Looking at the title of this article you might think: Chinese gods, isn’t that a contradiction? From the outside it seems that there is little room for religion in Chinese culture. The policy that has been implemented by the ruling Chinese Communist Party over the last decades has resulted in persecution of religious groups, or pressure to adhere to the atheist state ideology.
Formally, however, the constitution allows for its inhabitants to enjoy the freedom of religious belief, thus banning religious-based discrimination. This means that still plenty of Chinese follow religious beliefs or perform religious practices. For example, China houses the world’s largest Buddhist population and even more inhabitants practice a folk religion – context-based religions that find their base in ancient China.
China has played a crucial role in our world’s history. The story of China has developed over thousands of years, and fascinating mythologies, gods and religions have taken on a central role. Let’s take a look at the different aspects of this rich and intriguing history.
Chinese mythology or Chinese religion. What’s the difference you ask?
Well, mythologies are associated with a particular culture that has been passed down over generations. Although Chinese myths can sometimes be religious in nature, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Myths are mostly aimed at particular occurrences that have developed over time.
On the other hand, religion generally encompasses some kind of worldview. It usually includes some mythology, but also covers attitudes, ritual practices, communal identities and overall teachings. So Chinese religions and Chinese gods are more than just the mythical story: it is a way of life. In the same sense, the story of Adam and Eve would be considered a myth, while Christianity is the religion. Get it? Great.
The myths of ancient China are ample, and covering them all would take several books on its own. Assuming you don’t have the time for that, let’s take a look at a group of mythical figures that are still very relevant to this day
The Eight Immortals (Ba Xian)
Still heavily used as decorative figures or in Chinese literature today, the Eight Immortals (or Ba Xian) are people that were deified after their death. They are legendary figures in Chinese mythology and fulfill a similar position as that of saints in Western religions.
Although there are many more immortals, the Ba Xian are the ones that are known to present or offer guidance to the ones that need it. The number eight is one that is consciously chosen, since the number is considered lucky by association. The group represents a large variety of people, so basically anyone in the population can relate to at least one of the immortals.
Although the eight should be seen as a unity, each individual figure has reached it´s immortality in a different way. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the different immortals and how they achieved their status.
One of the most ancient immortals goes by the name of Zhongli Quan, often considered the leader of the Ba Xian. He gained his status of immorality as an army general during the Han Dynasty.
According to legend, bright beams of light filled the labor room during his birth. How exactly he gained his status of immorality is still debated. Some say that some Daoist saints taught him the ways of immorality when he arrived in the mountains, searching for refuge after a battle with Tibetans.
Another story says that a jade box with instructions on how to achieve immortality was revealed to him during one of his meditations. His powers, however, are not debated. To this day, it is believed that Zhongli Quan, has the powers to resurrect the dead.
During the Tang dynasty, He Xiangu was visited by a spirit who told her to grind a stone known as the ´mother of clouds´ into powder and consume it. This, she was told, would make her light as a feather and give her immortality. Pretty intense isn’t it?
She is the only female immortal and represents wisdom, meditation, and purity. Oftentimes she is depicted as a beautiful woman adorned with a lotus flower who, just like the others of the Ba Xian, liked herself a glass of wine.
Although she vanished after she was ordered to leave by a former Empress Wu Hou, some people claim to have seen her floating on a cloud until more than 50 years after her vanishment
One of the most recognized immortals goes by the name of Lu Dongbin. He became a government official when growing up and was taught lessons of alchemy and magic arts by the Zhongli Quan. After a period of mentorship, Zhongli set a series of 10 temptations to test Lu´s purity and dignity. If Lu passed, he would receive a magic sword for fighting the evils in the world.
The evils that should be fought with the sword were mostly ignorance and aggression. Upon receiving the sword, Lu Dongbin also gained his status of immortality. The powers that he is believed to possess include the ability to travel very fast, be invisible, and ward off evil spirits.
Zhang Guo Lao
Zhang Guo Lao is also referred to as ´Elder Zhang Guo.’´ This is because he lived a long life, celebrating at least his 100th birthday. He was a strong believer in the magic of necromancy, which is more known as black magic in the vernacular.
