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Chinese Mythology 101: Zhong Kui

By Corrine Cheung 5 September 2023

Header image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

From the vampire-hunting professor Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula to the hit anime series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, demon slayers and ghost hunters have always been a popular trope in works of fiction, but did you know that such characters exist in Chinese mythology, too? Zhong Kui (鍾馗; zung1 kwai4) is a powerful Taoist deity who can vanquish ghosts and is said to command 80,000 demons to do his bidding! Here in this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we break down the origins and stories of the “king of ghosts” (驅魔真君; keoi1 mo1 zan1 gwan1) and his influence on Chinese culture.

A jarring start

Being a demon hunter comes with a lot of name-calling, and Zhong Kui is no exception. His full Taoist title is “divine thundering exorcist and slayer of demons, king of bringing luck and prosperity” (翊聖雷霆驅魔辟邪鎮宅賜福帝君; jik6 sing3 leoi4 ting4 keoi1 mo1 pik1 ce4 zan3 zaak6 ci3 fuk1 dai3 gwan1). Expectedly, due to its long and intimidating length, Zhong Kui’s title is commonly shortened to “king of demons” (鎮宅真君; zan3 zaak6 zan1 gwan1), “king of exorcists” (伏魔大帝; fuk6 mo1 daai6 dai3), or “master Zhong Kui” (鍾馗大師; zung1 kwai4 daai6 si1), all titles befitting his ghastly job.

Keeping up a-“fear”-rances

Aptly, the “king of demons” is so reviled and hideous that he scares off even the most evil of creatures. Zhong Kui is described as having bulging, fish-like eyes that seem like they could pop out of their sockets at any moment. He also has a square face, a small nose, a big mouth, and a hunched back like Quasimodo. If that is not unappealing enough, he also has a long, black beard and bears a wrathful expression that is sure to terrify anyone—living or otherwise.

Despite being portrayed as an ungodly creature, he dresses quite modestly. In ancient portrayals, he dons a blue garment and a simple hat made of cloth. Nowadays, he is shown wearing a red governor’s uniform and a futou (烏帽; wu1 mou6; black gauze cap which is associated with ancient Chinese governors). To further highlight his abilities, some paintings depict Zhong Kui wearing black or stepping on demons. His belongings vary in each portrayal, from a fan or a book to a sword to show off his demon-slaying prowess.

In some sightings, the demon-slaying god has an entourage of five little demonic companions known as the “five ghosts of moving luck” (五鬼搬運; ng5 gwai2 bun1 wan6). These nameless beings act as Zhong Kui’s assistants and are commonly shown carrying various essentials including a lantern, a signature stamp, an umbrella, and a gourd. One of the ghosts may be pulling the reins of Zhong Kui’s horse, guiding his steed, or have a bat on his side to help Zhong Kui detect misbehaving spirits.

Unclear origins

As is customary in mythology, there are many variations of how each god came to be, and no one seems to agree on deities’ origins. According to one theory, the name Zhong Kui (終葵; zung1 kwai4) refers to a tool used to exorcise demons during the Shang dynasty, around 1,600 BC. Starting out as a mask to repel evil spirits, this eventually changed into a hammer.

An alternative theory brought forward by Ming-dynasty herbalist, Li Shizhen, suggests that the name Zhong Kui (仲葵; zung6 kwai4) stemmed from the appellation of a mushroom. In his time, fungi were a cure to malaria, an illness believed to be sent by the plague demon. The belief that mushrooms could repel demons emerged, and eventually evolved into the legend of Zhong Kui as a spirit with the ability to defeat evil.

However, another Ming-dynasty scholar, Lang Ying, rejected this theory and instead suggested that Zhong Kui was the original name of Yao Xuan (堯暄; jiu4 hyun1), a governor who lived during the Northern Wei dynasty. In ancient China, most scholars had a “zi” (字; zi6; a nickname usually given to savants). Yao Xuan’s “zi” was “Bi Xie” (避邪; bei6 ce4) which, when literally translated, could mean “to ward off evil spirits.” Thanks to association, the governor’s given name became linked to demon-repelling abilities, and eventually became the Chinese mythology figure.

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Tragic beginnings

For someone dubbed the “king of demons,” one might imagine a great original feat, or powerful beginnings. In reality, Zhong Kui’s myth starts off more tragic and less glamourous than expected.

According to—yet another—legend, there once was a scholar called Zhong Kui who lived during the Tang dynasty. Despite his ghastly and dishevelled appearance, he was a kind-hearted man with great academic talent. One day, he travelled with his best friend from his hometown, Du Ping, to attend the state-wide imperial examinations held in the capital city of Chang’an (長安; coeng4 ngon1). Amazed by the sights of the city, he was in such a good mood that he decided to take a walk.

