Matriarchy at the Edge The Mythic Cult of Nu Wa 女媧 in Macau

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Dr Christina Miu Bing Cheng

Honorary Research Fellow

Centre of Asian Studies

The University of Hong Kong
The paper was presented at the 17th Triennial Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, August 8-15, 2004, in Hong Kong.

Matriarchy at the Edge

The Mythic Cult of Nu Wa 女媧 in Macau


The mythological repertoires of early Chinese culture and civilization are contained in a number of classical texts. These texts are invaluable sources to understand the power of mythological narratives, which re-enact and confound with the history of China, and which crucially foster cultural cohesion and a sense of collective identity. The mythological narratives, as Anne Birrell argues, are sacred narratives, chiefly because ‘they relate acts of the deities in addition to other episodes, and they embody the most deeply felt spiritual values of a nation’ (Birrell, 2000:7). In Macau—the former Portuguese enclave at the edge of South China, there is a small temple consecrated to Nu Wa 女媧. This were-snake Daoist goddess has been an influential deity since antiquity and played a pivotal role in Chinese mythical history. She represents Chinese culture’s cosmogony,1 or creation myth. Bits and pieces of Nu Wa’s portrayal as the primeval creator goddess and saviour of human life are narrated in various time-honoured classics, i.e. a Warring States Period (475—221 B.C.) text, Lie Zi <<列子>> (Master Lie) and two Han-dynasty (206 B.C.—220 A.D.) texts, Feng Su Tong Yi <<風俗通義>> (Comprehensive Interpretation of Customs) and Huai Nan Zi <<淮南子>> (Master Huai Nan). Apart from her matriarchal image as the Earth Mother, she is depicted as a beautiful but wrathful goddess in a Ming-dynasty (1368—1644) mythological narrative, Feng Shen Yan Yi <<封神演義 >> (Creation of the Gods). Moreover, Cao Xueqin曹雪芹 (1717—1763) opens his masterpiece, Hung Lou Meng <<紅樓夢>> (The Dream of the Red Chamber), with a decisive reference to Nu Wa as the repairer of the sky. Amid an assortment of divinities in Macau, this archaic goddess does not offer the more coveted “mainstream” services associated with the sea. Instead, she represents another layer in the spirit world by providing “subsidiary” divine assistance. Given that the cult of Nu Wa still retains its hold, even today, the pertinent questions now are: why is Nu Wa honoured at the periphery of China and how does the Chinese pantheistic spirit exemplified in her “divine abode”? What is the significance of the Nu Wa myth and her evolving status in the spiritual hierarchy? How are Chinese literary texts made to serve as a vehicle to consolidate myth making. And what are the differences and similarities of the creation myths between the East and the West? While applying the “etiological” approach to trace the origins and explanations of the Nu Wa myth, this paper also focuses on a broader exegesis, combining the disciplines of the classics, history, literature, religion, art, folklore, anthropology and psychology, for discussion.

The Temple of Nu Wa

After the founding of Macau as a Portuguese settlement in 1557, it became the bastion of Catholicism and was believed to have built more churches and chapels for its size than anywhere else in the world. It was, however, also permeated with a rich ambience of the polymorphism of Buddhism and Daoism. As the Chinese autochthonous religion, Daoism has been called the religion of the masses and is described as the most popular religious work in China (Welch, 1958:140). It is in Daoism that most of the mythological characters of ancient China were incorporated. And Nu Wa was appropriated as the supreme deity in the Daoist divine hierarchy. Among some eighty Chinese temples in Macau,2 there is a tiny one dedicated to Nu Wa.3 This insignificant temple truly does not seem decent for a prominent divinity.
The humble Nu Wa Temple is located at the junction of Rua das Estalagens草堆街and Travessa dos Algibebes 高尾街. It was built in 1888 and its main entrance once faced Rua de S. Paulo, which led to the impressive Façade of the Church of the Mother of God, better known as the Ruins of St Paul’s. Just as a fire destroyed the Church of the Mother of God in 1835 and left it as the “Ruins”, a fire also broke out in the temple’s adjacent cloth-shop in the winter of 1914. The fire burned its main hall and the rear hall to rubble. Only the side hall was narrowly unscathed. After the disaster, the temple was not re-built, but the government made use of the spare land for the expansion of Rua das Estalagens, while the side hall was restored with a new entrance added. This became the present two-storey structure, and the present “public” courtyard was originally the site of the main hall. Given its excellent location in the town centre, the temple’s courtyard is almost always occupied by vendors who are selling food and clothes. Passers-by can easily miss this unique heritage.
Though the temple was much smaller after renovation, the image of Lu Zu呂祖 (Patriarch Lu) was enshrined.4 Hence, a subordinate name of the temple, Ling Yan Guan 靈巖觀 (the Temple of the Magical Rock), was added on the lintel just below the three bigger Chinese characters: Nu Wa Miao 女媧廟 (the Temple of Nu Wa). One may ask why a male deity was put to share this “sacred space” with a female divinity. Patriarch Lu is a historical figure called Lu Dongbin 呂洞賓 (755—805). He is also popularly known as Lu Chunyang 呂純陽 (meaning the pure essence of the masculine force). He is believed to have attained immortality at the age of 50 and was deified as one of the Daoist Eight Immortals. It is said he acquired the mysteries of alchemy and the magic formula of the elixir of life. He generally carries a sword across his back and holds a fly-whisk as his attribute. The fly-whisk alludes to his ability to fly at will through the air and to walk on the clouds.5 Folklore even exaggerates that he has a flying phallus. He has long been worshipped as a fertility deity. Perhaps due to their similar role associated with fertility, they are put in the same temple.
On the right side of the entrance, four big Chinese characters悅城龍母, meaning Yuecheng Dragon Mother, are vertically inscribed on a stone pilaster. It is obvious that the temple is also dedicated to the Dragon Mother of Yuecheng 悅城. The worship of the cult of the Dragon Mother is believed to have begun in Yuecheng (present-day Deqing德慶 county, Guangdong 廣東province) around the first century A.D. Legend maintains that a living maiden with the surname Wan 溫 emerged as a shaman in the Qin 秦dynasty (221—206 B.C.) and was later worshipped as a deity associated with the sea and fertility. Nu Wa thus has to share her “divine abode” with Lu Zu and the Dragon Mother.

