From Daoist Immortality to Revolutionary Morality

The Art and Politics in East Asia Workshop Presents:

From Daoist Immortality to Revolutionary Morality:
Transforming the Immortal Hirsute Maiden into
the White Haired Girl

Max Bohnenkamp

Ph.D. Candidate , Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

With a response offered by Kwok-wai Hui, Ph.D student, History

Friday, February 27

4-6 p.m.

Judd 313

The White Haired Girl (Bai mao nü) has stood out over the years as one of the most successful creations of Chinese
revolutionary aesthetics since its inception as a musical theater piece in the Communist headquarters of Yan'an 
during the 1940s. While the story of the White Haired Girl is often claimed to originate from a folktale discovered 
by wartime culture workers in Hebei province, the details of its provenance have always remained vague. This 
paper examines the previously undiscovered relationship between the White Haired Girl and a tale from traditional 
folklore- the "Immortal Hairy Maiden" (Maonü xiangu). First mentioned in the 3rd century Biographies of Immortals 
(Liexian zhuan), the story tells how a female retainer of the Qin court escaped the fate of burial alongside the First 
Emperor by fleeing to the mountains, where she survived on sparse flora, learned the secrets of Daoist immortality, 
and uncannily sprouted fur all over her body. 
This paper explores the significance the Immortal Hairy Maiden and the White Haired Girl's similar straddling of the 
divide between human and non-human worlds, asking how the values of the traditional tale were commuted by the 
revolutionary one. Complicating recent interpretations of the latter as representing a sacrifice of gender subjectivity 
to revolutionary class-consciousness, I trace the figure's transformation from a traditional folk symbol of supernatural 
female metamorphosis and knowledge of immortality to a national icon of revolutionary subjectivity, domestic renewal, 
and the dispelling of superstition.  
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