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Chinese Mythology 101: Man Cheong and Mo Tai (Man Mo)

By Celia Lee 17 July 2023

Header image courtesy of Hiroki Ogawa (via Wikimedia Commons)

Man Mo Temple (文武廟; man4 mou5 miu6) is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hong Kong and the city’s largest structure dedicated to the two gods of Man Mo. Man (“文”) refers to the arts, literature, and culture, whilst Mo (“武”) refers to martial affairs and the military, two virtues valued by scholars and officials in ancient China. Together, the temple houses two deities that best represent these values: Man Cheong Tai (文昌帝; man4 coeng1 dai3; “literature flourishing emperor”) is the god of civil literature, while Mo Tai (武帝; mou5 dai3; “martial emperor”) or Kwan Tai (關帝; gwaan1 dai3) is the martial god.

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Man Cheong: A god with many faces

Coincidentally, the tale of the literature god reads like a complex plot. From a constellation of six stars to a war hero reincarnated as a mountain deity, the origins of Man Cheong stem primarily from three stories in the Chinese mythological realm.

Photo: BreakdownDiode (via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the Big Dipper

Man Cheong Tai is a deity with a three-fold identity. The first relates to traditional Chinese astronomy, where the stars are divided into constellations known as “star officials” (星官; sing1 gun1). In traditional beliefs, Man Cheong is a “star official” located near the Big Dipper with six stars in its constellation, each representing a department or official that make up the government. Since the beginning of the imperial examinations (科舉; fo1 geoi2) in 581, scholars have been praying to the Man Cheong constellation for good progress in their studies and high rankings in their results.

Statue of Man Cheong, god of literature. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hero turned powerful deity

In popular accounts from the Sichuan province, Man Cheong was a man named Zhang Yu (張育), a war hero, who later became Emperor Shu (蜀王; suk6 wong4) of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) and settled on Qiqu mountain in Zitong county, coincidentally where the mountain deity Zhang Yazi (張亞子) is believed to reside. Thus, some believe Zhang Yu is a reincarnation of Zhang Yazi. Throughout ancient China, various emperors of different dynasties have gone on a pilgrimage to visit Zhang Yazi, as the deity’s prophetic visions and advice have proven accurate and helpful in times of war and turmoil.

It was common practice for candidates taking the imperial examinations to pay respects and offerings to local spirits and deities of their home region. In the Northern Song dynasty, Zhang Yazi gradually evolved into a local deity that scholars prayed to for good fortune before their exams. This began the association between the martial figures of Zhang Yu and Zhang Yazi and the Man Cheong constellation.

Bronze statue of Man Cheong in early Qing dynasty. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An unlikely crossover, and it works

As scholars from Sichuan mingled with their peers at the exams and in the imperial court, other aspiring candidates got wind of Zhang Yazi’s power and credibility, complete with a successful track record for answering people’s prayers to show for it. Soon enough, the mountain deity became associated with the “star official” for literature, and the hierarchy of reincarnation behind the three-fold identity of Man Cheong Tai became known as follows: the Man Cheong constellation reincarnated as mountain deity Zhang Yazi, who then reincarnated into a human form as war hero Zhang Yu. This hierarchy was then officially recognised by Emperor Renzong of the Yuan dynasty as the true account—as canon, if you will—of the story behind the god of civil literature.

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Man Cheong Shrine of the Fongyi Tutorial Academy, Fongshan District, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Photo: Mk2010 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Simply a man of words?

An account of Man Cheong from the late Ming dynasty states that during his seventeenth reincarnation in the mortal realm, he was a humble official that tried his best to help those in need while encouraging others to do the same. As such, the Jade Emperor entrusted Man Cheong with overseeing the selection of candidates in imperial examinations and township elections, promotions in ranks within the imperial government, as well as bestowing prestigious titles and gifts to respectable officials in the mortal realm.

