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


Immortal Maiden He and Granny Qilang: The Ancestress Worship
and Historical Narrative of the He Lineages in Guangdong

Hsiao-ching Liao

Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Zengcheng 增城, the “Immortal Maiden’s Native Place,” is the putative hometown of the goddess He Xiangu 何仙姑 (Immortal Maiden He), best known as the only female among the “Eight Immortals” (baxian 八仙). The temples dedicated to He Xiangu mainly appear in diverse single-surname villages of the He lineages. The most celebrated of these temples is He Xiangu Jiamiao (Ancestral Temple Devoted to He Xiangu), located in the village Xiaolou. He Xiangu is enshrined and offered sacrifices by the He lineage of Xiaolou, not only because she is considered “Bodhisattva He Xiangu” (He Xiangu Pusa 何仙姑菩薩)—an efficacious female deity who blesses myriad people, but also because she is the lineage’s “Immortal Paternal Great-aunt He” (He Xian Zugu 何仙祖姑) who posthumously grants divine aid to subsequent generations of Hes. Besides the cult dedicated to He Xiangu, which contains both goddess and ancestress images, the Hes worship another female ancestor—Qilang Po七郎婆 (Grandmother Qilang, wife of the lineage’s first ancestor, He Qilang 何七郎). An exploration of the way these cult traditions have been shaped by the Xiaolou Hes from the late imperial period to the present day reveals that this ancestral worship represents two historical narratives appropriated by the Hes as a cultural strategy to consolidate and renew community identity in changing historical contexts. Furthermore, this article re-examines an argument that is often proposed by scholars focusing on gender and local society in south China. The generally accepted argument is that women were not qualified to be deified independently in the ancestral worship system because of their ambiguous position in the patrilineal descent line. However, an investigation into the cults dedicated to the Immortal Maiden/Paternal Great-aunt He and Grandmother Qilang, together with similar examples of ancestress worship practiced in other He lineages in the Pearl River Delta, reveals that women represent either polluting or deified symbolic powers, and are ritually placed either in subordinate or independent positions, depending on how a specific community interprets, creates, and manipulates the roles and symbolic meanings of women.


Keywords: ancestress, female deity, lineage, He Xiangu (Immortal Maiden He)