Faculty Author Q&A: Susan Naquin on “Gods of Mount Tai"

April 25, 2022

The Department of East Asian Studies (EAS) interviews Susan Naquin about the development of her new book, The Gods of Mount Tai: Familiarity and the Regional Culture of North China, 1000-2000.

How did you get the idea for this project?

I began thinking about this book two decades ago as I was finishing up my book on Peking. Looking for a research object that would be focused within North China (like all my previous research) and would allow material objects to serve as sources for substantial historical arguments, I saw that potential in the story of the gods and temples associated with Mount Tai (in Shandong province).

Although the re-researched history of Mount Tai provides the backbone, this book has several intertwined storylines, arguments, and concerns. One thread traces the arrival on the mountain of a new female deity in 1008, her growing popularity at the expense of the resident male deity, and her trajectory from novelty to familiarity to banality. Another thread reconstructs the post-1400 expansion of her worship in time and space and demonstrates its limits to the Ming and Qing Greater North China Plain. A third argues for the importance of this regional focus to understand how local clay, stone, metal, and paper affected (and are evidence for) the god’s history. I raise in passing a number of issues concerning androgyny and the representation of gender among gods.

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

Looking for surviving examples of gods and temples connected with that mountain, I found myself learning about geology and art history, visiting museum storerooms around the world, and traveling extensively in the small towns of North China. By working at the intersection of art and religious history, I can now suggest fresh methods for studying sacred places and Chinese gods, especially female gods. And I was able to provide a generously illustrated visual history that shows a rich array of overlooked statues, prints, murals, and paintings, as well as that tells the full story of how Mount Tai became such a culturally significant monument and China’s most popular tourist mountain.