A knowledge of the Chinese traditional gods and goddesses is particularly useful when visiting ancient temples or reading ancient texts. Many of the traditional gods started off as a mere mortals and some went on to have a particular festival dedicated to them.
People familiar with the Egyptian, Greek or Roman pantheon of gods will be disappointed when considering the Chinese deities. There is no consistent framework or hierarchy, it is more of an assorted collection, suggesting the stories come from different places at different times. The ‘Supreme’ deity Shangdi 上帝 does not feature in many tales and does not interact with other deities, and so can not compared to Zeus or similar ancient supreme gods of other lands. The chief reason for this is that Confucianism has generally been the dominant philosophy, and that is firmly rooted in rationality and the here and now. So the mythological figures were not considered suitable subjects for scholars, it was the mainly illiterate who kept the stories alive by oral tradition. History has a long tradition for accuracy in China; the impartial recording of facts is totally at odds with creative imaginings. However the ancient deities of folk religions have always been cherished by the local people so they can get together and enjoy festivals in their honor.
The Eight Immortals feature in a famous legend in China. The character 仙 is composed of man and mountain evoking the age old link of mountains as the haunt of deities. They are frequently depicted on vases; embroidery; porcelain and items of folk-art. Mostly they are associated with a magical voyage across the seas. Each used their own magical power to stay afloat. They then fought and defeated the Dragon King and embark on a series of adventures together. The eight immortals comprise historical figures from various ages. Each is depicted holding something and these in isolation can symbolize the immortals. There are eight similar Buddhist Immortals that can be safely distinguished by the objects they hold.
Li Tie Guai (or Li T'ieh-kuai WG) is a person skilled in medicine, he is portrayed with a gourd full of potions often with a bat. He is also known as Kong Mu and Li Ningyang. The story is that a disciple was instructed to burn his body after a week, when he went off on a voyage as a spirit. Returning to find his body had been destroyed a day too early he was forced to inhabit the body of a beggar who had just died. The beggar had a paralyzed leg and so Li was given an iron stick to support him. His eyes did not fit the beggar's head properly and give the impression of Hollow Eyes (hence the name Kong Mu). He is often represented standing on a crab or accompanied by a deer. Symbol: bottle gourd.
Zhongli Quan was an army marshal who on retirement took to a hermit's life in the Yangjiao mountains, Hunan. The Five Heroes taught him about immortality and how to turn copper into silver. He then produced silver which he gave to the poor. One day a wall of his house collapsed revealing a jade box containing the secrets of immortality. After a while he mastered the technique and was whisked off by a celestial crane to the land of the immortals. His magical fan has the power to bring the dead back to life. He is also known as Han Zhongli 汉钟离. He is depicted as a fat man with a bare belly carrying a feather fan and/or a peach of immortality. Symbol: fan.
Lan Caihe is portrayed as a woman or a hermaphrodite wearing a blue gown. As a mortal she lived as Yang Su of the Tang dynasty. She is depicted playing a flute or cymbals. She traveled the empire singing with one shoe off and one shoe on. Her breath was of shining mist. One day she was found drunk in Anhui and disappeared into a cloud leaving her shoe, dress, belt and castanets behind. She laments the short and fleeting life. Symbol: flower basket.
Depicted as an Old Man, Zhang Guo Lan lived as a hermit of the Tang dynasty in Shanxi. He was then invited to attend Emperor Taizong but refused. Later on he accepted a further request from Empress Wu Zetian but he died on reaching the capital. He was immediately reborn in the Hengzhou mountains. He rode a white mule that could cover a thousand li in a day. The mule or donkey could be folded up as if it was paper and conveniently stored. He performed magical tricks for the Tang Emperor Xuanzong. He carries a bamboo tube drum with two rods to beat it, is often shown seated on a mule with may be peaches or phoenix feathers. Symbol: bamboo tube.
Depicted as holding a magic lotus flower (which opens the heart) and playing the sheng, He Xiangu (or Hé Qióng) lived in the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. Once she was threatened by a demon and rescued by Lu Dongbin. She moved to the Mother of Pearl Mountains and was shown how to achieve immortality by taking a magic potion. She then flew among the mountains picking fruit for her mother. Symbol: lotus or peach.