Zhang was also known to ride a white donkey. Not only is the donkey´s color believed to be a bit unorthodox, its abilities also speak to the imagination. For example, the donkey could travel more than a thousand miles per day and could be folded into the size of your thumb. Imagine having a donkey that could cover grand distances and fit in your back pocket, wouldn’t that be convenient?
The uncle of the Emperor of the Song Dynasty is also considered one of the Eight Immortals. He goes by the name of Cao Guojiu.
Cao´s brother was allowed to get away with crimes like murder and theft, and Cao was ashamed and saddened by his brothers behavior. To try and compensate for his behavior , Cao discarded all his wealth and retreated into the mountains. He was accepted after a long training by Zhonlgi Quan and Lu Dongbin into the Ba Xian and became the saint of the actors and the theater.
Han Xiang Zi
The sixth immortal on this list goes by the name of Han Xiang Zi. He was taught the ways of Daoism and immortality by Lu Dongbin. Han Xiang Zi was known to make finite things infinite., like a bottle of wine. Some of you probably wouldn’t mind such a super power either.
Other than that, he was able to let flowers bloom spontaneously and was considered the saint of flutists: he always carried his flute, which had magic powers and caused growth, gave life and soothed animals.
One of the least known of the immortals is Lan Caihe. However, the ones who do know about him do think he is quite bizarre. There are several versions of Lan Caihe, at least in the way that he is depicted.
In some images he is a sexually ambiguous beggar of unknown age, but versions of a boyish or girlish Lan Caihe also exist. Even more, there are also depictions of the immortal which show it as an old man wearing ragged blue robes. The way the immortal dresses and acts, thus, seems like a myth in and of itself.
This immortal often carries wooden castanets which are clapped together or against the ground, simultaneously signing along to the beat. This money, the myth goes, he would put on a long piece of string which was dragged on the ground. If some of the coins fell off it wouldn’t be a problem, since these were meant for other beggars. Lan could thus be described as one of the more generous immortals. At one point Lan was carried off to heaven in an intoxicated state by a stork, one of several Chinese symbols for immortality.
Li Tai Guai
Of the Ba Xian, Li Tai Guai (or “Iron Crutch Li”) is the most ancient character. In Chinese mythology, the story goes that Li was so devoted to practicing meditation that he often forgot to eat and sleep. He is known to have a short temper and abrasive personality but he also shows benevolence and compassion for the poor, sick and needy.
According to the legend, Li was once a handsome man but one day his spirit left his body to visit Lao Tzu. Li instructed one of his students to look after his body in his absence for the duration of a week. He told him to burn the body if Li didn’t return in seven days.
After looking after the body for only six days, however, the student who was caring for the body found out that his own mother was dying. This caused him to burn the body and spend the last days with his mom.
When Li´s spirit returned he found that his physical body was burnt. He went searching for another body and found a body of an old beggar to inhabit. He turned the beggar’s bamboo staff into an iron crutch or staff, hence his name “Iron Crutch Li.”
He also always carries around a double gourd. Apart from being the symbol of longevity, the gourd has the ability to ward off evil spirits and help the sick and needy. Li can be credited with reviving the student’s mother back to life using a magic potion made inside his gourd.
Other Gods and Goddesses from Ancient China
As we concluded before, Chinese mythology forms a part of the broader beliefs and ways of living in China. The myths are rooted in a certain worldview which is shaped by many Chinese gods. The gods and goddesses are seen as the creators of the universe, or at least the creator of part of this. Because of this, they function as reference points surrounding which stories of mythological rulers are told.
How Does a God Become a God in Ancient China?
Chinese culture recognizes different gods and goddesses on all levels, from natural occurences to wealth, or from love to water. Each flow of energy can be attributed to a god, and many gods carry a name which references a certain animal or spirit. For example, one god is even called Monkey King. Sadly, we won’t dive deeper into this particular god for the sake of clarity.
Even Chinese inhabitants have trouble with understanding the total hierarchy between the deities, so let’s not make it unnecessarily difficult.
