Journal of Chinese Religions upcoming issue 49.1- May 2021 sneak peek: Hsiao-wen Cheng

Deviant Viewers and Gendered Looks:

Erotic Interactions with Images and Visual Culture in Song Religion

Hsiao-wen Cheng

Hong Mai’s (1123-1202) Yijian zhi (Record of the Listener) records a story about the encounter between a prostitute and a horseman statue in the Temple of the Miraculous Manifestation Prince in Yongkang Garrison (Sichuan):

Outside the temple gate, she saw [the statue of] a grand, tall horseman who had a magnificent appearance and physique. The embroidered fabric on both of his thighs seemed to be fluttering. She fixed her eyes on him and was so enamored that she could not leave until dusk, when people from her household forced her home. She felt dejected, as if she had lost something. The next day, a guest who resembled the horseman asked to stay the night. The prostitute was overwhelmed with joy and thought it must have been a belated yet destined encounter. The man left at dawn and returned at dusk. After staying for several nights, he suddenly wept and said to her, “In fact, I am not human but a horseman in the temple. Because of your affection, I broke the rules and came to you. I repeatedly skipped my nightly duties and was caught by my superior. I was found guilty and tomorrow I will be beaten on the back with a stick and exiled to perform penal labor. Please buy more paper money [as mortuary or sacrificial offerings] for the time when I pass your door.” The prostitute also wept and promised to do as asked. When the time came, the man carried an iron cangue, blood dripping all over his body, and his face was tattooed [with the characters] “dispatched to such-and-such place.” Two robust soldiers escorted him. He passed by the prostitute’s house and bade farewell. She set up a table of sacrifice, burned paper money, and, weeping, saw him off. When she visited the temple again, the statue had already toppled to the ground.

What do we make of such a story?

A key question that I had in mind when writing this paper is: What did icons in popular temples do in Song people’s eyes? We know that those images were not simply visual representations. Deities inhabited in them. But it seems to me that icons were not just the lodgings of deities, either. Religious icons created the very existence of divinities and spirits. Song people expected the images that they made (or commissioned) for their temples to become real divinities—or demons if they crossed the line. To create a cult involved creating a pantheon for the god by staffing its temple with divinities in various capacities.

Some Song statues were made in life size, such as the Hārītī (161 centimeter tall) in Shimenshan niche no. 9, in Dazu, Sichuan (Southern Song):


Guo Xiangying and Li Shumin eds., Dazu shike diaosu 大足石刻雕塑全集 (Chongqing: Chongqing chubanshe, 2000), vol. 4, plate 66.

Another question that interests me is about the new narratives of women’s desire in the Southern Song and the Yuan. In some stories, there was an intriguing combination of women as active beholders and a complete absence of any description of those women’s appearances. The story of the prostitute and the horseman statue is an example. Narratives of women as active agents of desire in response to religious images emerged almost concurrently with the new medical attention to female sexual desire. Elite medical writers incorporated folktale narratives into their medical case histories.