Chinese Gods

Written by Julen Madariaga on May 21st, 2009

I was a bit reluctant to read “Chinese Gods”.  I never had much of a taste for the mystical, and the rows of whiskered statues staring in the temples fail to arouse in me more than a cautious curiosity. But when I received the latest publications of Blacksmith, the promise of a book that “makes sense” of China’s religions caught my eye, and I thought perhaps this was my chance to jump into it and cover a gap in my education.

You might be familiar by now with Blacksmith books of Hong Kong -  the same Blacksmith that did the Asian edition of Apologies and other gems like King Hui and Business Republic. I am, and I have come to expect good surprises from them;  many things can be said of their books, but surely not “hackneyed” or “banal”. Pete Spurrier, the man behind the company, is not afraid to go with first-time authors, and he seems to have a knack to find intriguing writers with original points of view. Jonathan Chamberlain is perhaps his best find.

Indeed, in terms of surprises, this book delivers from the preface.  First, you discover it was actually written and self-published by Chamberlain 30 years ago, inspired by a series of painted glass figures he collected from local markets. It goes on to describe an unusual interview in Bangkok with British mystical writer John Blofeld, a reference in Asian religions, who agreed to give the book a prologue in articulo mortis. And then suddenly, before you realize it, you are swimming in the thick soup of China’s beliefs, following the author in his daring quest to make sense of  all the Gods.

The book

Most books I have seen about Chinese religions are centred on the three main systems: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, often giving an interpretation of present behaviours in the light of the teachings of the sages. From the outset, this book is radically different: it holds that, for the majority of the Chinese, there has never been more than one unnamed religion,  which absorbed all the other masters and deities  - including, in some extreme cases, Jesus Christ and Muhammad (!). Based on this premise, the author explores the main aspects of this religion, analyzing the ways in which it created its Gods, and explaining these Gods as a projection of the Chinese society rather than the opposite. 

The book is divided into two clearly differentiated parts:

The first part is the one properly dedicated to making sense of it all. We see how the Dao De Jing and the teachings of Confucius (which obviously have, as philosophies, an existence of their own) were absorbed by the popular religion, the masters deified and given attributes that they surely never asked for in life. Buddhism is a slightly different story, as it was already a religion before it came to China. But, as the author explains and illustrates with examples, in the imagination of the people, the buddhist Gods were little more than a colorful addition to the already overpopulated pantheon of China.  

And what is this original, “untheologised religion” that predated and absorbed all the others? It consists of a series of very ancient beliefs, at the core of which is the worship of ancestors and the parallel worlds of the living and the dead. And it created its Gods through a double process of deifying existing humans and inventing human lives for adopted deities, thereby preserving the connection between the two worlds. This process usually happened first at the popular level and later received the sanction of the Emperor, who would liberally endow the new God with supernatural powers and appoint him to an official position in the complex bureaucracy of the Chinese heavens. 

The second part takes the form of a handbook, with twelve chapters dedicated each to one different God. It starts with the ubiquitous Guan Yu, and it includes some fairly rare specimens that I had never heard of before. Each chapter explains the origins of the God and its main attributes, and all include large colour pictures of the original glass figures that inspired the book.  This is, of course, only a tiny part of all the existing Gods, but it works well to get the general picture.

It is easy to get lost in the chaos of the characters’ lives and deaths, and I wouldn’t recommend any sane person to read all these chapters in one go. Rather, I read separate portions now and then and I am keeping this section as a guide book, with an eye to impressing the locals in our next temple visit.  Not that this would impress them much: as the author notes, the Chinese exhibit an incurious acceptance of their Gods. “They are to be worshipped. The rest is superfluous.”

My conclusions

Jonathan Chamberlain can write, this is hardly news after what we have read of him lately. Judging by this book, the good news is that 30 years ago he could write just as well. His prose is intelligent and fluent, no objection here. But this being an essay, and dealing with subjects that are - on account of the shortage of university research - close to the forefront of knowledge, one might want to ask how scientific his methods are, and how much value to give to his conclusions.

There is a general sense of chaos around this book.  Chamberlain’s narrative is logical enough, but there are still some points where you want to go back and restart from zero to see whatever happened to make you feel so lost. To be fair, it is not an easy subject to deal with. Gods have many names, and names have many Gods, and Gods share and copy cheerfully from each other’s lives.

To give just one example:  in Chun Kuei’s chapter we learn that he failed the public examinations and committed suicide on the steps of the Imperial Palace, eventually being appointed to serve as God in the Heavenly Ministry of Exorcism. Three pages later, in a different account, the same Chun Kuei is a brilliant scholar who passed first in the official examinations and grows to become the God of Literature. 

Perhaps the my real objection is the lack of a rigourous method.  Some of the deductions sound a bit on the wonkish side, like the various times where the parts of a Chinese character are analyzed separately for their meaning, ignoring that often components have a phonetic rather than a semantic value. More important, in my opinion, is the almost total lack of citations, which makes it impossible to discern which ideas are set forth by the author and which are already in the mainstream of research. 

Fortunately, the few references given in the text work do back the main ideas,  and the underlying hypothesis -that there is only one religion for the Chinese people- is endorsed in the prologue by a figure like J.Blofeld.  In addition, the author seems to take his own character parallels with a pinch of salt, and important conclusions reached in the book are mostly drawn from well-reasoned and well-grounded paragraphs that sound convincing enough.

In conclusion, this book has earned a place on my recommends shelf. If nothing else, because it is the first one to give me a simple, rational explanation for the coexistence of all those Chinese Gods. Having said this, I declare myself perfectly incompetent in the field of religion, and if any reader wants to raise an issue or point me to a book with alternative theories, I will be glad to mention it here as well.

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