Investiture of the Gods Reliefs, Ping Sien, Perak, Malaysia

high-definition creative commons photographs of the Investiture of the Gods Reliefs from this syncretic temple on the coast of Perak, Malaysia, together with some further information.

Fengshen Yanyi (aka Fengshen Bang) translated as The Investiture of the Gods, is a 16th-century Chinese novel and one of the major vernacular Chinese works in the Gods and Demons genre written during the Ming dynasty. Consisting of 100 chapters, it was first published in book form around the 1550s.

It intertwines numerous elements of Chinese mythology, including deities, immortals and spirits. The novel is a romanticised retelling of the overthrow of King Zhou, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty, by Ji Fa, who would establish the Zhou dynasty in place of Shang. The authorship is attributed to Xu Zhonglin.

Some of the main characters from the book are featured in these photographs of reliefs at Ping Sien Si in Perak, Malaysia, and I include summaries of some of the stories below.

I am very grateful to Sister Caroline Lee who identified the characters and spent weeks researching their role in the book, and in wider Chinese traditions. The page is so much richer through her dedicated work.


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Nüwa and King Zhou

King Zhou visits the temple of the ancient Chinese goddess Nüwa to worship her. He notices that the statue of the goddess is very attractive. The lewd king spouts blasphemy before the statue, "It'd be good if I could marry Her". He writes poems on the walls to express his lust for the goddess. He has offended Nüwa unknowingly and Nüwa foresees that King Zhou is destined to be the last ruler of the Shang dynasty. She sends the thousand year old vixen spirit, nine-headed pheasant spirit and jade pipa spirit to bewitch the king and hasten his downfall. The king becomes obsessed with the spirits, who disguise themselves as beautiful women, and starts to neglect state affairs and rule with cruelty. The people suffer under his tyranny and eventually join Ji Fa to rise up and overthrow him..


Daji and Boyi Kao

King Zhou places Ji Chang, the Western Duke, under house arrest in Youli (??) for almost seven years. Ji Chang's eldest son Boyi Kao comes to Zhaoge (present-day Hebi, Henan) to plead with King Zhou to release his father. Daji falls in love with Boyi Kao and requests the king to permit Boyi Kao to teach her how to play the guqin. Daji attempts to seduce Boyi Kao but he rejects and ridicules her. The irate Daji complains to King Zhou that Boyi Kao molested her and insulted the king through his music. The king is furious and he has Boyi Kao executed, minced into pieces and made into meat pies, and served to his father. Ji Chang knows divination and has already foreseen his son's fate. He suppresses his sorrow and consumes the meat cakes. After that incident, King Zhou lowers his guard against Ji Chang and allows the latter to return home. Ji Chang builds up his forces and plans to avenge his son.


Ji Chang and Jiang Ziya

Jiang Ziya is an apprentice of Yuanshi Tianzun. He leaves his master at the age of 72. He only uses a straight fishhook without bait, three feet above the water, for angling. His neighbours are puzzled by his odd method of fishing. They ask him out of curiosity. Jiang replies, "What I'm angling is not a single fish, but the king and the great many vassals. Only those who really wish to go on the hook will be fished by me." Jiang Ziya meant that he was waiting for a wise ruler who recognises his talent and needs him.

Some people told Ji Chang about the weird old man and Ji Chang becomes interested in him. One day, Ji Chang pays a visit to Jiang Ziya. Jiang Ziya demands that the duke helps him pull his cart. Ji Chang does so and stops pulling after he moved 800 steps forwards. Jiang Ziya tells the duke that his future kingdom (the Zhou dynasty) will exist for 800 years. Ji Chang wishes to pull the cart for a few more steps but he is too exhausted to move forward. Jiang Ziya becomes the chancellor of Zhou afterwards and assists Ji Chang in building his kingdom.


Bi Gan loses his Heart

From the prophecy revealed by the oracle bones, Jiang Ziya predicts that King Zhou's loyal and benevolent courtier, Bi Gan, will die soon. He gives a charm to Bi Gan. One night, during a banquet hosted by King Zhou, several "immortals" appear and the king is delighted to see them. The "immortals" are actually Daji's fellow fox spirits in disguise, and Bi Gan, who is also present at the banquet, senses something amiss. Bi Gan's suspicions are confirmed when the fox spirits reveal their tails unknowingly after getting drunk. Bi Gan gathers a group of soldiers and they track the fox spirits back to their den and kill all of them. Bi Gan uses the foxes' hides to make a cloak and presents it to King Zhou. Daji is horrified and saddened when she sees the cloak, and she secretly plots vengeance on Bi Gan.

Not long later, Daji tells King Zhou that she has a heart attack and only a "delicate seven-aperture heart" can relieve her agony. No one in the palace has that type of heart except Bi Gan, who is revered as a saint. Bi Gan swallows the charm given by Jiang Ziya, grabs his heart, pulls it out of his body and presents it to King Zhou. Bi Gan does not die immediately nor sheds a single drop of blood. Instead, he walks out of the palace and follows Jiang Ziya's instructions to go straight home without looking back.

When he is only a few steps away from home, a female huckster yells from behind, "Hey! Cheap cabbages without stems (hearts)!" (The "heart" rhetorically refers to the stem of the plant). Bi Gan turns around asks the huckster in curiosity, "How can there be cabbages without stems?" The woman puts on an evil grin and replies, "You're right, sir. Cabbages cannot live without stems just as men cannot live without hearts." Bi Gan shouts, collapses and dies. The huckster is actually the jade pipa spirit in disguise.

Text adapted from Wikipedia (retrieved, December 26th 2014)


Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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