Portrait of Man Cheong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Heaven’s bookkeeper

Man Cheong is often depicted as an elderly court secretary, holding a ritual baton (笏; fat1) or ruyi (如意; jyu4 ji3; literally “as desired” or “as wished”), or a pen, books, scholar’s fan, and even a fly-whisk (拂塵; fat1 can4; literally “duster,” used as a fly swatter). Posed as a Confucian scholar, Man Cheong usually dons an official court uniform in the Tang dynasty style, complete with an official’s sword.

Accompanying Man Cheong are two attendants: Tianlong (天聾; tin1 lung4; “heaven deaf”) and Diya (地啞; dei6 aa2; “earth mute”), one holding an ink brush and the other a book of records. These two attendants symbolise various virtues and qualities commonly expected of scholars, such as “the literati should be humble and talk less” (文人須謙卑少言) and “secrets must not be leaked” (天機不可洩漏).

As the war hero Zhang Yu is believed to be the third reincarnation of “star official” Man Cheong, sometimes the god of civil literature is depicted riding a warrior steed—a spiritual animal that looks like a horse but is not one—colloquially known as Lu Ma (祿馬; luk6 maa5; “good fortune horse”).

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Mo Tai: The red-faced god of war

Although referred to by a different title here, the martial god of Man Mo is a familiar figure in Chinese pop culture and folk religion. A decorated military general in his lifetime and deified as early as the Sui dynasty, Mo Tai also star in the fourteenth century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Portrait of Guan Yu. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Humble beginnings

Born as Guan Yu (關羽), Mo Tai was a military general serving under famous warlord and later Emperor Zhaolie of Ha, Liu Bei (劉備), during the late Eastern Han dynasty. The two first came into contact during the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 180s, where Guan joined a volunteer militia formed by Liu to suppress the revolt. Guan soon rose through the ranks as a major under Liu, who was appointed as the minister of Pingyuan after his successful efforts in stalling the revolts. Since then, Guan had been Liu’s right-hand man in his ascension to power. Guan was known to be a loyal soldier and a people’s man that treated his peers with kindness and the gentry without respect or courtesy.

Photo: Gary Todd (via Wikimedia Commons)

A man of war

Whilst Guan was well regarded by his brothers in arms, together with his partner-in-war, Zhang Fei, they were known to enemies by a rather terrifying alias: 萬人敵 (“ten thousand enemies”). A mere duo of soldiers, Guan and Zhang combined had such military prowess that many believed they could easily take on 10,000 enemies and emerge victorious.

While Guan received countless praises for his service, he was not without flaws. Ancient Chinese historian Chen Shou describes in his biography of Guan Yu, Sanguozhi, that he was “unrelenting and conceited,” and “these short comings resulted in [his] downfall.” Indeed, Guan was met with a bleak end. After losing Jing province to Sun Quan, Emperor Da of Wu, Guan and his troops retreated from Fancheng. A lack of food supplies and impending threats to the troops’ families yielded low morale amongst the ranks, and many soon lost their fighting spirits and deserted their positions. Isolated, Guan retreated to Zhang district with his son, but was intercepted by Sun’s men and captured. Father and son were later executed by Sun’s forces, and Guan’s decapitated head was sent to Liu Bei and his subordinates.

Photo: Gary Todd (via Wikimedia Commons)

Ascension to godly statues

Despite—or perhaps because of—a somewhat anticlimactic end to a prosperous career, Guan Yu’s posthumous honours outshines those he was merited whilst alive. Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui dynasty (581–618) and is still worshipped as a bodhisattva in Buddhist traditions as well as a guardian deity in Chinese folk religion and Taoism.

In Taoism, Guan Tai was introduced into the religion as a deity by Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty and is believed to be a leading subduer of demons. Legend has it that in the 1220s, a saltwater lake in Xiezhou ceased to yield salt due to the disruptive work of a wicked deity. In response, people summoned the help of Guan Yu to battle the deity, and the lake resumed salt production. Huizong bestowed Guan Yu the title “Immortal of Chongning” (崇寧真君; sung4 ning4 zan1 gwan1), thus inviting the martial god into the Taoist pantheon.