As the Chinese (at least in the instance of the lived experience of Macau) apparently advocate the spirit of pantheism through religious inclusion, compromise and syncretism, a plethora of deities is honoured in Nu Wa’s divine abode. When one enters the ground floor, there is a staircase leading to the first floor where two images of Nu Wa are enshrined on the main altar. One depicts her as Repairer of Heaven, and the other as Mother Goddess. The modest altar also provides spaces for Yuecheng Dragon Mother, Lu Zu, Guan Yin觀音 (the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy), Guan Gong關公 (the God of War), Zhong Kui鍾馗 (the Slayer of Devils), Zheng Yin鄭隱 and Ge Hong葛洪 (both are Healing Immortals). In addition, there are scattered small altars dedicated to the Buddhist tutelary deities: Wei Tuo 韋陀 (the Defender of the Buddhist faith and Protector of monasteries) and Di Cang Wang地藏王 (known in Sanskrit as Ksitigarbha, the King of the Subterranean Kingdom), as well as the Buddhistic Trinity: Past, Present and Future.6

Similar to the Grecian euhemerism,7 the Chinese are inclined to espouse the practice of raising historical characters to “godhood”. This temple indiscriminately enshrines multitudinous mortals who have been euhemeristically represented over time so as to become Daoist immortals. They are Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 (the God of Chinese gods), Pao Gong包公 (the God of Justice), Tian Hou 天后 (the Daoist Empress of Heaven), Bei Di 北帝 (also known as Xuan Tian Shang Di玄天上帝, the Lord of the Black [Pavilion of] Heaven), Cai Bo Xing Jun 財帛星君 (the God of Wealth), Wen Chang 文昌 (the God of Literature), Jin Hua Furen 金花夫人 (the Patroness of Child-bearing and Fecundity), and Tai Sui太歲 (the Star God Presiding over the Year). Moreover, the mythological child-god Ne Zha哪吒 and a triadic group of Fortune, Affluence and Longevity福祿壽 are honoured. There are even two animal deities—Sun Wukong 孫悟空 (the Monkey King) and Zhu Bajie 豬八戒 (the Pig Fairy).
Like most Chinese temples in Macau, the Temple of Nu Wa transgresses religious boundaries to enshrine a whole gamut of popular deities from Daoism, Buddhism and folk religion. It thus offers a potpourri of beliefs to meet worshippers’ various mundane requirements. This sacred space is another example illustrating religious syncretism of diverse beliefs that has been central to the religious life of the Chinese since the Ming dynasty (1368—1644).8

The Were-snake Nu Wa

In Chinese mythology Nu Wa has been the Great Goddess in matriarchal society since antiquity. She is Mother Goddess personifying Mother Earth and the source of all human life. There are myriads of “mythemes”9 constitutive of the embodied meaning in the Nu Wa myth. Legend claims that her father was Shui Jingzi 水精子, the Spirit of Water. She belonged to a tribe in northern China with the surname Ying 嬴 (meaning snail). She was formed like a human being except that, instead of having legs, she had a tail and glided over the earth. She had a long head with two fleshy horns, her body resembling that of a snail (wa 蝸), hence she was called Nu Wa (meaning snail-maid), and worshiped as a snail goddess蝸牛神 (Werner, 1932:334 & Wang, 1977:400). In visual arts, Nu Wa has long been portrayed as having a human head and a snake body, and is commonly considered a were-snake deity. The snake-like Nu Wa reminds us of the Aztec Goddess of the Earth and Mother of gods and men, Coatlicue, who is often shown wearing her characteristic skirt of writhing snakes. The two mother goddesses from different hemispheres are inseparably linked with the snake.
Hagiography has it that Nu Wa was born three months after her brother Fu Xi 伏羲 (2953—2838 B.C.). Fu Xi was the first legendary sovereign of the Hunting Age of the early nomadic tribes who settled in ancient China. He was credited with many cultural inventions and regarded as the founder of Chinese civilization. Another account maintains that Fu Xi was from a tribe in central China bearing the surname Feng風 (meaning wind) and the tribal tattoo was a big dragon. The name Fu Xi literally denotes that he had a prostrate and curvy body, like a snake. Obviously, both Nu Wa and Fu Xi had snake-like bodies, and perhaps because of their physical resemblance, legend maintains that Nu Wa was the sister and wife of Fu Xi. They are taken as the first divine married couple.
Similarly, in early Persian mythology, Yima, a solar deity and god of fertility, married his sister (Leeming, 1994:225). Moreover, the theme of sibling incestuous marriage cannot fail to recall Adam and Eve’s offspring who, Christians believe, procreated the whole human race. Incest, being a violation of exogamy, was among the taboos of tribal societies, and remains a major crime in present-day communities. According to Michael Grant, however, out of fifty representative mythologies of the world no less than thirty-nine include incest among their subject matter (Grant, 1963:230). In line with Grant’s observation, Carl Jung has maintained:
Whenever [the] drive for wholeness appears, it begins by disguising itself under the symbolism of incest, for, unless he seeks it in himself, a man’s nearest feminine counterpart is to be found in his mother, sister, or daughter. (Jung, 1966:471)
For Jung, incest in itself symbolizes the longing for union with the essence of one’s own self, or, in other words, for individuation. This hypothesis may explain why the gods of antiquity very frequently engendered offspring through incestuous relations. In this way, the epic of Nu Wa/Fu Xi relationship falls in line with other ancient mythologies.
Despite their own sibling incestuous marriage, it is believed that Nu Wa called Fu Xi’s attention to prohibiting marriage between members of the same family and between a couple of the same surname. Fu Xi instituted the laws of marriage, providing first for betrothal through go-betweens, making rules for presents and ceremony, and forbidding pre-marital relations. As such, they are regarded as the God and Goddess of Marriage.
Both of them are often represented as partly human and partly supernatural; the lower part of their bodies being in the form of entwined tails of serpents. This representation is to symbolize mating. In the tombs of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.—220 A.D.), there are archaeological findings showing Nu Wa and Fu Xi with human heads and interlacing snake tails. Such portrayal is readily reminiscent of the cult of the Naga (in Sanskrit, Naga is a male snake or serpent, and Nagini a female). In Southeast Asia, particularly India and Cambodia, the snake is almost a saintly motif in Buddhism. Legend has it that when the Buddha was in his sixth week of meditation after his Enlightenment, a serpent king (king of the Nagas) named Mucilinda sheltered him during a great storm and torrential rain that lasted for seven days. The serpent king surrounded him with the coils of his body and formulated, like an umbrella, a protective outspread hood of his seven heads. This notable episode has become a favourite subject matter in Buddhist arts. The Naga cult appears to be popular in China too, and the snake is worshipped as a form of divine spirit. It comes to represent immortality because of its ability to emerge renewed from its old skin to regeneration and rebirth.
In world mythology, the snake is believed to control the sources of water and is hence a form of water god, and is worshipped among the fertility gods in the hope of assuring a successful growing season for crops (Rosenberg, 1999:330). The snake is taken for knowledge, wisdom10 and the power to heal. It is also a phallic symbol associated with the earth goddess in the fertility rites. It is regarded as a benevolent “genie of the ground” and a friend of human beings (Frédéric, 1995:91,277). It is even worshipped by some as a god (Hall, 1995:285). In Mesoamerican civilization, the snake is perhaps the most enduring icon. The Mayas worshipped the mythic plumed-serpent (or feathered-snake) god, Kukulcan, known to the later Toltecs and Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl. Moreover, the image of a snake (together with an eagle perching on a cactus) is even represented on the present-day Mexican flag, thus showing the positive iconography of the snake.
By contrast, the snake is a demonic animal in Christian culture. In the Bible, the snake is the craftiest of all God’s creatures, and is the chief agent in the scene of the Temptation (Genesis 3:1—7). It is believed that the snake persuaded Eve to eat the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. Eve ate the forbidden fruit and gave some to Adam who ate it too. Hence, the snake was condemned, “….the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, call the Devil, and Satan which deceiveth the whole world….” (Revelation 12:9). As we can see the words dragon, serpent, Devil, and Satan are interchangeable in Christian culture, and the snake is a symbol of evil and a biblical synonym for Satan. These semantic entanglements virtually blur the exact distinctions among these words. The iconographic meaning of the snake vividly espouses opposed interpretations in varying traditions, and the same animal in different cultural contexts is endowed with contrasted semiotics.

