Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of China was said to have shown great respect to an interesting deity known as the Spirit Mistress. The interactions of the emperor and the spirit were documented by Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the Grand Historian and palace secretary of Emperor Wu. Sima Qian’s passage about the Spirit Mistress appears in his “Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices” (Shi Ji 28), which purports to be a text on the ceremonial rites performed by China’s mythical/folkloric sage rulers, but really expands to be a text on sacrifices, mysticism, religion and miscellaneous supernatural topics.
According to folklore recorded by Sima Qian, the Spirit Mistress came into being after an unnamed woman from Changling died during childbirth. Although the woman’s name was unknown, Sima Qian did provide a name for her brother—Wanruo. The spirit, following her unfortunate death, traveled to the home of her brother. There, the spirit drew major attention to herself by supernaturally possessing Wanruo’s wife. Wanruo reacted to the spiritual possession in an interesting way—he became the spirit’s first worshipper and, perhaps, her first priest. Wanruo, or possibly his possessed wife, invited neighbors to come see the spirit and then neighbors brought their friends, exposing more and more people to the new spiritual being. Before long, the so-called Spirit Mistress became the talk of the town and soon came to be thought of as more of a deity than just a simple ghost.
The Spirit Mistress predated the reign of Emperor Wu, for the emperor’s maternal grandmother, Lady Pingyuan, had reportedly been an avid worshipper of the Spirit Mistress before the emperor was placed on the imperial throne. Nevertheless, it was Emperor Wu who really brought the Spirit Mistress to prominence. After ascending to the throne, the emperor sent agents to Changling (or wherever the spirit had moved), and somehow lured, guided or simply invited the Spirit Mistress to relocate to the Imperial Capital Area. The Spirit Mistress reportedly accepted the offer and was housed with honor in the Tishi Tower at Shanglin Park, located southwest of the capital city, Chang’an. By the time the Spirit Mistress was moved to the tower, she reportedly no longer was possessing a human body and instead inhabited her new home in an invisible ghostly state—Sima Qian wrote, “It was said that one could hear the words spoken by the spirit but could not see her form” (Shi Ji 28).
Sometime later, a man from Youshui named Fa Gen informed Emperor Wu that there was a skilled shamaness living in the province of Shang. This woman, Fa Gen claimed, could commune with spirits and was possessed by ghosts regularly. Emperor Wu reportedly retrieved the shamaness and housed her in the Palace of Sweet Springs, which was a place he recently had constructed for the worship of all spirits.
The shamaness quickly became the chosen spokeswoman of the Spirit Mistress, who apparently moved from the Tishi Tower to be with the shamaness in the Palace of Sweet Springs. This partnership between the Spirit Mistress and the shamaness occurred before the year 118 BCE, at which point Emperor Wu fell ill. He consulted the Spirit Mistress (through the shamaness) about his health, and when he subsequently recovered from his illness, Emperor Wu was convinced that the Spirit Mistress had intervened to improve his health. In thanks, Emperor Wu built for the Spirit Mistress a new home—the Temple of Long Life. This temple was said to have been dedicated specifically for the Spirit Mistress, and with the new temple came more respect and higher rank for the Spirit Mistress in the hierarchy of spirits.
Sima Qian recorded further details about the Spirit Mistress, but the renowned translator Burton Watson warns that anything exceeding the information listed in the preceding paragraphs may have been corrupted over the millennia. Nevertheless, some of the possibly corrupted pieces of information includes that at least one other temple was built for the Spirit Mistress by Emperor Wu and that a group of lesser deities, known as the Great Forbidden Ones, became associated with the spirit and were believed to be her supernatural attendants and helpers. Another possibly corrupted claim of Sima Qian is that Emperor Wu kept a record of all of messages or prophecies delivered by the Spirit Mistress’ mediums, but any such text (if it existed) has been lost.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Hongxian (紅線), attributed to He Dazi, from his collection called “Gathering Gems of Beauty”, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.