While strolling drown in the streets, he came upon a fortune-telling stall. The fortune teller gave the scholar a reading, anticipating that a grave misfortune would befall him. While he paid for the reading, Zhong Kui paid no attention to the warning, thinking it was ridiculous. He then proceeded to take the imperial exams.

Results came in and Zhong Kui scored the highest marks in his cohort! As he was about to be given the title of “Zhuangyuan” (狀元; zong6 jyun4; “valedictorian”)—and even maybe awarded a position in government—the emperor took one glance at the scholar and was shocked by his appalling appearance. Trusting no one this ugly could have been the top scorer, the emperor stripped Zhong Kui of his honours.

A mid-seventeenth-century painting of Zhong Kui. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One hell of a job

In another version, as Zhong Kui’s spirit arrived in Diyu (地獄; dei6 juk6; Chinese underworld or “Hell”), the underworld king Yan Wang saw potential in him. He pitied the top scorer’s fate, and how he was condemned to an afterlife in Hell for his grievances. Therefore, the judge decided to give him a job, and the “king of ghosts” title. Zhong Kui’s mission: hunt and capture demons, protecting mortals from evil spirits.

In a continuation of the story, Zhong Kui later returned to the living on Chinese New Year Eve. To express his gratitude for returning his body home, the demon slayer gave his young sister in marriage to his best friend.

Photo: Freer Gallery of Art

Rise to fame

Another story associated with Zhong Kui can be traced back to the Tang dynasty. According to legend, a gravely ill Emperor Xuanzong dreamed of ghosts. In one dream, a small ghost stole his flute and a purse from imperial consort Yang Guifei. A larger ghost, wearing an official’s hat, captured the smaller ghost, gouged its eyes, and devoured the miscreant. Turning to the emperor, the ghost then introduced itself as Zhong Kui and promised to rid the empire of all evil.

Confused, the emperor woke up from the dream miraculously recovered from his illness. Believing it to be a sign from the gods, he immediately commissioned the court painter to produce a portrait of Zhong Kui. The emperor used the portrait to pay respect to the god, and showed it to other officials, hence why, although the portrait has now been lost, it highly influenced depictions of the demon slayer in Chinese art and literature.

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Idioms and phrases

The legend of Zhong Kui has become so popular that his name and legend influenced Chinese language. His name takes up new meaning in different phrases and expressions. One is “to pretend that accomplishing a task needed great power, masquerading how simple it was” (打鬼借鍾馗; daa2 gwai2 ze3 zung1 kwai4). Another is used to describe someone who is kind-hearted despite having an ugly physical appearance (鍾馗為人; zung1 kwai4 wai4 jan4). In classic ghostbuster fashion, his name also influenced “ghost marriages” (鍾馗嫁妹; zung1 kwai4 gaa3 mui6) and a phrase designating “something so scary that even ghosts would avoid it” (鍾馗開飯店; zung1 kwai4 hoi1 faan6 dim3). Fun fact: this last one’s literal meaning suggests Zhong Kui is opening a restaurant!

Worship and rituals

As a demon slayer warding off evil spirits, it is no surprise that Zhong Kui’s worship is still widespread. Sometimes thought of as a guardian deity, or even a protective door god, believers will stick an image or portrait of the deity on the entrance to their homes. Although it could be displayed all year round, most people hang it up on Chinese New Year Eve to prevent bad luck from coming into their household before the coming year. Sometimes, the image is put up before Dragon Boat Festival in hopes to scare off the plague gods said to strike around summertime when the holiday falls.

In a Taiwanese ritual known as the “dancing Zhong Kui” (跳鍾馗; tiu3 zung1 kwai4; “jumping Zhong Kui”), a shaman dresses and impersonates the god. Equipped with a sword and exorcism tools, he acts out tricks that are believed to repel demons, including, but not limited to, fire-breathing and sword-swallowing. In the event of a shaman not being available, puppetry is a suitable substitute in an attempt to fend off an evil spirit.

Due to the grim nature of the ritual, it is not always performed for joyous reasons. In fact, it is commonly (and unsurprisingly) carried out on occasions that are associated with death, and in places where unfortunate accidents resulted in the loss of life. However, there are some instances where the ritual can be merry, such as the inauguration of a new temple or village. In those cases, shamans would pose as Zhong Kui to bring good luck and prosperity to the land, pre-emptively driving away evil spirits, demons, or misfortune.

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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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