The Creator of the Cosmos and Human Beings

A creation myth is a cosmogony, a narrative that describes the original ordering of the universe and reveals the great struggle to survive in chaos. Almost all cultures have cosmogonic myths, because human beings are preoccupied with their origins and how the world in which they live originated. In Chinese mythical history, there were two authoritative versions of creation,11 namely, the myths of Pan Gu盤古 (Coiled Antiquity)12 and of Nu Wa. While Pan Gu was worshipped as the Ancestor God祖神among different ethnic minorities in the southwestern part of China, Nu Wa was regarded as the Mother Goddess母神 in the northern regions, mainly worshipped by the Han Chinese (Wang, 1977:583—4). Even nowadays, the cult of Nu Wa enjoys huge popularity in Henan 河南, Hebei 河北 and Shaanxi 陝西 provinces in China (Yang, 1997:144—162).
The Chinese creation myth holds that Pan Gu was a cosmic divine giant. For 18,000 years he created order out of a huge egg containing chaos by separating the sky and the earth. Every day he grew ten feet taller and went through nine changes. Another 18,000 years passed, Pan Gu became extremely tall. When he was dying, he underwent bodily transformation to give shape and substance to the universe. His left eye became the sun and right eye the moon; his arms and legs the four poles of the earth; and the five parts of his body the five mountains. His blood formed the rivers; his hair and moustache the stars. The parasites (or mites) on his body, impregnated by the wind that had come forth from his breath, turned into men and women.13
The Pan Gu creation myth, which represents the cosmological human body, is stunningly similar to that of other ancient mythologies. For instance, in northern Europe, the sea, the earth and the sky were created from parts of the Scandinavian primeval giant Ymir’s body after he was slain by Odin, the Scandinavian god of war (Shapiro, 1979:214). In the Vedic tradition, the “Primal Man” Purusha (or Purusa) was a cosmic giant who created the universe. His head became the sky, his feet the earth, his navel the air, and his limbs produced mortals (Coulter & Turner, 2000:392). The resemblance of the Pan Gu myth to these creation myths reveals some sort of intertextuality and suggests that it was probably Indo-European in origin. It might have been collected from Central Asian sources, due to increased cross-cultural contacts among people from southwestern China and Central Asia in the third century A.D.

Unlike the somewhat unappealing male-dominated myth of Pan Gu, the female-dominated creation story of Nu Wa14 clearly indicates that human beings are not on a level with parasites. The name “Nu Wa” is first mentioned briefly in Chu Ci .Tian Wen <<楚辭.天問>> (Lyrics of Chu - Heavenly Questions), a text written in the third century B.C. The myth then appears in an Eastern-Han dynasty (25—220 A.D.) text, Shuo Wen Jie Zi <<說文解字>> (Talking about Text and Explaining Words), compiled by Xu Shen 許慎 (d. 120 A.D.?). It relates that Nu Wa was a divine holy maiden in antiquity, who created and impregnated everything 古之神聖女, 化萬者也 (Xu, 1997: 623). These ten words neatly encapsulate that the cosmos was established and all living things took shape through Nu Wa’s creation.15 She is the matriarchal primogenitor par excellence.

