredible beauty and sex appeal, so much so that even though he could only see her outline through a screen, he was so unable to contain himself that he wrote a scandalous poem about her on the wall of her temple before he left.

This was a bad idea, as I'm sure no one is surprised. Nüwa departed shortly after Zhou's visit in order to herself call upon Huangdi, but when she returned, she discovered the dirty poem and was livid at the disrespect and presumptuousness shown to her. She declared that she would personally put an end to the Shang Dynasty; she couldn't personally just go up to Zhou's palace and eat him like the dragon she is, due to prophecy decreeing that he must rule for another twenty-six years, but she certainly could make sure that those twenty-six years were miserable for him. She created or summoned three lesser spirits to do her bidding - Daji, the beautiful hulijing (fox spirit) who would bewitch and seduce Zhou, Pipajing, who attempted to steal his fortune, and Jiutou Zhijijing, a nine-headed pheasant spirit who also took on a beautiful woman's form in order to distract and seduce Zhou - and unleashed them on his kingdom. She then made an oracular pronouncement that she was officially putting an end to all the goodwill and good luck the Tang Dynasty had built up before the Shang Dynasty took over, and then flew away in a dragony huff, leaving her minions, after many shenanigans and false starts, to eventually destroy the dynasty over the next few decades.

Nüwa is everything anyone could possibly want in an ancient goddess: incredibly powerful, ridiculously competent, authoritative and capable of sweeping universal change, and the hero of women everywhere who are tired of being harassed by catcalling. Neither Buddhist nor Taoist in origin but accepted into both religions because of her extreme age and importance, Nüwa is an unstoppable force of creation and order, and one of China's most awesome deities.