Sorcerers And Warriors: The Initiatic Journey In Chinese Mythology


Chinese mythology, folk tales and fables are mostly unknown to the West. However this indigenous folklore combines not only unique philosophical and artistic traditions, but informs much modern Chinese popular art, from movies to video games. Here we present two tales, well-known throughout the greater Orient, both having multiple variants yet all holding to a basic storyline derived from Tradition. By Tradition we mean man’s formal understanding of the sacred ways of Nature, codified into rules valid across time, and suitable for a given people.

Tripitaka (played by Masako Natsume (left) and Pigsy (right) from the Japanese TV series Monkey.

Tradition is not contingent, nor does it depend upon any one person for its explication, although we generally attribute its tenants to sages, wise men, prophets, and sometimes kings. In fact, Tradition cannot be, strictly speaking, a human invention. We believe, instead, that Tradition flows from “higher mind.” Writing at a time when it was possible to account for group differences without creating scandal, that is, at the beginning of the prior century, perhaps the last time this sort of writing was possible, Arthur Henderson Smith explicated the conditions and genesis of Tradition flowing from not any man, but received from an ancient past, a Golden Age: “The sages of antiquity themselves spoke with the deepest reverence of more ancient “ancients.” Confucius declared that he was not an originator but a transmitter. It was his mission to gather up what had once been known, but long neglected or misunderstood. It was his painstaking fidelity in accomplishing this task, as well as the high ability which he brought to it, that gave the Master his extraordinary hold upon the people of his race.”[1]

As we proceed we will attempt to partially understand Tradition’s deeper meaning as relayed through myth. Our first example is the Legend of the White Snake; second is Journey to the West. However, with any mythological exegesis there can be no exclusive or conclusive formal line of understanding. Why this is so depends on the nature of myth. For guidance we turn to H. M. McLuhan. McLuhan is somewhat forgotten today, but in the sixties was an unlikely media

star. In fact, as strange and as oxymoronic as it sounds, McLuhan was an intellectual pop icon. Yet he began his academic career as a serious thinker, walking the same path as contemporaries Walter Ong and Harold Innis, both unsung intellectual heavyweights within the field of cultural media studies. Instruction on the definition and use of myth is found in McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. On William Blake, McLuhan observed: “Myth is the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period.” Commenting on the form of phonetic alphabetic writing as a disruptive technology (that is, disruptive to oral tradition), McLuhan exposed the Cadmus story: “Like any other myth Cadmus [who supposedly introduced the alphabet to Greek civilization] encapsulates a prolonged process into a flashing insight.” Later we read: “The mythic or iconic mode of awareness substitutes the multi-faceted for point-of-view. The traditional figures of rhetoric were individual postures of mind of the private speaker in relation to an audience, whereas myth and Jungian archetypes are collective postures of the mind with which the written form could not cope.”[2] From this we take the idea that in and through myth and folklore we may deconstruct (or, alternately amplify) complex varieties of experience coalesced into a seemingly simply story, but one that, when parsed, reveals a depth of human condition understandable in myriad other ways than that reflected from the immediate surface.

For McLuhan, alphabetic writing demanded a type of linear thinking that stripped psychological depth from those things the respective words were meant to represent. Chinese writing is different, and in any case these stories and their variants were compiled from oral traditions by authors, often unknown. One presumes that due to the age of the stories the storytellers and audiences knew them in an intimate way through generations. They were never simple narratives intended to be read in isolation by the private reader, but meant for group enjoyment and edification. In fact, Journey to the West is written in the form of tanci (弹词), a kind of narrative “play” where a storyteller (or two) sits in front of an audience reciting and singing both verse with prose, sometimes acting out the parts.[3] Today, both stories are subjects of Chinese operas, now superseded by multiple cinematic adaptations. In fact, the first full length feature Chinese animation (1941) was one of the stories from Journey to the West, that of the Monkey King’s encounter with the Princess Iron Fan.


