Date of this Version
April 21, 2008 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
One thousand years ago (1008 C.E.) The Song Emperor, the goddess of Mt. Tai, and transformations of Chinese religion:
I’ve been waiting awhile to post another “round number anniversary” piece, figuring I’d let discussions of Tibet take precedence while it remains in the news – but it looks like that could be a long while. Meanwhile, choosing this anniversary may be a bit self-indulgent, since I’ve been writing about this goddess off and on for years – but bear with me.
The story starts when Song Zhenzong, the not-very-successful emperor (r. 998-1023), claimed that he had received a Heavenly Letter, communicating instructions and approval from above. While many officials and literati expressed doubt about the legitimacy of this sacred text, the emperor further announced that in gratitude for receiving it, he would journey to Mt. Tai ( a sacred mountain in Shandong province), and perform the ancient feng and shan ceremonies, in which emperors reported to heaven on their accomplishments. These ceremonies were quite rare; they were only supposed to be performed when the realm was peaceful and prosperous, so to undertake them was to make a big (and contested) claim. It also turned out to be the last time these rituals were ever performed, unless you count the re-enactments for tourists that began about 10 years ago –but that’s another story.
At any rate, while digging at the top of the mountain (probably to set up an altar), the emperor’s men uncovered both a spring and a statue of a female figure. The statue was said to be that of a goddess of Mt. Tai, and it was later claimed that this goddess had been known to the ancients but somehow forgotten since then. In fact, up to that point only a god of the mountain was worshipped: he was officially understood as a rather abstract nature spirit but also figured in the popular imagination as a sort of lord of the underworld.