In 755 Lu Dongbin was born in Shanxi into a family of officials. He went off to Lushan mountain, Jiangxi and met a fire dragon who gave him a sword with the power of invisibility. At Chang'an he met Han Zhongli who taught him magical powers and immortality. He is said to have to prove his skill by performing ten arduous tasks. For four hundred years he traveled the country killing dragons and preventing catastrophes. A tale relates that when at a wine bar instead of paying he painted two beautiful cranes on the wall, many came to see the realistic painting and the bar prospered, but as soon as Lu's debt was paid by the increased trade the cranes detached themselves from the wall and flew off. He was also known for his scholarship. He is depicted with a devil-killing sword and a fly-whisk (yun zhou) that enabled him to walk on clouds. Symbol: sword.
He was probably the great nephew of the famous Tang statesman Han Yu (c. 820CE). He soon excelled in horticulture. He could grow plants in a small handful of earth and a pupil of Lü Dongbi. He became immortal by climbing into the peach trees of Immortality and falling to the ground. His melodious playing of the flute attracted the birds and animals and is the patron of musicians. He saw no value in money and gave away any he was given. Symbol: flute.
Cao Guojiu (930-999CE) was elected by the immortals to make up the set of eight. He met Han Zhongli and Lu Dongbin who asked him what he was doing, when Cao Guojiu replied he was ‘Looking for the Way’ and then asked ‘Which way and where?’ Cao Guojiu responded by pointing to his heart. The immortals were impressed as ‘The heart is heaven and heaven is the Way’; he was soon given immortality. He is usually shown holding a scepter and castanets. He is the patron of actors. Symbol: castanets or ruyi.
The remaining deities are listed in alphabetical order.
The first Princess of the Purple and Blue Clouds is associated with childbirth. One deity of this name came from Fuzhou, Fujian and was the daughter of a great magician. She moved to a palace on the seas. The other deity of this name is the daughter of the God of Taishan mountain. The legend talks of Jiang Taigong who ruled so well and so virtuously that no storms came. As the Princess needed storms in order to travel through the kingdom he had to move out of his kingdom so that the Princess could pass.
The ‘God of Riches and Prosperity’ is an important and highly regarded deity. There are at least three candidates for the title. One of them Zhao Gongming lived for a while as a hermit on Emei mountain at the time of the fall of the Shang dynasty. He rode a black tiger and had magic pearls that would explode as grenades. Jiang Ziya defeated him by making an effigy of Zhao and shooting it with arrows. Zhao fell dead but the Jade Emperor took pity and made him the god of wealth. Sometimes the god of riches is represented by a pair of figures, sometimes one of them is the 'god of war' Guandi or the heavenly twins 'he-he'. The 15th day of the 3rd lunar month is his festival date but he also honored on the second day of the New Year.
The Goddess of the Moon Chang'e (or Chang Er) stole the potion of immortality from her husband the Archer God Hou Yi and fled to the Moon. Her husband visited her and built a palace there, they meet at full moon each month. Another legend says she changed into a tortoise that can be seen as a marking on the moon. The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebrates Chang'e and her story. [For information about China's voyages of exploration to the moon read here; the lunar modules have been named Chang'e in deference to the goddess. ]
This deity defends cities and so is master of moats and ramparts. He is also regarded as the supreme minister of justice. Each town has its own version of Cheng Huang ➚.
The Chinese name for Buddhist Brahma, the Father of all Living Things. He is also considered the Soul of the Universe who hatched the Cosmic Egg.
Fo Tuo is the Chinese name for the Buddha. The full name Amitābha in Sanskrit is transliterated as 阿弥陀佛 Āmítuófó.
The God of Happiness is as important as the God of Prosperity. Historically he was a judge in Hunan who rebuked the Liang dynasty Emperor Wudi for his predilection for dwarfs to work as jesters and slaves at court. In gratitude people began to worship his as God of Happiness, he is often shown wearing lucky red colored clothes.
