Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Brigitte Baptandier,
trans. Kristin Ingrid Fryklund

The Lady of Linshui:
A Chinese Female Cult

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-804746-66-3 (cloth); 392 pp.;
11 figures, 23 illustrations; $US65.00

reviewed by Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa

  1. The Lady of Linshui: A Chinese Female Cult outlines the development and multi-layered mythological traditions of Chen Jinggu, the Lady of Linshui (Linshui Furen), a crucial figure in a number of Daoist, syncretic and spirit medium lineages in Southern China. The book presents a translated version of the author Brigitte Baptandier's earlier 1988 book in French, La Dame-du-bord-de-l'eau, which was developed out of her 1983 doctoral thesis. However, The Lady of Linshui is not merely a translation: as Baptandier notes in her preface, she has revisited and extensively updated her earlier work in order to incorporate her research carried out in Chen Jinggu communities since the late 1980s, and has also included new secondary research from Daoist and Chinese gender studies into her argument. These revisions make The Lady of Linshui a work that surpasses the breadth of the author's earlier book in its vision, and the book is an important contribution to the wider fields of sinology, anthropology, Chinese history, and most significantly, gender studies. Kristin Ingris Fryklund has provided a clear translation of a text that contains many complex ideas, and her style has contributed to the book's accessibility.
  2. Baptandier's study focuses on the subject of Chen Jinggu, a female figure who is regarded as the protector of pregnancy and childhood in communities throughout Fujian Province in Mainland China and in Taiwan. The mythology of Chen Jinggu is incredibly multi-faceted however, and there are many competing discourses about the original figure that inspired the cult. In the Introduction, the author explores sources as diverse as local records and gazetteers, collections of biographies of divinities, and inscriptions from steles at temples dedicated to Chen Jinggu in order to excavate the layers of canonisation that have occurred since the life of the historical figure of Chen Jinggu who lived in the Country of Min during the Tang dynasty. These different stories have a number of commonalities, such as ascribing supernatural abilities to Chen Jinggu from birth; her training as a shaman (wu); her battle with the White Snake; Chen Jinggu's marriage to Liu Qi; and her pregnancy, abortion and death at twenty-four years of age.
  3. However there are also fascinating differences between narratives of Chen Jinggu that link her to a number of different traditions, including Daoism, Tantrism, Buddhism and shamanism. These links are strongest in relation to the Daoist Mount Lü sect that includes Chen Jinggu in their female ritual lineage, and in particular the school of the Three Ladies (Sannai pai). Chen Jinggu's story has been re-told in a number of ways that has led to her inclusion in a number of syncretic narratives, as well as her modern day manifestation as a popular spirit medium in Taiwan.
  4. The book is divided into two main sections. The first section, including the first six chapters, outlines the life and canonisation of Chen Jinggu through an analysis of the text entitled, Pacification of the Demons of Linshui (Linshui Pingyao zhuan), a collection of episodes that outline Chen Jinggu's life story and manifestations over subsequent centuries in which she is divinized. In these chapters, the author unpacks the symbolism of Chen Jinggu's life story—including her training as a shaman, her battle with her alter ego the White Snake, her abortion in order to make rain during a drought, her death and afterlife—in order to draw out the Daoist alchemical significance of the images within the narratives, as well as the presence of trigrams and other references to spiritual transformation. These narratives are particularly significant in terms of their presentation of the repercussions of gender in the life and subsequent cult of Chen Jinggu, as her rejection of marriage and the images of castration that take place elsewhere in the stories point to an ultimate truth for Daoist and other Chinese traditions from the period: that 'a woman who rejects patrilineal law is left with no choices other than religion or death' (p. 64). In Chen Jinggu's case she experiences both, as she trains as a shaman but is forced into marriage only to have to abort her baby and die of a haemorrhage in her path to becoming the Lady of Linshui. In subsequent chapters, Chen Jinggu appears in her various guises, as the goddess of the Bridge of Flowers in Chapter Three and as the Lady of the Birth Register in Chapter Six. Baptandier's adept dissection of the gendered discourse masked within traditional terminology is ground breaking as it demonstrates the importance of the feminine in Chinese religions, and Chen Jinggu's links with many other Daoist deities explored here and contextualisation within wider Daoist cosmology also confirms her significance.
  5. The latter part of the book, Chapters Seven to Nine, are based in the present day, and follow the communities of women and children who attend temples associated with the Lady of Linshui in Fuzhou and Gutian. As the author points out, the popularity of Chen Jinggu in modern Taiwan and on the mainland is evident from the continuing maintenance and upgrading of Chen Jinggu temples (p. 166). These chapters outline the rites associated with Chen Jinggu that are still performed in these areas by women wanting to conceive, or who wish to ensure a peaceful pregnancy, and also by parents in order to protect their children during the important stages of childhood transition. In this section of the book, Baptandier's skills as an observant and insightful ethnographer are evident. Her long term association with the officiants of the Linshui Temple, mediums who are known as Red Hat (Hongtou) masters, has given her access to a myriad of ritual texts, which she interweaves with vivid descriptions of the ritual calendar of the Chen Jinggu cult that are modelled after the hagiographical episodes of Chen Jinggu.
  6. Perhaps the most endearing feature of The Lady of Linshui is the way in which the author so deftly manoeuvres between the past and the present. While the manner by which the book excavates layers of analogies and symbols contained in the narratives of Chen Jinggu is fascinating, what is more fascinating is the way that these symbols are brought to life in the present realities of the shaman Xian Fuzhu ('Pearl of Abundance'), the medium of Chen Jinggu who Baptandier has met and studied between 1980 and 1988 in Taiwan, and who is the subject of Chapter Ten (p. 242). Baptandier outlines the histories of the communities around this shaman, as well Xie Fuzhu's life story and education. This chapter allows the efficacy of the cult of the Lady of Linshui to be more deeply understood by the reader, as a personality of Chen Jinggu is removed from historical annals and propitiated for assistance by modern women.
  7. The Lady of Linshui as a text is extraordinary, as it is not only an ethnohistory, but also a history of Chinese religion in the modern period. Baptandier has interweaved textual and ethnographical evidence into a corpus that stands as an intriguing insight into the lived experience of a syncretic tradition while admirably avoiding depictions of such as a tradition as superstition. The latter chapters of The Lady of Linshui that outline the experience of communities associated with Chen Jinggu temples over the last century, as well as the life story of her medium in Chapter Ten, are excellent sources of information regarding the transmission of Chinese religion in the twentieth century and also regarding the historical experience of women in Chinese religious culture. The Conclusion draws this information together to bring the story of Chen Jinggu into the twenty-first century, and provides a thought-provoking summary of the experience of the Chen Jinggu tradition and what it expressed about the ambiguity of women within wider Chinese religion. Baptandier states that in her research she 'sought above all…to show the close relations that exist between acts, beliefs, rites and myths that are usually treated independently' (p. 261). She has succeeded, and in doing so has created a book that will inspire students and scholars of Sinology, anthropology, history and gender studies.


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