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Chinese Mythology 101: Yue Lao

By Corrine Cheung 25 July 2023

Header image courtesy of Shesmax (via Wikimedia Commons)

What do you get when you combine the three Fates of Greek mythology and the Man on the Moon, mixed in with a splash of Chinese culture? You get Yue Lao! Yue Lao (月老; jyut6 lou5; “old moon“) is said to be the god of love and marriage in Chinese folklore, connecting predestined couples together with a red thread. Known as the “Chinese Cupid,” Yue Lao is a humble and old god. In the latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we will explore the myth, the stories, and the worship culture surrounding Yue Lao.

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“Chinese Cupid”

Yue Lao’s full name is “Yue Xia Lao Ren” (月下老人; jyut6 haa6 lou5 yan4; “old man under the moon”). However, he goes by multiple titles, such as “Yue Lao Xing Juen” (月老星君; jyut6 lou5 sing1 gwan1; “old man on the moon and ruler of stars“) or “Yue Lao Ye” (月老爺; jyut6 lou5 je4; “old moon man”). Although Yue Lao is just a nickname, it is the most popular alias that the deity goes by.

As for his appearance, Yue Lao is depicted as a kind, smiling old man with a long beard. He usually carries a walking stick in his right hand and holds a book filled with love matches in his left. He is said to be immortal and, as the name implies, lives under the moon, although some retellings say he lives on the moon, or in more ominous locations such as the dark side of the moon, or even the underworld.

Threads (not the app)

Yue Lao also carries the iconic “red string of fate” (姻緣紅線; jan1 jyun4 hung4 sin3) in his pouch, which is invisible to the mortal eye. In Chinese mythology, the god ties the fabric around the ankles of destined lovers to seal their union. In other regions such as Japan and Korea, the red string is tied on the thumb of the man and the pinky finger of the woman. Nowadays, most visualisations of the red string of fate depict it being tied around the pinkies of each pair. Even though it could be tangled up in itself, the string cannot be cut, which shows the unbreakable nature of the couple’s union.

Also known as the “red string of marriage,” there are variants of this fateful string in other East Asian myths, but it originated in Chinese mythology, precisely from the story of Yue Lao. But why red, you ask? In Chinese culture, red symbolises happiness and the colour is prominently featured in Chinese weddings.

The growing myth of Yue Lao

Humble origins

Although Yue Lao lacks a clear origin story in traditional Chinese mythology, there is one that’s recounted in Chinese folklore tales in Taiwan. It is said that the Queen Mother of the West (王母娘娘; wong4 mou5 noeng4 noeng4; “queen mother goddess”) was so moved by the impossible love between Chang’e and Hou Yi (Chang’e flew to the moon while her husband was left on Earth) that she thought no lovers deserve to be separated in such a way. To prevent this tragedy from happening to others, the Queen Mother sent an old god to a cave on the moon where he would be in charge of matchmaking. This man eventually became known as Yue Lao.

Every year during the Qixi Festival (七夕; cat1 zik6), the Seven Star Goddess (七星娘娘; cat1 sing1 noeng4 noeng4) produces a list of names of single men and women in the mortal realm and transcribes it in a book. Once reported to the Heavenly Court (天庭; tin1 ting4), Yue Lao would receive the list and begin making matches based on the individual’s personality and interests. He would then use the red string of fate to seal the union.

In some tales, Yue Lao was only supposed to be the keeper of the book of marriage without the power of matchmaking. However, the version where he could determine pairs eventually won in the polls of popularity and the story evolved into Yue Lao having total control over the matchmaking process.

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Photo: lienyuan lee (via Wikimedia Commons)

A young boy’s lesson

The earliest recording of Yue Lao can be found in “續玄怪錄” (zuk6 jyun4 gwaai3 luk6), a collection of short stories about supernatural events compiled during the late Tang dynasty by writer Li Fuyan. The book tells the story of a young scholar called Wei Gu (韋固) who stumbled upon an old man reading a book under the moonlight while passing by the city of Songcheng. Upon closer look, Wei saw the book was written in a language he could not understand and asked the old man what it was. The old man showed Wei the journal and told him that it kept track of all marriages, pairings, and engagements. The old man even showed him a pouch that contained red strings with which he would tie together all fated couples.