Fu Shen; Lou and Shou 福禄寿 Fú Lù Shòu form a trinity of deities giving good luck, specifically: Happiness; Prosperity and Longevity. They are often portrayed together in statues; ornaments and paintings. They are associated particularly with feng shui and Daoism. Fu (Happiness) is usually depicted with a scroll, and sometimes with children; Lu (Prosperity) wears a Mandarin's outfit; Shou (Longevity) holds a stick and has a large bald forehead and often carries a peach of immortality. Sometimes he is mounted on or stands beside a stag and may be Chinese 'medicinal' mushrooms 灵芝 líng zhī carpet the ground. Lu is particularly associated with luck in passing examinations which were the traditional passport to prosperity as a government official.
The God of War comes by several names including Guan dong; Wu di; Guan Yu. Guan Yu was a war hero of the Three Kingdoms period. He swore loyalty to Zhuang Fei and Liu Bei. He was captured and executed by Sun Quan. The Ming Emperor Shenzong elevated him to God status. Although termed a 'god of war' he is really about strength and prowess rather than aggression and violence. As well as the patron of all soldiers he was noted for his scholarship and is venerated for his knowledge of literature and acquisition of riches. He is often portrayed in opera as a general on horseback with a red face.
The Buddhist Goddess of Mercy ➚ listens to any who will seek her help. She steers the boat carrying souls to Paradise. According to legend Guanyin was the third daughter of Miao Zhuangwang who decided to become a Buddhist nun. Her father continued to maltreat her and tried to break her will; when at last he lost patience, he commanded that she should be killed with a sword, but the sword broke into many pieces. Not giving up, he had her suffocated but she was rescued and re-incarnated on Putuo Island off Zhejiang. She then used a part of her own arm to heal her sick abusive father who recovered and, suitably chastised, erected a statue in her honor. She is the protector of children and often shown surrounded by them. The statue has many (sometimes a thousand) eyes and arms apparently because the order describing the desired form was misheard. She is often portrayed as accompanied by a boy with a bottle and a girl with a willow twig. In some ways she is similar to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian theology. The origin is probably from the youthful Avalokite?vara bodhisattva of Indian Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is considered a reincarnation of Avalokite?vara.
The Heavenly twins are shown as two boys carrying a box and a lotus symbolizes a wish for peace 'hé' 和 (box) and harmony 荷 hé (lotus). One may also be holding a bowl over which fly five bats for good luck; it represents a wish for family peace and harmony. They may be based on the story of Shide 拾得 the eccentric friend of the legendary poet Han Shan 寒山.
Generals Heng and Ha are frequently depicted as statues guarding Buddhist temples. The legend is that they lived at the time of the foundation of the Zhou dynasty and were given magical powers by Duè Zhenrèn who lived in the Kunlun mountains. General Heng could emit deadly rays from his nose. General Ha had been given the secret of exhaling a deadly gas. The two generals fought each other valiantly and they were rewarded for their prowess by being canonized by Emperor Jiang Ziya.
The Divine Archer was married to Chang'e and is associated with the sun. His skill was discovered by Emperor Yao in 2436BCE when he claimed that he could hit a tree on a distant hill. Not only did he accomplish this but he rode the air to retrieve the arrow. Houyi ➚ (also known as Shenyi) was also skilled in carpentry, and built a palace for Chang'e on the Moon and one for himself on the Sun. Some legends say that rather like Zhinu and Nuiling, he can only visit Chang'e at the Mid-autumn moon festival. He is said to have shot and killed nine of the ten sun ravens that threatened to burn up the Earth.
The legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi is considered the founder of China. He is the god of architecture and is credited with the invention of many things including vehicles; armor; boats and pottery. The Chinese count of years begins at the year of his birth 2698BCE. At the end of his reign the phoenix and qilin appeared to indicate their approval for his wise reign.
The Duke of Thunder Lei Gong, is depicted as a hideous looking black demon with bat's wings; a monkey's face and an eagle's beak. In one hand he holds a steel chisel while in the other a hammer with which he beats numerous drums.
Lei Zhenzi is separate from Lei Gong but is also associated with thunder. He has three eyes, an extra one in his forehead from which a ray of light emerges. He rides a black unicorn which covers huge distances in no time. The associated rain makes him the god for farmers; grain merchants and inn keepers.