The White Snake Legend (Bai She Zhuan,白蛇转) tells a story of two snake spirits, or demons, one a white snake named Bai Suzhen (白素贞), and a green or blue (teal) snake, Xiao Qing (小青). Through them are presented the idea of samsaric progression within, and ultimately out of, conditioned existence. Contrary to modernist atheistic or scientistic notions of death as an ending or finality, or the Christian notion of death as an eschatology, White Snake Legend presents life and death as a cyclical process allowing at least the possibility of consciously directed ascent. That is, after physical death a re-birth on a higher plane, a different level of being, or an improved caste. The story relates how white snake Bai Suzhen, born on the Taoist holy mountain Emei, cultivated her essence through directed spiritual practice, observing the Way, making an almost complete journey from animal to at least partial human existence.[4] At the same time, although Bai progressed in outward form, her inward essence remained too snake-like for proper entry into the human world. Bai’s younger serpentine companion, Xiao Qing (also known as Qing’er—translated as Little Green/Blue, sometimes Greenie), progressed not as much, and as such was even more tempestuous and less understanding.

Upon incarnation Bai Suzhen was fated to desire a rather naïve young scholar, Xu Xian (许仙), falling in love. The two married illicitly as a result of the she-snake’s intrigue. The marriage was illicit inasmuch as it was consummated without the consent of Xu’s family, sans a formal matchmaker able to read the pair’s horoscopic compatibility charts, and without Bai revealing her secret to Xu, that she was in fact a snake demon. These violations against the established ways of marriage tradition ultimately brought calamity on their union by way of interference from a Buddhist priest named Fahai (法海). In addition, their unnatural union fostered death and destruction upon innocent townsfolk due to a disturbance within the natural order.

Chinese Monkey and White Snake legends
Kung Fu fighting: Woodblock print of Sun Wukong (left), Masaaki Sakai (Monkey) and Masako Natsume (Tripitaka) from the Japanese TV series Monkey (center), and Jet Li in The Sorcerer and the White Snake (right).

Soon after marriage, abbot Fahai chanced to recognize Bai Suzhen’s true demon essence, confronting the incredulous husband. In order to convince, the priest allowed the disbelieving Xu Xian to offer his snake-demon wife a cup of magical, demon-repelling realgar wine during

Dragon Boat Festival. Bai Suzhen immediately suspected subterfuge, but dutifully took the wine, and in an intoxicated swoon reverted back to her original snake form killing her husband through conscious shock. Once she recovered human form, and in order to save her husband, Bai journeyed to the holy mountain Kunlun in order to harvest the magic herb, an elixir of life guarded by two warlike spirits, Stag (Deer) and the Crane Youth immortal. After a vicious battle Bai Suzhen was defeated, however Kunlun’s Taoist deity, South Pole Star immortal, reflecting upon Bai’s selfless motives, found within himself compassion. Thus did the Pole Star quell the herb’s spirit guardians, and to everyone’s disbelief he allowed Bai to carry off the life-giving fungus. Here we note the distinction between the attitude of the Taoist immortal and the Buddhist abbot toward the snake demon. Throughout the two works Buddhism and Taoism contend, and their relationship to the Confucian civil/moral doctrine is revealed.

Although cured by his wife’s love, Xu Xuan remains confused about her true nature. During a period of indecision Xu half-heartedly takes refuge in Fahai’s monastery, leading to a ferocious battle between Bai and the monk Fahai. Fahai repels Bai’s water demon army, but not until the surrounding valley is flooded, causing many innocent people to drown. After the battle an even more confused Xu Xuan abandons the monastery, eventually uniting with his wife who is pregnant with his child. Fahai warns Bai Suzhen that she may enjoy temporary peace, but only until the child is born. Indeed, once the son comes into the world Fahai reappears, captures the snake demon and imprisons her underneath Leifang Pagoda, the Thunder Peak monastery. In order to remain faithful, Xu Xuan abandons his son to the care of his sister and her husband, joins the monastery, and dutifully sweeps the steps of his living wife’s prison-tomb. Jailed underneath Leifang, Bai Suzhen spends the next twenty years cultivating her spirit via sutric repetitions, while Xu Xuan ponders the mysteries of Chan Buddhism with Fahai. Growing up, their son studies the classic texts in anticipation of the Imperial examinations. In a sort of “happily ever after” ending, Bai Suzhen eventually achieves Taoist immortality, Xu Xuan knows Buddhist enlightenment, and their son becomes a top Confucian scholar. Thus the three doctrines are harmonized. In some traditions, Bai’s maid, the impetuous blue snake, is accepted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin as a disciple, assuring her salvation.[5]

