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Chinese Mythology 101: Nezha

By Corrine Cheung 6 July 2023

Header image courtesy of Anandajoti Bhikkhu (via Flickr)

Nezha (哪吒) is a deity who represents youthfulness and is worshipped in Chinese folk religion. As the patron god of filial piety and children, he is known by multiple titles, including “Marshal of the Central Altar” (中壇元帥; zung1 taan4 jyun4 seoi3), “Prince Nezha” (哪吒太子; naa5 zaa1 taai3 zi2), and “Third Lotus Prince” (蓮花三太子; lin4 faa1 saam1 taai3 zi2). As a child who is often depicted with weapons, what makes Nezha so respected and powerful? Learn more in the latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series.

Photo: 舟集 Boattoad (via Wikimedia Commons)

The warrior child

Although most gods are portrayed as adults, Nezha is often depicted as a child with his hair styled into twin warrior buns. Other appearances shows Nezha with “three head, six arms” (三頭六臂; saam1 tau4 luk6 bei3), a powerful form which allows the god to fight his enemies from all angles. In some versions, this power-up is only one variation of his “three head, eight arms” (三頭八臂; saam1 tau4 baat3 bei3) spell which is supposed to grant Nezha even more strength than the six arms variant, though it is not as commonly used. In some legends, Nezha also has the ability to spit rainbows.

On his body, Nezha carries a leopard-skin pouch (豹皮囊; paau3 pei4 nong4) which is tied around his waist or chest. Given to him by his mentor, Taiyi Zhenren (太乙真人; taai3 jyut6 zan1 jan4; the perfected person and a primordial deity of yin and yang), the “warrior child god” Nezha uses this pouch to store weapons for combat.

Photo: Miuki (via Wikimedia Commons)

Weapons, not toys

Nezha stores five weapons in his pouch, which are called “Wu Bao” (五寶; literally “five treasures”). One of the most iconic weapons is the fire tip spear (火尖槍; fo2 zim1 coeng1; literally “fire sharp-tipped spear,” although modern usages of “槍” can mean “gun”), which is depicted with a red tuft of fur wrapped just below the tip. 

The universal ring (乾坤圈; qián kūn quān; “乾坤” is a Taoist term that refers to all aspects that make up the terrestrial and celestial universes) is another offence weapon commonly used by Nezha. Given to him by his birth parents, this ring was once used to kill Ao Bing, son of the East Sea Dragon King. Said to deal lethal damage, the ring is made of gold and can shrink or grow in size. Another golden offence weapon is the golden brick (金磚; gam1 zyun1) which Nezha uses to attack his enemies.

Donning a red sash that floats around his body, this piece of cloth resembles sashes that spirits or goddesses wear to float around the heavens. Called the “red armillary sash” (混天綾; wan6 tin1 ling4; literally “mix sky thin silk“), it can be used to immobilise or strangle opponents and can regenerate if torn. Since it is not as regularly used as a weapon, most depictions include the sash as part of Nezha's attire.

While not a weapon, the “wind fire wheels” (風火輪; fung1 fo2 leon4) is also another iconic item associated with Nezha and allows the god to speedily travel through heaven and earth. The name refers to how the left wheel was able to produce wind while the right spouted fire as Nezha travelled, though in most depictions, both wheels are on fire while being used.

Despite only having five common weapons, Nezha does have a sixth and secret weapon lent by his mentor for occasional use. The “nine dragons holy fire cover” (九龍神火罩; gau2 lung4 san4 fo2 zaau3; “nine dragon god fire mask“) contains nine dragons inside the cover. Instead of breathing regular fire, they breathe the “true fire of Samadhi” (三昧真火; saam1 mui6 zui1 fo2) which can burn or harm any immortal or demon. The weapon was once used to kill Lady Earth Flow (石磯娘娘; sek6 gei1 noeng4 noeng4) in battle by burning her.