Liu Hai is another god of wealth often depicted with a string of coins and accompanied with a three legged toad. Various tales are told about him. The magical toad was said to be able to transport him anywhere he wished. He may have been an official during the Jin dynasty. China has some large toad statues that are associated with wealth and many people offer coins for good luck.
The Dragon King is the chief of all dragons and controls all the waters: sea; rivers; lakes and streams.
The God of Carpenters and Craftsmen is based on the tale of a man who lived in the Shandong province in the Spring and Autumn Period. He was given the power to rise to the air unsupported and ride the clouds. An alternative story is that he lived in Gansu and built a kite that could lift him from the ground.
A luo han or (阿罗汉 a Luó hàn) is the Chinese name for an arhat ➚, a Buddhist who has achieved enlightenment (nirvana) and is freed from all earthly cravings and so leaves the cycle of rebirths. An arhat works for personal enlightenment compared to a Pu Sa (Bodhisattva) who works for general good of all. There are considered to be 18 identified Luohans each with their own object or attendant by with they can be identified in pictures and figurines.
Magu is an auspicious deity often shown with a bamboo staff and a boy carrying a peach of immortality. She is regarding as having lived in the Han dynasty and many temples, caves and mountains are named after her. She is most associated with having long fingernails, indeed legend has it that the Emperor wished Magu would scratch an irritating itch he had with her nails, he was punished by being whipped by a demon. A back-scratcher is often named after her in reference to this event.
The Daoist goddess māzǔ is of importance along the coastline of Southern China as she is associated with the sea and there is considered the Queen of Heaven. Many temples have been built so fishermen and seafarers can seek Mazu's help in procuring good weather. She is said to have 千哩眼 qiān lǐ yǎn 'eyes that see a thousand miles' and 顺风耳 shùn fēng ěr 'ears for favorable winds'. She is honored on the 23rd day of the third lunar month. There is a famous temple to her at Macau and the name 'Macau' may have originated from her name. There is quite a lot of cross-over with the Buddhist goddess Guanyin.
The fat, laughing figure is often seen on Chinese paintings and as sculptures. The 'Laughing Buddha' represents the hope of future happiness. He is Maitreya, the Bodhisattva that will be the next to come after the Shakyamuni Buddha ➚. He is full of endless love for mankind. He is usually shown seated and represents na?ve geniality.
This legendary hero (also known as Nuozha) of the Shang dynasty is portrayed as a youth wielding a magic gold bracelet that he could increase in size at will. He also bears a spear and rides a fire chariot. He is mentioned in the famous book the ‘Journey to the West’. He was able to stave off the attack of the Dragon King. In one tradition the layout of the city Beijing is based on the form of his body.
Nuwa (also known as Nügua) is the goddess of matchmakers. She was the brother of legendary Emperor Fuxi and like him has the body of a snail (or snake) with a human head. She drew up the marriage laws that forbade incest and codified the conduct of engagements and weddings. There are many conflicting creation fables about her, so she probably is on the most ancient Chinese deities, she is fabled to have created music; and even humanity itself. Fuxi and Nuwa are often depicted entwined together.
The creator of the Universe according to tradition in China is Pangu. He was the child of 'yin' and 'yang' and is shown as a dwarf in a bear skin. Other legends give different stories including Pan gu as the primal egg (盘 pán can mean shell of egg) from which he and then all life hatched. He holds a hammer and chisel and fashions the cosmos out of solid rock. He is the great architect and is helped by qilins; tortoises; phoenixes and dragons. The creation took 18,000 years and after that his body 'decayed' to become the heavenly bodies; mountains; humans and other part of the world. Note: this legend seems to have appeared as late as 220CE and may have come from India.
Pengzu is reputed to have reached the age of 800 years, at the age of seventy he was said to look like a baby. The quest for immortality in China goes back a long way, and is particularly associated with Daoists. It was considered that by careful control of the qi 'life essence' an age of 120 could be achieved, by knowing the dao 'way' an even greater age could be reached. Pengzu is the emblem of this dream and is often depicted praying and burning incense surrounded by children. When portrayed on a gift he symbolizes a wish for long life.
