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Chinese Mythology 101: Pak Tai

By Celia Lee 22 August 2023

Header image courtesy of Naokitakeyama (via Wikimedia Commons)

It comes as no surprise that the coastal region of Hong Kong is home to a plethora of divine beings linked to water, the weather, and the elements. Although Tin Hau is the most commonly worshipped water deity in the city—with multiple Tin Hau temples scattered across Hong Kong and an entire district named after the goddess—she is not the only one who deserves a mention.

Not unlike sea gods in other mythological pantheons, Pak Tai (北帝; bak1 dai3; “North Emperor”) is believed to have power over all marine life and water-related occurrences. Let’s dive deep into the myths surrounding Pak Tai, his abilities, and how he is still celebrated in Hong Kong today.

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Photo: Studytogether (via Wikimedia Commons)

One thing that our Chinese m Mythology 101 series has taught us is that most deities in Chinese mythology have multiple origin stories. In the instance of Pak Tai, from your classic water god and evil spirit tamer to a personified constellation, here are some of the most interesting stories surrounding the deity’s genesis.

One side of Heaven

Mythology junkies might be familiar with the Chinese concept of Heaven (天; tin1; “sky”). For the uninitiated, Chinese Heaven can be compared to Christian Heaven. It is understood as a divine force controlling lesser gods and human beings, bringing peace and calm to the celestial and mortal realms. In ancient China, Heaven’s control is said to be shared between five godly manifestations, collectively known as the “Five Forms of the Highest Deity” (五方上帝; ng5 fong1 soeng5 dai3).

Five deities, each governing a section of an Earth, are divided into five colour-coded portions: Cangdi (蒼帝; cong1 dai3; “Green Emperor”) in the East, Chidi (赤帝; cek3 dai3; “Red Emperor”) in the South, Baidi (白帝; baak6 dai3; “White Emperor”) in the West, Huangdi (黄帝; wong4 dai3; “Yellow Emperor”) in the centre, and Heidi (黑帝; hak1 dai3; “Black Emperor”)—or Pak Tai—in the North.

In Taoist philosophy, each part of the wuxing (五行; ng5 hang4; meaning “five phases,” including metal, wood, water, fire, and earth)—more commonly known as the five elements—is associated with a cardinal point. “Water” is attributed to the north, explaining Pak Tai’s dual purpose.

Versatile god

Because the north is linked to water in Taoism, Pak Tai’s major power—as the northern branch of Heaven—is control over all things water-related. Pak Tai is therefore associated with disasters caused by water and by fire. Indeed, when faced with the threat of floods and tsunamis, believers prayed for Pak Tai to spare their families and homes; when struck with devastating fire, they prayed to Pak Tai for an abundance of water to distinguish the flames.

Additionally, Pak Tai is believed to form a demon-slaying trio with two of his fellow gods: the deified general Guan Yu and Zhong Kui, the Taoist ghostbuster. Thanks to Pak Tai’s shiny track record of slaying the evil and the damned, he is sometimes referred to as the god of war, a belief popularised during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, when victorious battles were attributed to the god’s blessings.

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Diving deeper into the lore of Pak Tai, the god is often believed to be the personification of not one, but three constellations with regards to the north.

A Qing-dynasty painting depicting Pak Tai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tortoise and snake

The first relates to the Twenty-Eight Mansions, an early Chinese equivalent of the Western zodiac constellations. In this star charting, the sky is divided into four parts. As the “North Emperor” in the sky, Pak Tai was quite naturally associated to the northern group of stars, symbolised by a tortoise with a snake wrapped around its body, hence the name Black Tortoise of the North (北方玄武; bak1 fong1 jyun4 mou5; “the north mysterious martial”).

This celestial association of the northern mansion of stars and Pak Tai has sparked the god’s ties with tortoises and snakes. In descriptions of the deity, whether in ancient texts or in visualisations, Pak Tai is portrayed suppressing the spirits of a rogue tortoise and snake under his feet.

