Chen Jinggu + Empress Chen of Wu - A Community of Sworn Sisters

Imagine: A community of sworn sisters stretching across thousands of years, lines of flight toward a better tomorrow. 

Risa Dickens
Oct 30, 2023
17 min read
Missing WitchesWitch HistoryTranscripts
Taoist Protectress of Women

This season every story I started spilled out to become double, then multiple. As always happens when we go looking for Witches we’ve been missing, one led to more. 

This story starts with a Chinese Empress in the Imperial palaces of the Han Dynasty, about 150 years before the Western calendar begins with the birth of a deified carpenter.  

I have to start by admitting how awkward I feel writing about ancient China, I’m a greying white lady on unceded Anishnaabe territory in so-called Quebec, so far out in space and time from these stories. At Missing Witches, we prioritize telling stories from the global majority. Our goal was always at least 50% not-white. We’re looking for what we’ve been missing, trying to learn, that’s the whole point and it’s an incredible jaw-dropping joy and pleasure and also means we are often out of our comfort zones, and likely to make dumb mistakes. As we’ve said from the beginning, our hope is to dig our hands in, learn as we go, and hopefully just not fuck it up too much. 

I enter these stories the way I entered China actually - wandering in the dark, looking for connections.

A friend said he was booking his flight to play in an indie music festival in Shanghai and Beijing, flights were cheap, so I should get one too and come and sing along or something. And I bought a ticket. I was at a place in my life where I could do that, and I felt fearless and I did it. But when the time came, my friend couldn’t go, his parents were sick and he was needed at home. He put me in touch with the festival organizers, and they gave me a few spots to play solo, and a gig as a stage manager for a festival event in Beijing. I wish I could say I was useful to them, but I’m not totally sure to be honest, I got lost and overwhelmed on more than one occasion, but oh I loved wandering those streets and meeting the people I met there. 

In Beijing, I stayed in the Hutongs, courtyard residences connected by narrow alleys that date back to the 13th C. Palmipsest places, patinaed and carved and marked by centuries of intergenerational living. Warm red stone and cool grey granite. I found myself in a room on a courtyard shared with the host family. Stairs brought us up the rooftops. The city had a hazy glow and we could not see the stars. 

The first night there, I walked out alone in the evening. Wandered through dim alleys, folks playing games, bikes and scooters buzzing gently past, laundry drying, ancient walls and secret-looking doorways opening into temples and microbreweries, trees blowing in the wind over the walls. I found the venue I’d be playing at days later and I went in, and a tree grew up through the middle of the bar, and in the inner room a group of people - locals, tourists, immigrants - sat and sang Appalachian folks songs together on the stage, I watched awhile and joined in. Later we’d sing together on my rooftop. I got lost many times, but found friends and kindness everywhere I went despite my ignorance.

I call up that memory to say, I am walking down dark alleys in these stories, I know my ignorance will likely trip me up, but I’m out here with my feelers out, extending love and curiosity. I hope that as we find each other here, in the coven we make in the dark between our ears, we’ll meet in this same way again and again, and create expanding circles of awe and kindness both.  How magical to find you here at all. 

How magical to find you here at all. 

Chen Jiao, born c.165 BC comes into power (and into history) because of her mother:

Her mother, Princess Guantao, is trying to figure out a strategic, political marriage for her teenage daughter.  First, she tries for Emperor Jing’s eldest son and crown prince. But the Empress isn’t having it, so Princess Guantao goes down the line to the next most important, the favoured concubine of the Emperor, Consort Wang, and proposes they marry her daughter Chen Jiao to Consort Wang's 5-year-old son. And Consort Wang sees this as a smart political alliance and agrees, but Emperor Jing doesn’t approve because of the age difference. 

Then, at a royal gathering, Princess Guantao held the - again - 5-year-old prince Liu Che in her arms and asked him do you want to marry this one? or that one? Pointing at dozens of palace maids. And he rejects them all until Princess Guantao points to her own daughter, Chen Jiao, and then little Liu Che says he’s going to put her in a golden house. Clearly the marriage is destiny and Emperor Jing approves and Liu Che becomes crown prince two years later, at the age of 7. When Emperor Jing dies, the then 16-year-old Liu Che ascends to the throne as Emperor Wu, and formally makes Chen Jiao his Empress.

