Oh god

The god I grew up with was the Catholic God: all-knowing, all-powerful, fierce in his retribution and tender in his forgiveness. The gods I spend my time with these days are a whole other ball of wax. Petty, self-indulgent, more interested in a game of mahjong than the plight of mere mortals. Meet the Chinese concept of a god.

The Celestial Kingdom

The Celestial Kingdom is the Chinese version of heaven. It looks an awful lot like the imperial capital Chang’An (today’s Xi’An) when China was a kingdom on the Yellow River. There is no one god but rather an entire panoply with a pecking order, too.

god on a train
Lady Mazu in the train. Photo credit: Karen Kao

At the top of the power structure stands the Jade Emperor, a benevolent and wise figure. His empress is the Lady Mazu, protector of fishermen and a wildly popular deity in Taiwan. The first time I met her up close and personal was on a train from Kaohsiung to Taipei. She had her own heavenly carriage also known as the luggage rack to which she was unceremoniously strapped for the duration of the trip.

In the Celestial Kingdom, the Jade Emperor presides over a vast assortment of lesser gods, each allocated their own specific task. These gods are not infallible.

For example, the Thunder God sometimes erroneously strikes mortals dead or injures them in egregious ways. It’s unclear whether he makes his thunder by using a mallet and chisel to strike a drum. Or, as Eileen Chang would have us believe, by moving his mahjong table around his palace inside the Celestial Kingdom.

The god in you

An odd feature of the Chinese cosmology is its organization. Each city and village has its own god, each family a Kitchen God, each individual a personal god

believed to dwell inside each person’s body, who accompany people through life and into death, carrying with them the records of good and evil deeds committed by their charges.

Columbia University | Asia for Educators, Living in the Chinese Cosmos, The Jade Emperor & Other Gods of the Earthly Domain

All of these gods require worship, that is to say, blandishments to procure their good favor. This becomes particularly important on Little Year, the official start to the two week long Chinese New Year’s celebration, when good conduct reports to the Jade Emperor come due.

Fuchsia Dunlop's Kitchen God
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Kitchen God

In 2021, Little Year fell on 4 February. On that date, Fuchsia Dunlop, the English master of the Chinese kitchen, burnt incense, candles and paper money to appease her Kitchen God. She also handmade Sichuanese pearly rice balls stuffed with sweet red bean paste to bribe the Kitchen God into making favorable reports of her behavior to the Jade Emperor.

Although none of my friends in China perform this old-fashioned ritual (and mostly find it charming or hilarious that I do), it felt rather wonderful to do it here in London

Fuchsia Dunlop on Instagram, 4 February 2021

Go to hell

Upon death, the City God escorts the dearly departed to Hell where he or she shall be judged by the Ten Magistrates. The magistrates are also gods, albeit the very lowest in rank as gods go. Their task is to

administer punishment to deceased spirits passing through the purgatorial chambers of the Underworld. They too have reports to fill out, citizens to keep track of, and jails to manage

Asia for Educators
God of hell
Entrance to Hell. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Some say the Underworld consists of 10 chambers of hell while others count 18. In either case, each chamber of hell is equipped with its own unique set of torments. Each torment is designed to punish a particular misdeed. The Underworld is a syncretic place where the very most awful parts of Buddhism and Taoism and Chinese daily life have been amalgamated into torture.

Some of these forms of torment are purpose-made. Those who abused animals shall now be gored. Tomb raiders shall be dismembered. Anyone who wasted food in life shall be force-fed hellfire by demons. And what about this one?

Hell of Tongue-ripping, where those who gossip and spread trouble with their words will repeatedly have their tongues ripped out.

Catharina Cheung, “Chinese Mythology 101: 18 levels of hell” in Localiiz, 15 Sept 2020

Oh god, a new idea

Gore always inspires me. So do hell and damnation. I’m so fired up that I’m overhauling my novel-in-progress (again).

I want a god for my narrator. One who wishes he knew all but doesn’t, who wants to help but can’t. I call it an aspirationally omniscient third person narrator. I have my models from the Chinese pantheon of gods. There’s also reassurance to be found from the literary oracles. They call my god an essayist-narrator. Blessed with the ability to dip into the minds of any characters, the essayist-narrator possesses another handy trait.

[H]e (or she) has a definite voice and definite opinions, which may or may not be reliable. This narrator may be virtually a character in the story, having a name and some distant relationship to the people and events he describes, or may be simply a particularized but unnamed voice.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage Books 1991)

There used to be a time, say, when W.G. Sebald ruled the literary world, when a narrator could not set himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor. When authorial certainty was impossible given the world in which we lived.

Now, Francine Prose says that to be omniscient does not imply impartiality. James Wood argues that omniscient narrators are not as reliable as they may seem. According to John Gardner, it’s possible to treat authorial omniscience like any other literary fiction the way Donald Barthelme or Joyce Carol Oates do. They play God as they might play King Claudius, by putting on a cape.

I want to play god. I think I will.