In my novel The Echoes of Love, the protagonist, Venetia, is somewhat lost – torn between heart and head: her interest in the man she has recently met, Paolo, and her long-term independence and avoidance of romantic entanglements. She is walking home from work one evening along the CalledelParadiso, amost medieval-looking street in Venice, when a brightly lit shop window catches her attention, piercing the gloom as it does and acting like a beacon, pulling her in. On impulse she goes inside, and a Chinese man greets her and invites to sit with him. Uneasily, she looks around the room, which is thick with the heady scents of incense and opium. Once her eyes adjust to the semi-darkness she sees a cushion and, coiled up on top of it, an enormous serpent.
The Chinese wise man, Ping Lü, says:‘Don’t be afraid…. This is Nüwa.’
Venetia is not remotely fond of snakes, and this little shop and its strange proprietor make her deeply uncomfortable. She wants to run – her rational mind tells her to. But, as I write:
[S]he had a strange feeling, as if an invisible, singular power were drawing her more and more into the shop, and something deeper than curiosity was compelling her to stay.
So begins a tentative relationship between Venetia and Ping Lü, who offers the ancient wisdom of his great land as a means of guiding Venetia on her journey. This first glimpse of Chinese mythology – the embodiment of the goddess Nüwa –enchants Venetia sufficiently to stay and hear Ping Lü’s advice.
In ancient Chinese mythology, the goddess Nüwa was of pivotal importance. It was she who created mankind, and then saved it when heaven began to collapse.
According to legend, Nüwa created man from the yellow clay of the earth – on the seventh day of creation, having already made chickens, dogs, sheep, pigs, cattle and horses. This sounds a lot like the story of Genesis, but the next part contains a twist: instead of destroying the creatures she created in a great flood, Nüwaprotected them from natural disaster.The classic philosophical Chinese text the Huainanzi, which dates back to the second century BC, explains that the world was collapsing because two powerful gods had fought and crashed into Mount Buzhou, which held up the sky:
[T]he four pillars were broken; the nine provinces were in tatters. Heaven did not completely cover [the earth]; Earth did not hold up [Heaven] all the way around [its circumference]. Fires blazed out of control and could not be extinguished; water flooded in great expanses and would not recede. Ferocious animals ate blameless people; predatory birds snatched the elderly and the weak.
Nüwa took action to separate heaven from the earth once more. She patched up the sky with coloured stones smelted together. She used the legs of a giant sea turtle to replace the four broken pillars. She slayed a black dragon that was wreaking havoc. Peace was restored to the land. With her husband Fuxi, she ruled over the healed world as the mother of all people.
Nüwa and Fuxi have been depicted in countless artworks over the centuries, and often they are part snake, part human – as in the image accompanying this post, which was discovered in the Astana Graves in in Xinjiang, China. Ping Lü gives Venetia a jade pendant of Nüwa and tells her:
‘This stone protects the wearer, and is a status symbol indicating the dignity, grace and morality of the owner.’
Venetia wears it always from then on, and in doing so I like to think that she receives a touch of Nüwa’s wisdom, spirit and healing power. Because something is broken in Venetia’s heart, and only by fixing what is damaged can she find the courage and the faith to truly love again.