But then…

Years go by, and Chen Jiao doesn’t get pregnant. 

Do you know this feeling? When the body fails? When safety suddenly becomes precarious?

Not getting pregnant puts the entire empire at risk, her husband's grandmother holds great power and resents the young emperor's attempts to bring about Confucian reform and she uses his childlessness to campaign for him to be replaced. Empress Chen feels her safety slipping, she tries to keep the emperor from other concubines but its not working, nothing is working, she can’t make her body work. 

And then, the story goes, she’s approached by a witch named Chu Fu - a woman who dressed in men’s garments - who offered to restore the Emperor’s love, and curse her rival concubines. 

And Empress Chen says yes, and conducts rituals with Chu Fu day and night, drinks potions, crafts magic dolls, and they sleep together ‘like husband and wife.’

And I want to pause to raise a glass to the enchanted days of Empress Wu and the witch Chu Fu, I hope they were delicious.

It’s all over so soon. Empress Chen and Chu Fu ‘s workings and relationship are discovered, Chu Fu is arrested and executed by decapitation, along with more than 300 others. Emperor Wu deposes Empress Chen and exiles her to live under house arrest at the Long Gate Palace. 

Two years later, the Emperor’s consort gives birth to his first son.

Empress Chen spent the rest of her life in exile. 

The emperor spent huge amounts of money visiting alchemists and magicians, seeking immortality. He also spearheaded a rage of witch hunts, whipped into a frenzy of fear at magic beyond his control has was eventually manipulated into murdering his own son. 

Witches remember: as you go seeking, stay skeptical too. 

As you go seeking, stay skeptical too. 

I worry about witchcraft sometimes, recent research shows a rise in belief in the kind of witchcraft that’s out to fucking get you, the witchcraft that you might blame for your poverty, for your hardship, correlates with a lot of misery:

“witchcraft beliefs are more prevalent in countries with lower confidence in local police, judicial system, and national government…  residents of countries with widespread witchcraft beliefs have lower levels of life satisfaction, (..), and are more likely to assess the state of their health as poor (...). They also report fewer “positive affect” experiences of happiness, laughter, and enjoyment, and more “negative affect” experiences of worry, sadness, and anger (...). Furthermore, there is a very strong relationship between witchcraft beliefs and perceived lack of control over life.”

Because of course: the more our bodies and systems fail us the more we are susceptible to scapegoating and magical thinking. I want witch craft that loves science, that has deep roots and does due diligence, and feels empowered to self-knowledge and growth by the insights in the workings of the world. 

We all want to know: who is causing this pain? who can I point to? and when the populist rhetoric of a greedy leader points to Jews, and says blame them! Points to Palestinians, Arabs, Asians, Black and Indigenous people, Trans people, Drag Queens, and “Others” them, it makes them Object, in a way that makes their thoughts, feelings and experiences functionally unimaginable, inhuman, not alive, expendable. The scapegoater points to women who can’t get pregant, to old women, ugly women, loud women, fat women, disabled women, sexy women, queer women, melanated women and says: look over there, danger, danger, danger. 

Realizing that this moving target of enemy Others is, in fact, just ourselves demonized is the greatest threat to unjust power. 

Hundreds of years later, hundreds of miles away, another woman uses magic, not to get pregnant but to abort a fetus and to save her people, and the epic battle of her life is with her demon-self. 

And these stories get looped together just by me stumbling in the dark, I bumped from one into the other and started to think about the pressure that has crushed down on generations of our bodies telling us we have no value and no power if we don’t marry, produce heirs, incubate and reproduce the social hierarchy. This witch felt all that pressure too but she can be an icon for us of becoming so much more. 

Her name is Chen Jinggu. She was a real person who lived around the 700s CE in Fujian on the southeastern coast of China. Over centuries she becomes a deity, and this is her origin story:

Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, goddess of pure kindness,  tries to help raise money to finish building a bridge at a dangerous crossing, where many people had died on sunken ferries. She appears in a boat hovering on the wild waters and promises to marry whoever succeeds in hitting her with a coin. Nothing can touch her, and the money is raining down, when a man who has been throwing all his money away, entranced by the goddess, gets help from a prankster Immortal, and his coin slips past the magic veil between human and goddess and glances across a strand of Guanyin’s white hair. 

