The goddess Nuwa has a lot of different mythologies associated with her, including the creation of human beings from mud, the repairing of the sky after one of the pillars of the sky was broken in a war between two gods, and the re-creation of humans after a great flood. Many of these stories are very well known in China and overseas Chinese communities. Today, though, I want to focus primarily on her actual worship and her presence in previously unrecorded myths.
Historically, according to the Handbook of Chinese Mythology, “in the dynasties of Song, Ming, and Qing, she was offered sacrifices by the feudal governments” (174). These days, Nuwa has a large temple called Wa Huang Gong in Shexian County, Hebei Province. This temple is said to have been built between 550 and 560. Every year from the 15th day of the second lunar month (which was just two days ago) to the 18th of the third lunar month, people make pilgrimages to this temple. Yang Lihui and An Deming tell us that while “Most of the pilgrims come from the local counties of Hebei Province, some may even come from Henan and Shanxi provinces” (174).
The culmination of this month of worship is on the 15th (full moon) of the third month, which is said to be Nuwa’s birthday. There is a vigil held for her on this day: “From the late of afternoon of [the 14th] until the early morning of [the 15th], the pilgrims sit in the yard and inside the palace, which is locally called zuoye (sitting during the night). Some sing sacred songs for Nuwa. Some dance for her” (174).
Nuwa is often paired with her brother, Fuxi, and both were frequently portrayed as serpents with human heads (as the two above images show). One myth of the great flood has the two of them marrying in order to recreate humanity. The Handbook of Chinese Mythology details how Nuwa’s worship is intertwined in modern-day celebrations of Fuxi’s festival:
In Haiyang County, Henan Province, there is a temple complex […] popularly called Renzu Temple (Temple of Human Ancestors). From lunar [month 2, day 2] to [lunar month 3, day 3], the monthlong Renzu Festival at the Renzu Temple complex is held to celebrate Fuxi’s birthday. Although Fuxi is the main god worshiped during the festival, Nuwa is also worshiped. Some female pilgrims make embroidered shoes and bring them to Nuwa. They call the shoes Nuwa’s Shoes. They sacrifice to shoes to Nuwa by displaying them in Renzu Temple or burning them with incense, paper money, or paper buildings (intended as ancestors’ dwellings). Women often dance danjingtiao (wherein a pole is carried over one’s shoulder) for their ancestors. This local folk dance is sometimes called danhualan (“carrying flower baskets on shoulder”). It is usually danced by women and passed on matrilineally.
There is a local legend explaining the origin of this dance and the reason why only women can dance it. After Nuwa repaired the broken sky, she mistakenly reincarnated (transmigrated) into a black dog. Her daughter missed her very much, but she did not know where her mother was. So she made two flower baskets and put them on her shoulder, and then she traveled and danced in many places to look for her mother. At last, she found her mother Nuwa and rescued her. Therefore, women imitate Nuwa’s daughter and dance the danjingtiao to worship and give sacrifice to Nuwa. The one who dances well is considered to have true filial piety and thus can receive more blessings from Nuwa. (175-6)
The website where I got the image of the dance, as well as the following information, is in Chinese, but I had someone translate it as she read it aloud. There were some interesting facts: the majority of the dancers are between the ages of 50 and 80, and as noted above are all women. Some of the dancers dance for three successive years as a votive offering–that is, the fulfillment of a vow they made, usually when asking for the birth of a son.
There is one more quote I’d like to share. It concerns the hanging of mugwort on Duanwu Festival, a custom that I had read about (and incorporated into my observance of the holiday), but hadn’t noticed was connected (in some people’s minds) to Nuwa the first time I read the Handbook of Chinese Mythology. The story was recorded in Sichuan Province in the 1980s, and does not have any parallels in ancient literature:
The supreme god Yu Di (the Jade Emperor) ordered the God of Plague to extinguish humans on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. As the creator of humankind, Great Mother Nuwa wanted to stop him from doing this. Accepting the Bodhisattva Guanyin’s suggestion, Nuwa told every family in the world to hang some mugwort wormwoods [sic] outside their doors. When the God of Plagues went down from heaven to the earth, he saw wild grass everywhere. He thought there were no people living there, so he went back without killing anyone. From then on, people hang mugwort wormwoods outside their doors on […] the Duanwu Festival. (173-4)
Source: Yang, Lihui and Deming An, with Jessica Anderson Turner. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 170-6.
Image Credits: First picture via Wikimedia Commons, comes from Myths and Legends of China by Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, 1922.
Second picture also via Wikimedia Commons, from a mid-8th Century (Tang Dynasty) painted silk “hanging scroll” taken from the Astana tombs in what is now Xinjiang.
Third picture is from hyxzx.gov.cn, specifically a page detailing the custom of the Danjingtiao in Haiyang County. According to that website, other nearby counties have similar dances.