Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lick the sky and rule China

The future of an empress of ancient China was foreshadowed by a dream in which she rose to the sky and drank from it. The crucial role of dreams and shamanic experience in imperial China is another chapter in the history we weren't taught in school.
   Deng Sui (81-121) ruled China as dowager empress in the Later Han Dynasty. As a young girl, she dreams that she rises up to the sky. It is beautiful, flawlessly blue. She touches it, moving her hand lightly across the smooth, rounded surface. Her exploring fingers find something shaped like “the nipple on a bronze bell”. She puts this in her mouth and sucks on it like a baby, feeling herself fed and nourished. 
    When she tells the dream to her parents, her father, a high official and royal tutor, calls in a dream interpreter. The professional draws on precedents. He recalls that two of the legendary “sage kings” of ancient China dreamed of rising to the sky before they rose to take the throne. Yao dreamed that he climbed up to the sky. Tang dreamed he rose to the sky and licked it. Both dreamers became emperors, ranked among the “sage kings” because of their wisdom and innovation. The dream interpreter declared that Deng Sui’s dream was “unspeakably auspicious.”
    For a second opinion, a face reader was called. He studied Deng Sui’s physiognomy and pronounced that her features closely resembled those of the sage king Cheng Tang. Therefore her destiny would be tremendous, as the dream seemed to promise.
    Still in her teens, Deng Sui was selected as a consort of the young Emperor He. A slightly older consort, Yin, was raised to the status of empress. Jealous and scheming, Yin hired sorcerers to attack Deng Sui with black magic. When this was discovered, Yin was deposed and Deng Sui took her place on the throne. When the emperor died, she became the regent for his child successor, and ruled China as dowager empress for several years, fulfilling the dream  prophecy.
     My source for Deng Sui's dream is an excellent scholarly study of shamanism, religion and poetry in early China: Gopal Sukhu, The Shaman and the Heresiarch: A New Interpretation of the Li sao. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012). This is the first book-length study in English of the Chinese poetic classic, the Li sao, attributed to Qu Yuan, a high official of the kingdom of Chu in the 3rd century BCE who lost his position thanks to the jealous intrigues of rivals.
    The title is translated here as Encountering Sorrow”. It might also be rendered as "Departing from Sorrow". In his sorrow, the poet contemplates suicide; according to tradition Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river in 278 BCE, an event memorialized by the Duanwu or Dragon Boat festival. Yet the force of the poet's violent emotions is also the departure lobby for vividly described shamanic journeys between the worlds. He rides on dragons and phoenix-like birds, summons elemental powers, talks with gatekeepers of heaven worlds.

I sent Wangshu, the moon's charioteer, ahead as my herald,
And Feilian, the wind god, to the back as rear guard.
Male huan birds were my fore-runners,

And the Lord of Thunder would warn me of the unforeseen.

    The long poem is full of challenges for modern readers, especially in its elaborate floral codes (have as many flowers and herbs ever been named in another poem?) and in the gender-twisting narrative voice; Gopal Sukhu deftly traces the rival paths of interpretation and contributes a new translation with detailed notes.

Graphic: Chinese postcard depicting Deng Sui in Han dynasty hairdo.


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