By C.S. Hagen
TIANJIN, CHINA – Qiao Hongshan’s neighbors knew her as a laomazi, or an old maid servant. Those she healed with spit and charms called her fox fairy, Granny Wang the Third.
Although she’s been dead for nearly two hundred years, her hands and lotus feet are still alive.
From her vantage point inside Tianjin’s Temple of the Heavenly Empress Granny Wang has seen the end of China’s last dynasty and the turning of two centuries. She’s watched the Opium Wars and half a dozen warlords battle for Tianjin, China’s Pearl of the North. With heavy lidded eyes perched above rounded, rose red cheekbones, thin lips pursed into a tight, diligent smile, she has offered one tireless hand to all her followers despite the Japanese invasion and the ensuing civil war. Granny Wang survived damnation during the Cultural Revolution and sits, to this day, an arguably regal figure along Ancient Culture Street.
“Touch Granny Wang’s hand and live to ninety-nine.” Granny Wang’s followers say.
For more than one hundred and seventy years she has sat in painted plaster. A red silk longevity robe is draped across her shoulders. Her followers burn black incense over tealeaves and call it ‘Brilliant Tea’ (can chaye), a reputedly magical elixir able to cure all sickness.
Many still preform ritual obeisance and can’t resist rubbing her well-worn hand.
Grey hair coiled under a simple skullcap, wearing loose, peasant trousers and a short-collared mandarin shirt, she holds flowers, sometimes magic medicine balls, sometimes copper coins in one hand and offers the other, cupped over a bony knee, for healing.
Legends say touch her hand and be protected against a hundred diseases. Touch her foot and eliminate a hundred ills.
Qiao Hongshan 乔红山
Before Granny Wang became known as a fox fairy she was a mother of three. Before being a mother she was a sick child rescued by Doctor Wang Sansi, a traveling scholar formerly of Beijing’s reputed Tai Hospital. Before being rescued however, she was born into squalor in Tianjin’s Wuqing District. She was spared the “killing trouble bowl,” a drowning tub often used by parents on female newborns, only to fall ill at a young age. Outside the Qiao family’s doors smallpox, dysentery, cholera and typhoid haunted city streets.
“The country was plagued with disease, spirits and odorous vapors, swamp, piles of coffins awaiting in the open for an auspicious time and place for burial,” wrote Colonel G.J. Wolseley, quartermaster for the British forces in Tianjin at the time.
“A handkerchief became an indispensible weapon against protecting the olfactories…” Wolseley kept intricate journals during his eighteenth and nineteenth century travels. “There is no part of the world to which distance lends more enchantment to the scenery than in China. When actually amongst the highly-manured fields of that empire, the olfactory organs are so rudely assailed by the variety of stenches… that a second trip across the fields is seldom taken.”
Hongshan was born one hundred and fifty years before penicillin and into a city slowly being eaten by opium smugglers, foreign gunboats, superstition, disease and rebellion. Magistrates faked blindness and turned deaf to Tianjin’s poor, and pettifoggers, or yamen runners ‘vomited their hearts out’ to squeeze money from where they could.
When little Hongshan became possessed by a fox spirit is unknown, and mostly the leftovers of urban legends, but if other fox possession stories hold any relevance Hongshan became possessed during her childhood sickness. Wang Sansi, the heroic doctor for whom she was later named after, took her under his wing, taught her his trade, made her his fourth wife and sired Hongshan’s three sons.
After her husband’s death she circuited Zhili Province’s villages and practiced her shamanistic arts. She was known as a midwife, a fortune teller, a healer and a miracle worker.
A favorite place for Hongshan was the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak (miaofengshan), some forty kilometers northwest of Beijing. She made countless pilgramiges to worship Mother Tianshan (Bixia Yuanjun), a reported disciple of Queen Mother of the West, who according to some sources was the Queen of Sheba and was also known to recruit fox fairies and fox demons as her messangers. Under the mountain’s walnut, apricot, hawthorn and peach trees she healed the ‘mountain climbing tigers’ or the coolies who hired themselves out as human donkeys. Amidst the fruit vendors and peach wood walking stick hawkers at the temple’s entryway, she gave away tea to thirsty pilgrims, never asking for a copper in return.