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Mixing and matching origins

Although Nehza is commonly known as a Chinese god, his origins are suggested to be based on two figures from Hindu mythology. The first comes from Nalakubar (also known as Nalakubara) from the Ramayana, where the connection between the two links to Nalakubar’s Chinese name on Buddhist sutras. The Chinese variant of his name started as Naluojiupoluo (那羅鳩婆羅; naa5 lo4 gau1 po4 lo4) which evolved into Nazhajuboluo (那吒矩缽囉; naa5 zaa1 geoi2 but3 lo1) and was shortened to Nazha. By adding the mouth radical “口” to “那“ (“Na“), the name then changed to Nezha (哪吒; naa4 zaa1).

The second figure is the child god, Krishna. Both Krishna and Nezha have achieved similar victories, including defeating giant serpents, Kaliya for the former and Ao Bing for the latter. There have also been mentions of a child god in a tenth-century Tantric Buddhist sutra called Nana (那拏; naa5 naa4), believed to be a combination of Nalakubar and Krisha.

The similarities do not stop there—the story of Nezha’s father, General Li Jing, also seemed to be tied to Hindu mythology. Nalakubar’s father, Kubera, was combined with the Heavenly King Valsravana in the Buddhist pantheon. Interestingly, the Heavenly King is connected to General Li, who is believed to be Nezha’s father. This obscure association is used to explain the position and title he bears in Chinese mythology, known as the “pagoda-bearing heavenly king Li Jing” (扎塔李天王; zaat3 taap3 lei5 tin1 wong4).

Photo: Taiwan Cultural Memory Bank

Lore within lore

While there are many variations, the most popular origin story about Nezha is the Taoist version recounted in the classic Chinese novel, Investiture of the Gods (封神演義; fung1 san4 jin2 ji6). In this version, Nezha was born in the Shang dynasty to General Li Jing (李靖) and Lady Yin (殷氏), and has two older brothers called Jinzha (金吒) and Muzha (木吒). After being pregnant for three years and six months, Lady Yin gave birth to a ball of flesh. Thinking it was a monster, Li Jing struck the ball and Nezha emerged fully grown as a young boy who could walk and talk. He was accepted by the immortal Taiyi Zhenren as a student.

One day, the kingdom at Chengtang Pass was struck by a flood. People prayed and offered food sacrifices to the East Sea Dragon King, Ao Guang, to stop the tragedy. Instead of food, Ao Guang requested to a boy and a girl as food offerings. Abiding with the request, one of the sea guardians took Nezha’s friend as a sacrifice while they were playing by the sea.

With Nezha’s protests falling on deaf ears, he decided to fight the king himself. Not wanting to deal with the situation, the dragon king sent his third son Ao Bing to face the vengeful child. Nezha easily slew the serpent. Furious at his son’s demise, the king reported Nezha to the Jade Emperor (玉王大帝; juk6 wong4 daai6 dai3), after which Nezha decided to atone for slaying the East Sea Dragon Prince and sacrifice himself by disemboweling. To him, this was an act of repayment to his parents for the trouble he has caused by disrespecting Heaven and showing his gratitude to them by “returning” his flesh and bones.

Photo: Taiwan Cultural Memory Bank

Retribution as child’s play

Now a wandering spirit, Nezha came to his mother’s dreams and requested to have a dedicated temple built to him, so his spirit could rest. Following his wish, Lady Yin honoured her son with a flourishing temple. Li Jing, hearing the news, was furious about this act of respect, especially considering the amount of trouble Nezha had caused whilst alive. Out of anger, Li destroyed the temple—an act which ignited the feud between father and son.

After his mentor Taiyi Zhrenren carved a body out of lotus flowers for Nezha’s soul to inhabit, the boy was brought back to life and was now seeking retribution against his father. It was through his revival that Nezha received his five treasures, including the fire tip spear and wind fire wheels. After killing his second brother, Muzha, in a fight, Nezha was contained by a deity and was forced to submit to his father.

