Header image courtesy to Anandajoti Bhikkhu (via Flickr)
Erlang Shen (二郎神; ji6 long4 san4; “second boy god”) is a river and warrior god of the Chinese mythological pantheon. Also known as the Lord of Sichuan, he was popularised in classic Chinese novels, including the sixteenth-century Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West. In this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we dive into the origins and many variations of Erlang Shen’s myth, the greatest warrior god in the Heavenly Court.
Erlang Shen is usually pictured as a teenager or a young adult. Although some very rare statues of Erlang Shen depict him with a moustache, he is beardless in most portrayals. The god’s most notable trait is the third eye located on his forehead; this third eye is commonly referred to as the “eye of heaven” (天眼; tin1 ngaan5) and grants Erlang Shen the ability to see through illusions, deception, and disguises. It also serves as a weapon that can shoot continuous blasts of light energy or divine fire at the deity’s enemies.
As for his skills, Erlang Shen is said to possess superhuman strength, and be able to perform the “72 Transformations” (七十二變; cat1 sap6 ji6 bin3). However, the name of this spell is quite misleading as the god is not limited to shifting into 72 forms. In fact, Erlang Shen can shift into virtually anything tickling his fancy. Additionally, he possesses a unique skill called the “Nine Turns Divine” skill (九轉玄功; gau2 zyun2 jyun4 gung1) which grants him immense physical durability and invulnerability. As told in Investiture of the Gods, Erlang Shen can survive any mythical attack, weapon, and artefact handled by his peers of the Heavenly Court and emerge completely unscathed.
Great warriors always have a weapon of choice. Erlang Shen wields a weapon called the “three-pointed, double-edge lance” (三尖兩刃槍; saam1 zim1 loeng5 jan6 coeng1), a spear with three tips and a cutting edge on each side. There are some depictions with an extra blade at the bottom of the spear, insuring even more damage. In Chinese mythology, this lance is believed to be unbreakable and strong enough to cut through any surface. In some tales, the blade is so strong that it can easily slice through a rock as if it were a piece of wool. As a warrior with great combat skills, Erlang Shen uses the lance to slay countless evils spirits, and even battle against a massive army of demons.
If you find yourself looking at statues of Erlang Shen, you will notice a small creature beside the god. This creature is known as the “Howling Celestial Dog” (哮天狗; haau1 tin1 gau2; “roaring sky dog” or “roaring heavenly dog”). Depicted as a small, white dog, it aids Erlang Shen in battle, and can attack, maul, or subdue demons thanks to its powerful bite and howl. Who’s a good boy?
What of Erlang Shen’s personality? Well, he is not exactly one to follow orders given to him by the Heavenly Court (聽調不聽宣; ting3 diu6 bat1 ting3 syun1; “listens to the tune but not the announcement”). Erlang Shen is therefore thought of as an anti-hero, and a loose cannon who does not follow the rules. However, because he is also the most powerful warrior in heaven, he is respected and feared among gods.
Finding origin stories is always difficult in Chinese mythology, and this god is no exception to the rule. Several tales are attributed to Erlang Shen. In some, he is believed to be a mix of semi-mythical warriors who helped regulate China’s torrential floods during the Qin, Sui, and Jin dynasties. These warriors include the brave Zhao Yu, Zhang Xian, Can Cong, and, most notably, Yang Jian, all of their feats contributing to the legend of Erlang Shen.
In other tales, he is known as Erlang of Guankou (灌口二郎; gun3 hau2 ji6 long4). According to the ancient Spring and Autumn Annuals of the Ten Kingdoms chronicle (十國春秋; sap6 gwok3 ceon1 cau1), Emperor Wang Zongyan of Former Shu was attending a ceremonial procession adorned in golden armour, holding a bow and arrow. Impressed by his garments, which almost looked god-like, the locals at Guankou associated the emperor with two specific deities. The first is a local river god also named Erlang Shen—hence stories of the deity originally starting as a local river god.
The second association takes into consideration the ancient Zoroastrian beliefs in China. Zoroastrianism is a pre-Islamic and -Christian Indo-Iranian religion that inspired some scholars to make a connection between Erlang Shen’s myth and the ancient Iranian god of wind, Weshparkar. Further studies compare Erlang Shen to the Zoroastrian rain deity Tishtrya. From this, it was concluded that Erlang Shen could be a god that originated from Persia or Central Asia.
Combining all of Erlang Shen’s possible origin stories can explain how he was seen as a local water god that controlled the oceans and rain, as well as a protector against floods. As the worship spread and evolved, Erlang Shen's domains of power broadened to cover areas such as storms, wine, hunting, and even theatre. In later Buddhist sources, Erlang Shen was identified as the second son of the northern Heavenly King Vaishravana, explaining him being dubbed “second boy god.”
To make things even more complicated, there are multiple variations of Erlang Shen’s name, identity, and feats. Out of a heap of stories, we have selected the popular tales of Li Erlang, Li Bing, and Yang Jian.
As the presumed second son of the first hydraulic engineer of the Qin dynasty, Li Bing, Erlang Shen helped his father construct the irrigation system that prevented the Min River (岷江; man4 gong1) from flooding nearby villages of the Sichuan province. To thank them, the villagers deified father and son as gods by building a temple dedicated to the duo.
