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Chinese Mythology 101: Gods & deities

By Catharina Cheung 24 November 2020

Header image courtesy of Pop & Zebra (via Unsplash)

Ever passed by Man Mo Temple and thought about who people are celebrating, or wondered why there are so many Tin Hau temples all over the place? A basic understanding of Chinese gods might help unravel some of the mysticism. Traditionally, Chinese religion—absorbing from various cultures and beliefs—is polytheistic, where a pantheon of gods, goddesses, and deities are worshipped.

In general, such gods reveal and manifest the way of heaven (天; tin1), the ultimate highest idea of formless divinity, as opposed to the monolithic idea of God, or the vaguely conceptual location of heaven promulgated in Western ideology. Here are 12 gods and deities worshipped in Chinese culture that you should know about.

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Photo credit: 全真道士梁兴扬 (via sohu)

Gods & deities

In the Chinese worldview, there are innumerable gods. Each phenomenon that happens and each flow of energy (氣; hei3) can be attributed to a god, and they are all organised in a complex celestial hierarchy confusing to even most Chinese people. Because so many gods, along with Confucian and Taoist deities, as well as folk figures, are routinely worshipped as manifestations of heavenly energy, some scholars have proposed that instead of polytheism, “polypneumatism” might be a more apt description.

Depending on their lives and choices, common people can also be deified for their extraordinary deeds. Such deities usually have a cult centre and temple set up at the place where they lived, worshipped and maintained by locals. Chinese emperors did not pay much heed to the gods of common folk, but rather honoured heaven as a supreme ruler of all things, and styling themselves as “Sons of Heaven” (天子; tin1 zi2).

Language-wise, there are also subtle distinctions between the terms “san” (神), “dai” (帝), and “sin” (仙), even though they have all been used interchangeably to represent godly beings. In the interest of minimising confusion, it may be easier for the common reader to recognise “san” as a figure of god power, “dai” as a ruling deity born of those powers, and “sin” as a being who has achieved immortality and subsequently been deified.

Photo credit: Boston Museum of Fine Arts (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Jade Emperor (玉皇)

Known as the Jade Deity (玉帝; juk6 dai3), the Jade Emperor (玉皇; juk6 wong4), or the Great Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝; juk6 wong4 daai6 dai3), this is the human-like representation of one of the first Chinese gods. He was not responsible for the creation of the universe or of humans but is the supreme ruler of the pantheon of gods instead. He is known for the traits of benevolence, fairness, and mercy. The Yuk Wong Kung Din Temple (玉皇宮殿) in the A Kung Ngam (阿公岩) village of Shau Kei Wan is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, and his birthday is celebrated there on the eighth day of every lunar new year.

Photo credit: University of British Columbia (via Wikimedia Commons)
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Pangu (盤古)

Pangu (盤古) is known as the first living being and the creator of all in Chinese cosmology. In the very beginning, the universe was a formless and primordial state with nothing in it. This coalesced into a cosmic egg, which signifies absolute and infinite potential, and the perfect oneness before duality. Yin and yang became balanced in the egg, and eventually, Pangu emerged, often depicted as a hairy giant with horns on his head. He swung his axe and separated yin from yang, which created the earth and sky. To keep them separated, he then stood between the two and started pushing the sky upwards, growing ten feet taller each day.

After 18,000 years, Pangu’s task was completed and he died. His breath became the wind, mist, and clouds; his voice became thunder; his left and right eyes became the sun and moon; his head became the mountains and valleys; his blood became the rivers; his flesh became fertile land; his beard became the stars; his fur became forests and plants; his bones became minerals and jewels; his sweat became rain; and the fleas in his hide became the animals that roamed the world.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Catharina Cheung 24 August 2020
Photo credit: Portland Art Museum
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Xiwangmu (西王母)

The goddess Xiwangmu (西王母) is commonly referred to in English text as the Queen Mother of the West, and is an ancient being who holds power over longevity and eternal bliss. Some legends describe her as the wife of the Jade Emperor, and she is also in charge of giving human emperors the Mandate of Heaven, approving their rule over the Chinese world.