As with any myth, the story of Bai Suzhen can be understood on many levels. First we consider the relationship between the traditionally understood fixed natures of men and women. Within this metaphysical constraint we ponder what can realistically be expected within a marriage, the sacred union of two unlike (man and woman) and incommensurate (demon and human) natures. In traditional Chinese society the wife supported the man in all ways, even unto his death which sometimes meant the wife’s death. Romantic love was always a secondary motive, taking a back seat to loyalty and filial duty (to the husband’s parents). That said, perhaps there is no fiercer love or loyalty shown by a wife than that demonstrated by Bai Suzhen. At the same time, men by nature are more aloof, often are they intellectually abstract, and not frequently understanding or appreciative of women’s concrete nature as nurturers—in their own way, feminine protectors of the family. Obviously the relationship is prone to fundamental misunderstanding, one especially heightened if the natural order of things is not respected.


Still from the Chinese movie Sorcerer and The White Snake, showing mythical women attempting to seduce the main character.
Temptations: Jet Li in the Sorcerer and The White Snake.

When speaking of human natures it is important for us to recognize the disjunction between modern and traditional notions over what constitutes a person in society, along with respective roles. Generally, modernity views a man and a woman as individuals first, tied to their family and a greater social order only contingently. In fact, for some, gender itself is considered contingent and fluid. Moderns claim to possess an individual natural right which bestows upon each actor a primary autonomy, both social and political.[6] Contrariwise, traditional society downplays the idea of the individual, but instead views persons attached to one another via a higher spiritual bond manifesting through ancestral lineage. Within Tradition society becomes ordered by honoring and conforming to natural law—meaning the intrinsic nature inherent within things—what the Scholastics understood as essentialism, a common idea derived from earlier pre-Christian Greek philosophy. Finally, social order is maintained to the degree that personal behavior, familial customs, and the greater civil law mirrors this essential natural order.

Within Chinese metaphysics the natural order of things “flows” from the ineffable Way or Tao, descending into conditioned reality, conforming to complimentary dual “forces” known as Yang and Yin. The former is the light, male principle; the latter the dark, female aspect.[7] Thus, within women and men two distinct but complimentary natures manifest. And as Yang flows into Yin, and alternately, the two principles are necessary in order for nature to properly manifest. The two cannot be arbitrarily substituted, or otherwise denied, less chaos reign. Taoist metaphysics further categorize the natural order as one of elemental interaction and transmutation through certain regular rules represented in the bagua (八卦) or eight elemental trigrams. Thus it is that Bai Suzhen, as both snake spirit and female, is bound by her nature to chthonic water elements. The natures of Xu Xuan and Fahai, as men, are heavenly or sky oriented, akin to the fire element. These alternate natures are clearly shown during the epic battle between the snake demon and monk. Bai Suzhen and her maid, Qing’er, summon up an army of water dwelling demon-soldiers, and in fact raise the surrounding waters in order to flood Fahai’s monastery. Fahai, using his own magic, raises his mountain sanctuary skyward, keeping both him and his disciples from drowning under feminine waters. For the monk, the myth clearly highlights the extraordinary mental effort required to overcome female (sexual) bondage.

More problematic than the relation between Bai Suzhen and monk Fahai is the relationship of Bai to her husband, Xu Xian. Chan (Zen) Master Fahai clearly understands Bai’s nature, but it is more than less lost on husband Xu Xian. At the same time Xu demonstrates a beginning insight into the natural order of things, and his nascent realization develops into a well-known conflict between what we might call “true religion” and secular, day to day life. Fahai’s way is Buddhist. Bai Suzhen’s way is magical, the path of an aspiring Taoist immortal. She is surely not evil in the sense that a fox spirit might so be considered,[8] yet, falling under the spell of conditioned samsaric existence and mortal desire, Bai has abandoned spiritual pursuits in favor of a morally bound Confucian commitment to her husband. She is no reprobate, but has nevertheless become secular, existing within a traditional social framework. For his part, husband Xu has a

beginning understanding of a higher (and lower) order, however movement upwards through a metaphysical hierarchy demands more than he at first is willing to consider. Such movement recalls known strictures imposed upon those wishing to become adepts or initiates into an esoteric order, and is not peculiar to either Buddhism or Taoism. After all, familiar biblical teachings stress how it is impossible to serve two masters, and accordingly we may cite the gospel Mathew’s words of Jesus setting a man against his family. Perhaps the chief question posed by the White Snake Legend, therefore, is whether one can ascend spiritually, and to what extent is it possible, while tied to day to day life?