Photo: 舟集 Toadboat (via Wikimedia Commons)

North Pole

Since astrology has a strong appeal in China, another set of stars came to be associated with Pak Tai, namely the “Big Dipper.” The connection stems from the Chinese name for this northern hemisphere constellation, the “North Pole seven stars” (北極七星; bak1 gik6 cat1 sing1). The reference to the north, once more, reinforces the association between Pak Tai and the constellation.

Photo: Mike Setchell (via Unsplash)

North Star

The third constellation commonly linked with Pak Tai is—unsurprisingly—the North Star (北極星; bak1 gik6 sing1; “North Pole star,” or Polaris). Those familiar with astrology know that the North Star does not refer to a specific star, but rather the northmost star at any point in time and space. Used as a navigation point in the past, the North Star helps travellers get their bearings at night.

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Pak Tai in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the worshipping of Pak Tai largely relates to his water-controlling abilities. As a coastal town where many people’s livelihoods historically depended on fishing, it comes as no surprise that early settlers worshiped a pantheon of water deities. But in accordance with the “Five Forms of the Highest Deity,” the worship of Pak Tai technically should not exist in our city. If the world is indeed divided into five portions, then Hong Kong belongs in its southern part, and a northern deity is unlikely to travel so far from home. The southward spread of Pak Tai’s worship was hastened by groups that migrated south from the mainland, introducing new deities able to protect fishermen from the trials of the seas. At the same time, this spread also originated during the Ming dynasty, where emperors popularised practices, rituals, and beliefs associated with the god.

Island-hopping with Pak Tai

While there are several temples and shrines dedicated to Pak Tai in Hong Kong, the most frequently visited are located on Cheung Chau and Lantau Island.

The first settlers on Cheung Chau were fishermen that migrated from Huizhou, Chaozhou, and Guangzhou. Pak Tai was one of the sea gods worshipped by these migrating groups. Legend has it that when the small island was plagued by sickness in 1777, settlers made the decision to move a statue of Pak Tai from Huizhou’s Huiyang district to Cheung Chau in hopes that the god’s blessing would rid the island of the plague. In 1783, after health was miraculously restored on Cheung Chau, the residents erected the Taoist Yuk Hui Temple (玉虛宮; juk6 heoi1 gung1) in the deity’s honour.

There are two Pak Tai temples on Lantau Island, Yi O Village Old Temple and Tai Tei Tong Village Pak Tai Temple in Mui Wo, both with equally interesting origin stories. Although it is dubbed “old,” the Yi O temple was only built around 30 years ago but is expected to stand for over a hundred years. A statue of Pak Tai stepping on a tortoise and a snake can be found inside. It is said that this statue was discovered by a group of fishermen respectively from Tai O, Yi O, Fan Lau, and Cheung Chau, who were out at sea together. The men decided on the location for this new Pak Tai Temple using poe divination—the divine Chinese version of heads or tails.

Photo: Jnzi’s Photos (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you think the Yi O statue has a peculiar origin, wait until you find out about the one kept in Mui Wo. According to old records, the Pak Tai statue used to be Cheung Chau’s, but a typhoon swept the mighty god off its perch, and it floated all the way to Mui Wo. At first, Mui Wo residents rescued the rogue statue and returned it to Cheung Chau. 

Not long after, however, the statue went missing and was once again found floating aimlessly near Mui Wo. Three attempts to return it to its original home were made, but efforts were stilted by unrelenting winds each time. Matters were settled when Mui Wo’s head asked the poe for an explanation and was informed that Pak Tai preferred to stay in Tai Tei Tong village. Residents took in Pak Tai and a temple was built to house him in 1992.

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Photo: Uuongkinghe (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pak Tai’s birthday

Pak Tai’s birthday is celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month. On this day, believers will flock to temples to pay their respects to the sea god and pray for good fortune, peace, and protection for those who wander out at sea. The foot traffic to Cheung Chau’s Yuk Hui Temple on that day is second only to that found during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival—the most iconic and historical festival on the island, and a major tourist attraction in Hong Kong.

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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.