The truth was, I already knew who had killed him. Me.
Jade Lotus is based a minor character in the classic The Water Margin. She’s the only surviving child of a poor family from the capital, who, after her mother dies, is forced into life as a butcher’s concubine. In the original story, the hot-tempered, big-hearted, comically drunk soldier Lu Da begins his improbable transformation into a Buddhist monk by saving Jade Lotus and her father from ruin. While readers spend a lot of time with Lu Da—he’s one of the 108 heroes of The Water Margin, after all—we never learn all that much about the girl who launches him on his journey. But even the few snippets of story that we do know provide us with some insight into the extremes that a concubine might have experienced in 12th-century China. In just a few paragraphs, she goes from being cheated and enslaved by a lower-class provincial family—which is brought on when the butcher’s wife unceremoniously kicks out her out of the house—to living the life of luxury as the mistress of the wealthy landowner Lord Zhao.
In Wild Goose Pass, readers see this sequence of events from the perspective of Jade Lotus, rather than the traditional protagonist, Lu Da.
One of the central questions about Jade Lotus—why, at the age of 18, isn’t she married yet?—is never addressed in The Water Margin, presumably because such a situation was common enough that readers could imagine any number of scenarios that would lead to such a fate. At the heart of most of these scenarios, however, lay one underlying fact of life: marrying off a daughter was an expensive proposition. During the Song dynasty, expectations for a bride’s dowry size were growing like never before. While a family of means could always take out a loan or part with some of their landholdings, a family who was struggling to get by—and who had, perhaps, multiple daughters—would have been faced with a different sort of calculation.
For while dowries continued to represent an ever-increasing financial burden—a net negative for the family—the market value for unmarried daughters—a contrasting net positive—was also growing. For a parent in dire straits, like Jade Lotus’s father or Yan Poxi’s mother, selling their child into indentured servitude might have been the best option to solve a more pressing problem. Sometimes, the parties involved viewed the arrangement as temporary—a concubine’s term, for example, might last only as long as needed for her to earn her own dowry price. Other times, parents might decide that the risk of serving as a rich man’s concubine would be better than life as a poor man’s wife. And, of course, there were also those parents—or more commonly, uncles, cousins, brothers, and even husbands—who made the decision that they would rather profit off of their child, relative, or wife, instead of having to lose money on her.
The moral justification for concubinage was to provide a family with an heir. If, by the age of forty, an upper-class man still had no son, a concubine was expected. However, the reality was quite different. Concubines were a way to show off status—not just for the husband, but the entire family. Prospects often had specialized skills to distinguish themselves from their competitors in the marketplace: musician, dancer, player of games, preparer of extravagant banquets, and so on. For older men who had already lost their wives, a younger concubine might be thought of as both companion and caretaker.
I can still remember the day the emperor ordered the destruction of every single wu shrine in the capital. The flames crackled beneath the bright autumn sun as the imperial guards looked on, shifting their feet nervously. The gods were spared—they were picked up and moved to whatever Daoist or Buddhist temple was closest, where they were given a new rank and name. But the people who spoke for them? The spirit mediums and healers? Rainmakers and exorcists? The message was clear: their days were numbered.
Religion and philosophy in China is often divided into three main teachings: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. However, the central folk belief system up through the Song dynasty—the animistic practices at the heart of rural life that were at least as old, if not older, than Confucianism and Daoism—is today rarely acknowledged at all. In the Song dynasty, the wu, it seems, were everywhere. Even though the imperial court had sent them packing at the end of the Tang, and the government bureaucrats had launched a campaign to eliminate their superstitious practices entirely, the message was ignored by the rural majority (the Daoist and Tantric Buddhist appropriation of the wu‘s gods and traditions, rather than resulting in the latter’s eradication, eventually subsumed them as esoteric cousins).
In The Water Margin, Jade Lotus’s mother was not actually a wu, but such a thing would not have been improbable—especially among the illiterate. When things went wrong, no one was more valuable. If your fields were drying up, if a ghost seduced your husband, if you still owed someone three hundred strings of cash from a previous lifetime, if the neighbor’s dog possessed your daughter, you needed to call a wu. A wu was many things: a spirit medium, an exorcist, a healer, a diviner, a summoner of curses, a rain maker.
Modern readers will be tempted to draw parallels between the wu of China and the witches of Europe. And on a macro level, the similarities are there: both were vestiges of a far older belief system that attempted to instill order to a capricious and destructive natural world through magic and sacrifice, and both were vilified by the intellectual elite who ran a centralized, patriarchal bureaucracy. Both allowed women to hold positions of power, but while witches in medieval Europe are often associated with subversive feminine power, the wu in medieval China were not necessarily defined by gender. However, the associations of spirit mediums with illiterate women gradually did become the reality in post-medieval society, and, in fact, remains the case today (amazingly enough, the spirit medium tradition in Shanxi, and elsewhere, managed to survive communism under the auspices of Daoism).