In Feng Su Tong Yi <<風俗通義>> (Comprehensive Interpretation of Customs), another Eastern-Han dynasty text, compiled by Ying Shao應劭 (c. 140—206 A.D.), there is a comparatively more detailed description saying that Nu Wa created human beings so as to enrich and beautify the world. She is specifically portrayed as the Earth Mother 地母, or the Creatrix of humankind:
俗說天地開闢, 未有人民, 女媧摶黃土為人, 劇務, 力不暇供, 乃引繩絚泥中, 舉以為人。故富貴者黃土人也, 貧賤凡庸者絚人也。(Ying, 1980:449)
Legend has it that at the very beginning when heaven and earth first took shape, there were no human beings, Nu Wa patted and modelled yellow clay in order to create human beings. The task was very tedious and her strength could not tolerate the burden. So she pulled a rope through the mud, lifted it up and each drop of clay that fell off became a human being. Therefore, the rich and the noble were those made of yellow clay, whereas the poor and the ordinary were those made of pulling the rope through the mud.
This fragment explains not only the primeval creation of humankind, it is also redolent of other connotations. First, it tells the origin of social hierarchy. The yellow clay humans became the ruling class of rich and noble people, while the mud produced the underclass of poor and servile people. Secondly, it latently embraces the Chinese concept of predeterminism, that is, the fate of human beings was already predestined when they were created. In the Christian creation myth, however, the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, betrayed God by eating the forbidden fruit, and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The episode perhaps suggests the first couple’s uncompromising challenge to predestined fate. Thirdly, the reference to the yellow clay on the bank of the Yellow River is vital in the Chinese creation myth. The Yellow River, on which life and culture have depended, was the cradle of Chinese civilization. The association of the Nu Wa myth with the Yellow River thus enhances the nationalistic spirit (in a modern sense) of the Chinese and strengthens the ethnic bonding.
The creation story of the first man from dust, soil or clay is found in other religions, notably Babylonian. Similarly, Ovid (43 B.C.—17 or 18 A.D.), retelling a Greek myth in Metamorphoses, describes the Titan Prometheus fashioning the first figure of a man from clay in the image of the gods:
Then man was made, perhaps from seed divine

Formed by the great Creator, so to found

A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,

So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,

Kept still some essence of the kindred sky—

Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,

In likeness of the gods that govern the world—

And while the other creatures on all fours

Look downwards, man was made to hold his head

Erect in majesty and see the sky,

And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.

Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed

Put on the unknown form of humankind.

(Metamorphoses 1:76-88)

In the same vein, the Bible relates, “The Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live” (Genesis 2:7). Apart from the similarity that man is made from clay, the Chinese creation myth appears to embody different elements from that of the Christian. In the Bible:
God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female, blessed them and said, “Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control”. (Genesis 1:27—28)
In Christianity, there was only a singular creation god, but in Chinese mythology there were two cosmic creators, namely Pan Gu and Nu Wa. The Christian creation myth conforms to the patriarchal type of God the Father, whereas the Chinese creation myth also espouses the matriarchal type of Mother Goddess, in addition to the cosmic divine giant. While the Christian god created only a man and a woman, Nu Wa created human beings in groups—nobles and commoners. Contrary to the Greek God and the Christian God who made man in their images, Nu Wa did not create man in her likeness. Unlike Adam and Eve’s disgraceful Fall, and hence her descendents were burdened with the original sin, the people made by Nu Wa did not fall from her grace and were not punished. Most especially, Nu Wa created only the Chinese people, but the Greek and the Christian creation myths seemed to apply to all humans.
In the Bible Eve was the mother of all human beings (Genesis 3:20), but it was she who brought forth the Fall of humankind. Quite in a different vein, Nu Wa was the Mother Goddess and Guardian Goddess for the people and the country, and a great matriarch in the epics of Chinese culture.

Repairer of Heaven and Guardian of Human Life

Chinese mythology holds that in antiquity the sky and the earth were in utter chaos. There were torrential rain and infernal fires, and human beings were in great danger. Nu Wa then came to the rescue. She tamed unbridled nature, restored the cosmic order, and effected stability on earth. This episode can be traced in Huai Nan Zi <<淮南子>> (Master Huai Nan), compiled by Liu An 劉安 (c. 170—122 B.C.) in 139 B.C. (the Western Han dynasty):

往古之時, 四極廢, 九州裂, 天不兼覆, 地不周載, 火爁焱而不滅, 水浩洋而不息, 猛獸食顓民, 鷙鳥攫老弱, 於是女媧鍊五色石以補蒼天, 斷鰲足以立四極, 殺黑龍以濟冀州, 積蘆灰以止淫水。(Liu, 1926:39)

In antiquity, the four extremities (the four corners of the earth) were in decline, the nine continents were cracked, the sky did not cover the entire earth and the earth did not fully support the sky, the fires were ablaze and not extinguished, the waters were flooding widely and not stopped, fierce beasts ate the people, preying birds seized the old and the weak. Nu Wa therefore melted stones of five colours to repair the azure sky, cut the celestial tortoise’s feet to set upright the four extremities, slaughtered the black dragon to rescue the people in Ji province, gathered ashes to fill up the flooding waters, and rescued the land.
This fragment undoubtedly consolidates her role as the sky repairer and guardian goddess of human life.
Meanwhile, after her brother/husband’s death, Nu Wa reigned as sovereign of the kingdom under the title Nu Huang 女皇 (Empress). Towards the end of her reign, however, Gong Gong 共工 became a rebel and fought with Zhuan Xu 顓頊to be king.16 Demonic and ambitious as Gong Gong was, he violently shook Buzhuo Mountain 不周山 (meaning imperfect mountain) and seized one of the nine heavenly columns and broke it, thus causing an enormous black hole in the celestial vault, from there torrential rain poured down and the earth was flooded. After committing the crime, Gong Gong fled but was caught and killed by Nu Wa. She then came to support the heavens by scaffolding and saved human life. The episode plainly suggests that the cosmic order was disrupted by male violence, and that disorder was restored by female benevolence. Hence, her matriarchal importance is emphasized. Here is an excerpt from Lie Zi <<列子>> (Master Lie), a Daoist classic, compiled by Lie Yukou列禦寇 during the Warring States Period (475—221 B.C.):17

