The Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), a Catalog of Chinese Gods

I recently learned about an interesting website called the Book of Xian and Shen (BOXS), which catalogs information and pictures for Chinese gods from all over the world. There are currently 2,000 listings and counting.

https://www.bookofxianshen.com/

It is based on the work of religious scholar Keith Stevens (d. 2016), who wrote the amazing Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons (Collins & Brown, 1997) (fig. 1). I recently volunteered to help the project. So far, I’ve written two articles (see reference no. W1001 and W1011) and updated two other existing listings with information and pictures (see the bottom of W8620 and W9305).

Fig. 1 – My well-worn personal copy of Chinese Gods (larger version).

Due to the great number of listings, there are no direct links. Instead, the site has adopted a somewhat confusing (but necessary) cataloging system based around reference numbers, pinyin, Mandarin, and Wade-Giles. However, it’s easy to use once you get used to it. For example, if you were going to search for Sanqing, the “Three Pure Ones“, using, say, Pinyin, I recommend first getting the reference number (RefNo). 

Deities —> Tabular Listing of Xian Shen Deities —> Field: Pinyin —> Type: Contains —> Value: San qing (you may have to play around with the spacing like I did here) —> Filter —> Then look for the correct listing (since other listings mentioning them might appear in the list) —> ☰ —> copy the “RefNo”, in this case W5540 (fig. 2) —> Deities —> Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar —> Field: RefNo —> Type: Contains —> Value: W5540 —> Filter (fig. 3) —> The listing (fig. 4)

If you know the Mandarin or Wade-Giles for the deity you are looking for, the process would be similar. You would just need to change the field to “Mandarin” or “Wade-Giles”. You could just jump to “Deities Page with Full Listing Side Bar” to search using pinyin, mandarin, and Wade-Giles, but it’s been my experience that a different listing will pop up first based on a higher RefNo or Romanized spelling. First finding the reference number seems to be the easiest method for me.

I can’t recommend this website enough. New gods, as well as new stories or beliefs associated with more established deities, are appearing all the time, so it is very important to catalog everything as soon as new information becomes available. If you would like to volunteer in some way, please contact Ronni Pinsler using the “contact” form on the BOXS website.

Fig. 2 – How to acquire the reference number (RefNo) (larger version). Fig. 3 – How to navigate to the listing (larger version). Fig. 4 – The listing as seen from the top of the page (larger version).

The Great Sage Detecting “Ping-Pong” Bottle

Updated: 08/11/20

Elliott (1955/1990) describes a curious glass bottle used in the worship of Sun Wukong in Singapore. Filled with “twelve o’clock water” and topped with a consecrated bulbous glass stem, it is said to make a pinging noise to signal the arrival of the monkey god in a home or temple:

There are, also, sometimes other pieces of apparatus, apart from images, which devotees like to keep in their own homes. An outstanding example is an article of equipment almost exclusively associated with the ‘Great Saint’ [大聖] which goes by the onomatopoeic name of ‘ping-pong’ [乒乓]. It consists of an ordinary bottle filled with ‘twelve o’clock water’, water drawn from a tap or well at midday. Into the neck is fitted a funnel-like piece of glass-ware open at the lower end of the funnel, which dips into the water but completely closes the top [fig. 1 and 2]. Everyday at noon, and sometimes at other hours as well, this apparatus gives off a sudden ‘pinging’ sound, as if bubbles were rising and forcing up the funnel in the bottle’s neck. When this occurs, the shen [神, god] is supposed to be revealing his presence in the temple or the home, and an immediate act of worship must be carried out by the persons there. These ‘ping-pong’ are invariably found in temples associated with the ‘Great Saint’. Devotees will purchase their own funnels and bring them to the temple for the dang-ki [童乩, spirit-medium] to consecrate them with a lick of his blood (p. 58).

