Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Gates and doors of houses have historically received special ritual attention in Chinese culture. Even today, many will decorate the entrance to their home with a pair of Menshen (門神; mun4 san4; “door gods”). In this latest instalment of Chinese Mythology 101, join us as we delve deeper into the story—or stories—behind the pair of door deities prominent in Chinese folk religion.
Sacrifices to door gods were recorded as early as the Zhou dynasty in the Confucian classic, Book of Rites (禮記). While offerings to these deities soon fell out of fashion, their importance as gatekeepers of the home and other buildings persisted.
The originating concept of Menshen is a little different from contemporary depictions; Menshen as a pair of guardians donning heavy ancient Chinese armour was not popularised until the Han dynasty around 2,000 years ago.
Before that, peachwood protective slates were hung on front gates and doors, sometimes carved with phrases of luck, sometimes with illustrations. Peachwood was believed to ward off evil spirits, an ideal trait for protective slates that safeguard homes. However, with paper growing increasingly available, the use of peachwood gradually faded out of popular use.
As the use of peachwood figures and gate paintings was popularised as signages of protective magic, in the Han dynasty, Menshen were popularly depicted as the two gods Shentu and Yulü (神荼鬱壘). Legend has it that Shentu and Yulü are guardians of the ghost gate (鬼門; gwai2 mun4) that separates the mortal realm from the spirit realm, where the pair inspects countless spirits as they pass through. There, evil ghosts are captured and bound with Shentu and Yulü’s signature reed rope and fed to tigers.
Due to their elite ghostbusting skills, it is said that the Yellow Emperor (2697–2698 BC) ordered his subjects to paint Shentu and Yulü—reed rope and tigers in tow—on doors to fend off evil spirits. It is this legend that was picked up again in the Han dynasty, and thus sparked the association between Menshen and Shentu and Yulü.
During the reign of Tang Taizong (唐太宗; Emperor Taizong of Tang) in the seventh century, Menshen came to be associated with two other deities. The story goes that Taizong was suffering from nightmares that depicted the brutal and gruesome end to his reign and life.
In a fit of fear, the emperor ordered portraits of his trusty generals, Qin Shubao (秦叔寶) and Yuchi Gong (尉遲恭), to be painted and affixed to gates and doors surrounding his palace. Following the deification of Qin and Yu, the pair became known as divine protectors, gradually replacing Shentu and Yulü as the most common depictions of Menshen.
Chapter 10 of the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en offers another account of Qin and Yu’s association to Menshen. In the novel, the water and weather god Dragon King of the Jing River plotted to outwit the fortune teller Yuan Shoucheng by exploiting his weather-controlling powers.
Disguising himself as a human, the Dragon King made a bet with Yuan about the weather forecast the next day, but things quickly went south when he received an order from the Jade Emperor to produce the conditions Yuan predicted. Letting his ego get the best of him, the Dragon King ignored his orders and produced conditions that would let him win the bet.
When the god went to Yuan to gloat, he found out Yuan knew his identity all along. Yuan’s retort did not stop there, as the fortune teller reminded the Dragon King of the consequences heading his way for disobeying the immortal Jade Emperor. Now terrified of his doom, the Dragon King pleaded with Yuan for help, who was kind enough to let him know that the emperor would be sending Wei Zhang, a member of the imperial court under Tang Taizong, as his executioner, and his best bet this time would be to take his case to Taizong.
Taking pity on the god, Taizong offered to help the Dragon King by distracting Wei Zhang with a game of go. The emperor’s plan appeared to be successful when Wei fell asleep during the long game. However, Taizong was later informed that a dragon’s head had fallen from the sky. When Wei woke up, he told Taizong that when asleep, his spirit was summoned mid-nap to carry out the Jade Emperor’s orders. The Dragon King, now nothing more than a spirit, was annoyed by Taizong’s failure in stopping his execution, and opted to haunt the emperor every night. When his generals Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong learnt of their leader’s distress, they volunteered to guard his door and repel the Dragon King’s spirit.
When Taizong was no longer sleep-deprived and terrified, he ordered portraits of his generals to be painted to relieve Qin and Yu of their night shifts. This action was then copied by Taizong’s subjects, thus the association of Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong as Menshen and the pasting of their illustrations on doors as a common practice for Chinese homes.
Although generals Qin and Yu and ghost-gatekeepers Shentu and Yulü represent Menshen for most people, their ability to protect the home isn’t universal. In fact, some deified military leaders much like Qin and Yu make up a class of martial door gods and a separate group of scholars make up another class of civil door gods. The martial gods are expected to fight off evil and bad influences while the civil counterparts are expected to attract blessings and good fortune. In “Man Mo” style, these door gods are paired to offer the best of both worlds in terms of protection for a household.
Menshen’s mortal home gatekeeping duties extend to temples of prominent gods. For example, most Taoist temples of the North God are guarded by the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger. Meanwhile, the temples of the sea goddess Mazu (Tin Hau) are guarded by two different door gods: Qianliyan and Shunfeng’er.
The name Qianliyan (千里眼) literally translates to “thousand-mile eye” and alludes to the deity’s all-seeing abilities while his counterpart’s name, Shunfeng’er (順風耳), literally translates to “wind-following ears,” referencing the god’s ability to hear everything that the wind touches. One can see how these skills can prove useful for door gods.
While many in Chinese culture will still hang portraits of Menshen on their doors, the pair of deities do not make up a formal element of Taoism and are more commonly associated with Chinese folk religion—guardians of other temples aside, of course. As such, the illustrations are considered more as traditional household decoration stemming from popular superstition.
However, this “superstition” does travel far, and you will find Menshen illustrations on doors of homes in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, and other South Asian countries, with Taiwan yielding an impressive list of Menshen illustration masters.
Although worshipping rituals of Menshen are no longer widely practiced in Chinese culture, their Korean counterpart Munsin (문신) is still treated to a small ritual of spraying makgeolli (막걸리; traditional sweet rice wine) and an offering of tteok (떡; traditional rice cakes), while a larger ritual called Munjeonje (문전제) is performed as part of the festivities for Chuseok (추석; Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival) on the volcanic Jeju Island.
It should be obvious by now that it is common practice to present Menshen images in pairs on the door into one’s home. Beware: the two Menshen should always face each other when presented and never back-to-back, as that is considered bad luck. Traditionally, Menshen images are replaced every Lunar New Year even if they are not particularly worn or torn.