Oedipal God

The Chinese Nezha and His Indian Origins

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Meir Shahar
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , August
     2015.
     272 pages.
     $54.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824847609.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Oedipal God is a thought-provoking study of the Chinese child god Nezha 哪吒 (also written as Nazha 那吒), renowned for not only his martial prowess but also for his attempts to murder his father, Li Jing 李靖. In many ways, Oedipal God a logical extension of author Meir Shahar’s research on “unruly gods” such as the eccentric monk Jigong 濟公 and Chinese martial arts culture in the renowned Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin Si 少林寺), as well as Shahar’s jointly edited volume with John Kieschnick (India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). This book draws on an interdisciplinary approach—combining historical research and fieldwork—to open our eyes to the impact of the Oedipus complex and Esoteric Buddhism on Chinese hagiography and ritual. Oedipal God also benefits from a broad comparative perspective that considers such phenomena from the perspective of world religions.

This book contains nine chapters dealing with three main issues: the place of the Oedipus myth in Chinese religious culture; diverse representations of Nezha; and the impact of Esoteric Buddhism. Chapter 1 focuses on Nezha’s hagiography in the novel Canonization of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi 封神演義) while also broaching the issue of cannibalism, most notably with its story of King Wen (Wenwang 文王) partaking of his own son. This particular story reminds one of the Greek myths about Cronus, though Shahar also considers actual incidents of cannibalism in ancient and modern Chinese history. Chapter 2, “Patricide and suicide,” stresses Nezha’s hagiography as an oedipal myth masquerading as a filial piety tale, describing extreme forms of filial piety involving offspring attempting to heal their parents by allowing them to feast on their flesh. The third chapter treats Chinese discourses on incest and libido, especially during the modern era.

In Chapter 4, “Teenage delinquent or revolutionary martyr,” Shahar presents a wealth of data showing that some accounts are more sympathetic towards Nezha, accentuating his father’s cruelty. Chapter 5 explores Nezha’s representations in Asian media including movies, TV shows, Japanese manga, and others. Shahar’s interdisciplinary approach comes to the fore in chapter 6—the book’s longest—with its vivid descriptions of Nezha’s temples, offerings, and rituals.

Chapter 7, “Biological and spiritual fathers,” contains a moving analysis of divine youths and their parents, noting that many accounts consider the Buddha as Nezha’s true father. Shahar also explores sexual tensions in the legend of the goddess Miaoshan 妙善, who is lusted after by her dear old dad. Chapter 8 examines the “angels” of Esoteric Buddhism—especially sons of the Heavenly King Vaiśravaṇa—who is sometimes identified as Nezha’s father, Li Jing. Chapter 9 builds on this analysis in considering two Indian deities on which the Nezha cult appears based on: Nalakūbara (one of Vaiśravaṇa’s sons) and Kṛṣṇa.

Oedipal God features bold cross-cultural comparisons, one of which involves the sacrifice of firstborns (12-14, 20-21). Shahar also deserves credit for his sensitive analysis, an example of which involves a comparison of Nezha and the Monkey god Sun Wukong 孫悟空 with Shahar observing that the former defies parental authority while the latter challenges political power (91). Of particular import is Shahar’s conclusion which argues that filial piety for spiritual progenitors—including the Buddha—often proves more important than for biological parents, the result of which suggests that Buddhism in China “…might have accommodated native family values, but its supremacy has remained unchallenged” (143). Shahar’s delineation of the resemblances between Nezha and Kṛṣṇa is highly convincing, especially as both deities are rambunctious children who slaughter serpents and attempt to do the same to their fathers.

This book is a pleasure to read, in part thanks to Shahar’s wonderfully skilled use of language. Few readers will forget translations such as “The Northern Heavenly King has a son who was mad; He only venerated the Buddha – not his dad” (145); the image of Shahar stuffing a Taiwanese spirit-medium’s mouth with Ferrero Rocher bonbons due to the child god’s love of sweets (124); or his comparison of Nezha with Harry Potter (177-78).

As with any pioneering study, Oedipal God raises a number of issues meriting further study. One such tendency is an overstating of the impact of novels, arguing that they “[reached] every segment of society” (3), despite the book’s presentation of abundant evidence that oral storytelling (4, 59), dramatic performances (86-89), and artwork (94-102) could be equally, if not more influential. There are also instances of simplistic assertions such as Nezha being a deity “despised by the literati elite, who pushed his believers away from the empire’s hubs of administration” (103). In fact, many elites supported Nezha’s cult—as noted in the works cited in this study—and there is no evidence of attempts to force Nezha worship into peripheral regions (the cult center in Tainan was a core part of the empire beginning in the early eighteenth century). It is also essential to note that other Chinese deities had equally troubled pasts. For example, Mazu 媽祖 was a girl who committed suicide rather than agree to an arranged marriage while Guangong 關公 died violently in battle, failing to marry and father male heirs. The real difference between these deities and Nezha is their believers ability to modify hagiographical traditions to conform to “standard” norms, something that never seems necessary for Nezha.

It is also worth noting that family tensions and deviant sexual relations can be found in Chinese female deity cults, most notably Lady Linshui (Linshui furen 臨水夫人) who is the subject of a thought-provoking study by Brigitte Baptandier that regrettably is not cited in this book (see also Megan Bryson’s review in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of Chinese Religions). For cross-cultural comparisons, Nezha—and other Chinese deities—entering this world as balls of flesh are similar to Western accounts of spiritually potent men and women born with the caul (see Carlo Ginzberg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, John Hopkins University Press, 1992). Finally, there are occasional typos and errors, for example, the repetition of the sentence “Kṛṣṇa, like Nezha, is first and foremost a baby” (176-77).

Despite these minor flaws, Oedipal God succeeds in venturing into realms where few scholars have gone before. This book’s fascinating data, combined with Shahar’s masterful analytical skills and writing style, make it highly suitable for both research and classroom use.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul R. Katz is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Meir Shahar is professor of Chinese studies at Tel Aviv University.

Keywords: 

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