chapter  1
16 Pages

A god in formation

Traditionally, it was asserted that Zhenwu, as an anthropomorphic deity, was directly linked to, if not identical with, the main constellations in the northern sky, Xuanwu, that were depicted in the form of a turtle or a turtle encircled by a snake. Modern scholarship, until two decades ago, also embraced the theory that the veneration of Zhenwu in Song and later times was a direct evolution of a stellar cult of Xuanwu from classical times (for example, Hsu¨ 1947; Huang Zhaohan 1988). New research, however, has begun to challenge this long held wisdom. Romeyn Taylor first describes the connection between the two as “tenuous” (1990: 154-155). Pierre-Henry de Bruyn (1997) asserted that only the shared name and emblems support the assumed mutation from one to the other. Taylor and de Bruyn are correct in unveiling the objective truth of the

origin of Zhenwu. However, regardless of how dubious the connection was, this assumed origin of Zhenwu has been accepted as an established fact in the minds of his devotees and critics alike. Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200) disparaging comments, cited above, is an example. The belief of Zhenwu’s identity as a cosmological symbol was the inspiration for the principal characteristics and interpretations of his godhead from Song times to the present. And his cosmological significance was most often theorized through his relation to the stellar Xuanwu. Understanding of the assumed astral origin of Zhenwu

therefore is indispensible in reconstructing the god’s images and worship in the historical landscape.