昔者女媧氏鍊五色石以補其闕; 斷鰲之足以立四極. 其後共工氏與顓頊爭為帝, 怒 而觸不周之山, 折天柱, 絕地維; 故天傾西北, 日月辰星就焉; 地不滿東南, 故百川水潦歸焉。(Lie, 1987:115)

In former times, Nu Wa melted five-coloured stones to repair the hole of the sky; and cut off the feet of the celestial tortoise to set upright the four extremities of the earth. Later Gong Gong and Zhuan Xu fought to become king. He (Gong Gong) wrathfully shook Buzhuo Mountain, broke the pillar in the sky, tore the strings that tied the earth; so the sky leaned towards northwest, where the sun, the moon and the stars positioned; the water could not flow to the south-eastern part of the earth, therefore all stagnant waters flooded.

The above two fragments simultaneously emphasize that ancient China suffered flooding waters. The chaos of the deluge often becomes part of the creation myth. Though destructive, the waters are the source for a new birth, and represent an urge for a new beginning. Accounts of a great flood appear to be common features in the mythology and folk-history of peoples throughout the world. The flood story brings to mind the Greek myth of Prometheus’ son, Deucalion, who escaped the flood by building an ark in which he floated for nine days with his wife Pyrrha (Metamorphoses 1:348—415). Similarly, Noah built an ark to escape the deluge, which lasted for one hundred and fifty days (Genesis 7, 8:1—19).

Although these two fragmentary passages are short and drawn from classical texts, they succinctly illustrate that Nu Wa was the archetypal saviour figure in the catastrophe myth. Moreover, her role as the divine smith was pinpointed, since she smelted the cosmic five-coloured stone and restored the sky. One may wonder how many magic stones were required to repair the sky; and how big they were. In Hung Lou Meng <<紅樓夢>> (The Dream of the Red Chamber),18 the author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1717—1763) appropriated the Nu Wa myth and provided a mathematical hermeneutics at the very beginning of the novel:
卻說那女媧皇煉石補天之時, 於大荒山無稽崖煉成高十二丈, 見方二十四丈大的頑 石三萬六千五百零一塊; 那媧皇只用了三萬六千五百塊, 單單剩下一塊未用, 棄在青埂峰下。(Cao, 2001:1)

Long ago, when the goddess Nu-wa was repairing the sky, she melted down a great quantity of rock and, on the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains, moulded the amalgam into three hundred and six thousand, five hundred and one large building blocks, each measuring seventy-two feet by a hundred and forty-four feet square. She used three hundred and six thousand five hundred of these blocks in the course of her building operations, leaving a single odd block unused, which lay, all on its own, at the foot of Greensickness Peak in the aforementioned mountains. (Hawkes, 1973:47)

In this excerpt, the cult of Nu Wa and the cult of the stone are closely interwoven. The narrative not only tells the size and number of stones Nu Wa used,19 it also reveals the Chinese passion for stone (and metonymically for jade). The stone has long been regarded as possessing supernatural power in aniconic form20 as an antidote to malign and inauspicious influences. It is this single unused stone left by Nu Wa that constitutes the story line of Hung Lou Meng, which is also known as The Story of the Stone <<石頭記>>.

Nu Wa’s Enticing Charm

Nu Wa was re-invented in another mythological repertoire and incorporated as one of the most fascinating characters in Feng Shen Yan Yi <<封神演義>> (Creation of the Gods). This classical novel was developed over centuries as a folk tale, and first appeared in book form in the late Ming dynasty (1368—1644).21 In the novel, the real world and the fantastic world are presented in a harmonious and holistic manner. It combines fictionalized historical romance and popular mythological tales based on the fall of the Shang 商 dynasty (1766—1121 B.C.) and the rise of the Zhou周 dynasty (1122—221 B.C.). During the fictitious battles between evil spirits and divine beings that are involved in the transition of power, Nu Wa appears three times to intervene. It comes to the end with Jiang Ziya’s姜子牙canonization of three hundred and sixty-five mortals (a reference to the 365 days in a year) in the Daoist pantheon under a celestial hierarchy, and with King Wu’s 武 confirmation of the official titles to his subordinate feudal lords.22

At the outset of this fictional narrative, Nu Wa’s supreme status as the sovereign of the cosmos was recapitulated by Shang Rong商容, the Prime Minister of King Zhou紂 (1154—1121 B.C.):
Goddess Nu Wa’s been a great goddess since ancient times and possesses saintly virtues. When the enraged demon Gong Gong knocked his head against Buzhou Mountain, the northwest section of Heaven collapsed and the earth sunk down in the southeast. At this critical moment, Nu Wa came to the rescue and mended Heaven with multi-colored stones she had obtained and refined from a mountain. (Gu, 1992:3)
Although Nu Wa’s greatness was emphasized, she was demotely transposed as the guardian angel for Zhaoge 朝歌 (present day Anyang安陽, Henan province), the capital of the Shang dynasty (1523—1027 B.C.), and merely honoured as proper goddess 正神.

Under the advice of the Prime Minister, King Zhou made a pilgrimage to worship Nu Wa and held a ceremony at her temple on her birthday, the 15th day of the third lunar month. Suddenly a whirlwind blew up, “rolling back the curtain and exposing the image of the goddess to all. She was dazzlingly beautiful, much more than flowers, more than the fairy in the moon palace, and certainly more than any woman in the world. She looked quite alive, smiling sweetly at the king and staring at him with joy in her eyes” (Gu, 1992:4). The ancient prototype of the snake-like Nu Wa was embellished as a heavenly beauty in this scene. King Zhou was immediately besotted by her bewitching pulchritude, as none of his concubines were as attractive as the goddess’ image. As an expression of his immense admiration and infatuated love for her, the licentious King then wrote the following poem in praise of her on the wall near her image:








The exquisite curtain is splendidly embroidered with pairs of phoenixes,

And all are deftly applied with gold dust on the surface.

