Header image courtesy of Underwaterbuffalo (via Wikimedia Commons)
Have you ever wandered the streets of Hong Kong and come across a little shrine located close to the ground, near the entrance of a local cha chaan teng or dried seafood shop? If you are wondering what the tiny shrine is for, you’ve come to the right place—these miniature shrines happen to be dedicated to Tudigong, a local guardian and patron deity of the land. Despite having a relatively unimpressive shrine, Tudigong is an important god that is commonly worshipped both in the city and in the countryside in Hong Kong.
Tudigong (土地公; tou2 dei6 gung1), whose name translates to “Lord of the Land” or “Lord of the Earth,” goes by a variety of different names and titles, including Tudiye (土地爺; tou2 dei6 je4), Sheshen (社神; se5 san4; literally “organisation god”), and Fudezhengshen (福德正神; fuk1 dak1 zing3 san4; meaning “Right God of Blessing and Virtue”).
Despite being of the lowest rank among divinities, as god of the land, Tudigong is widely worshipped as a guardian of local villages and communities, and as a protector of harvests and wandering travellers. Business owners in urban areas commonly attribute him to Caishen (財神; coi4 san4), the god of wealth and fortune, to pray for good business. This can also be related to the phrase “有土斯有財” which means “along with land comes fortune.”
In rural areas, Tudigong is also seen as a protector of graves. Before the burial of the dead, families of the deceased may show their respects to Tudigong with offerings and prayers—this could be seen as a gesture of gratitude to the land deity for allowing the burial to take place on his land. On occasion, you may even spot a small shrine or spirit tablet in front of a grave dedicated to Tudigong as it is believed that he has the ability to protect the spirit, body, and grave of the deceased from disturbance by demons.
As opposed to a singular deity, there are as many Tudigong as there are shrines for the god. Each manifestation of the deity is individualised, so one village’s Tudigong might be a different deity than another protecting the land of a hardware shop. It is therefore common for people who have moved or migrated from one place to another to say goodbye to their Tudigong and worship the one residing at their new place. As a god that originated by being deified, one could even become a Tudigong after death if they served their community well.
Given the many variants, it is not surprising that Tudigong’s depictions differ from region to region. He is often portrayed as an old man with a white beard wearing a long robe of varying colours. Tudigong with a higher status would don a traditional Chinese bureaucrat’s hat. A Tudigoing with a lower status may have a scholar’s hat, though this is not common.
In many depictions of Tudigong, he usually sits on a throne resembling a traditional Chinese horseshoe-back armchair (圈椅; hyun1 ji2; “curved chair”). When worshipped for wealth, Tudigong may be holding a golden ingot or a jade ruyi (如意) that attributes to his role as a god of fortune. When worshipped for other purposes, Tudigong is more commonly seen holding a wooden staff and/or riding on a horse, dragon, or qilin.
In Taiwan, Tudigong is often depicted next to or riding on a tiger statue.
In Hong Kong or southern regions of China, you may find a woman next to a statue of Tudigong. His wife, known as Tudipo (土地婆; “land mistress“), has been interpreted as benevolent as Tudigong or as a grudging deity, portrayed as either a young lady or an old woman. Legend has it that after Tudigong was granted a heavenly rank, he gave everything to everyone to a point where it was considered excessive. When the deities in heaven heard of it, they reported it to the Jade Emperor at the Celestial Palace.
At the same time, the Jade Emperor noticed that a young lady was going to be killed for a crime she did not commit so he asked a deity to retrieve her. When she arrived, the Jade Emperor bestowed her to Tudigong as his wife and she was tasked with looking after him to stop the land deity from distributing blessings unnecessarily. It led to the belief that if people paid a lot of respect to Tudipo, she would stop Tudigong from giving them too many blessings or much wealth. Even though she may not have a shrine to herself, Tudipo is separately worshipped as a goddess of fertility and childbirth in some regions in Taiwan.
Worshipping Tudigong is often called “zuoma” (做禡) or “做牙“ (zou6 ngaa4), where people would offer sacrifices and pray for blessings from him twice a month, a ritual that is believed to bring good fortune and protection to businesses and families.
Using Tudigong’s birthday as the starting point, the second day of the second lunar month is referred to as “touma” (頭禡; meaning the start of offerings). Regular offerings then follow throughout the year on every second and sixteenth day of each lunar month, with offerings commonly consisting of three main meats—chicken, pork, and fish—along with other types of meats. Fruits such as apples and oranges are usually also offered, but never bananas, as it is believed to bring trouble and bad luck when presented to Tudigong.
Whilst “zuoma” on time is going out of fashion, people would still preform the ritual at least once near the end of the year, precisely on the sixteenth day of the twelfth lunar month, known as “weima” (尾禡; mei5 maa6; meaning “the last of offerings”). Since the sixteenth day of the eight month is on the same day as the Mid-Autumn Festival, “zuoma” rituals to Tudigong are often performed together with Mid-Autumn celebrations.
Often called Fuk Tak temples or shrines (福德廟; fuk1 dak1 miu6; literally “fortune virtue temple“), places of worship dedicated to Tudigong are placed in the most strategic location in terms of feng shui to bring good luck. Although small shrines are commonly found on the streets of Hong Kong, there are various temples dedicated to Tudigong around the city, including a shrine at Wong Tai Sin Temple or Sheung Fung Lane at Sai Ying Pun.
For villages that lack a Tudigong temple, some people would build small shrines either below a tree or at the side of a road within the village. Using two stones as the base with another stone on top, the three stones symbolically form the character “磊” (made up of three characters for “stone”—two at the bottom, another on top), which is supposed to represent Tudigong. Incense is then burnt and presented at the shrine as an act of worship.
Although taking offerings from altars is considered rude and disrespectful to gods and ancestors, in rural China, villagers would take those left by other villagers at a Tudigong shrine and eat it, believing the fruit to be propitious. For offerings given at larger temples, food exchanges have been replaced by money exchanges. Temple attendees would place money into a small box next to the Tudigong statue and take out the equivalent donation blessed as “Tudi money,” which is considered to bring and a wish for good luck.