The term Bodhisattva is transliterated in Chinese as 菩提萨陀 pú tí sà tuó in Chinese which can be further abbreviated to just Pu sa. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened Buddhist that continues in the cycle of rebirth to work for the good of others.
The Buddhist God of Universal Benevolence (Samantabhadra ➚ 普贤菩萨) is usually portrayed riding a white elephant. He is particularly associated with the sacred Mount Emei Sichuan. He wears a yellow robe with a red collar.
The blue dragon qīng lóng and white tiger bái hǔ perform the same duties for Daoist temples as Heng and Ha do for Buddhist ones, they act as guardians. Bái hǔ Deng Jiugong of the Shang dynasty was a general and wounded by Heng becoming the spirit of the Blue Dragon star. Yin Chengxiu was an official who went as an emissary to Jiang Ziya but was executed by him. His son then went to avenge his death and was killed to be later canonized as the spirit of the white tiger.
The Three Pure Ones (Yu Qing 玉清: Jade Azure; Shang Qing 上清: High Azure and Tai Qing 太清: Supreme Azure) are a triad of Daoist gods that rule over the three traditional divisions of the sky. Yu Qing is the Jade Emperor while Shang Qing governs yin and yang while Tai Qing is the celestial form of Laozi himself.
Shangdi is the Supreme sovereign and ancestor, it is he that gives power to the Emperor. He punishes the bad and rewards the good. He is omniscient and omnipresent and acts through his ministers Guan Yu; Cheng Huang and Tu di. The belief in this ancestral god somewhat faded by the time of the Han dynasty; he is venerated mainly by followers of Confucius. The Emperor was thought of as his representative on Earth and only the Emperor could worship him, he was the conduit to heaven.
The god of Earth and cultivation passes on his power to good rulers with the result of a bounteous harvest.
People who have lived exceptional lives are canonized and called shengren (similar to ‘saint’ and ‘sage’) and live in the Yu Jing (Jade Azure) part of the sky.
The four Celestial kings sì dà tiān wáng are guardians of the Universe. They act as Temple guardians and are also associated with the four seasons and four elements (Fire; air; earth; water). Statues of them guard temples. Li carries a pagoda; Ma a sword; Zhao two swords and Wen a pointed stick.
The guardian of the rural countryside and wild places is Tudi. By contrast Sheji's jurisdiction is limited to cultivated areas of land.
Each village had its own deity, worshiped at its own village temple. There would be at least one big festival held each year in its honor. As neighboring villages had different festival days a district would have some sort of village fair going on all year round. At the fair, many stalls would be set out selling all kinds of goods and produce. Gambling games would be held. Acrobats, local opera and shadow theaters would perform to the delight of the visitors. It was one of few opportunities to socialize outside the home (often family) village.
The God of Culture and Literature is based partly on the life of an exceptional Tang scholar Zhang Ya born in Zhejiang. He moved to Zitong, Sichuan where he was worshiped as a god after a mysterious disappearance. Other legends base Wen Chang on Zhong Kui who although exceptionally talented was so ugly that the Emperor refused to hire him. In despair Kui threw himself in the sea but was rescued by a sea monster. He is represented as standing on the head of a fish (carp) brandishing a writing brush. He went to heaven and forms part of the stars. Wén Chāng wáng is associated with four acolytes : a servant; the Celestial Deaf man; the Earthly Dumb man and Kui xing (a fat dwarf with a demon's face). It is Kui xing who brings luck in examinations.
The Queen Mother of the West ➚ (xī wáng mǔ) is the spirit of pure yin as the opposite of Dong Wanggong pure yang. She lives in the Kunlun mountains in the West of China defended by a spirit army. She is sometimes portrayed with a panther's tail and tiger's teeth. Her palace is bedecked in gold and precious stones and is the location where the gods hold their banquets. Great emperors of antiquity visited her on occasions. It is possible that she is based on an historical figure of Western China. She is mostly associated with the quest for immortality as the peaches of immortality grow there, and it was there that the Monkey King stole some. She was one of the most revered of Chinese deities and her worship was fanatical in the later Han dynasty. She is often attended by two young girls one with a fan and the other a bowl of the magic peaches. She flies on the back of a crane.