Authorship of Journey to the West (西遊記), one of the so-called four classic Chinese novels, is attributed to Wu Cheng’en (吴承恩), circa 1500-1582.[9] Like the other classic novels it is rather long; the Beijing Foreign Language Press paperback translation runs over 2300 pages. Journey to the West relates the exploits of a Tang Dynasty priest who is charged by the Emperor with fetching Buddhist sutras from India. On the way he is accompanied by several characters: Monkey, Sun Wukong, known as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven—a moniker bestowed on him by the Taoist heavenly Jade Emperor, partly in jest, partly to assuage the monkey’s vanity, and partly because of Sun’s formidable powers which, in fact, equal those of the pantheon of Taoist immortals; Zhu Bajie, known as Pig, formerly a protector in heaven, now banished to the mortal realm as punishment for uncontrolled desire (he was caught attempting to seduce Moon immortal Chang’e); and finally Sha Wujing, known as Brother (Friar) Sand, also an immortal banished from heaven for offending the Queen Mother of the West over his clumsiness and lack of manners. In addition, they are assisted by the transformed son of the Dragon King, now made into a common horse through the magic of the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

Journey to the West can be read on several levels and is undoubtedly a work of esoteric origin.[10] The reader requires a key, or at least an appreciation of Taoist and Buddhist symbolism, in order to begin to penetrate the many references and allusions. In fact, one easily believes that most everything in the book has a symbolical reference.

The novel has three divisions. First we encounter the story of the Monkey King (or King of the Monkeys). Born from magical circumstances, Monkey spent 20 years practicing the Way with a Taoist master, yet true to his monkey nature he remained incorrigible, unable to accept the rigors of self-discipline. Making his way to heaven, Sun’s undisciplined manner results in his eventual capture and imprisonment by the Buddha, and he is condemned to spend five hundred years beneath the Five Element (metal, wood, fire, water, earth) Mountain. Later, Monkey is conscripted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, agreeing to accompany the Tang Priest as a condition of parole. The story then turns from the magical, now retelling the priest’s tragic history. Sanzang’s father is brutally murdered and his mother is coerced into marriage by the murderer. Fearing her evil husband will kill her son, she places him on a river raft, sending him downstream.[11] The child is found by a Buddhist abbot and subsequently raised a monk. We learn that Sanzang is actually an incarnation of the “Golden Cicada,” originally a disciple of the Tathagata who abandoned the dharma for a life of pleasure. As warranted he was sent into the mortal realm to learn lessons. Finally, the third section, and bulk of the story, describes the pilgrims’ journey on their way to the Vulture Peak, the Tathagata’s home.

In its popular form Journey to the West is an adventure fantasy describing the travelers 81 trials,[12] confronting demons, monsters, and natural obstacles blocking their path. On another level, one immediately understands how each character represents different aspects of an aspirant seeking perfection. In this, priest, Monkey, and Pig share the stage as one person. Using borrowed terminology from G. I. Gurdjieff’s study of man, each character has a “chief feature,” although it is more accurate to state that each shows both a positive and a negative chief feature. Pious Sanzang remains steadfast, cognizant of duty to his emperor, and faithful of his spiritual quest. Nevertheless he is quite unmanly, unsure of himself, is overly credulous, short tempered, and afraid of the unknown. He lacks both refinement and judgment. Monkey (known as the Mind-Ape) is strong against all foes, possesses great courage, but is quick to excite and lacks much empathy toward others. Worse, he frequently demonstrates an obnoxious hubris. Pig is physically strong, usually cooperative, but cannot control his passions.

Sorcerer and the White Snake
Yin and Yang: Sorcerer and The White Snake.

He eats and sleeps too much, has no mental perseverance, and is eager to assuage his unlimited sexual desire whenever he can get away with it. Other characters play a lesser role, but are necessary when viewed as representing parts of a whole person. Horse carries the priest; he is the physical body—a transformed sea dragon. As such his nature is chthonic, tied to earth and water elements. Horse goes wherever directed, and is easily led by whomever takes up his reigns, whether it be Monkey, Pig, or an evil demon. Like Horse, Friar Sand sees little action, helping out when asked, but otherwise watching over their belongings, out of sight. He is best thought of as representing “instinctive” bodily functions—respiration, circulation, digestion, and so forth. That is, functions necessary for the whole person to survive, but never really much thought about as long as they are working properly.