In order to keep it somewhat clear, we will first look at what exactly the religion of the Chinese people encompasses. Afterwards we go a bit deeper into the most prominent gods and see how they relate to each other. The gods that are discussed still carry some relevance in contemporary Chinese culture or belief, partly because they can be regarded as some of the major gods.
Chinese Folk Religion
Depending on their lives and choices, common people in China can be deified for their extraordinary deeds. Such deities usually have a cult center and temple set up at the place where they lived, worshiped and maintained by locals. This signifies one particular form of religion as seen in China, very specific to a certain community. This form is referred to as Chinese folk religion. If you ask anyone for a definition of Chinese folk religion, however, the answer will vary greatly between the people you ask. Because of the place-based differences, there is no definite answer.
Typical practices and beliefs of Chinese folk religion include feng shui watching, fortune telling, ancestor worship, and more. In general the beliefs, practices and social interactions that are found in folk religion can be categorized in three groups: communal, sectarian and individual. This also means that the category that a certain aspect of folk religions falls into determines how this part of religion can or should be used.
While on the one hand people can relate directly to certain Chinese myths, the gods and goddesses are extraordinary phenomena that are clearly looked up to. Let’s dive deeper into some of the major gods of ancient China.
Jade Emperor (or Yellow Emperor)
The first supreme god, or supreme deity, is the Jade Emperor. As one of the most important gods, he is ruler of all heavens, the earth, and the underworld, the creator of the universe and lord of the imperial court. That’s quite the resume.
The Jade Emperor is also known as the Yellow emperor and was seen as the assistant of Yuan-shi Tian-zun, the Divine Master of the Heavenly Origin. You can say that the Yellow emperor is his successor.
Because of how deep he is rooted in Chinese history, the emperor is associated with many stories and customs. His prominent role in these stories and customs is not for nothing, since he was known to be a good carer and helper and to use his power for the improvement of people’s lives.
The Jade Principles Golden Script
Through the use of his merit system, he rewarded the living human beings, saints, or deceased. The name of this system can loosely be translated into the Jade Principles Golden Script.
The script functions as a framework to decide whether an action is good or bad, morally right, or morally wrong. Because of this, there are also several hierarchical ladders in relation to the script. You can think about this like policemen, lawyers, or politicians: each has a different relation to the law, and each functions as persons that aim to apply the law in the most just way.
Yet, at the end of the day the lawyer will be more apt to judge an occurrence strictly according to the law. Since applying the Golden Script to everyone can be quite the task, the emperor sought some assistance from other supreme gods. Cheng Huang and Tudi Gong were the ones he resorted to.
Bothe Cheng Huang and Tudi Gong are figures that unicycle the line between folk religious figures on the one hand and supreme Chinese gods on the other. The very function of both of them should be regarded as the thing that places them in a realm of supremacy. However, how and by whom these functions are epitomized differs between places and is deeply rooted in the place-based character of folk religion.
Cheng Huang is the god of moats and walls. Each district has its own Cheng Huang, a protective town god, most often a local dignitary or important person who had died and been promoted to godhood. The divine status of Cheng Huang was presented to him in his dreams, though the other gods made the actual decision to attribute him with divinity. He is not only known to protect the community from attack, he also sees to it that the King of the Dead does not take any soul from his jurisdiction without proper authority.
So, Cheng Huang judges the dead and whether it is applied properly, but also looks over the fortune of the city. By showing up in their dreams he exposes evil-doers in the community itself and mandates them to behave differently.
Just like Cheng Huang, the deification and function of Tudi Gong is determined by local residents. His physical and divine characteristics are limited by the fact that he only has a certain territory in relation to which he can express his prophecies.
Indeed, Tudi Gong is a local Earth god, god of towns, villages, streets and households. This makes him responsible for a different level than Cheng Huang, since the latter takes care of the whole village while Tudi covers (multiple) buildings or places within the village. He is a modest heavenly bureaucrat to whom individual villagers could turn in times of drought or famine. Besides that he can also be seen as a god of wealth because of his thorough connection to the earth and all its minerals, as well as the buried treasures.
Tudi Gong is embodied by human beings that functioned as figures who, when alive, provided assistance to the respective communities. Because of their much needed assistance, the human beings that played an important place-based role were deified. Because they, in their human form, were so helpful, it is believed that they continued to be so if they were worshiped after their death.