While Buddhists seek paradise in the life after death, Daoists seek immortality. The Daoist adept will build up qi in the body until it fills the whole person, then the body metamorphoses and although seeming dead, life continues. A xianren is a person who has reached this extreme level of perfection.
Yan is the king of the fifth court of hell (地狱 dì yù in Chinese). He was demoted from the first circle for not being brutal enough. It is the Daoist equivalent to Yama ➚ the Buddhist God of Death. He judges and punishes the deceased.
Emperor Yao 尧 is from the legendary era of Chinese history after a miraculous birth he took the throne in 2357BCE and after ruling wisely for 70 or so years abdicated in favor of Emperor Shun 帝舜 who was the model of filial piety and the inventor of the paintbrush.
The King of Medicine showed incredible literacy at an early age. He was initiated into the mysteries of immortality and yin and yang. The Dragon King presented him with a set of secrets to benefit mankind. He was friend and doctor to Tang Emperor Gaozong. He is depicted with two young helpers one with a gourd of pills the other holding a leaf of a medicinal herb.
The Pure August (Yu Huangdi) or Jade Emperor is the Daoist supreme sovereign of the Universe somewhat similar to Shangdi; there are many cross-overs with Buddhist deities too. He was able to command all sorts of spirits and genies as well as the kings of hell. He is one of the trinity of Three Pure Ones. . He came into prominence under Song Emperor Zhenzong who claimed to have contact with the Jade Emperor. The appearance helped stabilize his rule in troubled times.
The Hearth or Kitchen god (also known as Zaoshen) is an important god because Zao Jun observes the conduct of all families. With food being so important to a family he controls the health and prosperity of the home. It is on the eve of Chinese New Year that families pay particular deference so that he can relay a favorable report on the household's life to heaven for the last year. Traditionally a portrait of him was hung in the kitchen which was replaced every New Year. Originally, before the Song dynasty, he was important as the God of Furnaces and associated with alchemy.
Zhāng Dàolíng or Zhang Ling was a sage of Daoism, born 35CE during the Han dynasty he quickly learned all about Daoist concepts of yin yang; astronomy and nature. He developed recipes for potions for immortality and alchemy. By the age of 60 he had perfected the immortality pill by uniting the blue dragon and white tiger. Eventually he moved to Yuntai in Sichuan from where he ascended to heaven in 157CE leaving a magic book and sword.
The Perfect Beings are adepts at the highest level of Daoist learning who have perfect control over themselves and nature. They live in the Shang Qing High Azure heaven.
The Spinning Damsel Zhinu was a daughter of the sun god who was concerned that she spent too much of her time spinning and wanted her to marry his neighbor the Herdsman 牛郎 Niulang across the Milky Way. She soon followed his wishes and was married but then entirely neglected her spinning tasks in a life of dissipation. Her father was so angry that he separated Niulang from her husband. They could only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. To make a bridge over the Milky Way he commanded magpies to spread their wings. As they would only come if it was dry she earnestly prayed for rain to keep away on that day. Nowadays this event is celebrated as Chinese Valentine's Day.
Zhong kui is one of the most powerful deities for keeping away evil spirits. His picture is displayed at the Dragon Boat Festival (summer solstice). He may be shown wielding a sword attacking the five noxious creatures. In some legends he is the god of examinations Kui xing .
Although not a deity as such, Zhuge Liang is a much admired historical figure from the Three Kingdoms Period. His clever strategies helped Liu Bei found the Kingdom of Shu. Zhuge twice pretended not to be at home when Liu Bei came looking for him so he could judge Liu Bei's determination to recruit him.
The god of fire has a number of legends associated with him. He has been dated back to a minister under the Yellow Emperor or a contemporary of Fuxi. His is controller of fire, rather than bringer of fire, as he can put them out as easily as start them. He is associated with the warm south and is attended by two dragons. He may also be accompanied with other fire-related attendants: birds; serpents; fireballs and firewheels. He is commemorated on the 17th day of the 8th lunar month when people seek his protection from fire.
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