Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Plague God Comes to Longdong (Han)

This story supposedly took place long ago, during the Warring States Era (475-221 B.C.).

It all started when the Jade Emperor sent a plague god down to the Longdong region in what is now Gansu Province.

Shanhe Zhai was, at the time, the most prosperous, bustling town in the area; it was also, sadly, a place largely inhabited by people who would be found wanting in ethics and simple decency. The people of Shanhe Zhai engaged in all kinds of evil behavior, including thievery and outright banditry and immorality.

Sickened by all the sinfulness he had witnessed, a local scholar launched a petition to the Jade Emperor for that god's intervention. Taking notice of the petition, the Jade Emperor decided to send one of the plague gods incognito down to the region to investigate the situation.  If the level of wickedness warranted it,  the plague god could spread a limited pestilence to end all the iniquity but only after all the innocents, the children, would be given pouches to wear to identify them as guiltless and thus exempt from being infected by the coming plague.

The plague god, disguised as a scholar in white robes, arrived in a cloud, mistakenly landing in the wrong area, somewhere other than Shanhe Zhai. He then traveled through neighboring villages, observing the residents. In more than one village, he overheard the local children singing the same ditty:

Heaven is blind,
The gods' powers are blind,
Ghosts are blind on the road,
People's hearts are blind. 
Before long, heaven will fall!

The plague god was incensed. "I had heard the adults here were evil, but even the children here are just as bad! Singing about gods' being blind and calling for heaven's downfall! Indeed!"

He considered the options and then decided to unleash three types of plague from the tube he carried in his sleeve: spring plague, hot-weather plague, and fall-flat-upon-the-ground plague. Surely, he thought, unleashing these plagues would be an acceptable way of carrying out the Jade Emperor's orders!

Before long, within half an hour, the three kinds of plague had done their job--no one in the immediate area where the plagues had been released was left alive. Good, innocent, bad--all had succumbed.

Thinking his job done, the plague god climbed aboard a cloud and returned to the realm of the Jade Emperor, strutting into the chamber to give his report.

The reception he was to receive was not anticipated. The Jade Emperor, fuming, knowing this plague god had harmed the innocent, ripped away from the plague god his plague tube. Then, he ordered his guards to behead the plague god.

The Jade Emperor next hurriedly dispatched the longevity god down to the afflicted area. This god worked hard to restore life to all the innocent children, women, and men who had fallen to all the pestilence the plague god had unleashed. However, since the revived had been exposed to such an onslaught of disease, there could be no guarantee that any of them would remain immune to whatever germs or viruses were still lurking on the land. So, the longevity god supplied each of those whom he had brought back to life with a "purgative" small pouch and a "longevity lock" to wear which would then allow the wearer to escape a recurrence of the plague.

As a result of all this, the good, decent folk of the Shanhe Zhai and Longdong areas were spared the ravages of the plague. Now, the local children had a new song to sing about the living and those deservedly punished:

The plague spreads death with a blind heart,
But peace now reigns below heaven.
And with the pouch that drives away pestilence,
Children will all live long lives.
The hearts of the blind are truly blind,
And those afflicted shall die.
Those who are now dead have no way to be saved,
so the god of the dead shall pursue them. 

From those days forward, on the fifth of May on the lunar calendar, adults give children pouches that contain the following ingredients which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and which dispel disease: xionghuang (雄黄 realgar, a sulfide mineral), cangshu (苍术 atractylodes lancea), xixing (细幸 asarum, wild ginger), baizhi (白芷 angelica dahurica, or white iris), dingxiang (丁香 cloves), and gansong (甘松nardostachys jatamansi), as well as other natural items. They also give children the "longevity lock" (长寿琐), actually a medallion with very short metal chains hanging from it; wearing this is believed to allow the children to live long lives. 

五月五日为啥戴荷包 [Why people carry pouches on May 5th] in 静宁民间神话传说故事 [Folk Myths and Legends From Jingning], Wang Zhisan, ed.; Beijing:, 2014 [Kindle Paperwhite]

Coincidentally or not, the above custom of wearing pouches and medallions overlaps with the Dragon Boat Festival. 

The original plague god [瘟神]was supposed to be the spirit of the legendary Emperor Zhuanxu's [颛顼] infant son, who, like his brothers, had died at birth. Each one then became a ghost. There are now five plague gods, one for each season along with one that is designated the "manager." Each one wears a robe of a different color: red, blue-green, black, white, and yellow; each carries a different item in his hand: a ladle, a jar, a leather belt and sword, a fan, a hammer, and a kettle. (See 中华鬼神 [Chinese supernatural beings] by Li Shaolin; Neimengu Chubanshe, 2006; Kindle Paperwhite.)

The Jade Emperor [玉皇 or 玉皇大帝] is the Daoist/Chinese folk religion anthropomorphization of heaven itself (This is according to the dean of Chinese mythology research, Yuan Ke; see his entry for [玉皇] in his Dictionary of Chinese Myths and Legends [中國神話傳說詞]). The story doesn't go into specifics about the Jade Emperor's having the plague god "executed." Is it hyperbole (e.g., "Wow, did you hear what Mom said to me last night? She just about killed me."), or is it meant to be literal? We don't know; the story doesn't say.  In any case, tradition holds that there are five plague gods, not four.  

The long white-bearded longevity god or longevity star [寿神 or 寿星] appears very jolly and is very conspicuous with his extremely tall, bald head. 

Motifs: cC941.4, "Plague for breaking tabu"; D1389.15, "Magic herbs (incense) protect from plague"; E50, "Resuscitation by magic"; E121.1, "Resuscitation by a god"; F493, "Spirit of plague"; Q200, "Deeds punished"; Q395, "Disrespect punished"; Q421, "Punishment: beheading"; Q552.10, "Plague as punishment."

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