More About Goddesses: Mother Shayi Nanzhao
by Tim Kavi
Mother Shayi Nanzhao, also known as Shayi Mu, is one of the more obscure deities or mythical figures in worldwide lore. Her group statues can be found on Nanzhao Folk Island, depicting a legend tracing the origin of the Ailao people, who are, in turn, said to be the ancestors of the Bai ethnic group, a supposed cornerstone of the Nanzhao kingdom of 738 to 902 AD. These statues are among the main attractions on the island, which had since become a popular tourist destination in 1999.
Shayi, Mother of Dragons
Legend tells us that Shayi was a woman who lived in the Ailao Mountain thousands of years ago. One day, while fishing, she had touched a log that had, for some reason, made her feel strange and eventually become pregnant. Shayi would go on to give birth to ten sons, and several years later, when the sons had become older, she had taken them to the same river where she had mysteriously become pregnant after touching the log.
Upon seeing the log, it had transformed into a dragon, who had then asked Shayi where his sons are. This similarly strange incident had scared off the nine older boys, who had run away upon seeing the dragon. It was only the youngest who wasn’t scared, as he instead leaped on the dragon’s back; this prompted Shayi to name the boy Jiulong, jiu meaning “back” and long meaning “sit” in the Ailao tongue.
Despite being the youngest son, Jiulong was chosen by his brothers to rule as king, as he had been licked by his father dragon after he jumped on his back. The ten brothers would marry the ten daughters of a family residing in Ailao Mountain’s foot, and would become the patriarchs of the Ailao people, and eventually the Bai people.
Different Twists on the Legend of Shayi Mu
There are actually several theories pertaining to the Ailao people. At least eight of China’s minority nationalities, including the Bai, trace their roots to the Ailao people, and have their own versions of the Mother Shayi Nanzhao/Shayi Mu myth, all similar but with their share of differences.
Literature such as Confucian scholar Liu Xiang’s The Biographies of Women also depicts small twists on the Shayi Mu legend. According to this tome, Jian Di, mother of Shang ancestor Qi, had also become pregnant in strange circumstances, this time swallowing a multi-colored egg that a bird dropped while she was bathing.
Due to the main similarity of these myths – a woman founding a civilization – modern scholars believe these stories were created as a means to establish patriarchy from a maternal source.
Mother Shayi Nanzhao’s Symbolism in Modern Times
Many years after the legend of Mother Shayi supposedly took place, her influence remains in modern-day culture.
As the supposed matriarch of Nanzhao rulers and mother of the Bai people, Mother Shayi is a symbol of ancient matriarchy. Her statue on Nanzhao Folk Island is said to be representative of independence and feminine strength and determination. And while there has been controversy regarding whether her nude statue is appropriate, her nudity is said to be more redolent of primitive culture, as opposed to being an attempt toward eroticism.
Overall, Mother Shayi is seen in today’s times as the symbolism of the Bai’s ancient roots and a symbol of their authenticity as a culture.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: The photo above is an original photo taken by Tim Kavi at Nanzhao Folk Island which is near modern day Dali City in Yunnan Province, China. The photo was taken by Tim Kavi during the Summer of 2012. The island also includes the statue of another female figure from the Buddhist tradition, Kwan Yin; actual photo below. All Photos Copyright 2012 by Tim Kavi.