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Photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu (via Flickr)

Not “kid”-ding around

Another popular retelling of Nezha's origins can be found in Journey to the West (西遊記; sai1 jau4 gei3). While it follows a similar story, there are a few different details in this Chinese classic. For instance, the novel explains the origins of Nezha’s name as the boy being born with the characters of his name on his palm—“Ne” on his left and “Zha” on his right. Nezha is portrayed to be more reckless in this account, with shenanigans ranging from causing havoc in the Eastern Ocean, killing Ao Bing, and burning Lady Earth Flow in a fire.

After learning about the incidents Nezha has caused, his father was furious. In an act of rage, Nezha “returned“ his flesh and bone to his parents—an act that was seen as committed out of spite rather than a noble sacrifice. Instead of being revived by his mentor, the Buddha himself carved a body made of lotus flowers for Nezha and the boy gained god-like abilities once revived. Now granted a massive power boast, Nezha went and sought revenge on his father. Desperate for help, Li Jing begged the Buddha to put a stop to Nezha’s vengeance, and the boy was given a golden pagoda that contained a myriad of Buddha statues. The Buddha then told Nezha to regard those Buddhas as his father and the feud between father and son was ended. This origin story also explains how Nezha’s father earned the title of “Pagoda-Bearing Heavenly King” (扎塔李天王).

The popular kid

With his frequent appearance in Chinese mythology, it is no surprise that Nezha is commonly featured in literature and pop culture. Other than Investiture of the Gods, he shows up in Journey to the West as part of the Jade Emperor’s army that fought Sun Wukong (孫悟空; syun1 ng6 hung1) when he rampaged through the Heavenly Palace earlier in the book. The two eventually become friends later in the novel where Nezha would help Sun Wukong occasionally during combat. Nezha has also made an appearance in R.F Kuang’s novel series The Poppy War, where a character of the same name and whose creation was inspired by Nezha’s story can be found.

Nezha can also be found in numerous Chinese TV shows, films, and animated adaptations of both Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West. Nezha is featured in the TVB show, Gods of Honour (封神榜) in 2001, where the boy is portrayed by Hong Kong actor Benny Chan Ho-man. Nezha is recently featured in the Mainland Chinese TV show Legend of Nezha (2020), which explores the origins and adventures of the god.

Nezha’s influence has also made its way into the local language. Did you know Segways and other variants of hover boards are colloquially referred to as “wind fire wheels” (風火輪) in Cantonese? The association between the two are made based on similarity in speed and resemblance to how the wheels are used in legends about Nezha—standing still while the wheels move around as you go!

Ways of worship and etiquette

Wacky appearances in pop culture aside, Nezha is still a god and is worshipped in Chinese folk religion. Dates celebrating Nezha vary from region to region, but often on his birthday: the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. This coincidentally falls on Chung Yeung Festival, also known as Double Ninth Festival. In the Guangdong province and Hong Kong, Nezha is celebrated on the eighteenth day of the fifth lunar month, which is also Bodhi Day, when the Buddha had reached enlightenment. In some variations, Nezha is also a disciple of Buddha, so some regions in China would celebrate him on Buddha’s Birthday.

For worship, there are various temples across multiple regions in China and in Macau dedicated to Nezha, with the latter located behind the Ruins of St Paul’s. In Hong Kong, there is only one place to pay respects to the “Third Prince”: Sam Tai Tze and Pak Tai Temple (三太子及北帝廟) in Sham Shui Po, where parents would go and pray for their children’s good health. Professional drivers around the region would pray to Nezha for speedy and safe travels by displaying a figurine of the boy in their car.

In terms of worshipping etiquette, generally any type of offering would be accepted, such as the classic fruits and meat. However, duck meats are avoided as sacrificial offerings to Nezha, as it is mentioned in some retellings that ducks protected Nezha’s remains after he disemboweled himself and so considered sacred. Believed to be a child god, it is not surprising that Nezha has an appetite for sweets, so candies are also appropriate.

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Curious, introverted, and dramatic, Corrine is passionate about all things theatre, music, literature, and the mythical. When she’s not busy writing the newest story, you will find her binge-watching the latest anime and shows on Netflix, reading the latest books or screlting musical songs in the shower.

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