In order for Sanzang to triumph he must organize his mind and body, defeating each demon in order, and crossing all natural obstacles blocking his path. To control his mind (that is, Monkey) he enlists help from the Bodhisattva Guanyin who places a gold band around Sun’s head. Whenever Monkey wanders off, or refuses to mind, Sanzang recites a mantra causing Monkey great pain, bringing him under control. However, it is different with Pig. Pig’s outlandish behavior is typically left up to Monkey, who ridicules him or, if that doesn’t work, beats him severely with his cudgel. Left on his own Pig always causes problems for himself and his companions, and he is never really able to engage in purposeful right action.

The travelers’ trials and obstacles are three kinds. First, natural ones—rivers to ford, mountains to scale, and valleys to cross. Next they encounter a wide variety of monsters and evil demons hiding out under water or deep inside caverns. Occasionally they must also deal with questionable humans—corrupt civil officials, evil Taoists, and self-serving Buddhist monks turned thieves and murderers. However it is, for the travelers things are not always as they seem. In many cases their demonic adversaries are sent by immortals and bodhisattvas in order to test the pilgrims’ sincerity and worthiness. Their trials are always humorous, as the following example highlights.

One day Pig is sent to beg for food. In the forest he meets a beautiful widow who asks him if he will help solve her dilemma. Pig, always pleased to entertain an attractive woman, asks about it. The widow explains that she has several young daughters, but living away from civilization as they are, she does not know how they can ever become married. Pig suggests that he can easily help her. In fact, he is just the man to marry one of her lovely daughters. The widow says yes, but then replies that this would cause her even more difficulty inasmuch as the two left-over daughters would feel humiliated, losing face. Pig quickly offers another solution: he will marry all three. The widow agrees that this would solve her daughters’ troubles, but argues that if Pig married all three, they would then leave her house, and she would suffer much grief and loneliness inasmuch as she herself has no husband. Clever Pig declares that even that is no problem for him to solve, because he will marry her too! Unfortunately for Pig, the women turn out to be the Bodhisattva Guanyin and her disciples, disguised. They tie Pig up, leaving him abandoned in the woods, facing humiliation once his companions arrive.

At the beginning Sanzang suggests that his journey should take two years. In fact it requires fourteen, double seven. Self-cultivation is never a quick process. At the end, arriving at Vulture Peak, Sanzang casts his mortal body into waters surrounding the mountain, ascends and greets the Buddha. However his meeting is not what he expects. Asking for sutras, the Tathagata hesitates anent the request. With seeming disgust he lectures the priest: “The people of your country are stupid and coarse. They are slanderers of the truth who cannot understand the mysteries of our teaching.” Nevertheless the Buddha relents, and instructs his attendants to select some scrolls. Two high Arhats show the pilgrims the scroll room, but then ask Sanzang for gifts. The pilgrims are chagrined, and in any case have nothing of real value to offer. The Arhats are not pleased, yet mockingly offer up some scrolls just the same. After leaving Vulture Peak the travelers accidentally discover that their scrolls contain no writing. Thinking they have been defrauded they immediately return and confront the Tathagata, complaining that not only

were they asked to submit gifts, but were given blank scrolls. The Enlightened One chastises them, explaining that true scriptures cannot be casually assumed, and certainly cannot be had for nothing. He then tells the travelers they have been deluded, living in the East for so long. In fact, he explains that the “wordless scriptures” now in their possession are the most precious. How can it be that they do not understand their intrinsic value?[13] Just the same, Sanzang is allowed to exchange the blank scrolls for some others containing words. Once again he is asked for payment. Sanzang reconsiders his poor state, and humbly offers up his begging bowl, his only worldly possession. The scrolls are offered up, and by way of this seemingly meager and worthless offering the priest gains enlightenment. Thus ends the Journey to the West.

