With the release of Big Fish & Begonia, Xueting Christine Ni looks at China’s diverse pantheon that influenced the animation…
As a public speaker who saw the oncoming wave of Chinese animation in the early 2000s, and who spent the last decade promoting these to West, it was my absolute joy to introduce Big Fish & Begonia this spring to the general public at various venues in London for the cinema release. Summer brings the home media release, set for the 9th of July, which coincides with the UK publication of my new book From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities. Many of the beings I have written about are also featured in this 21st-century animation, and one of the reasons I have written the book is to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of these deities. In this article, I take a look at their origins and their reinterpretation in the film.
China has a long tradition of taking inspiration from its Shen Hua (mythology) for the creation its Dong Hua (animation), from classics such as the 1964 Uproar in Heaven and Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), to The Calabash Brothers (1986) and recent renditions of Investiture of the Gods. Certain deities, such as ones that have evolved with urban entertainment, tended to be focused on. Big Fish & Begonia takes a fresh angle on the subject. The story is set in the Undersea, the world of Chun, heroine of the story. Based on the concept Gui Xu from the 4th to 5thcentury BCE Daoist text Lie Zi, Undersea is the final resting of souls and has existed for millennia, its inhabitants keeping the order of Nature, the natural course along which all things run in the human world, also known as the Dao. Daoism is one of China’s oldest indigenous belief systems. And most of the creatures represented in Undersea are China’s oldest deities that existed centuries before the Monkey King sprung from the minds of storytellers and Buddhism introduced Nezha’s prototype into China.
The leader of Undersea, who opens the Coming of Age ceremony at the beginning of the film, is Hou Tu. In China, veneration the earth spirit is as old as faith itself, its earliest form, the She (“Shurgh”), linked to the worship of earth mounds and stone representations during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, later becoming Wu Tu, the Five Earths over the Han era. Scholars continue to debate the original gender of Hou Tu. It depends on whether you prefer to believe he is the male relative of other gods, or based on Di Mu (Mother Earth) and tribal matriarchs. As a vast country, China naturally has more than one kind of earth deity. The one that is most popular in modern China is Tu Di Ye, Grandfather Earth, your local friendly neighbourhood earth god who gets a permanent offering at each threshold along alleyways and back streets in certain regions.
The archaic world of Undersea takes inspiration from the Confucian text of Li Ji, presenting a portrait of the earlier, omnipresent male earth spirit, Hou Tu, short for Emperor Earth, anointed and venerated by royalty. He wears long eyebrows and beard, traditional symbols for wisdom, but carries little of the benevolence that often comes with it. The celestial Daoist air conveyed by his flowing robes, long sash and straw hat, is tempered by his knotted brow and up-shooting eyebrows. His long power staff of celestial Ling Zhi (a mushroom believed to grant longevity) leaves us in no doubt of his authority over the community. Hou Tu in both genders still enjoys substantial following across the backwaters and inland regions of China, although in computer games the deity tends to be female and kickass.
One of the main supporting characters featuring in Big Fish & Begonia is an original creation called Pi’E, Chun’s Grandfather, caretaker of herbs and patron of medicine. Pi’E is descended from the Divine Farmer Shen Nong. China has a long and rich tradition of agriculture with Shen Nong as one of its major ancient gods. Originating from texts of the Spring and Autumn Period as well as the Jin Dynasty, he is said to have been a prodigy of half-dragon, half-human stock who invented the Jie Qi lunar agricultural calendar, many tools and farming techniques. He is most well-known as the creator of traditional medicine in China, where children are taught stories of Shen Nong using his own body to test and classify thousands of plants, eventually giving his own life in the process. This herbalist and healer aspect is the focus for Big Fish & Begonia in its portrait of Shen Nong’s descendent.
Compared to the prehistoric horns, leaf cape and thatch loincloth of his forebear, the more civilized attire of Pi’E speaks of the village scholar or doctor. He has the classic long white beard and eyebrows that denote wisdom. His room with its books, vats of medicine and drying herbs, is a reflection of his wisdom and powers, as are his words to his granddaughter on her first encounters with death. Later in the story, he makes a sacrifice that is reminiscent of Shen Nong. Pi’E’s portrait demonstrates the enormous respect for Shen Nong still present in Chinese society today, a veneration that manifests in spontaneous online artistic reimaginings of the deity, large-scale rituals in his name, branding across multiple industries. On screen and in literature, he enjoys nothing short of a living presence.
We meet a major goddess featured in Big Fish at the very beginning of the film, a woman weaving iridescent multicolour cloth that looks as if it’s made the stars from her loom and dipping it into the water. It’s one of the most impactful scenes of the work, a first glimpse into the wondrous world of Chun. This is Lei Zu, Mother of Silk, the goddess of silkworms and silk-making, one of the oldest trades in China. Her earliest form, as Xian Can (Ancestor of Silkworms) or Can Mu (Mother of Silkworms), dates back to the Zhou Dynasty. She is based on Xi Ling Shi, the wife of Huang Di. What stands out from more recent research is that she was an exceptionally intelligent and enterprising leader who taught herself to grow silkworms, harvest silk and taught her people to do so. Folklore offers an alternative version of her origins of as Ma Tou Niang, the Horse-Headed Lady, a legend that involves a girl who gets rather too friendly with a horse and ends up transformed into a cocoon.
