Theses Doctoral

The Way of Darkness and Light: Daoist Divine Women in Pre-Modern Chinese Fiction

Liu, Peng

A mysterious goddess magically generates a swirling wind to conceal the body of a hero. A licentious flower deity seduces a male to experiment with forty-three postures of copulation in a picturesque garden. Such graphic details of late imperial Chinese fiction exhibit two types of power from women: their martial prowess and seductiveness. This dissertation brings these two types of female power together by focusing on the Mysterious Woman (Xuannü 玄女) and the Immaculate Woman (Sunü 素女), two Daoist goddesses who figure prominently in martial arts and erotic stories, respectively. I argue that after being marginalized by institutionalized Daoism, these goddesses played a pivotal role in framing two different, though occasionally interrelated, types of novels. One type of novel concerns war and public affairs, including dynastic crises; the other type concerns domestic life, as exemplified in erotic fiction. The metaphor that equates sex with war relates these two types of stories. I consider these fictional texts to be powerful agents that reused and reinterpreted the goddesses’ stories in late imperial China. I also situate these texts in the cultural network within which they constructed or reconstructed the goddesses’ images in collaboration with Daoist discourse.

In this research, I also examine how femininity (yin 陰) is constructed in late imperial Chinese fiction. As I argue, the ideas of invisibility (yin 隱) and licentiousness (yin 淫) constitute the notion of femininity. The Mysterious Woman demonstrates the power of invisibility when being portrayed as a goddess of war and associated with Daoist magic, such as the magic of invisibility (yinshen shu 隱身術). The Immaculate Woman represents the idea of licentiousness as she appears in various forms to seduce male protagonists.

The dissertation contains two sections. The first part focuses on the following fictional texts: Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳), Quelling the Demons’ Revolt (San Sui pingyao zhuan 三遂平妖傳), Bull’s Head Mountain (Niutou shan 牛頭山), and Unofficial History of Female Immortals (Nüxian waishi 女仙外史). In this part, I show how the Mysterious Woman is depicted as a war goddess and a moral agent in stories concerning war, rebellion, and dynastic crises. The second part of the dissertation discusses Su’e pian 素娥篇 (The Story of Su’e), Zhulin Yeshi 株林野史 (Unofficial History of the Forest), Yesou puyan 野叟曝言 (Humble Words of A Rustic Elder), and Honglou meng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber). These works create various literary reincarnations of the Immaculate Woman. These reincarnations guide male protagonists to their spiritual awakenings by means of sex. While drawing on fictional and Daoist texts to rebuild the history of the Mysterious Woman and the Immaculate Woman, this research illuminates a complex relationship between Chinese fiction and Daoism.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shang, Wei
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 9, 2018