Curving brows like winding hills in jade green,

Dancing sleeves aflutter, clothed in radiant dew.
As pear blossoms soaked with raindrops to compete with beauty,

Charming as peonies enveloped in mist.

If the sweet beauty can ever walk in graceful movements,

I’ll bring her along to Chang Le Palace to serve me.

This flirtatious poem becomes the peripeteia and the main cause of the fall of the Shang dynasty. It also foregrounds a whole sequence of fantastic battles between the evil and the divine in Feng Shen Yan Yi.

On her birthday, before King Zhou arrived, Nu Wa had already left her temple to pay respects to the triadic group San Huang 三皇 or the Three Emperors—Fu Xi 伏羲, Shen Nong 神農 and Huang Di黃帝.23 Being the archetypal creatrix and saviour of humankind, Nu Wa now became an inferior figure to the three patriarchal deities, and was “degraded” by scribal prejudice. After she returned, she found the poem and was furious. She felt hugely insulted, because the provocative poem blatantly expressed the King’s sexual desire towards her and he committed the sin of blasphemy. The blasphemy from a mortal to a proper goddess can be seen as a symbolic rape, which symbolically violates her virginity and defiles her saintly image. King Zhou’s visit to the Nu Wa Temple is a kernel episode, which generates the sin-punishment theme.

Avenging Goddess

Just like the Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati, who have gentle and terrifying images,24 Nu Wa manifests her angry form as an avenging goddess as the plot unfolds. She used the magic “Demon-summon Banner”, calling out three sprites from a golden gourd. She commanded them to transform themselves into beauties, enter the palace and distract King Zhou from state affairs, but not harm the ordinary people (they actually killed many commoners). She promised to reward them with a state of immortality and they would become “legitimate immortals” if they helped destroy the Shang dynasty. The three sprites gladly accepted the “mission” and flew away.

Meanwhile, one of the three sprites, the Vixen Demon, killed the innocent beauty Su Daji 蘇妲己25 who had been sent by her father to serve King Zhou, and transformed into her physical shape. The enticing vixen-Daji seduced the King with her unsurpassed charm and became the most patronized concubine in the court. She fulfilled her duty to annihilate the continuity of the Shang dynasty with exceptionally cold-hearted craftiness. The historical Daji was thus appropriated in the Nu Wa myth, and served as the medium through which Nu Wa could wreak vengeance on the King. Metaphorically Daji represents the manifestation of the destructive, wrathful and demonic aspect of Nu Wa.
At the denouement, the capital Zhage was besieged and King Zhou was defeated. Nu Wa then stepped out to fulfill her role as the ultimate saviour to show poetic justice. She broke her promise to grant the three wicked sprites a state of legitimate immortals, and killed them all. In this way, the sprites were only “victimized” to illustrate Nu Wa’s avenging wrath. After she had initiated the whole sequence of destructive episodes for her revenge, through Daji, she also caused havoc to many innocents. The killing of the three sprites was an act to restore the divine order, as well as a gesture to get rid of the vicious manifestation of her own self, and to regain her saintly status as proper goddess.

The Myth-symbol Complex

Myths are considered narrative projections of a given cultural group’s sense of its sacred past and its relationship with the surrounding world and universe. Anthropologists also used to emphasize that the myth-symbol complex is salient in social and cultural processes. In particular, they argue, human behaviour and experience are guided by systems of significant symbols, which contribute towards governing people’s beliefs and life-style. Hence, ethnic myths, religious symbols, traditional values and collective memories are indispensable for the continuing hold of a collective cultural identity. “By a collective cultural identity”, Anthony D. Smith maintains, “is meant those feelings and values in respect of a sense of continuity, shared memories and a sense of common destiny of a given unit of population which has had common experiences and cultural attributes” (Smith, 1990:179). For Smith, myths and symbols are cultural attributes, which in turn have been woven into ethno-history. The enduring role of ethno-history, as the arguments run, does not only sustain a sense of individual meaningfulness, it also assures collective dignity, appeals to collective posterity, and ensures collective immortality (Smith, 1990:180-83). As such, the mythic figure Nu Wa honoured in peripheral Macau helps inspire a collective cultural identity, and more especially, reveals cultural responses to the issues that unite the Chinese at the “edge” with the “centre”.
The functions of myths are to illuminate heroism of the human condition, and to dispense with realistic detail and experiments with the supernatural. As myths are seen as symbols of human experience, Sigmund Freud and his followers interpret myths as the expression of the individual’s unconscious wishes, fears and drives. More broadly, Carl Jung and his followers view myths as the expression of a universal, collective unconscious. When compared with the stories of famous myths and Freud’s dream-symbols, Michael Grant contends that mythology, like dreams, seemed a royal road to our understanding of the unconscious processes. It is on the grounds that myths contain thinly disguised representations of certain fundamental unconscious fantasies common to humankind (Grant, 1963:230). Grant is of the opinion that the myth-symbol and dream-symbol are the keys to our comprehension of the unconscious.
We may understand the unconscious of an ingrained part of Chinese culture through its myth-symbol complex. The myth of Nu Wa was seemingly created as entertaining stories, but it embodied a serious purpose in its underlying structures. These structures invariably espoused a broad appeal, which has enabled the myth to survive for thousands of years. The serious purpose of the Nu Wa myth is to satisfy the need to have roots, that is, to explain the origin of the Chinese people. While Nu Wa binds the ages together and embodies a “primordial” value into the popular consciousness, she also comes to reflect a nostalgic longing for myths and memories in the distant past. Notably, she represents an important mythic theme: matriarchal dominance, which is the unconscious reaction to patriarchal Chinese society.

Chinese mythology contains a treasure trove of mythic themes, motifs and archetypes, which are vital to the survival of its culture. Although the written Nu Wa myth appeared for the first time during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.— A.D. 220), it was actually transmitted from an earlier period. In the preceding Qin dynasty (221—206 B.C.), Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇 (meaning the first emperor of Qin) burned a colossal number of books as a measure of political and cultural control. Consequently, there was an irreparable loss of literary texts, and many old myths only passed down orally. It was not until the Han dynasty that scholars revised and recorded them anew.