In some retellings, Li Bing was at a loss as to how to stop the flood and sent his son to investigate the problem. After a year of exploring the region, Erlang Shen was still struggling to solve the issue. One day, while taking shelter in a cave, Erlang Shen encountered and slew a tiger. Seven nearby hunters witnessed his bravery and praised him, joining Erlang Shen on his quest to stop the flood. In a continuation of this story, the group came across a woman crying near the bank of the river, Grandma Wang. She told the crew that her grandson was about to be sacrificed to an evil dragon, a local river god himself.
Feeling a sense of injustice, Erlang reported to his father and the pair devised a plan to capture the beast. Erlang Shen’s friends hid behind the River God Temple, collectively jumping on the dragon when it came out to claim its offering. Surprised, the dragon attempted to flee through the river, where Erlang Shen captured it. Grandma Wang then arrived with an iron chain, securing the beast below a Dragon-Taming Temple.
Some versions say that Erlang Shen is in fact Li Bing, and therefore the first hydraulic engineer in the Qin dynasty. After stopping the Min River from flooding, he became a local hero. He was supposedly responsible for constructing the Dujiangyan (都江堰; dou1 gong1 jin2), an ancient irrigation system that helped control floods, still in use to this day.
Over time, this myth evolved from Erlang Shen stopping a flood, to defeating a river god that caused a flood. However, there are a few discrepancies. For instance, Li Bing was associated with stopping the flooding river in Qianwei (犍為; gin1 wai4), not Guankou.
In the most popular appearance of Erlang Shen, as a character featured in the Chinese classic Investiture of the Gods, he is named Yang Jian. The book tells the story of Erlang Shen, not as the son of an engineer, but as the nephew of the Jade Emperor. He is a disciple of Yuding Zhenren (玉鼎真人; juk6 ding2 zan1 jan4; “the perfect person of the jade bowl”) who teaches him his combat skills and mystical abilities, including the “72 Transformations” spell.
His mother was the Jade Emperor’s sister, the immortal Princess Yaoji, and his father was a human called Yang Tianyou. Marrying a mortal was considered a violation of the heaven rules. For her crime, Erlang Shen’s mother was imprisoned under the weight of Mount Tao. As Erlang Shen grew older and learnt of his mother’s fate, he was furious. Determined to free his mother, the god armed himself with a giant, double-edged spear (a nod to the legendary “three-pointed, double-edged lance.”)
Other versions of this story have Erlang Shen rescuing his mother from the underworld by casting lightning bolts at demons who tormented the princess. This account serves as a cautionary tale for children. Behave, or face the wrath of Erlang Shen!
Erlang Shen also makes an appearance as the nephew of the Jade Emperor early on in Journey to the West. In the novel, he is called by the emperor, along with other heavenly warriors, to help subdue Sun Wukong (孫悟空; syun1 ng6 hung1; “monkey king”) who was causing havoc in heaven at the time. Erlang Shen is the one who helps capture the chaotic Monkey King with the help of his dog—who bit the primate on the leg. Later on in the novel, Erlang Shen becomes friends with and help Sun Wukong on his demon-fighting journey.
Stemmed from his appearances in Chinese literature, Erlang Shen's fame quickly spread. The figure is featured in a popular Chinese opera, Lotus Lantern, or Bao Lian Deng (寶蓮燈; bou2 lin4 dang1), inspired by the “Yang Jian” version of Erlang Shen’s myth with—once again—quite a few changes to his character. In this rendition, Erlang Shen’s sister is the Holy Mother of Mount Hua (三聖母; saam1 sing3 mou5). She married a mortal man called Liu Yanchang, and they had a son named Chen Xiang.
Serving as the story’s antagonist and disgusted by the union, Erlang Shen imprisons his sister under Mount Hua (華山; waa4 saan1). When Chen Xiang comes of age, he uses an axe to save his mother by splitting the mountain in two, but not before facing various obstacles, including an intense battle against his uncle.
Nowadays, gamers can impersonate Erlang Shen in many video games inspired by Investiture of the Gods. His attacks include his third-eye powers, or summoning his hound for help in battle. For cartoon fans, Erlang Shen also serves as a loose inspiration for the Combustion Man character in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a tattoo shaped like an eye on his forehead blasting powerful shots. The god also makes a few cameo appearances in the Lego Monkie Kid series inspired by Journey to the West.
Despite the strong lore of Erlang Shen’s status as a powerful, deified warrior and river god, he is not commonly worshipped, except in specific regions in Mainland China and Taiwan. For instance, in the southeast Chinese province of Fujian, there is a temple to honour the god, known as Erlang Temple (二郎廟; ji6 long4 miu6), and a nearby road known as Erlang Lane (二郎街; ji6 long4 gaai1).
Taiwan has significantly more places to worship the god, including a palace in Houlong township of Miaoli county, the Fengbitou Xinyi Palace Erlang Temple (鳳鼻頭信義宮二郎神廟; fung6 bei6 tau4 seon3 ji6 gung1 ji6 long4 san4 miu6) in Kaohsiung City, and the Chengtian Temple (承天宮; sing4 tin1 gung1), complete with a statue of the god in Taoyuan City. Although there are no specific rituals, offerings, or taboos for praying to Erlang Shen, conventional offerings such as chicken, pork, and fruit suffice.