Thursday, February 11, 2021

One Man's God: Chinese Mythos

Chinese mythos from Deities & Demigods
I stated in my post about the Yaoguai that I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on Chinese mythology.  But even I know there is no way for the Deities & Demigods to cover all the mythological figures, gods, demigods, heroes, and monsters of Chinese myth.  The editors of the D&DG agree.

Instead what we have here are a few select gods and monsters for D&D fare.  I am quite certain that anyone that knows more about this than I do will notice some glaring issue, but for the moment let's look at it for what it is rather than what we wish it to be.  This is good because "what it is" is a fascinating, if sometimes problematic, read.

There are a few gods and creatures here that not only would make for great demons (in the Demon category of the Monster Manual) they are creatures that made many appearances in my games. Again this is taking them "as is", not "as they should be" but I will detail that in a bit.

An issue I should address is spelling.  Translating between Chinese and English is often half linguistics and half art.  Even when the spelling is agreed on it can change later, "D" and "T" are notorious.  What does that mean to us?  Well, it makes the research a bit harder on some creatures.  To get into the myths and stories behind these creatures would take a lot longer than this post and outside of the scope of One Man's God, but as always I will try to pull in the research when I can. 

One of the better sources for these myths is  E. T. C. Werner's "The Myths and Legends of China" whose earliest publication date appears to be in 1940.  The book is in the public domain and would have been available to the authors of the D&DG.  While there are other books, I am going to go to this one for confirmation on what is here. Now Werner could have a bunch of issues all on his own. I am not qualified to judge those either.  

Finally, I want to give credit to the artist of this section of myths, Darlene.  I don't think she gets the credit she deserves half the time (outside of her FANTASTIC map of Greyhawk).  Her art really captures the feel of these myths for me. 

Chih-Chiang Fyu-Ya

This guy typifies the problem I speak of.  A search for him online reveals only sources that were obviously taken from the D&DG.  The only other mentions are people asking where he is from.  Now I have no issue with making something up whole cloth for a game (I do it every day) but does that make him a part of Chinese myth?  In any case, Chih-Chiang Fyu-Ya looks and acts more like a Monster Manual devil than he does a demon.  My feeling is this guy was made up for the D&DG.

He does not appear in Werner's book.

Ma Yuan

Ma Yuan
So Chih-Chiang Fyu-Ya is the punisher of the gods, that is someone the gods send out to punish, much like Erinyes. Ma Yuan is the Killer of the Gods. He kills the gods.  He is also a unique beast and fits our definition of a demon well. He is Chaotic Evil, 70's tall, and has 300 hp.  He could mop the floor with Demogorgon! Well...maybe not mop.  Ma Yuan also appeared in many of my games back in the day as a giant monster of destruction (and ignoring his "High" intelligence rating), his sword is one of just a few fabled weapons in my world that can kill a god. 

In Gods, Demigods, and Heroes for 0e he is called Ma Yuan Shuai. This is very interesting since Tian Du Yuan Shuai is a figure of Taoist myth (though he could have been a real person) and he is associated with Okinawan Gojū-ryū karate. This was interesting to me because I studied Isshin-ryū karate in college and grad school, they are similar in many of their katas. But going done that rabbit hole was a dead end despite how interesting I found it. 

"Yuan Shuai" is also a rank in the Chinese military rank that is equivalent to Marshall in other militaries.  Ma Yuan Shuai could mean something like "Horse Marshall."

Going with this name I head back to Werner's book, I find this:

Ma Yüan-shuai is a three-eyed monster condemned by Ju Lai to reincarnation for excessive cruelty in the extermination of evil spirits. In order to obey this command he entered the womb of Ma Chin-mu in the form of five globes of fire. Being a precocious youth, he could fight when only three days old, and killed the Dragon-king of the Eastern Sea. From his instructor he received a spiritual work dealing with wind, thunder, snakes, etc., and a triangular piece of stone which he could at will change into anything he liked. By order of Yü Ti he subdued the Spirits of the Wind and Fire, the Blue Dragon, the King of the Five Dragons, and the Spirit of the Five Hundred Fire Ducks, all without injury to himself. For these and many other enterprises he was rewarded by Yü Ti with various magic articles and with the title of Generalissimo of the West, and is regarded as so successful an interceder with Yü Ti that he is prayed to for all sorts of benefits.

Doing research on this guy reveals that I was not the only one taken with this character (not a surprise really). Here Spes Magna Games updated his stats to 5e D&D.  

Ma Yuan though is a great being. I would say that he is a great sleeping demon (though his "in lair 10%" seems to preclude this) that is only roused when needed.  Werner's description seems to favor demon really.

Lu Yueh

Some success?  Lu Yueh appears as a figure using a magic umbrella to spreading plague in a 1922 painting by an unknown artist. 

He also appears in Werner's The Myths and Legends of China.  Called Lü Yüeh here he seems to be more of a hermit than a demonic god. Also, he only has one head.  He still causes plagues though. 

Tou Mu

Yikes. 

I am prone to be forgiving in cases like Chih-Chian Fyu-Ya; creatures made up to serve a purpose or a niche for a game.  Or even Lu Yueh and Ma Yuan; myths extended and/or changed to fit into D&D a little better. But what they did to Tou Mu?  No. This is just terrible research at this point.  I have avoided being too critical of the D&DG because I know the authors did not have the same access to materials I have now and, not to be a dick about it, but I have been trained to do Ph.D. level research. I have had 30+ years of professional research to draw on. They did not.  But this case really goes to the critics of the D&DG.  

Background.  Tou Mu was something of a celebrity back in Junior High among the people I played D&D with.  First she looks way freaking cool, secondly, she had a Charisma of 5! She had a ton of great and unique magic items and some DMs even gave her the dancing sword of lightning (as if she didn't already have enough).  She was an Endgame Boss.  

In actual Taoist mythology, she is Dǒumǔ (斗母) the 'Mother of the Great Chariot' or the Big Dipper.  she would not be a "Chaotic Evil Lesser Goddess" but most likely be a Lawful Good Greater Goddess, though a Lesser (but powerful) Goddess would also be acceptable.  Though I am not sure what I find worse, the evil alignment, the 5 Charisma or the 3 in Wisdom.

Here is how she looks in the D&DG,

Tou Mu from D&DG

versus how she is depicted in the real world, 

Dǒumǔ (斗母)Dǒumǔ (斗母) fan art

Seriously, how could they have messed this one up so bad? Turn a beloved goddess into a monster?

Again, let's see what Werner has to say about her:

Goddess of the North Star
Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jên Huang or Human Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns. She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative position as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yü, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yüan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.

Well, in many ways I supposed that is what OMG is kinda based on; One Man's God is another man's demon.  Still, it doesn't feel right to turn Dǒumǔ into Tou Mou.  I also suppose this also is part of the criticism landed at TSR/WotC's feet back in July of 2020 about the Oriental Adventures book. which, by the way, despite what all the Chicken Littles were saying back then you CAN still buy it in it's unedited form. 

I said at the outset I know far less about Chinese myths than I like and far less than I do about other mythologies.  What I do know there are SO MANY great stories about gods, demigods, monsters, and human heroes that doing this one right would fantastic.

1 comment:

Ruprecht said...

I've always felt Deities & Demigods was a missed opportunity.

The book should have had more about the Clerics and worshipers. It should have had a large section with tables talking about how to reskin the pantheons for a fantasy environment. It should have had a separate demons and devils section as well as a long section about how their inclusion is to provide villians to fight.