Jigong appears in Wang Mengji’s Jigong zhuan (Jigong Drum-Song, c. 1859), Guo Guangrui’s Pingyan Jigong zhuan (Storyteller’s Jigong, 1898), and the thirty-eight sequels to Storyteller’s Jigong which appeared in China (mostly Shanghai) between 1905 and 1926. No information is available on Wang Mengji. Guo Guangrui (?-?) may have been a scholar in Yannan.
There was a real Jigong. Daoji (?-1209 C.E.) was an eccentric Buddhist monk who ate meat and was a regular customer of prostitutes. Daoji did good works along the coastal parts of Zhejiang Province. He became enormously popular with the common people, who called him “Jidian” (“Crazy Ji”), and his fellow monks saw him as a miracle worker. But because Daoji was subversive and disrespectful toward mainstream Buddhism, Daoji was disliked by the Buddhist establishment. After his death he was almost immediately incorporated into popular culture. He became “Jigong,” “Sir Ji,” a figure of folktales, oral performances, and eventually literature. The cult of Jigong spread even to Malaysia, where he was a popular figure for many centuries.
The Jigong of tradition is a mad monk, a clown, a figure of contradiction (a Buddhist monk who eats meat and has sex) and one of the figures gamblers pray to, but also a moral exemplar and a symbol of popular resistance to corrupt authority. He is a transgressive figure, both of his monastic vows and of ordinary manners, and has historically been taken as a symbol by rebels, against unjust Chinese rulers and, in the case of the Boxer rebels, against unjust foreign rulers. But often the morals he espouses are essentially conservative and Confucian.
The Jigong of the late Qing period, the hero of Jigong Drum Song and Storyteller’s Jigong (about half of Storyteller’s Jigong is the plot of Jigong Drum Song), is an insane monk who comes down from his mountaintop hermitage to help the disadvantaged of China while bringing order and justice to the corrupt and powerful. In the course of these events Jigong is forced to deal with and occasionally defeat supernatural forces, beings and monsters. His enemies range from local bullies to lust-filled monks to corrupt officials to evil female animal spirits and succubi. Jigong is aided by a group of martial artists.
In Storyteller’s Jigong Jigong fights against Hua Yunlong, a bandit from western Sichuan who is known as the “Heaven and Earth Bandit Rat.” Hua is an audacious thief as well as a brutal murderer; when a chaste widow refuses to have sex with him, he murders her. Hua is cunning and tough, and was once a sworn brother of Jigong’s disciples, and through most of the 240 chapters of Storyteller’s Jigong Jigong and his disciples are hard pressed to stop him. Eventually, after a series of pitched battles, Jigong’s superior magic skills defeat Hua, who is brought to justice and decapitated. Other subplots include Jigong’s lengthy combat with the Taoist sorcerer Hua Qingfeng and the betrayal of Jigong by his colleague Shao Huafeng.
Jigong Drum Song and Storyteller’s Jigong both change the narrative of the real Jigong’s life, so that he is no longer the genial (if crazy) miracle worker of earlier centuries’ fiction, but instead a leader of martial artists. The influence of 19th century/late Qing wüxia novels on the Jigong story is pronounced, especially in Storyteller’s Jigong, while many of the basics of the earlier Jigong novels, including his conflict with other monks, are altered or disposed of.
Both novels have in common with Shih Yü-k’un’s The Three Heroes and Five Gallants and other kung-an novels is the dynamic of a thriller/suspense novel rather than a mystery. The identity of the criminal is known from the beginning, and the point of the novel becomes his apprehension rather than the revelation of his identity.
Jigong is referred to by his disciples as an “arhat,” or “living Buddha.” He is a powerful fighter, although his only magic weapon is his hat. His magic is strong, but unlike Taoist sorcerers, who have to master techniques and rely on recited charms for their power, Jigong’s abilities and powers are innate. He is capable of miracles, some of which include reviving boiled snails, coating statues with ice, and transporting logs from Sichuan to the well of a monastery.
Jigong is an enemy of cruelty and corruption, but he has a special hatred for sexual crimes, for selling women into slavery, and especially for rapists. Banditry, to Jigong, is an acceptable profession; sexual violence is not. (That’s where Hua Yunlong went wrong, to Jigong). Jigong has a number of disciples, wüxia martial artists, who he sends out on various individual missions. These disciples have names like “Mountain Climbing Leopard,” “Cloud Chasing Swallow,” “Star Plucking Constellation Pacer,” “Eight Directions Awe Exerting,” and “Incarnated Plague God.” Jigong also gains followers in the persons of the various female spirits and monsters he defeats. Jigong spares their lives rather than killing them, and in return they become his devoted followers.