The Nu Wa myth embraces “mythemes” from non-orthodox history, legend, folklore and fiction, not to mention that it confounds with real history. Even though the mythic stories in fragments are disjointed and brief, in the words of Anne Birrell, they are “a rare survival of primitive authenticity” (Birrell, 2000:14). Moreover, these fragmentary pieces of writing enable the Nu Wa myth to enter and establish itself in traditional currency. Literary texts are thus made to serve as a vehicle to consolidate the Chinese autochthonous myth-symbol complex, which constitutes a crucial part of the common people’s religious life.

Nu Wa has been constructed as the archetypal figure in the supernatural reality of initial events, and falls into the consistent pattern in the basic “creation myth”. As she rescued the world from the catastrophes of raging fires and flooding waters, she is the saviour and heroine in the “catastrophe myth”. Apart from being the inaugurator of the social institutions of marriage, she illustrates the “fertility myth”, which responds to the need for human proliferation, social stability and economic cultivation. The mythic elements of Nu Wa on the one hand illustrate ancient China’s relationship with the primal cosmos, and on the other hand convey a process of continuity to help assert a collective identity for the Chinese people.

The “degrading” transformation of Nu Wa from the supreme goddess to the consort of Fu Xi may speak for the gradual social change from matriarchal society to patriarchal society in ancient China. In the Nu Wa Temple in Macau, however, her somewhat subordinate status as Fu Xi’s wife cannot be traced. She is still honoured as Repairer of Heaven and Mother Goddess, thus retaining her matriarchal greatness. In the heyday of Macau, Nu Wa was popularly venerated and the temple well patronized. What then was the divine intervention? Formerly there were many prostitutes, especially in Rua da Felicidade 福隆新街—a red light district. It is gathered that prostitutes used to go to pray to this matriarchal deity for protection from venereal diseases and gynaecological problems (Tang, 1994:208). They would naturally pray to return to a “normal” life, and to find “proper” husbands. Hence, Nu Wa has come to be a quasi patroness of prostitutes in Macau. In this respect, her role is similar to that of Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess of love, sex, and fertility.26 As the goddess of fertility and bestower of children, she is mostly honoured by barren women who would pray for children, and in particular, for male heirs for the continuity of the family tree. Given the myth that she repaired the heavens, broken-hearted worshippers would pray to her to repair their qing tian 情天 (love heaven). By and large, she is mainly worshipped as the Goddess of Marriage and the Goddess of Match-making媒神 in Macau. It is plain to see Nu Wa’s divine roles have been re-shaped and modified in response to the interests and preoccupations of the people there.
The Nu Wa Temple has fallen into neglect after a glorious beginning. The cult of Nu Wa has also seen a gradual decline and lost its luster amid socio-cultural changes. The decline of a cult, as C. K. Yang argues, was partly due to its failure to continue developing magical and mythological lore in order to sustain its existence. Also, when the ethico-political values gradually lost their urgency and importance, the cult would be in a crisis and might finally be replaced by other, newer, cults (Yang, 1970:172—3). In Macau, Nu Wa is greatly overshadowed by the dominant divine virgin trio—the Virgin Mary (the Christian God Mother), Tian Hou (the Daoist Empress of Heaven) and Guan Yin (the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Mercy).27 As Tian Hou is the patron goddess of fishermen, sailors and maritime merchants, Guan Yin is associated with saving mariners from shipwreck. Both goddesses, moreover, share similar characteristics with the Virgin Mary who was apostrophized as the "Star of the Sea" and "Port of the Shipwrecked". The three divinities offer the more urgent and coveted “mainstream” services associated with the safety at sea in peninsular Macau, whereas Nu Wa only provides “subsidiary” assistance in connection with gynaecological matters and marriage. Macau obviously needs emerging cults to guard its seascape and protect it at the estuary of the Pearl River. Despite the decline of the cult of Nu Wa in Macau, it still possesses the elemental grandeur of myths and epics. While the Temple of Nu Wa represents the cultural heritage of Macau, the matriarchal Great Goddess helps foster cultural cohesion and constitutes the epics of Chinese culture at the edge.
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1 The term “cosmogony” is derived from the Greek word kosmos, meaning order, genesis, and birth.

2 According to the Department for the Preservation of Heritage in the Cultural Institute, this figure excludes the altars and niches, which are often found in streets or at the entrance to households.

3 Unlike other temples in Macau, the Nu Wa Temple opens only from 8.00 am to 3.00 pm daily.


 In Macau, there are celebrations on Lu Zu’s birthday, which falls on the 14th day of the fourth

lunar month.

5 The fly-whisk represents obedience to the Buddhist law and a symbol of the compassion of Avalokitesvara towards all beings. However, it transgresses religious boundaries and becomes the typical accessory of the Daoist Lu Zu.

6 The Buddhistic trinity are in fact the manifestations of Lord Buddha. The Buddha of the Past is Amitabha, the Buddha of the Present the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, better known as Sakyamuni (c. 563-483 B.C.), and the Buddha of the Future Maitreya.


 The term “euhemerism” was named after Euhemerus, a Greek mythographer and philosopher in the 4th century B.C. He advocated a theory that the gods of mythology were merely deified mortals.

8 On the eclectic complexity of Chinese religious culture and the euhemerised Daoist deities, see Christina Miu Bing Cheng, “Religious Syncretism: The Harmonization of Buddhism and Daoism in Macau’s Lian Feng Miao (The Lotus Peak Temple)” in Review of Culture, International Edition No. 5, January 2003.


 Levi-Strauss’ term “mytheme”, meaning the synthesis of the relational units in myth, is borrowed from the linguistic concepts of phoneme and morpheme. See Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structuralists From Marx to Levi-Strauss, ed. by Richard and Fernande de George (New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1972), p. 169-194.

