[Duan wu special] A sword-yielding, baby-protecting goddess

If you have watched ‘The Legend of Miyue’ (aired in 2015), you may have an impression of a group dance scene with peacock feathers and whatnot. 

Enjoy the lyrics if you can put up with the characters gossiping throughout the entire ritual…

If you haven’t, please read on — the rest of this article has little to do with Miyue or her biopic. 

Now, dance sequences are an overused plot device in Chinese dramas. It is a convenient scheme for the female protagonist to showcase her talents while the male protagonist(s) looks on and her (female) rivals seethe with jealousy…

But what’s really interesting about this scene is the lyrics to the dance track. It is actually the words of a very ancient poem, titled “Lesser Master of Fate (少司命).” It comes from the collection “Nine Songs” (九歌), a series of poems dedicated to deities worshipped by the Chu people. 

The poems are traditionally believed to have been written by Qu Yuan, though this attribution is contested by modern scholars. What we can say is this: these poems are likely to have originated from plays put on during shamanic rituals to evoke the deities. They were then set into a more refined language by the poets of the Chu royal court. 

For the people of Chu, these deities were not to be worshipped from afar — many of the hymns are written as love sonnets. In an actual ritual, the shaman may have played the part of a lovestruck mortal who longs for the presence of the deity. The “Lesser Master of Fate” is written in this structure. 

The first lines set the scene. Autumn orchids and deer-parsley grow in a thick carpet below the worship hall. Their fragrance waft into the hall, filling the air. 

The ‘deer-parsley’ is presumably Ligusticum striatum. The ancient Chinese used this herb to boost fertility. This, as well as the mention of children in the poem, is a hint that she is a fertility goddess. 

The hall is packed with worshippers.  We can imagine them looking refined, wrapped in fine robes of lovely Chu silk. The people of Chu were known to have a good sense of fashion. Excavated garments from Chu tombs reveal an assortment of robes in brightly coloured silks and intricate motifs.

A robe excavated from Mashan Tomb No. 1

The Chu people were also noted for their love of spices and herbs. Perhaps there would have been braziers filled with fragrant herbs, soaking the space with the heady scent of a hundred spices. Perhaps the air was thick in anticipation, as they await the arrival of the goddess. 

And here she comes. Her shirt is decorated with lotus petals; a string of melilotus hangs from her waist. She casts a gaze at her devotees with a look of concern. 

The Shaman steps forward; their eyes meet. 

“Why worry, my lady? Our people are all blessed with fine progeny.”

The goddess remains silent; she turns to leave. A gust of wind assists her ascent; wisps of clouds trail behind her like flags. 

Her devotees watch with her departure with philosophical resignation. Meetings and partings, happiness and sadness are all part of the cycle of life. Our loved ones will leave us eventually, but we will constantly meet and welcome new people into our lives.

In the meantime, the goddess has returned to her heavenly abode at the edge of the High God’s precincts. She pauses at the edge of a cloud and peers into the distance — who is she waiting for? 

And in the mortal world, the Shaman still stands, waiting. She does not come. He raises his face to the wind and puts his longing into a song. 

I wish to join you at the Pool of Heaven where you wash your long locks;

To the edge of the sun where you dry your hair

He wills the wind to carry his words to where she is. And perhaps she hears him. She appears again, this time in a state of majesty under a canopy of peacock and kingfisher feathers. She raises a sword in one arm; her other reaches out in a protective gesture over the children of the Chu people. 

For who, but you, can decide our fate?

Disclaimer: I have made some changes to the sequence of the poem and filled in some details with my own imagination. However, I have attempted to stay true to the overall mood and theme. I have also imagined the deity as a goddess even though the poem does not indicate the deity’s gender explicitly.

Read the full poem (in Chinese) here.

Reference: “The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets” (Penguin Classics)