In Chinese Buddhism, Guan Tai is revered by most as a Sangharama bodhisattva (伽藍菩薩; gaa1 laam4 pou4 saat3), believed to be a heavenly protector of the Buddhist dharma, monasteries, and the religion itself. Legend has it that the martial god manifested before master Zhiyi, founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, and requested the master to teach him about the dharma. Since then, he made a vow to become a guardian of the religion, and its structures and devotees.

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Photo: Gary Todd (via Wikimedia Commons)

With ascension comes infinitely longer names

Throughout ancient China, Guan Yu was credited with many military successes, where devotees—often imperial inspectors if not emperors themselves—would receive messages from Guan Yu through spirit writing, believed to guide devotees to victory in war.

As such, Guan Yu has been granted a series of posthumous titles from the Sui up to the Qing dynasties: starting with tamer titles, he was first named “Marquis Zhuangmou” (壯繆侯) by the second emperor of Shu, then “Duke Zhonghui” (忠惠公; literally “loyal duke”) in the Song dynasty. In the Yuan dynasty, Guan Yu’s title was changed to “Prince of Xiangling Yiyong Wu’an Yinhji” (顯靈義勇武安英濟王; literally “powerful righteous brave martial peaceful heroic charitable prince”). In similar hyperbolic manner, Guan Yu’s titles get longer and longer and eventually reaches as many as 24 Chinese characters during the Qing dynasty: “仁勇威顯護國保民精誠綏靖翊贊宣德忠義神武關聖大帝” (Guan, the Holy Great Emperor; God of War Manifesting Benevolence, Bravery, and Prestige, Protector of the Country and Defender of the People; Proud and Honest Supporter of Peace and Reconciliation; Promoter of Morality, Loyalty, and Righteousness)—or the “Saint of War” (武聖) for short.

This glorification culminated in the fourteenth-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where Guan Yu’s image is altered to portray a righteous, loyal warrior.

Photo: Gary Todd (via Wikimedia Commons)

The people’s guardian

In Hong Kong, the martial god is most commonly known as Guan Tai (關帝; gwaan1 dai3; literally "Emperor Guan”) or Guan Gong (關公; gwaan1 gung1; literally “Lord Guan”), and sometimes Yi Gor (二哥; Ji6 go1; meaning “second older brother”) due to his fictional familial relationship with Liu Bei as detailed in Romance. You will find small shrines dedicated to the martial god in homes, businesses, organisations, and police stations. Apart from being a general guardian able to ward off evil spirits, Guan Gong is also worshipped as a wealth god.

Photo: Richard Mortel (via Wikimedia Commons)

Have the power of gods and legends on your side

Now you know what the two gods of Man Mo represent, it might seem strange to house deities who are on the opposite ends of a spectrum in the same temple. However, in ancient China, this arrangement was almost too perfect. If Man Cheong represented the scholarly virtues that an educated civil servant ought to possess, Guan Tai represented the martial qualities that will help them rise through the ranks once serving in the imperial court. 

Being skilled at battle strategies was as equally favoured as being a wordsmith, so Man Mo temples were primarily used for scholars, their families, and officials to pray for a number of things: good fortune in their studies, acing the imperial exams, and protection when going to war or making a strategic decision amongst others. 

You can find Man Mo temples across Mainland China, Macau, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Apart from the one in Sheung Wan, two others can be found in the city: the Man Mo Temple on Fu Shin Street in Tai Po, erected in 1893 to mark the founding of present-day Tai Po Market, and the Man Mo Temple at Pak Ngan Heung in Mui Wo on Lantau Island.

Apart from being worshipped as a pair in Man Mo temples, devotees also show their respects individually to each god. Man Cheong temples are found across Mainland China and Taiwan, with the Mount Qiqu Man Cheong Temple (七曲山大廟) in Zitong county of Sichuan being the largest and most decorated. Apart from individual shrines, Guan Gong temples can be found across the Southeast Asian region, including Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. In Hong Kong, there is the Kwan Kung Pavilion on Cheung Chau.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.