Fig. 1 – The ping-pong bottle, a.k.a. “Great Sage bottle” (Dasheng ping, 大聖瓶), fitted with the bulbous stem, which is closed at the top and open at the bottom (larger version). Fig. 2 – A detail of the stem (larger version). Images found on google.

The device was also used in Hong Kong according to one personal account shared with me:

I believe the apparatus was used not just in Singapore. My mom told me that as a kid in HK in the 1940s/50s, her aunt also had something similar on the altar where she worshipped the [Great] Saint. And when the apparatus made a noise which signified his arrival, they would light up a joss stick.

I don’t know when the bottle was first associated with Sun Wukong, but the above information points to its active use in Asia as far back as the 1950s. It’s my understanding that the bottle is a rarity in modern practice, suggesting it flourished prior to mid-century.

Why the bottle was associated with the Great Sage is also a mystery to me. But the significance of twelve o’clock water may provide some clues. Astrological theory associates noon with wu (午), the seventh of twelve earthly branches, which is in turn identified with horses, the heart, fire yang, the summer solstice, and the direction south (Wu & Taylor, 2014, pp. 133-134). Readers may remember that Sun Wukong is appointed the keeper of the heavenly horses (bimawen, 弼馬溫) in chapter four of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 148-149). Additionally, Chinese philosophy considers the heart to be the seat of the mind (xin, 心; alternatively translated “heart-mind”). This is important as Sun is called the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿; alternatively translated “Mind Ape”), which is a Buddho-Daoist concept denoting the disquieted, transient thoughts that keep man trapped in Samsara. Examples include the titles for chapters seven (“From the Eight Trigrams Brazier the Great Sage escapes; Beneath the Five Phases Mountain, Mind Monkey is still”) and fourteen (“Mind Monkey returns to the Right; The Six Robbers vanish from sight”). 

(Before I continue, I must warn that using the 16th-century novel as a source for modern folk religion surely overlooks beliefs that I am not aware of. The above info should therefore be considered purely speculative.)

A naturalistic explanation for the pinging noise is air escaping from the bottle due to changes in atmospheric pressure. However, I’d like to speculate on a possible esoteric reason. As mentioned above, noon is identified with fire yang, which is considered the height of yang power. In fact, the hours before wu and after zi (子, midnight) are considered the best time to practice Daoist exlixir cultivation. [1] And since heaven is the embodiment of yang, [2] it’s possible worshipers believe water collected at noon is infused with strong yang energy, thereby giving it the ability to detect the presence of celestial deities like the Great Sage.


Update: 08/11/20

J.D. Martinsen contacted me and noted that “drawing noon water” (da wushi shui, 打午時水) is a common practice in coastal China during the Dragon Boat Festival. The water is apparently known for its demonifugic and medicinal properties. In fact, this custom is even practiced in Taiwan where there is a common saying: “A sip of noon water is better than three years of herbal medicine” (wushi shui yin yi zui, jiao hao buyao chi san nian, 午時水飲一嘴,較好補藥吃三年) (Chen, 2011, p. 210). Therefore, this association with warding malevolent influences/sickness may explain why Sun Wukong is connected with noon water. He is after all the exorcist par excellence, as well as a healer.

Notes:

1) This is noted as early as the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄) (Kohn, 2008, p. 84).

2) See, for example, Clearly (2003), p. 391.

Sources:

Chen, X. (2011). Taiwan li shi shang de yi min yu she hui yan jiu [The History of Taiwanese Immigration and Social Studies]. Beijing: Jiu zhou chu ban she.