It is probably impossible to catalog all instances in literature, other reviews, television shows, songs, classical opera, and movies taking up one or another of the themes from White Snake Legend or Journey to the West. For the English speaker, and as of this writing, one may find online several subtitled Chinese sourced popular television series, complete episodes, which more or less conform to traditional storylines. A 2014 mainland feature film, The Monkey King, featuring state of the art computer graphics in HD is currently up, as is Green Snake, the story of Bai Suzhen told from Xiao Qing and Fahai’s perspective. For the traditionalist, a full a two and a half hour long subtitled version of Bai She Zhuan, sourced from CCTV-11, the Chinese state run opera channel, is available online. For purchase is the recent Jet Li action film, The Sorcerer and the White Snake. It is probably worth watching, although one must overlook (or suffer through) obvious attempts at a too cute storyline. However, the film is worthwhile due to its generally non-sympathetic and un-romanticized portrayal of Bai Suzhen, along with an heroic portrayal of Fahai, characterizations hearkening back to original depictions found in the old scrolls. In a way it is fortuitous that these stories have not been discovered by Western producers, otherwise we would watch interpretations offering an anti-traditional view of the white snake suffering oppression within a regressive socio-religious patriarchy. In this regard we can report that Chinese traditional opera performances have not evolved in the progressive manner characteristic of Bayreuth, at least costume-wise, although in a very loose sense the depiction of Leifang crumbling is oddly reminiscent of Gotterdammerung.


[1] Arthur H. Smith, Chinese Characteristics [orig. Edinburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1900; reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012], 115.

[2] Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man [London and New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964], pp 33, 95, 171.

[3] For a detailed description of this form, see: Mark Binder, “Suzhou Tanci Storytelling in China: Contexts of Performance,” Oral Tradition 13/2 1998: 330-376.

[4] Here it may be relevant to quote a passage from Evola’s study of early Buddhist texts: “In order to aspire to awakening one must be a human being. The possibility of achieving absolute liberation is offered primarily, according to Buddhism, only to one who is born a man. Not only those who are in lower conditions of existence than the human, but also those who are in higher conditions, such as the devil, the celestial or “angelical” beings, do not have this opportunity. While, on the one hand, the human condition is considered to be one of fundamental contingency and infirmity, on the other it is thought of as a privileged state, obtainable only with great difficulty. The supermundane destiny of beings is decided upon earth: the theory of the bodhisattva even considers the possibility of “descents” to earth of beings who have already achieved very high, “divine” states of consciousness, in order to complete the work. Liberation can occur also in posthumous states: but even in these cases it is thought of as the consequence or development of a realization or of a “knowledge” already achieved on earth. Man’s privilege, as conceived by Buddhism along such lines, would seem to be one that is connected with a fundamental liberty.” Julius Evola, The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1996], 95-96.

[5] The son in fact is charged with releasing his mother from imprisonment by tearing down the pagoda. From a translation of one of the traditional texts we read, “[Bai Suzhen] ascended the nine heavens, riding a cloud of compassion. Xu Xian had shaved his hair and become a monk, day and night beating the bell and drum as part of his ascetic practice. The filial son so found his father and his mother; they disclosed the immortal design, and then ascended the hills. With the Three Teachings [Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism] accomplished, all hatred was gone.” Regarding Bai’s maid: “The Chan master [Fahai]…tightly bound Little Blue. The very moment Little Blue suffered distress, an alarmed Guanyin descended to earth. The Chan master kowtowed and said, “Bodhisattva, may I ask you why you deign to descend to this place?” The Bodhisattva replied, “The White Demon [has been captured], now you have subdued the Blue Monster. Please hand her over to me…” “Blue Monster, you will have to practice self-cultivation with a proper mind so you will be able to annihilate your earlier sins, and be able to emerge at some later date.” Wilt L. Idema, The White Snake and Her Son: A Translation of the Precious Scroll of Thunder Peak with Related Texts [Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2009] pp 6, 82.

[6] The movement away from traditional views of natural law toward modern natural right is often attributed to Enlightenment thinking, practically heightened during those political and social events of 1789. But we find earlier theoretical underpinnings within the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli. Philosophically, scholastic nominalism paved the way for anti-traditionalist individualist thinking. The general idea of fluid gender “identities” as a social construct or a personal preference is a newer innovation and finds no support in Tradition, although some point to suggestions found in Plato’s Republic, and Aristophanes’ myth in Symposium. At the same time, it is certain that Plato would not recognize what passes today as a line of thought ostensibly flowing from his thinking, and it is a big question as to the intent of Socrates bringing up the inclusion of women as potentially equal political actors within his ideal regime.