The man, Wang Xiao’er, wins, but the goddess disappears - imagine the shock, the collision of worlds as the coin cuts the deity's hair - and in that moment Wang Xiao’er - the man who thought he had finally hit his future with a coin and won her hand, only to see her disappear before his eyes - dies by suicide. 

Guanyin sends a drop of her blood to be incarnated as Chen Jinggu, born to keep the goddesses promise, and a man named Liu Qi is the reincarnation of poor Wang Xiao’er. 

And the hair “turned into a white female python, the manifestation of embittered desire and a betrayed promise. Thus the nature of their births dictated that one become an unwilling wife and mother and the other a creature of constant, unfulfilled passions.”

Throughout the many stories of Chen Jinggu and the White Snake they battle at the meeting points of these two identities, wife and lover, but what emerges in their combined deification is a goddess of going beyond. The possibility of a religion dedicated to the hallowedness of warrior women who study and train, and are heroes. Warriors and priestesses of the Goddess Compassion. 

Dr. Mayfair Yang writes that Chen Jinggu:

started out as a historical person, born in Xiadu Village, outside Fuzhou, Fujian province in the Tang Dynasty. Today in Wenzhou, the religious oral storytelling rituals called “drum chants” have been revived after 4 decades of being banned. In these stories, Mother Chen is shown casting spells, conducting rituals and incantations, and engaging in martial arts to exorcize people of wicked demons and free whole communities from the Green and White Snake Demons. In one episode, Mother Chen descends into hell to save her sworn sister, the goddess Li the Thirteenth, whose soul was being punished for having offended the gods. After traveling through the Ten Prisons of hell, Mother Chen finally discovers her sister mired in the dark Lake of Blood and brings her back to earth and to life.

Chen Jinggu exists to fulfill the goddess's promise to marry the mortal man, but she isn’t actually interested in marriage. She wants to fight beside her sworn sisters instead, she’ll travel through hell for them. She is a spiritual scholar, spellcaster, and martial artist. With Chen Jinggu, the goddess keeps her promise in a trickster way that reveals another truth about what women can be. You can try to ban that truth but the drums won’t stay quiet for long. 

Chen Jinggu runs away from her “predestined marriage” to Mount Lu, a place where spirit world and earth meet, to train and to study. After three years there, she finds out her parents have been tormented this whole time for trying to keep her from her spirit calling, and when she finds out she wants to leave immediately to go to them, but her studies aren’t complete. Her master wants her to wait, she needs to learn the ultimate ritual art. This “would have allowed her to penetrate the secrets of pregnancy, protect expecting women, and preside over birth.” As she departs her master warns her that she will get pregnant at the age of 24 and she won’t be able to do the ritual to protect herself, but she has to go anyway. (Baptandier and Lewis, x)

Chen Jinggu was dedicated to her calling, she mastered all but the ultimate ritual art, the final secrets of life, but left before she finished because she couldn’t stand the thought of her parents in pain. 

After returning home and healing her parents with her own flesh, she devotes herself to exorcising the country of demons. And as she travels and works, she gathers her “community of sworn sisters” that includes women who helped her, and also demons she conquered and won over.

Witches, this is a story about demons, about how we make them, demonizing others, repressing and demonizing parts of ourselves, and its about how we integrate them too.

Chen Jinggu’s family; Liu Qi; and his family all still believe they are cosmically destined to be married. SO when the White Snake kidnaps Liu Qui, and appears to him as a woman and tries to seduce him, he says no I’m engaged. The White Snake tries to kill him but she can’t because they are karmically bound so she just ends up torturing them both. Chen Jinggu comes to the rescue “with the help of the shamanic arts she learned at Mount Lu, and after healing Liu Qi with herbal potions and restoring him with the help of talismans, she finally had to consent to be married.” (ibid)

Chen Jinggu is caught. She has a warrior, priestess calling, but she has to get married instead. Then the White Snake kidnaps the Empress, takes her form and consumes her 36 royal consorts, and demands the heart of Chen Jinggu. Chen Jinggu slices the snake in 3 on the royal bed, and imprisons the pieces because the demon can’t die yet. Then, “using talismans and a ritual of “salvation through refinement or transmutation”, Chen Jinggu revived the thirty-six consorts from the piles of their bones” (ibid xv.)They could only stay alive through her constant magical work. She taught them “the ritual arts of Mount Lü, and they became her loyal followers.”(ibid.)

