Note #1: See update 11-28-21 for a PDF of a doctoral thesis analyzing the historical sources for FSYY.
Note #2: See update 03-14-23 for a PDF of circa 1620 FSYY woodblock prints.
Last updated: 09-13-2023
Here I present a PDF of the Library of Chinese Classics bilingual edition of Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi, 封神演義, c. 1620), sometimes translated as Investiture of the Gods or Enfeoffment of the Gods. This 100 chapter shenmo novel tells of the great struggle between the declining Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and ascending Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties. In the beginning, King Zhou of Shang offends the primordial goddess Nuwa by leaving a lewd poem in her temple, and in response, the devi summons a trio of spirits (a fox, a pheasant, and a lute) to bring about the dynasty’s downfall. The fox spirit takes the place of the king’s concubine Daji and, over the course of nearly 30 years, leads him down a path of imperial neglect, decadence, and sadism. This causes many of the kingdom’s dukes, marquis, and generals to later rebel in favor of King Wu of Zhou, the monarch destined by heaven to rule China.
The majority of the story follows the countless battles between the forces of Shang and Zhou. Along the way, the latter are aided by immortals of the Chan (闡) sect (an analogy for Quanzhen Daoism), which favors spiritual cultivation, while the former are aided by the Jie (截) sect (an analogy for Zhengyi), which favors charms and incantations.  Each transcendent wields any number of swords, fans, hooks, staves, axes, halberds, scissors, hammers, rings, sashes, nails, dippers, pennants, pearls, gourds (etc.), each with not only the power to take the lives of thousands of humans but also immobilize other immortals and even kill them. These celestial battles escalate to the point that Laozi and the Buddha must fight side-by-side to defeat a trap designed to kill 10,000 immortals.
A story line present throughout the novel is the fate of Jiang Ziya, a Daoist adept and the military strategist and stalwart commander of the Zhou army. He is destined to deify the souls of the humans and immortals who die in battle using the “List of Creation” (Fengshen bang, 封神榜), an index of preordained names agreed upon at the beginning of time by the heads of the three religions. This list is housed in the “Terrace of Creation” (Fengshen tai, 封神臺), a reed pavilion in which the souls of the dead are gathered to await their apotheosis. In the end, after defeating the Shang forces, Jiang deifies a total of 365 major gods, along with thousands of lesser gods, ranging from holy mountains, weather, and plagues to constellations, the time cycle, and the five elements.
Fig. 1 – A detail of Nezha striking at an enemy during battle. Image from The Newly Printed, Zhong Bojing Annotated, Investiture of the Gods (Xinke Zhong Bojing xiansheng piping Fengshen yanyi, 新刻鍾伯敬先生批評封神演義, c. 1620) (larger version).
Considering the story takes place a millennia prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, the novel portrays the religion having no presence in the east. There are several times in the narrative when a Buddhist deity travels from the western paradise to halt the execution of a powerful immortal or demon as they are fated to submit to Buddhism. Furthermore, when the Buddha intervenes in the great battle towards the end, he does so to find talented disciples who will help him spread the religion in the east. In fact, Bodhisattvas like Guanyin and Manjusri are depicted as former Chan sect immortals who later become disciples of Buddhism.
For the purposes of this blog, several characters from Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592) appear in the novel, including Laozi, the Buddha, Nezha (fig. 1), Muzha, and Li Jing, Ao Guang, Erlang (called Yang Jian, 楊戩) and his hound, etc. Journey to the West also had a number of clear influences on the book, one being the ape spirit Yuan Hong (袁洪) from later chapters who wields a staff and 72 transformations in a fight with Yang Jian. Sound familiar?
This edition of the novel was originally translated by Gu Zhizhong (顾执中, 1898–1995) in 1992. Dr. Barbara Witt notes the translation has its pros and cons:
The positive: It is the only complete translation of Fengshen yanyi into a Western language that I am aware of. The edition I read (from 1992 I think), was also nicely done with interesting woodcut illustrations throughout the novel.
The negative: Firstly, it is not a very faithful translation. Poems are generally left untranslated and sentences often paraphrased.  I think, when ever the translator found something difficult, he just skipped it. Secondly, I think Gu Zhizhong was not an English native speaker and not very familiar with Western mythology and some of his translations are really off. For example Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人 (“True Man Primordial”), a powerful Daoist immortal, becomes “Fairy Primordial” in his translation, which conjures up a very different image.
While the translation may not be perfect, I think it is a must read as many of the gods mentioned therein are worshiped in modern temples throughout China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. It is a lens into modern folk religion.
I’ve added Wan (1987), a doctoral thesis analyzing the historical sources and micro/macro structure of the story. It also provides a summary of the tale in the end.
Here is a PDF for volume one of The Newly Printed, Zhong Bojing Annotated, Investiture of the Gods (Xinke Zhong Bojing xiansheng piping Fengshen yanyi, 新刻鍾伯敬先生批評封神演義, c. 1620), the oldest known edition of the novel. It is full of lovely woodblock prints (fig. 2).
Fig. 2 – A random page from vol. 1 of The Newly Printed, Zhong Bojing Annotated, Investiture of the Gods (larger version).
Thank you to the National Archives of Japan for offering the complete 1620 edition of FSYY. It can be downloaded here.
Tumblr user digitalagepulao has drawn an amazing Nezha (fig. 3). The theme is based on the feud between the prince and his father, which leads to the former’s suicide and divine resurrection. The artist describe a tense scene from the novel:
Li Jing in a fury grabbed his halberd, leapt on his horse and galloped out of the headquarters. He was astonished to see Nezha with his Wind-Fire Wheels and Fire-Tipped Spear. He swore loudly, “You damned beast! You caused us endless suffering before your death, and now that you’ve been reborn, you’re troubling us again!”
“Li Jing! I’ve returned my flesh and bones to you [via suicide], and there’s no longer any relation between us. Why did you smash my golden idol with your whip and burn down my temple? Today I must take my revenge!”
Fig. 3 – Digitalagepulao’s Nezha (larger version).
These have been posted for educational purposes. No malicious copyright infringement is intended. Please support the official release.
1) Prof. Shi Changyu notes in his preface to this translation that the friction between the fictional Chan and Jie sects serves as an analogy for that of Quanzhen and Zhengyi during the Ming, for the former was marginalized, while the latter was held in high esteem and fell prey to decadence, naturally hindering its ability to contribute anything of value to the development of Daoism at this time (Gu, 2000, pp. 50-53).
2) Those interested in reading some of the poetry from the novel should consult Koss (1979), which compares them with those from Journey to the West.
Gu, Z. (2000). Creation of the Gods (Vols. 1-4). Beijing: New World Press.
Koss, N. (1979). The Relationship of Hsi-yu chi and Feng-shen yen-i: An Analysis of Poems Found in Both Novels. T’oung Pao,65(4/5), second series, 143-165. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4528175
Wan, P. (1987). Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen yanyi”): Sources, Narrative Structure, and Mythical Significance (UMI No. 8810607) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington]. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.
Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4) (Rev. ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.