[7] It is important to understand that these notions of light and dark have no intrinsic moral meaning in the sense of good or bad, but are instead metaphysical categories. The following extended excerpt from Chapter 36 of Journey to the West explains these ideas in context:

The Tang Priest saw the moon shining in the sky. He called his disciples to attend. He was moved by the brightness and purity of the moon as it shone from high in the jade firmament, making all in heaven and on earth clearly visible. He recited a long poem in the ancient style in the moonlight with a nostalgic feeling.

Having heard the poem, Monkey went up to him and said, “Master, you only know about the moon’s beauty, and you’re homesick too. You don’t know what the moon is really about. It’s like the carpenter’s line and compass—it keeps the heavenly bodies in order. On the thirtieth of every month the metal element of its male soul has all gone, and the water element of its female soul fills the whole disk. That is why it goes black and has no light. That’s what is called the end of the old moon. This is the time, between the last day of the old moon and the first of the new, when it mates with the sun. The light makes it conceive. By the third day the first male light is seen, and on the eighth day the second male light. When the moon’s male and female souls each have half of it, the moon is divided as if by a string. That is why it is called the first quarter. On the fifteenth night, tonight, all three male lights are complete, and the moon is round. This is called the full moon. On the sixteenth the first female principle is born, followed on the twenty-second by the second. At this stage the two souls are matched again and the moon is again divided as if by a string. This is what is called the third quarter. By the thirtieth the three female principles are complete, and it is the last day of the old moon. This is what is meant by ‘prenatal absorption and refinement’. If we are all able gently to raise the ‘double eight’ and achieve it in nine by nine days [Taoist alchemical reference], it will be easy to see the Buddha and easy to go home again too. As the poem goes:

After the first quarter and before the third,
Medicines taste bland, with all pneuma signs complete.
When it is gathered and refined in the furnace,
The achievement of the will is the Western Heaven.”
On learning this the venerable elder was instantly enlightened and he fully comprehended the truth, and as he thanked Monkey his heart was filled with happiness.
Friar Sand laughed as he stood beside them. “What my brother says is true, as far as it goes,” he commented. “In the first quarter the male is dominant, and after the third quarter the female. When male and female are half and half the metal element obtains water. But what he did not say was this:
Fire and water support each other, each with its own fate;
All depend on the Earth Mother to combine them naturally.
The three meet together, without competing;
Water is in the Yangtze River, and the moon on the sky.”
Hearing this removed another obstruction from the venerable elder’s mind. Indeed:
When reason fathoms one mystery, a thousand are made clear;
The theory that breaks through non-life leads to immortality.

[8] In Chinese folklore fox demons are common characters, typically appearing as comely young women who seduce naïve young scholars. Through sexual intercourse fox spirits suck vital life-force out of their victims. Whenever killed, these demonic spirits assume their true fox form. A fascinating compendium of fox spirits and ghosts can be found in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.

[9] Chinese recognize four “classic” novels: The Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh); Romance of the Three Kingdoms; A Dream of Red Mansions (Chambers); and Journey to the West. The first two have political themes, the third social, and the last “religious.” At the same time, an integral spiritual aspect informs the novels. For example, in Three Kingdoms the Shu-Han prime minister and military general, Zhuge Liang, is depicted as a Taoist priest, while A Dream of Red Mansions ends with the main character assuming Buddhist ascesis.

[10] By esoteric we only mean that many of its allusions refer to religious and/or spiritual practices that are not commonly known, or if they are known, their meanings are usually only superficially understood.

[11] Note the cross cultural nature of this myth.

[12] 81 trials represent “nine nines,” a Taoist alchemical reference.

[13] Compare Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chs 1, 2, 4, 11, 43 et al.

michael-presleyMichael Presley currently lives with his left foot in China, his right in the American South, but both firmly planted in the fertile ground of the Kali Yuga.



One Reply to “Sorcerers And Warriors: The Initiatic Journey In Chinese Mythology”

  1. […] Michael Presley’s essay “Sorcerers and Warriors: The Initiatic Journey in Chinese Mythology” is currently the featured article at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  It will be of interest to readers of The Orthosphere.  Presley explores the Traditional meaning of two important Chinese folktales using an exegetical framework based on Marshal McLuhan’s theory of oral narrative.  Presley is interested, not only in the canonical narratives, but also in their recent adaptation to cinema.  The article is here: […]

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