Sometimes she carried massive stones up the mountain’s slopes for much-needed temple repairs and was was reportedly visited by the Empress Cixi on two occasions. Nearly all documents describing Hongshan reported she healed incurable diseases, calmed the masses when bandits threatened, and never wasted a moment when someone’s life was in danger, said Taoist Master He Lutong.
“She was good with the people,” Master He said. “She was approachable, unlike the Queen Mother, her predecessor. She kept away from the rivalries and helped villagers escape bandits at her own peril. You would almost never find her in the temples, she was always in people’s homes, curing the sick and helping the people avoid calamity.”
According to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress reports dating back to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Hongshan was a joyous person, who never stayed idle.
“No problem was too little for her,” Master He said. “There’s a colloquial saying in Tianjin – ‘Big problem, little problem, Granny Wang will show.’”
Granny Wang 王三奶奶
Tianjiners called Qiao Hongshan Granny Wang long before her death around 1843. She accepted her husband’s surname, Wang. After her death, of which there is much debate, she became known as Granny Wang the Third.
Beijing claims she died during a blizzard on the way up the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak. Tianjiners swear she died on what is now known as Ancient Culture Street, only she didn’t truly die.
According to the Tianjin Daily while on her way to the Temple of the Heavenly Empress, she grew tired and hailed a rickshaw coolie. Upon arrival she discovered she had no money and told the coolie to wait outside. Her last words were for the coolie to go in and look for her if she didn’t come out momentarily. The coolie waited until noon, and then went inside where he found Granny Wang still as stone, holding out ten copper coins and a note thanking the coolie.
She transcended death and became an immortal. In fox fairy terms, she had reached the ninth tail.
Granny Wang became known as a ‘fox fairy of local fame,’ according to Xiao Feikang’s book The Cult of the Fox. Her selfless life as a healer and fortuneteller made her a deified representation of female mediums who played active roles in the local community. The Granny Wang Cult followed soon after her death and both Tianjin and Beijing laid claims to the woman turned goddess.
In Beijing, 1927, according to temple records she revealed her true form beside her own statue at the Mountain of the Marvelous Peak, and a photograph was presumably taken of her.
Tianjiners wouldn’t believe the story. They had to see the photograph with their own eyes. Tianjin’s affluent salt merchants, actors and craftsmen guilds and lighting companies established charities to help people make the journey, which in turn embarrassed Beijing as Tianjiners far outnumbered their own cult members.
In a time of rampant disease with little hopes or monies for cures, both Tianjiners and Beijing commoners turned to the supernatural for assistance. According to some technocrats of the time gods like Granny Wang held real power.
“Western science, although it cleverly seeks the Way of weishing, [sanitation] does so entirely on the basis of investigating form and material composition,” wrote Zheng Guanying, a comprador and an ardent Taoist student in his book Chinese and Foreign Essentials of Hygiene, 1890. “It does not understand the marvelous [ability] of non-matter to give rise to matter, or the ability of the formless to give rise to form [wu zhi sheng zhi, wu xing sheng xing]. Will Western physicians ever understand this? Even though they know about it, they do not believe in it and only find it laughable. I can only hope that as Western science progresses, in the end it will be able to comprehend the Way of the Immortals. Those who perfect the [Chinese] art [of self-cultivation] earn merit and virtue and enter the abode of the Immortals. Those who practice it even imperfectly can still avoid calamity and illness and live to an advanced age. Is this not a wonderfully felicitous thing for the entire world?”
Today, one way of practicing the Way of Immortals is to rub Granny Wang’s hand or foot. Another method is to respectfully burn black incense over a bag of tealeaves before Granny Wang’s unblinking eyes, and then take the leaves home to drink. Upon seeing Granny Wang however, salutations must be made.
“Granny Wang the Third, I’ve (name) come to worship you.”
Upon leaving make sure to let her know she is not forgotten.
“Granny Wang the Third, I’m leaving now. See you next year.”
Tianjin’s streets are safer and cleaner than they were in Granny Wang’s time. Western medicine has shattered more than superstitions. It’s ironic, however, that Alexander Fleming invented penicillin in 1928, but Granny Wang – Tianjin’s protective fox fairy – has been curing the sick since the eighteenth century.