Other names for Tudi gong are Tudi Shen (“God of the Place”) and Tudi Ye (“Venerable God of the Place”).
In ancient times, when there was no rain for a long time, people prayed for rain with a dragon dance. Also, dragon dances after planting were a way to pray against insect attacks.
Nowadays, dragon dances are performed during festive occasions as a means to chase away evil spirits and welcome in prosperous times. You probably have seen the dragon dances that are held during Chinese New Year. Appealing, right?
While there are many dragons in Chinese culture, the Dragon King is the ruler of them all: the supreme dragon. His importance is therefore not something to be questioned.
As a majestic dragon or a ferocious royal warrior, he is known as the ruler of water and weather. His powers somewhat resemble that of Tudi Gong, but it is more in a general sense and less place-based.
Like many weather gods around the world, he was known for his fierce temper. It was said that he was so ferocious and uncontrollable that only the Jade Emperor could command him. He used this ferocity, however, to protect China and its people.
The Dragon Gods of the Four Seas
The Dragon Gods of the Four Seas are basically the four brothers of the supreme dragon. Each brother represents one of the four cardinal directions, one of the four seasons, and one of the four bodies of water along China’s borders. Each brother has its own color.
The first brother is Ao Guang, the Azure Dragon. He is the lord of the east and of spring and controls the waters of the East China Sea.
The second brother is Ao Qin, or the Red Dragon. This brother rules over the South China Sea and is the god of summer.
Their third brother, Ao Shun, is the Black Dragon. Ruling over Lake Baikal in the north, he is the lord of winter.
The fourth and final brother goes by the name of Ao Run, the White Dragon. The last brother rules the west and autumn, while being the god of Qinghai Lake.
Queen Mother of the West (Xiawangmu)
Every god we have discussed so far is depicted as a man. So where are the women in ancient Chinese history and religion? Glad you asked. Xiwangmu, or Queen Mother of the West, is considered to be one of the major gods and has remained relevant to Chinese culture well into the 21st century.
At first the Chinese goddess was seen as quite the figure to be scared of, actually. In this stage she is often depicted as a powerful and terrifying figure, resembling more a monster than a goddess. Although Xiwangmu was portrayed as having a human body, some of her body parts were that of a leopard or tiger. So in this stage, she belonged to the group of half human creatures.
Luckily for her she is said to have repented, and was therefore transformed from a ferocious monster into an immortal deity. This meant that the beastly attributes she had were discarded, meaning she became wholly human. Sometimes she is described as having whitish hair, indicating that she is an elderly woman.
The Power to Cause Natural Disasters
In both stages she had the same powers. She is said to direct the ‘catastrophes of the sky’, and the ‘five destructive forces.’ Xiwangmu is believed to have the power to cause natural disasters, including floods, famine, and plagues.
If that doesn’t make you convinced she could be a dangerous character, I don’t know what will. How she used these powers, though, changed when she lost her beastly body parts. Whereas she first was a malevolent force, she became a benevolent force after her transformation.
According to some versions of the myth, Xiwangmu became the consort of the Jade Emperor, the one we discussed earlier. This, too, speaks to the importance she retained after her conversion from monster to goddess. Because her man is seen as the supreme ruler, the Queen Mother is regarded as the mother of any other Chinese god: the mother goddess.
Making sense of Chinese Gods
Like we said, even Chinese people struggle with the different hierarchies. The ones we discussed here should be seen in the following way: the Yellow Emperor is the one who rules all the rest and is the highest on the hierarchical ladder. Xiawangmu is his wife and therefore of almost the same importance.
Tudi Gong and Cheng Huang should be seen as discussion partners who are more rooted on the ground instead of judging people along abstract moral principles. The Dragon King and his four brothers are distant from all of these, together controlling the weather. They, indeed, have a different focus. Still, they report to the mother goddess and her man.
Having tapped into the most prominent myths, gods and goddesses, the characteristics of Chinese beliefs and culture has hopefully become a bit more clearer.. The importance of these figures are still relevant to this day, and will most likely continue to be so in the future.