As they walked towards the marketplace together, the old man gestured to a young girl accompanied by a blind old caretaker, informing Wei that she would be his future wife in 10 years. Thinking it was ridiculous, Wei picked up a stone and threw it at the girl. Years later, Wei became a government official and never thought of the interaction again. He was rewarded for his good work with a betrothal to the governor’s daughter, a woman said to be very beautiful but struggling to find suitors.

On their wedding night, his wife was wearing a headband on her forehead, covering an unsightly scar. Curious, Wei asked his wife about it. She explained that someone threw a rock at her as a young girl and the physical assault left a mark. Wei realised the truth about the incident and told her about the encounter with the old man before apologising to her. The young woman forgave and taught him that the old man he met years ago must have been Yue Lao, the god of marriage. The story quickly spread, and Yue Lao’s legend took shape.

Photo: Anandajoti Bhikkhu (via Wikimedia Commons)

Respect your elders

In another version of the story, some details differ. While Wei meeting the old man and Yue Lao revealing the identity of the young woman remain the same, the scholar makes the brutal decision to stab the girl and kill her caretaker because he thought she was too hideous. On the night of his wedding to the governor’s daughter and despite finding her beautiful, he notices a large scar on her back and her difficulty walking. Once again, he learns the truth and his wife forgives him.

In a continuation of this story, Wei and his wife go on to have two sons and a daughter. The scholar struggled to find a match for his children and sought out the old god for help. This time, however, Yue Lao refused to find any suitors for them. Frustrated, he decided to do so on his own only to find out that there were no matches available. Coincidence? We think not!

Yue Lao Statue in Wong Tai Sin Temple. Photo: Fraxaer SI38F8 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A better love story than Pride & Prejudice

In one final tale, there was once a girl who had a crush on a boy and confessed her love to him. However, the boy rejected and made fun of her, leaving the girl humiliated. Heading to a nearby fountain to cry about her heartbreak, she encounters Yue Lao who tells her they are in fact soulmates. Thinking the old man was mocking her, she ran away fuming.

Years later, she becomes a young lady and meets a charming young man who seems familiar. She asks for his name but does not seem to recognise the young boy she met years ago, up until their wedding day when the boy explains how he was foolish to reject and make fun of a girl who liked him. Putting two and two together, the girl realises who he is as the man apologises.

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Matchmaker, matchmaker, give me a match

Although not a commonly worshipped deity in Hong Kong, there are quite a few places where you can pay respects to the god. If you are in Kowloon, you can drop by the Wong Tai Sin Temple (黃大仙祠) which has a Yue Lao shrine. Make sure to grab a piece of red string there before praying for a happy match. You can also head over to Kwong Fuk Ancestral Hall (廣福義祠) in Sheung Wan to pray for luck in love.

If you would like to pray for love in general, you can drop by Love’s Rock at Kwun Yam Buddhist Temple (慈雲山觀音廟姻緣石) on Temple Hill. Believers have tied threads around the rock. If you wish to have your romance fulfilled, you should also go to the impressive Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree (林村許願樹) in Tai Po!

There are also plenty of Yue Lao shrines in Taiwan. To honour to the god, make sure to bring some candy for offerings as it represents sweetness in marriage. Visitors introduce themselves, detailing their name, birthday, and address. If you have a crush on someone and want to ask Yue Lao to match the two of you together, you must offer their personal details as well. If you have not found the right person yet, you can simply express your wish for a love match. You may then retrieve a red string but make sure to only take a single thread as multiple ones would get you “tangled” in some relationship drama! To increase your chances, visit the god on Valentine’s Day or on his birthday on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, which coincides with Mid-Autumn Festival.

In touch with the times

Over the years, Yue Lao has been referenced in various Chinese literature, including Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢; hung4 lau4 mung5) and Water Margin (水滸傳; seoi2 wu2 zyun2). Yue Lao has also been featured in English literature, most notably in Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon in which one of the main characters draws heavy inspiration from Yue Lao and the story of Wei Gu.

Recently, the story of Yue Lao has been featured in the Taiwanese romantic fantasy film Till We Meet Again (月老), where the main character, Ah Lun, has to serve duties as Yue Lao to meet the requirements for reincarnating as a human in his next life.

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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.