She worked exhausting, constant magic because she refused to let innocent women die. 

She is their leader and savior, but she’s a wife now as well and when she turns 24, she gets pregnant. 

“The ritual pollution of her pregnancy meant that she couldn’t practice ritual arts”(ibid) but a great drought comes and the king threatens to burn the Daoist masters alive if they fail to bring rain, and they beg Chen Jinggu to save them. 

Empress Chen turns to witchcraft to try and get pregnant, Chen Jinggu sacrifices her unborn child and ultimately herself using magic to end the drought and save the people who come to her in need. 

“At her mother’s house, she removed the fetus from her womb and hid it by making it invisible under a lake of lotuses.” But the White Snake’s lover, the Ravine Demon, finds the fetus and brings it to her and the White Snake consumes it. (ibid)

“The Ravine Demon and the White Snake then went to the Min River to kill Chen Jinggu, who was dancing on the stars of the Northern Dipper, magically visible on a mat floating on the water. Torrential rain fell while Chen Jinggu hemorrhaged due to the death of her aborted fetus, and she was pulled into the river by the two demons.” Chen Jinggu’s master and teacher who had predicted all this is there to rescue her, but he can “only temporarily forestall her death.”(ibid)

Exhausted, bled out, pulled from the waters, Chen Jinggu climbs onto the white snake’s head, and rides her to Linshui Palace, where they die together united in “chimerical form”. (ibid xvi) Her temple is established at Linshui, on the site of the White Snake’s grotto “where previously the demon had demanded an annual offering of children.” (ibid xxiii)

This mystic who doesn’t even want to get married in the first place saves the people, stops the ritual sacrifice of children, by aborting her child. This is how the goddess of compassion kept her promise. She brings the rain and rides the head of her demon. Together they become a deity in a pantheon worshipped still today. The people kept her story alive and burnished it until she and her sworn sisters became part of the fabric of the divine. The warrior priestess and her shadow ride into the stars to live on in the minds and stories of the people as a hybrid god. 

I don’t even know for sure why I’m telling these two stories together, Empress Chen of Wu and Chen Jinggu, except there is something here about the magic of women, and it’s not about how we create more human life or reproduce the social order this time. It’s this other magic about when we don’t. It's something about what our lives are worth when we are not producing heirs or giving men orgasms. 

It's something about what our lives are worth when we are not producing heirs or giving men orgasms.

Empress Chen of Wu lives in exile as witch hunts rage. Hundreds of years later, Chen Jinggu gathers her sworn sisters. 

Chen Jinggu’s society of sworn sisters included: 

“orphans or widows who wished to receive her teaching, or daughters of local officials of the kingdom of Min who preferred to join this ritual community of women rather than the royal harem.” (ibid xix) They took in repentant demons too, like the Rock Press Women, who, stone split by lightning, absorbing the moon, cultivated their own life and took on form. Without guidance, they pressed to death anyone who came too close.  

One of Chen Jinggu’s closest sisters is Lin Jiuniang, magician of the trigrams.

The Ravine Demon who finds the the fetus hidden in Chen Jinggu’s mother’s house, hidden magically under a lake of lotuses - the Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment - runs through the secret hallways that link matrilineal ancestry, and feeds one possible future to Chen Jinggu’s demon. 

After Chen Jinggu and the White Snake’s deaths, Lin Jiuniang captures and sacrifices the Ravine Demon:

on the bridge of a Hundred Flowers, the place of every birth that (Chen Jinggu) oversees in her role as a goddess. The thirty-six consorts are projected on this same cosmic cloth, becoming masters of the time of pregnancy who, in the ritual of Chen Jinggu’s temple, can untie children’s embryonic knots that embody predestined childhood diseases, thereby helping children get through the “passes” that mark the dangerous moments in the process of maturation. These consorts also correspond to the thirty-six stars that surround the Big Dipper and are responsible for activating the cosmic matrix. (ibid xxii)

They untie the knots and activate new futures, and I see them in a constellation of ancient feminist magic that whispers the inconvenient truth, that often our demons are also us. 

