I dimly recall encountering shrines dedicated to the Lady of Linshui when I lived in Taiwan, but I never paid them much mind. The many temples dedicated to Guanyin and Mazu were much more conspicuous.
Mazu got my attention. She’s one of the most popular deities in Taiwan (and San Francisco – she has two temples in this city, including the city’s oldest continuously operating place of worship dedicated to a non-Abrahamic deity). She’s also a prominent female role model who became so good at Daoist magic that she became a goddess. One book about Taiwan compares her to Hermione Granger. Mazu overshadows the folk religion of the South China Sea region so much that I didn’t notice that Lady of Linshui was also a young prodigy of Daoist magic who turned into a goddess… until I read the newly published English translation of The Lady of Linshui Pacifies Demons (臨水平妖傳).
Content warning: this novel contains violence, including multiple rape scenes
Since this comes from an academic press, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be a dry religious scripture? No, it’s an entertaining folklore novel. I call it ‘folklore’ because its style comes from oral storytelling, not modern expectations that novels will immerse readers in the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings.
The title makes it clear that the protagonist is female, but I was surprised at how female-centric this story is in other ways. I didn’t count, but I have a feeling that this novel has more female characters than male characters, and that the female characters on average have bigger roles than the male characters. That’s (unfortunately) unusual in most genres, and not what I expected from a Daoist novel written in 17th century China. This novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Chen Jinggu (the protagonist who becomes the Lady of Linshui) meets many other young women, rescues them from their problems, asks them to help her fight demons, and they love her so much that they all want to be her sworn sisters. Chen Jinggu doesn’t just rescue young women, she also rescues young men, including Liu Qi, her future husband.
Through the centuries, female audiences must have delighted in vicariously experiencing the adventures of Chen Jinggu and her many female companions/admirers.
The way this novel centers female characters puts almost all wuxia to shame. It helps me understand why mid-20th-century wuxia gives female characters a more prominent place that British/American fantasy/western/etc. novels from the same era. That said, given that 20th century wuxia novels are descended from the Daoist literary tradition, why are they more male-centric than this novel from the 17th century?
However, this novel is not feminist. This story suggests that a woman’s duty is to accept the husband her guardians choose and to make babies. Chen Jinggu resists this in the beginning, running off to school to learn Daoist magic instead of marrying the man her parents chose for her, and in magic school she resists learning the magic of helping people with pregnancy, childbirth, and keeping babies alive. Fate punishes for this.
Having so much plot was about the politics of the Min Empire also surprised me. When the Tang Dynasty collapsed, much of present-day Fujian province split away from China and formed an independent kingdom called the ‘Min Empire.’ Before I read this novel, I knew almost nothing about the Min Empire. According to the novel, the Min Empire had plenty of political intrigue.
When the capital is under siege, and the ruler needs someone to rescue him, who does he ask? That’s right, Chen Jinggu. She leads the army which breaks the siege. Unable to do it alone, she asks the palace women to serve as generals too. I love that everyone in this novel accepts it as a matter of course that women lead the army which saves the day.
The only section I recall in which anyone questions whether women should/can fight is this:
The woman asked, “Elder sister, what martial arts do you have that you boast that you can eliminate this monster?”
Jinggu looked the woman over carefully. To herself she thought, “Although this woman’s fate is unlucky, and she is young and a recent widow, from the remarkable nature of her facial physiognomy obviously she is a woman of pure qi. I should teach her the magical arts. I will capture this fiend and save the lives of many people. How could this not be good?” Then she replied, “If it’s a matter of martial arts, then I have none at all. If it’s a matter of eliminating fiends, then it’s as easy as taking something out of one’s pocket.”
Many of the imaginative details of Daoist magic were entertaining. Here is one of my favorite bits:
Who would have guessed that all that falling up and falling down would cause the itchy spots that had been rubbed with ink to all fall off? When they examined themselves repeatedly, they were shocked. All the places where the spots had fallen off had turned into eyes! Their hands, arms, legs, and feet were covered with hideous eyes!
Poor guys. First their skin gets covered with itchy spots, and then their itches all transform into hideous eyes.
This English translation’s biggest problem is that it is too expensive. The paperback (which is less that 300 pages) costs over 30 USD. The eBook costs even more (why? how does charging more for an eBook than a paperback make sense?) Therefore, I recommend asking your local library to buy it for you. Feel free to use this review to persuade your local librarian. If you are a librarian considering buying this book for your library’s collection, the answer is ‘yes.’
I recommend this novel to anyone interested in female-character-centric folklore or Fujianese and/or Taiwanese culture. Enjoy reading about the Lady of Linshui kicking demons’ butts.