The western understanding of Chinese folk culture is generally vague. We sort of know something about Buddhism, or maybe the Taras, or Kuan Yin. Most of the stuff we do know gets bowdlerized into some western polytheism, or appropriated/misappropriated in yoga practices. From there, either because of subject neglect, or racism, or outright laziness, most of us western folks then sort of mentally blend it into pieces picked up from Japanese pop culture or maybe something from a Korean soap opera and call it a (vague and confusing) day. Someone paying attention might mutter faintly, “But aren’t they communist atheists now?”
Author Xueting Christine Ni, as a person of Chinese and American culture, takes on the deep folklore of China as a broad ranging empire pulling together multiple cultures into a single identity. The stories she shares of 60 deities hark back to when China’s folk heroes and regional spirits could beat out the gods of ancient Rome for covering literally anything and everything. Ni does a great job getting across that Chinese culture is not, beneath its outside world presentation, a monolith. Just as myths of Greek and Rome often have more than one telling that shifted from region to region, so do many of the Chinese spirits Ni mentions. The variations on stories around Kuan Yin alone might boggle the casual peace-seeker.
Ni also takes great effort in her profile of each of these spirits to connect it to something in western pop culture. While done for relatability, skipping that step would have been fine. First, pop culture reference in an academic work can reduce a book’s shelf life and given the rare nature of a book explaining Chinese folk spirituality, it’s better to see such a book last as long as possible. Second, sometimes the pop culture link didn’t ring quite true. While Kipling’s “East is east, and west is west and never the twain shall meet” is the ideology of the intercultural sloth, it doesn’t feel like Ni should have been responsible for her readers connecting the dots. It doesn’t feel like the dots needed to be connected – let the stories be as they are, they aren’t obligated to fit western ideologies because they don’t, and that’s okay.
This is not a book for one sitting. This is not a book for reading in isolation. It should be read with an iPad or laptop on hand, ready to type in the names of various deities to see what else can be found out to further understand Ni’s points. There is much to understand in these tales – far more than a single pop-culture friendly essay can relate. If you wish to broaden your inner index of the spirit world, deal in ancestor worship, and/or you routinely expose yourself to Buddhism or claim to, read this book. Broaden your perspective. If you read this book for no other reason, do it so you know who the shrines in Chinese-owned businesses belong to.
~ Diana Rajchel
Author: Xueting Christine Ni
Weiser Books, 2018
pp. 256, $18.95