Chen Jinggu used magic to fight for the marginalized, and the violated, and she becomes a goddess. And so I claim her for my pantheon. 

A couple hundred years after her death, her religious sect becomes a women’s movement in Taiwan and, according to Brigitte Berthier, becomes “a focal point for communities of women who refused marriage but did not wish to become celibate, and instead preferred lesbian life.” (Wikipedia, Women in Taoism quoting ​​Berthier, Brigitte (1988). La Dame du Bord de l'eau (in French). Société d'Ethnologie. ISBN 978-2901161325.)

How many witch stories are fundamentally just about women who didn’t want to have sex with men?

How many witch stories are fundamentally just about women who didn’t want to have sex with men?

How do we see past generations of violence and control over what we can be?

Maybe we start, as Benebell Wen says in our interview coming out later this week, by seeking out stories of what our demonized, vilified Others believe. What have they longed for? What have they loved? How have they tried to meet and honour the divine? Maybe that’s how we cast the spell that turns those we’ve demonized back into flawed, humble, hopeful seekers like ourselves. 

The more inequality gapes open wide and bloody and people drop through, the more of those at the top rely on scapegoating. It presses in on us, and shapes the world, but it is an illusion, and witches whisper: listening for everything we’ve been missing can help us break the spell. 

And so I call in women who were called Witch for trying to protect themselves when they couldn’t bear children, witches who conjured some sort of protection from the world when it turned against them, people who tried to craft some kind of life and identity for themselves beyond pregnant, productive, or pleasure dome… 

I call in all those who made the best choices they could, who danced with their demons, who tried to protect themselves and the ones they loved. Who, even if they failed, deserve to be taken up by the people they loved and recognized as part of their great cloth of the divine. 

I call in all of us, hopeful and broken-hearted, to remember we outnumber the oligarchs, greedy, drooling, grasping at their yachts and bitcoins, slaves and palaces.

 We care for each other better than they do, we have justice on our side and they endlessly scramble to reframe and re-blame because they know, step by step, we are the rising tide. 

For me, Empress Chen of Wu represents the times we use our spells, our cunning, to survive, to claim a life out at the edges. Keeping the magic of the world alive, even in exile. 

Chen Jinggu represents the active, priestess, warrior magic that rides the wild shadow of the self, ventures through hell, stays with us right in the heart of the trouble. Dancing on the stars until she bleeds her human life away, she continues to work for us on the other side. 

Seeing them out there might just help us nurture the re-enchantment:

Mayfair Yang writes, in Re-enchanting Modernity: Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China:

For (Charles) Taylor, the replacement of the enchanted “porous self ” of spirit possession and human-god interactions with the impermeable “buffered self ” was the hallmark of modern secular society. (6)

Contemporary re-enchanting practices (...) can be understood as an indictment of, as well as forms of redress and repair for, the excesses of Chinese modernity’s purification procedures.(7)

In ancient China, two Daoist religious movements emerged in the waning years of the Han dynasty (...) ancient religious “lines of flight” that elude or retreat from the arborescent state order in the Chinese cultural zone (30)

Unlike rebellions or revolutions, most “lines of flight” seek not to overturn the “despotic signifying regime” or arborescent order but merely to open up escape routes that lead to alternative ways of life. (ibid)


It would seem that revolutions or rebellions tend to reproduce or strengthen and expand the state. Thus, ironically, lines of flight, in the form of modest shifts such as the repetition of ritual actions in the longue durée, seem to have more promise for making a real difference than sudden totalizing transformations like revolutions...” (ibid)

It is the dark time of year here, in a very dark year. 

Maybe, beloved coven mate, here in the dark where we meet between our ears, maybe you can see these people too, maybe they look familiar to you. 

Maybe it’s something in the way they survived: as warriors, priestesses, seekers and skeptics, lovers and friends. Dancing on the stars, dreaming of you. A community of sworn sisters stretching across thousands of years, lines of flight toward a better tomorrow. 

So mote it be. 


















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