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Chinese Mythology 101: Sanxing

By Celia Lee 12 January 2024

Header image courtesy of (Cloud Horn) 雲角

Astronomy has long played an influential role in Chinese culture and beliefs, with significant astrological activity emerging in the Shang dynasty (1600–1045 BC) and maturing throughout dynastic China. The stars served many purposes in the past, with some even gaining divine status. Of the many personified stars in the Chinese mythological pantheon, we turn to three star gods in this instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series. Join us as we delve into the cultural significance of Sanxing (三星; saam1 sing1; “three stars”), more commonly known as Fuk Luk Sau (福祿壽; fuk1 luk6 sau6), the three gods of fortune, prosperity, and longevity.

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Photo: Illustration of the gods of happiness, office, and longevity in “Myths and Legends of China” (1922) by E. T. C. Werner (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Three Wise Men: Stellar origins

As the trio’s name suggests, the gods each originated from a constellation essential to ancient Chinese astronomy: Fuk (福; fuk1) represents Jupiter, Luk (祿; luk6) represents a star in the Ursa Major constellation (commonly known as the Great Bear), and Sau (壽; sau6) represents Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky.

Originally, these celestial bodies were not associated with human figures, but each represented a crucial part of astrology. Jupiter helped the ancient Chinese in timekeeping, developing the lunar calendar and the 12 zodiac signs; the sixth star in the Ursa Major is associated with Man Cheong by virtue of its position in the Wenchang cluster of stars; and sightings of Canopus had historically heralded peace and the absence of war.

Clearly, the three constellations had ample influence on local belief systems long before their personification, which did not gain popularity until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) when the portrayal of these three stars as three wise men emerged from Chinese folk religion. Together, they form Sanxing and now represent three key attributes of a good life in Chinese philosophy: fortune (福; fuk1), prosperity (祿; luk6), and longevity (壽; sau6).

The three star gods, Fuk Luk Sau, depicted on window shutters in the Kumbum Monastery in China. Photo: Patricia Bjaaland Welch (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fuxing: The Chinese Jupiter

While Fuxing (福星; fuk1 sing1; “the star of fortune”) is a personification of Jupiter, the tales surrounding the figure significantly differ from its Roman counterpart. In a Taoist myth that was popularised during the Ming dynasty, Fuk was a Tang governor named Yang Cheng (陽城; joeng4 sing4). His region of jurisdiction was Daozhou (the present-day West Dao county in the Hunan province of mainland China), which historically had a high percentage of dwarfism among its population. 

At the time, an imperial decree specified that all male children born with dwarfism would be automatically enrolled in a selection process to become eunuchs in the imperial court—a decree that separated many young children from their families. When Yang Cheng witnessed the despair and agony this law caused families in Daozhou, he risked his life to petition against it, and won. 

To show their gratitude and thank the governor for his selfless act, citizens of Daozhou worshipped Yang Cheng as a protector, and passed down this story through generations. It was eventually immortalised in a verse by Chinese poet Bai Juyi, where Yang Cheng is praised as a fortune-giving, disaster-deflecting god named Fuxing.

Today, Fuk is commonly portrayed as a man in a scholarly dress, usually holding a stack of books or a scroll where the character for fortune (“福”) is sometimes written. Fuk can grant wishes and protect mortals, and those who honour him also believe the god can bestow fortune upon worshippers, an attribute that sometimes conflates Fuk with the wealth god Caishen (財神; coi4 san4).

Roof decoration on Shouzhen Temple in Alishan, Taiwan. Photo: Bernard Gagnon (via Wikimedia Commons)

Luxing: Imperial scholar and child-giver

Luxing (祿星; luk6 sing1; “the star of prosperity”) is a personification of a star in the Ursa Major—which, in ancient astrological terms, was known as the sixth star in the Wenchang cluster. Luk’s astrological origins contributed to his contemporary representation.

In the past, candidates preparing for the imperial examinations would pray to the god of civil literature, Man Cheong, for good progress in their studies and high rankings in their results. As Luxing is part of a cluster of stars named after Man Cheong—or Wenchang—Luk represents prosperity, prestige, and rank, and is worshipped for success in imperial examinations and bureaucracy. This origin story influenced his depiction as a bureaucrat scholar. Additionally, the Chinese word “祿” (luk6) refers to the salary of a government official in dynastic China.

In other tales, Luk is associated with two child-giving figures in mythology, namely the god of birth Zhang Xian (張仙; zoeng1 sin1) and King Wen of Zhou (周文王; zau1 man4 wong4) who, in folk legend, is rumoured to have begotten 99 sons and adopted his hundredth. Therefore, Luk is believed to grant children and to oversee the survival of lineages. He is sometimes depicted carrying a child in his arms or surrounded by children.

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Photo: sam.romilly (via Wikimedia Commons)

Shouxing: Old Man of the South Pole

Shouxing (壽星; sau6 sing1) is a personification of the South Pole star in traditional astronomy, known as Canopus in English. The star’s divine qualities were first recorded in Records of the Grand Historian (史記; si2 gei3), completed by historian Sima Qian in the late Western Han dynasty (206 BC–9 AD). At the time, the appearance of the star in the southern sky often heralded peace and the absence of war—a welcome sign in a period of constant turbulence and conflict.

However, it was not until the Tang dynasty that Sau was personified as the Old Man of the South Pole, the god of longevity in folk mythology, and subsequently popularised in poetry and memorials. In the Ming dynasty, Sau was established as one of the three wise men that make up Sanxing, and depictions of the trio became popular in art and literature. Sau is said to control the lifespans of mortals, with one oral legend suggesting that he was carried in his mother’s womb for 10 years before he was delivered, and was already an old man when he was finally born.

Today, Sau is depicted with an iconic high, domed forehead, carrying a peach in one hand—a symbol of immortality in Chinese mythological iconography—and often wears a friendly smile on his face. Other representations portray Sau holding a gourd filled with the elixir of life.

The Sanxing (three star gods) at a Chinese temple in Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Photo: naturepost (via Wikimedia Commons)

Folk worship

While two-dimensional depictions of Sanxing exist, the most common depictions found in temples, shrines, homes, and businesses are statues of the three gods. You may find these statues on the roof or façades of temples, placed alongside photographs of ancestors in household shrines, or in a separate shrine in the home. Since traditional Chinese script was read from right to left, the Sanxing figures are arranged with Sau placed to the viewer’s left (thus today, it reads as “Sau Luk Fuk” instead of “Fuk Luk Sau”).

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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.

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