Xiwangmu is said to reside on the mythological Mount Kulun—which the modern Mount Kulun is named after—where she tends to the Peaches of Immortality. As their name suggests, eating these peaches (which only ripen every 3,000 years) will grant eternal life, and Xiwangmu was known to serve them to deserving guests at banquets. It is these very peaches which the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, steals and consumes in the popular tale Journey to the West, thereby receiving immortal powers.

Photo credit: Mythology & Folklore (via Amino Apps)
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Yanluo Wang (閻王)

Also known as Jim Wong (閻王) or sometimes Lord Yama, Yanluo Wang is the deity who rules over the underworld. His name is a shortened Chinese version of Yamarāja (閻魔羅社) in Sanskrit. Depicted with bright red skin, a long black beard, a menacingly stern expression, and accompanied by minions of hell, the fearsome Yanluo Wang is nevertheless a fair god. He records the names and allotted date of death for every person in the world and also acts as a judge for these souls when they die.

The guardians of hell, Ox-Head (牛頭) and Horse-Face (馬面), bring newly dead souls to Yanluo Wang for judgement, who will then be sentenced to either torture and atonement in hell, or sent on to a good next life in the cycle of reincarnation. People may be able to escape payback for their sins on earth, but no one can escape Yanluo Wang’s justice in the courts of hell. Thus, he is always evoked as a cautionary figure against wrongdoing.

Photo credit: @herschelian (via Wordpress)
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Guanyin (觀音)

One of the most well-known figures in Chinese mythology and religion, Guanyin (觀音) is the goddess of mercy and compassion, appearing as a key figure in many legends. According to the religious text Lotus Sutra, Guanyin can take any form, but in modern east Asia is most commonly depicted as a woman in white robes, holding a vase and a willow branch. Her common name was shortened from “Gun Sai Jam Pou Saat” (觀世音菩薩), which means “the bodhisattva who perceives the cries of the world.” As such, she hears people’s sorrows and woes and is the embodiment of empathy, kindness, and grace, a loving matriarchal figure.

It is said that because she works tirelessly to help those who call upon her name, praying devotedly to Guanyin will generate blessings. She is, therefore, one of the most beloved of all gods and deities. There is a temple dedicated to Guanyin near Kwun Tong and Lam Tin, and the most striking feature of the Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po is their 76-metre white statue of the goddess.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: 华艟 (via xw.qq.com)
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Wendi (文昌王) and Wudi (武帝)

Though mystical beings in their own right, this pair is best known for being the deities of civil and martial affairs. Wenchang Wang (文昌王; man4 coeng1 wong4), Wenchang Dijun (文昌帝君; man4 coeng1 dai3 gwan1), or simply Wendi (文帝; man4 dai3), is the deity of culture and literature. There is disparity as to who he was or where he might have lived, but legends agree that during his mortal life, Wendi was a scholar-bureaucrat who was uncorrupted, righteous, and just, blessing his jurisdictions with peace and stability. The Jade Emperor thus put him in charge of the elections of village elders.

The contrasting figure to Wendi is Wudi (武帝; mou5 dai3), also known as Guandi (關帝; gwaan1 dai3) or Guangong (關公; gwaan1 gung1), the deity of military and martial affairs. Non-scholars might better know him as Guanyu (關羽; gwaan1 jyu5), a military warlord during the Eastern Han dynasty. His war accomplishments and exploits with his sworn brothers Liu Bei and Zhang Fei have been widely popularised by the fourteenth-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. A widely glorified fighter who was both loyal and righteous, Wudi is still worshipped by many today, particularly by those whose line of work involves fighting.

Together, these two patron deities of civil and martial affairs are known as Wen Wu (文武)—or Man Mo in Cantonese. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, those seeking success in the imperial examinations, which were divided into civil and military components, would patronise Man Mo temples to pray to the appropriate deity for blessings. To this day, civil servants or hopeful students make offerings to Wendi, while policemen venerate Wudi. In Hong Kong, there are three Ma Mo temples, in Tai Po, Mui Wo, and most famously in Sheung Wan.