Cleary, T. F. (2003). The Taoist Classics: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, Volume Two. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West, vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Wu, Z., & Taylor, W. K. (2014). Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches – TianGan DiZhi: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

The Connection Between Monkey’s Spiritual Training and Historical Daoist Internal Alchemy

Did you know Monkey’s early spiritual training in chapter one is connected to historical Daoist internal alchemy? After becoming a student of the great immortal Subhuti in India, Sun receives a private lesson in which his master recites an instructional poem, part of which reads:

This bold, secret saying that’s wondrous and true:
Spare, nurse nature and life—there’s nothing else.
All power resides in the semen, breath, and spirit;
Store these securely lest there be a leak.
Lest there be a leak!
Keep within the body!
Heed my teaching and the Way itself will thrive.
Hold fast oral formulas so useful and keen
To purge concupiscence, to reach pure cool;
To pure cool
Where the light is bright.
You’ll face the elixir platform, enjoying the moon.
The moon holds the jade rabbit, the sun, the crow;
The tortoise and snake are now tightly entwined.
Tightly entwined,
Nature and life are strong.
You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames.
Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth—
When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 120).

The cryptic methods advocated in the poem find their origins in dogmatic Daoist internal practices that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Kohn, 2008, p. 177). When Subhuti warns Monkey to “Store these [bodily substances] lest there be a leak”, he is referring to the first of three stages in the forging of an immortal spirit body. It involves transforming chaste semen (jing, 精) into pneumatic energy (qi, 氣) and guiding it to the brain, where it is purified and then circulated throughout the body, resulting in the formation of a spiritual pearl in the Cinnabar Field (dantian, 丹田), or the body’s spiritual furnace located in the lower abdomen (Kohn, 2008, p. 178). “You can plant gold lotus e’en in the midst of flames. / Squeeze the Five Phases jointly, use them back and forth” refers to the second stage, involving the inhalation and guidance of yang energy through various organs (the “five phases”) in the body to bolster the spirit (shen, 神) (fig. 1). This nurturing of the pearl causes it to sprout like a seed and blossom into a golden lotus (“amidst flames”) in the spiritual furnace. The lotus is considered the early stages of an immortal spirit embryo (Kohn, 2008, pp. 178-179). The third stage involves the nurturing of said embryo to maturation with spiritual energies and eventually guiding it upwards and out the Heavenly Gate (tianguan, 天關), or the top of the crown. This results in a fledgling immortal spirit body that must be trained over an additional three year period in which it learns to travel far and wide apart from the physical vessel (pp. 179-180). “When that’s done, be a Buddha or immortal at will!” refers to the eventual freedom of the immortal spirit.

Fig. 1 – (Left) A diagram of the organs and energy pathways in the human body (larger version). Fig. 2 – (Right) A Daoist sage subduing a tiger with his magic powers (larger version). Photos from Kohn (2008).

Kohn (2008) notes that adepts who succeed in their training gain supernatural powers, “including the ability to be in two places at once, to move quickly from one place to another, to know past and future, to divine people’s thoughts, and so on” (p. 180) (fig. 2). I feel this is important information considering all of the powers that Monkey exhibits throughout the story.

Various facets of the aforementioned Song-era practices, such as the breathing methods from stage two above, have a much older pedigree. JTTW describes Sun secretly performing “breathing exercises before the hour of Wu and after the hour of Zi” (before noon and after midnight). [1] This time-based practice is described in the fourth-century CE work Wondrous Record of the Golden Casket on the Spirit Immortals’ Practice of Eating Qi (Shenxian shiqi jin’gui miaolu, 神仙食氣金櫃妙錄): “always practice after midnight [and before noon] in the period of living qi [yang energy] … In this qi-practice, the time after noon and before midnight is called the period of dead qi [yin energy]. Do not practice then” (Kohn, 2008, p. 84). [2] So by practicing during the prescribed hours, Monkey absorbs the yang energy that he needs to forge his immortal spirit body.

Notes:

1) The original source says “breathing exercises before the hour of Zi and after the hour of Wu” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 121). I’ve changed the quote because this is most likely an error. See below.

2) There is a glaring contradiction between what the novel says (before Zi and after Wu) and what Daoist practice prescribes (before Wu and after Zi). I think this is a transcription error in the original text.

Sources:

Kohn, L. (2008). Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West: Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.