mjj (flemmings) wrote,
mjj
flemmings

The Classic of Mountain and Seas

paleaswater used to get fantoddy about the folk practices in 100 Demons, like bringing rocks down from the mountains or walking a certain route in the countryside without looking behind you. She said something to the effect of 'these people just didn't think like us.' A daughter of the Revolution might well look askance at something so foreign to her milieu. Cradle Catholic me, who unblinkingly accepted saint's hearts put on display in glass reliquaries and thin wheat wafers that are really and truly, no *really*, the body of a man murdered two millennia ago on the other side of the world, had no difficulty at all with these benign Japanese practices that only fleetingly, if at all, recall bloody dark deeds and obscure beliefs.

(The Japanese used to have human sacrifice. They'd wall someone up in the foundations of a bridge, for instance. And the one story I read about this custom- one of Yumemakura's Seimei stories- had the spirits of the sacrifices making a ruckus to alert the world that the foundation of their bridge was about to collapse. Like, you may not want to be a human sacrifice and you may insist that the wife who informed the authorities that you had the marks needed to be the sacrifice also die with you, but in the end *of course* duty trumps everything. Whatever happened to that Japanese staple, urami? In Ima Ichiko, it's saved for people who starved during famines.)

But the oddity is that the Chinese stories in The Classic fantod me in spades. They recall a dark and primordial world where, yes, people don't think like we do.

Anne Birrell, the translator, made the decision to render all Chinese names as literal translations of the hanji. That's going to sound weird from the get-go. I don't know how a Chinese reader reacts to the sight of name characters, but I do know in Japanese Takayama- 高山- is just a name that I never consciously associate with high mountains. But here we have 'Dreadbeware Country lies north of the country of White Folk. In that place is a tree called the Male-ever... The deity of the western regions, Bedrush Harvest, has a snake in his left ear and rides two dragons.'

The weirdness is compounded when we get into myths. Most retellings call mythic characters by their Chinese names which, in English, mean nothing at all. The primeval rulers are called, say, the Yellow Emperor, following a later usage that puts them firmly in the orderly structure of historic China. But the Han-era Classic calls him 'the great god Yellow', which to me is resonant of primitive idols and inchoate belief systems. Or the mysterious-sounding 'Lord of the Summer, Open', otherwise common Xiahou Qi, the son of the flood master Yu the Great.

Then there are passages like this: "Twain Load's officer was called Peril. Peril and Twin Flow murdered Notch Flaw. So the great god tied them up on Mount Coarsejoin; he fettered their right foot and bound their hands tightly behind them with their own loosened hair, and then strung them from a tree on the mountaintop."

An appendix gives the Chinese names of persons mentioned. So that sentence might read 'Erh Fu's officer was called Wei. Wei and Erh Fu murdered Ya Yü. So Di Jun tied them up on Mt. (Chou Di just at a guess)...' And would read much better to me if it did. Then it would be more like a myth smoothed by familiarity, like Prometheus, that lacks any frisson of horrible early deeds.

Blessedly most of the myths pass by without too much notice in the texts. The appendix expands them, and then we're in the realm of chaos and old night indeed- or possibly the Aztec worldview:

"Corpse of Prince Night (Wang-tzu Yeh chih shi) A corpse deity located in the north. The manner of his death by dismemberment denotes a ritual execution, besides a ritual disbursement of his limbs, including his teeth, in different places. Despite this attempt to obliterate his memory and prevent his resuscitation, the prince achieved immortal fame through his deification."

"Girl Sacrifice (Nu Chi). A goddess, she has a dyadic role with goddesses in two similar passages, Girl Battleaxe and girl Destroyer. The name of Girl Battleaxe clearly indicates her function, but her myth is only vestigial in this text. Her attribute of a butcher block is consistent with her function. This myth fragment could indicate that the role of sacred carver of sacrificial victims was specifically performed by females. Perhaps, too, the victims were human and not animal, making her role and function even more terrifying."

So yes, early Chinese society: not the Confucianist version at all.
Tags: 100demons, china, history, reading_16
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