Ghost Heroes

Chu's boundaries in 260 BCE. Credit: Philg88.

Chu’s boundaries in 260 BCE. Credit: Philg88.

Last Saturday was Duanwu Festival, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The festival has ancient roots in early summer ceremonies to protect against plague, and also ceremonies to propitiate river spirits. It is most often associated now, however, with the poet Qu Yuan who lived in the state of Chu, and who committed suicide in 257 BCE when Chu was conquered by Qin. This conquest was a significant battle in the first unification of China, which led to rule by an Emperor rather than a feudal over-King. The name “China” actually comes from Qin. Here is one of Qu Yuan’s poems, the “Elegy for the National Martyrs” from the Songs of Chu, as quoted in Deng Ming-Dao’s The Lunar Tao:

They gripped the halberds of Wu, wore rhinoceros-hide armor.
Chariot hub crashed, short swords clashed.
Banners blotted out the sun, their foes charged like clouds.
Volleys of arrows answered each other, warriors vied to be first.

The enemy broke their ranks, trampled their lines.
The horse on the left died, the one on the right was slashed.
Chariot wheels seized in the dust, teams of horses fell tangled.
Raising jade drumsticks, they shouted and beat their drums.

Yet heaven’s season was against them, the powerful gods were angry!
Our staunchest men were slaughtered, left scattered on the field.
They went out, did not come back, will never return.
The plains lie empty, the roads stretch on.

They buckled on their long swords, raised their Qin bows.
Although their heads were hacked from their bodies, their hearts held no regret.
They were truly brave, such great warriors.
Strong and powerful to the end, they were never cowed.

Their bodies may be dead, but their spirits have become gods.
Their souls are transformed, they are our ghost heroes! (152)

Today is the thirteenth day of the fifth lunar month, Guan Di’s birthday as a mortal [EDIT: festival, one of several throughout the year. Attributed by some sources as (one of) his birthday(s), celebrated by others as his son Guan Ping’s birthday or the day that he sharpened his blade — see comments below].

I’m posting this poem on this blog in his honor as well, for the last two stanzas apply to his life and apotheosis perfectly.

9 responses to “Ghost Heroes

  • aediculaantinoi

    This is beautiful, and a great encapsulation of heroization and apotheosis–something which far too many polytheists seem to be either unaware of, or quite wary of, ironically enough. 😉

    • Heathen Chinese

      Yes, this is a subject you and I could discuss at length, I suspect. 😉

      I think it’s very interesting that the worship of divinized mortals was widespread in both imperial Rome and China, and I wonder if there wasn’t something about those forms of social organization which led people to be more inclined to worship more “personal” gods, as it were. And if so, that might have some degree of relevance to polytheisms in the modern era…

      • aediculaantinoi

        Yes, I agree…What does this look like in our nearly-post-imperial era (if, indeed, that is what we’re in…I’m not always so sure we are, alas)? What about our social conditions creates a situation where this is an appealing set of theologies and theophanies?

        [That might be something to write about at Gods & Radicals–and please go ahead and do so if it seems a fruitful possibility for you!]

        We’ll have to have a few meals at Many Gods West to parse through it, I suppose–what a chore that will be! 😉 I look forward to it, even if I only have one functional eye at the time!

      • Heathen Chinese

        I was thinking I might propose an article on the topic of apotheosis in Chinese popular religion for, actually. But I suppose Gods and Radicals would be a possibility, too, if I was exploring the social context…

        That would be great to talk more at MGW, but I hope your eye is fully healed by that time!

      • aediculaantinoi

        Or, indeed, as well…either way, we all win! 😉

        Thank you on your good wishes for my eye. As cool as it would be to join the ranks of those with powerful, magical eyes (e.g. Re, Horus, Balor), I’d just like my peripheral vision and depth perception back at this point…

  • henadology

    So you don’t celebrate Guan Di’s birthday on the 24th day of the sixth month. Is there anything you might share about why you celebrated him yesterday instead? I know that many Daoists instead celebrated Guan Ping’s birthday yesterday, or the festival of Guan Di sharpening his sabre. Do you celebrate these on a different day?

    • Heathen Chinese

      You know, to be honest, I still haven’t figured out which festival is which yet. The Lunar Tao lists both dates as “Guan Di’s Birthday,” confusingly.

      I did go to San Francisco Chinatown on the 24th of the 6th lunar month last year in hopes of attending a ceremony at the Ma-Tsu Temple in honor of Guan Gong’s birthday, but I missed it. So I went to his main temple, the Kong Chow temple, and there were a lot of people there making food offerings and doing divination by kau cim (shaking a container full of numbered sticks until one falls out). So they were celebrating *a* festival, presumably that of his birthday.

      • aediculaantinoi

        In Shinto, that exact same kind of divination is called omikuji, which I have benefited from many times. I wonder if the numbers mean the same things in both systems (e.g. is 42 “Good Fortune” in both, etc.)?…I have never found out how many different outcomes there are, but if it is 64, then would it most likely be I Ching-based?

      • Heathen Chinese

        I’m pretty sure it’s not the Yi Jing/I Ching, but it is similar, in that all of the answers are written already. I don’t know much more about it, unfortunately. 😦

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