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Wong Tai Sin (黃大仙)

Originally hailing from Hangzhou, legend has it that Wong Tai Sin (黃大仙) was a poor shepherd who learned the way of Taoism from an immortal and, after years of solitary practise himself, also achieved miraculous feats and immortality. Though a cultural import, there is probably nowhere else where this deity is more famous than in Hong Kong. Interestingly enough, this was because a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner brought the image of Wong Tai Sin along to the city when he came to set up his business in the early nineteenth century. Customers would pray to the deity icon while in the shop, and many years later he had amassed such a large following that the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Sha Tin was established.

Photo credit: @kwhisky (via Instagram)
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Caishen (財神)

Known as the Chinese god of wealth and prosperity, Caishen (財神) is often invoked during Chinese New Year’s celebration, with people imploring the deity to be kind to them (and therefore their pockets) in the coming year. During spring cleaning, one is always told not to sweep their floors out toward their front doors, because Caishen might be hanging around and you might be literally sweeping him, and the wealth that he brings, straight out the door.

Being the god of material wealth also means he oversees the realms of a happy family and a secure and respectable job—this is why you can often see statues of Caishen in Chinese businesses. Despite the modern popular depiction of him as a portly man wearing red robes and a jovial smile, holding a gold ingot, according to older myth, he rides a black tiger and carries a magical rod that can turn stones and metals into gold.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

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Yue Lao (月老)

Shortened from Yue Xia Laoren (月下老人; jyut6 haa6 lou5 jan4), literally meaning “old man under the moon,” Yue Lao is the Chinese deity of love and marriage. He is a matchmaker, carrying around a red silk string which he uses to tie fated lovers together, appearing when the moon is in the sky. Even today, single people look to Yue Lao for cosmic guidance when seeking a romantic partner. There is a statue of this deity in Wong Tai Sin Temple, where lovers and hopeful romantics alike can go to pay respects.

Photo credit: Michael Shum (via Flickr)
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The Three Stars

These three deities collectively represent the top three traditional qualities of a good life: namely prosperity (福; fuk1; fú), status (祿; luk6; lù), and longevity (壽; sau6; shoù). The trio are often portrayed together in statues, paintings, and ornaments. Fuxing is usually depicted with children or sometimes a scroll; Luxing wears a Mandarin official’s robes and is associated with luck in passing imperial examinations; Shouxing is typically a bald old man carrying a walking stick and a peach of immortality. Instead of having dedicated temples, most Chinese people will have statues of the Three Stars in their homes or workplaces to bring good fortune.

Photo credit: Chinatravel
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Mazu (媽祖)

Mazu is seen as the Chinese goddess of the sea and is widely worshipped along coastal regions of China and Southeast Asia. She is also sometimes referred to as Tin Hau (天后) in Chinese mythology, meaning “Heavenly Empress.” As legend has it, she was a mortal girl born in Fujian who learned the Taoist arts and once saved her father and brother during a typhoon. After dying at a young age, she became the patron saint of fishermen in her home area, and the worship soon spread to other sea-faring folks.

Eventually, her fame grew enough that emperors had bestowed posthumous titles on her, and she became known as Tin Hau. Because Hong Kong is a coastal city which used to be mostly populated by fisherfolk, we have a large number of Tin Hau temples dotted across the territories, all dedicated to Mazu, who fishermen pray to for smooth voyages and a safe return to shore.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Chinaculture.org
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Lu Ban (魯班)

Lu Ban (魯班) is a skilled inventor and engineer from the Zhou dynasty period, though other versions of the story tell of a man from Gansu who built a kite that could lift him off the ground. He was credited with inventing the cloud ladder—a mobile, counterweighted contraption for sieges—grappling hooks, and the saw, among other tools. Nowadays, he is the patron deity of builders, carpenters, and contractors.

The only urban temple in Hong Kong dedicated to Lu Ban is the Lo Pan Temple in Kennedy Town, built by the Contractors Guild in 1884 with donations from tradesmen in the industry. This temple is also an architectural place of interest for its unusual jagged roof and is the temple with the largest number of mural paintings on Hong Kong Island. On the thirteenth day of the sixth lunar month, builders celebrate the Lo Pan Festival and journey up the 200 steps from Belcher’s Street in a pilgrimage to pray for safe work.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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