10 The snake is the attribute of Minerva, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom.


 The Chinese have three basic creation myths. The other is the myth of Yin and Yang, who are two gods emerging out of chaos and representing complementary essences in the universe. It appears in Huai Nan Zi <<淮南子>> (Master Huai Nan), compiled by Liu An 劉安 (c. 170—122 B.C.) in 139 B.C.

12 Two pieces of the Pan Gu myth were originally compiled by Xu Zheng 徐整, who lived in southwestern China around 222—280 A.D. They were in San Wu Li Chi <<三五曆記>> (Historical Records of the Three Sovereign Divinities and the Five Gods) and Wu Yun Linien Chi <<五運歷年紀>> (A Chronicle of the Five Cycles of Time). On the Chinese creation myth, see Wang Xiaolian 王孝廉, Zhongguo de shen hua yu chuan shuo <<中國的神話與傳說>> (Myths and Legends of China) (Taibei: Lian Jing Chu Ban Shi Ye Gong Si聯經出版事業公司, 1977), p. 485—527.


 On the English version of the Pan Gu myth, see 100 Chinese Myths and Fantasies (trans. by Ding Wangdao丁往道) (Hong Kong: Shang Wu Yin Shu Guan 商務印書館, 1988), p. 3 and 5. See also David A. Leeming, A Dictionary of Creation Myths (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 49—50.

14 Although Wang Xiaolian maintained that the myth of Nu Wa preceded that of Pan Gu, Donna Rosenberg argued that by the time of the creation story of Nu Wa emerged, the myth of Pan Gu had already existed, at least in an oral form. See Wang Xiaolian 王孝廉, Zhongguo de shen hua yu chuan shuo <<中國的神話與傳說>> (Taibei: Lian Jing Chu Ban Shi Ye Gong Si聯經出版事業公司, 1977), p. 486, 677. See also Donna Rosenberg, World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics (3rd edition) (Illinois: NTC Publishing Group, 1999), p. 324.


 The cult of Nu Wa enjoyed great popularity during the Han dynasty in central China. Apart from the classical literary sources, there are also abundant fragmentary episodes derived later in popular culture and folklore among different ethnic groups in various parts of China. Despite varying degrees of storytelling, the uniformity of her roles is emphasized. See Yang Lihui, The Cult of Nuwa: Myths and Beliefs in China (Beijing: Zhongguo She Hui Ke Xue Chu Ban She, 1997), Chapter 1.


 Gong Gong was a primeval mythical water god; having a human face, snake body and red hair, riding on 2 dragons. Zhuan Xu was a tribal chief in antiquity.


 Lie Zi was highly prized by the Tang dynasty Emperor Xuan Song 玄宗, who included it in the imperial examination in 742 A.D. However, it soon became controversial whether or not it was an authentic text by Lie Yukou. Since it embodied philosophical thoughts typical of Wei 魏 (220—265 A.D) and Jin晉 (265—316 A.D.) periods, it was argued that it could well be written by someone between the third and fourth century A.D. See Lie Yukou, Lie Zi <<列子>>, Annotated by Yan Jie 嚴捷 and Yan Beiming 嚴北溟, Lie Zi Yi Zhu <<列子譯注>> (Annotations on Lei Zi), (Hong Kong: Zhong Hua Shu Ju中華書局, 1987), Preface.


 The first printed edition of Hung Lou Meng was in January 1792.

19 One may miss the cosmic implications in the English translation. According to Wang Xiaolian, the numbers in the Chinese version 12, 24, 365 symbolize 12 months, 24 seasonal changes, and 365 days of a year. See Wang Xiaolian 王孝廉, Zhongguo de shen hua yu chuan shuo <<中國的神話與傳說>> (Taibei: Lian Jing Chu Ban Shi Ye Gong Si聯經出版事業公司, 1977), p. 696.


 The term “aniconic form” refers to a representation through sign and symbol without any figural image.


 In a study on Feng Shen Yan Yi, Wan Pinpin found out that its first publication was around 1567—1619, but not later than 1623. In 1965, Liu Cunyan 柳存煙 published his doctoral dissertation on the authorship and argued that a Daoist named Lu Xixing 陸西星 was the most plausible author. See Wan Pinpin, Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen Yanyi”): Sources, narrative structure, and mythical significance (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987), p. 2—3.


 See Feng Shen Yan Yi <<封神演義>> (Hong Kong: Yu Lei Chu Ban She 玉壘出版社, 1987). On the English translation, see Zhizhong Gu (Trans.), Creation of the Gods (Beijing: New World Press, 1992).

23 Fu Xi (2953—2838 B.C.) is venerated as the God of Hunting, Shen Nong (2838—2698 B.C.) the God of Agriculture and Huang Di (2698—2598 B.C.) the God of Architecture. This ancestral triad may rightly begin an account of the primordial myths of China, and has been arranged in such a way as to explain the development of early Chinese civilization. On the Three Emperors, see Canon J.A. MacCulloch (ed.), The Mythology of All Races (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1964), Vol. III, Chapter II.


 In Hinduism, Shiva and his consort Parvati embrace a duality in their manifestations. As a fearful destroyer of life and angry avenger, Shiva represents a destructive force, but he is also the re-creator and a benign herdsman of souls. Parvati (the Mountain Goddess) is his sakti (female energy or energizing power) and his calm good wife. She is an aspect of the great mother goddess Devi, but can manifest a demonic form as Durga or Kali, who then becomes the fierce goddess of war and personifies the destructive aspect of divine power.


 Su Daji, the historical concubine of King Zhou, is believed to have caused the downfall of the Shang dynasty.


 Ishtar (this is her Akkadian name) was called Inanna by the Sumerians, and venerated as Mother Goddess. However, she was also a War Goddess, often referred to as “the Lady of Battles”.

27 On the three deities venerated as sea goddesses in Macau, see Christina Miu Bing Cheng, Macau: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1999), Chapter 4 “The Rendezvous of a Virgin Trio”.

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