The Dong Hua has opted for the more authoritative interpretation of Lei Zu as the graceful and dignified Xi Ling Shi, based on Song historical records. The wreath of mulberry leaves she wears on her head is a nod to those prehistoric times that saw the beginnings of her veneration, which have provided major stylistic queues for contemporary TV and film works that aim for authenticity and a return to the roots. In the official artwork, her floating portrait has the flow and grace of Dun Huang art of the Silk Road, with a hint of cocoon to her form. Today, not only silk merchants but other industries invoke Lei Zu’s name in their branding. Her veneration in Chinese pop culture extends beyond the screen, into large-scale company-sponsored ceremonies, festivals and cultural parks to boot.
The being who shares a scene with Lei Zu and we see bathing in the water, is Chi Song Zi, a god of rain. Awe for the elements is one of the earliest manifestations of spirituality in many civilizations, especially in an early agricultural one, like China, where Rainmaking was a key role for the shaman in early societies. Veneration of Yu Shi, Master of Rain, became part of state rituals, documented in historical texts of the Spring and Autumn period, as well as literature and early mythology. The Chinese first entrusted their faith to the stars, then a mythical bird that forecasts rain, and Yu Shi Qie, a Black-skinned female being wielding four snakes.
The interpretation of the god of rain in Big Fish is based on the version of Yu Shi that came into being as society grew more human-centric and patriarchal, Chi Song Zi, Immortal of Crimson Pine. Two branches of the Chi Song Zi legend exist, one of a feral man in a straw cape and animal hide kilt, the other of a goatherd, both of whom trained under Daoist masters. The refined and androgynous depiction of the deity in the film comes half-way between the feral man who became Yu Shi by learning to transform into a crimson dragon, and the goatherd who became the famous protector deity Wong Tai Sin. The carefree nature of former is indicated by his bare feet and simple hermit’s robes, his refined serenity and crane transport signature characteristics of the latter; and the red markings along his eyes a subtle allusion to the “crimson” in his name. Today, the god of rain not only has a presence in cult films such as Big Trouble in Little China, but also, like his earlier forms, in computer games as playable characters in both genders.
The goddess who is only spoken of in the film is Meng Po, Lady Meng, the Guardian of the Last Gate of the Chinese Underworld. After accounting for all their deeds, the souls of the dead must pass through this tenth gate on their way to be reincarnated. Here they are obligated to drink the goddess’ Soul Beguiling Soup to forget their previous lives, so that chaos doesn’t ensue when they begin their new ones in the living world. Meng Po’s important but merciless task has led to some great tales in folklore, including horror stories and people negotiating with the goddess to let them keep their memories. Although she is never seen in the film, the morally ambiguous and morbid Soul Keeper can be seen as an interesting facet of Meng Po. In contemporary pop culture, she is sometimes a gothic sorceress, and others a wizened crone.
Having to choose 60 of the most interesting and culturally significant gods among tens of thousands across China’s pantheons inevitably means there are deities I would like to have written about. Zhu Rong, the god of fire, first introduced standing next to Hou Tu at the ceremony, is one of these. The origins of this god can be found in early Chinese mythology (The Book of Mountains and Seas), which proclaims him to be the descendent of legendary tribal rulers Yan Di or Huangdi. With a human face and a beast’s body, he rides two dragons, controls fire and the southern lands. The Big Fish portrait leaves one in no doubt of his fiery and powerful nature, his tribal style is indicative of wider trends in Chinese graphic art, comics and computer games.
Another version of the Chinese fire god is that of the folk hero which includes branches from various ethnic groups, the Zhuang people in Guangxi, the Buyi people in Guizhou, the Hani people in southwest China as well as the Han. They all centre on versions of a fire-begetting hero who either invented, discovered the method of making fire, or stole it.
China’s oldest gods, the caretakers of the spiritual cosmos and the icons of early civilizations, were once relegated to the background whilst gods of newer trades and heroic acts enjoyed more popularity. In the twenty-first century, however, they have received a vibrant revival, as symbols of indigenous culture and industry. Zhang Chun and Liang Xuan, the creators of Big Fish & Begonia, have reimagined many of these spirits and beings for the twenty-first century. I hope this piece has given you some insight into the unique traditions that have, and continue to, inspire Chinese animation. In China, spirituality isn’t confined to fictional works and temples, but fully integrated with everyday life, worldviews and even business practices. For instance, the Kai Jing Yi Shi, Camera Opening Ceremony, revived from earlier practices, is now becoming a vital ritual across the Chinese film industry, for any project, no matter the budget. Usual offerings to the gods for the production’s smoothing running and success include whole roasted pigs, fruits and sometimes lion dances. It’s not until the whole cast and crew have paid their respects before the altar with incense and prayers, that the camera is uncovered from the red cloth and shooting officially commences. If you’d like to find out more about Chinese deities and their place in pop culture, my book is available for purchase online and in selected bookshops in the U.S. and U.K.