chapter  4
Superscribing Symbols: The Myth of Guandi, Chinese God of War
Pages 18

This chapter deals primarily with the Qing period. One of its principal goals is to understand the transition from the Qing to the communist revolution through the discrediting and decline of the myth of Guandi. It clarifies the differences in the form of hegemony between the precapitalist and prenational imperial state and nationalist hegemony. The chapter shows the importance of myth and ritual as a medium of communication in the imperial Chinese polity. The significance of this medium became particularly apparent during the Republic, when the institutional and cosmological roots of the myth were attacked and rejected. It would take a protracted revolution for alternative and (theoretically) more efficient modes of symbolic communication among the state, modernizing elites and the populace to reappear. Since this study was originally written, the historical study of myths and

legends in Chinese studies has undergone much exciting development. Excellent studies that spring to mind are those of the demonic Wu Tong by Richard von Glahn; of Xiang Fei, the ‘fragrant concubine’ of the Qianlong emperor, by James Millward; and of the Boxer and Guo Jian myths by Paul Cohen.1 These studies illuminate the layered and historically stratified nature of myths, each stratum reflecting the concerns and contesting claims of different groups in an era. The present chapter is also concerned with this form of stratification and contestation. Specifically, it explores the historical problem of the breakdown of this mode of communication, and the methodological problem of the relationship between change in the symbolic realm and historical change among social groups and institutions. I argue that the complexity of the relationship between mythic and his-

torical change lies not so much in the radically discontinuous nature of myths, but in the fact that myths are simultaneously continuous and discontinuous. I explore this relationship by examining the myth of Guandi through a concept that I call the ‘superscription of symbols’. Guandi (162220 CE), known originally as Guan Yu before he received the imperial title di in 1615, was the apotheosized hero of the period of the Three Kingdoms. This period, which followed the decline of the imperial Han state (209 BC220 CE), has been romanticized in Chinese history as an era of heroic warriors and artful strategists who dominated the battles among the three

successor states contending for imperial power. Since then, the myth of Guandi has become increasingly popular in a variety of media – literature, drama, official and popular cults, and the lore of secret societies. Consider two episodes in the life of the Guandi myth that are separated by

more than 1000 years. One of the earliest miracle stories about Guan Yu is derived from a temple stele erected in 820, when the Yuquan temple in Dangyang County in modern Hubei was reconstructed. Here, in the vicinity of Yuquan mountain, Guan Yu was decapitated during the long battle he fought against the enemies of his lord, Liu Bei. One still night, when the Buddhist monk Zhi Yi (538-97) was deep in

meditation under a great tree on the mountain, the silence was suddenly filled by a booming voice: ‘Return me my head’. When the monk looked up he saw the ghostly apparition of a figure whom he recognized as Guan Yu, the spirit of the mountain. An exchange followed between the two, in which the monk reminded Guan Yu of the severed heads of Guan Yu’s own victims. Deeply impressed by the logic of karmic retribution, the spirit of Guan Yu sought instruction in the Buddhist faith from the monk, built a monastery for him, and began to guard the mountain. Later, the mountain people built a temple to Guan Yu, where they offered sacrifices at the beginning of each new season.2