2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Up and Down on Mt. Tai: Bixia Yuanjun in the Politics of Chinese Popular Religion, ca. 1500-1949

Kenneth Pomeranz

History Department, University of California-Irvine, USA

During the Ming and early Qing dynasties, Taishan niangniang (more formally known as Bixia yuanjun) was one of the most popular deities in North China and had some following in the Lower Yangzi region; she also enjoyed significant patronage from the imperial court. She seemed to be on her way to full incorporation within the official pantheon, much like Tianhou (Mazu, to whom she was often compared).? Some literati, however, questioned her authenticity and were indifferent or even hostile to the honors she received from both the court and ordinary people.? The reasons for this distaste varied, but often stemmed from her association with improper female behavior, and with excessive aggrandizement by members of the court (especially eunuchs). ?During the Qing, this literati skepticism became increasingly pronounced, and expressed itself in media ranging from scholarship pointing out historical impossibilities in her “biography,” to hostile comments in literati guides to Taishan, to literati novels that blamed her and her supporters for disasters.? As these critiques spread, previously supportive members of the elite either became less public about their patronage of this goddess or abandoned it entirely. The range of favors sought from her became narrower and more personal, and her remaining constituency became more exclusively female and plebeian, except in the Beijing/Tianjin area. Taishan niangniang became especially associated with matchmakers, midwives, and other women often denigrated in elite texts.

As Taishan niangniang’s social base changed, so did her image. Older stories and iconography that emphasized her relationship to the gentry and to upholding orthodoxy became far less common; stories in which she helps herself and non-elite women by outwitting powerful male deities and officials became much more common.? (This change was less marked in the Beijing/Tianjin area, where her range of supporters also changed less than elsewhere.)? Above all, twentieth century stories about her came to focus on how she used trickery to gain and keep her cherished place atop Taishan – a place so charged with ling that its occupation by a deity lacking elite support was an anomaly requiring explanation.?

Furthermore, the popular tales praising the goddess’s cleverness in securing Taishan by tricking other gods bear several striking resemblances to scholarly accounts arguing that her place atop the mountain was the result of errors by human power-holders (particularly Song Zhenzong, who “discovered” her statue on Taishan in 1008).? They thus suggest that some of the goddess’ supporters were aware of literati arguments against her, and shared enough of a basic cultural framework with them to “argue” rather than simply talk past each other.? Consequently, the story of Taishan niangniang – who was never fully “co-opted” in the way that many widely used models of Chinese popular religion would predict, and as many observers in the Ming seem to have expected – requires that we reconsider some of the standard models we have used for describing the relationships of the state, religion, class differences, and the idea of a shared Chinese culture.


Keywords: state, popular religion, gender, Taishan, literati