GODS AND SPIRITUAL BEINGS IN CHINA

SPIRITUAL BEINGS IN CHINA

20080219-demon quller Zhing Kui by Ging Kai 1222-1304 u wash.jpg
Demon killer Zhing Kui
Chinese generally recognize three different kinds of spiritual beings; 1) ancestors, generally benign dead relatives; 2) ghosts, the angry souls of people who died in accidents or without getting married; and 3) gods, in many cases the souls of dead people who lived such meritorious lives they developed spiritual powers which they can use to help others.

One Asian scholar told National Geographic, "The best educated and the illiterate alike, believe exactly what the emperors believed. They believe in the morality propounded by Confucius. They are in awe of vague Buddhism. Above all, they bow to the spirits of their ancestors and to many others; to the spirit of great men; to the spirits of the sky and the fields, of the trees and of the animals; to the spirits good and evil and changeable in between."

Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. Ghost are regarded as dangerous, particularly to children. They bring sickness and other problems. Great effort is made to avoid creating ghosts. If someone dies in an accident or is unmarried at the time of their death efforts are made to appease them so they do not cause trouble for the living. Seasonal rituals are held to appease them. God are generally honored and petitioned for help in various matters.

“Ghosts” are souls that remain on earth harassing and causing trouble for the living. They are thought to be souls that failed to reach the afterlife because of some problem they encountered on their journey; a lack of a proper send off by their living relatives on earth; or tragic circumstances surrounding their death or life. Special rituals are often held to send these ghosts to their afterlife destination. See Ghosts, Superstitions

Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include Shou Hsing (God of Longevity), Fu Hsing (God of Happiness), Lu Hsing (God of High Rank), Tsai She (God of Wealth), Pao Sheng (God of Medicine), Ju Lai Of (God of Luck), Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility), Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates. Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Animism


Kitchen God

Chinese belief in spirits can be categorized as animism. Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima, the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.

Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too---mountains, special rocks and landscape formations---have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive dies its spirit has to go somewhere.

The nineteenth-century Dutch scholar Jan J. M. de Groot emphasized this interpretation of the Chinese worldview, claiming that “animism” was an apt characterization of Chinese religion because all parts of the universe -- rocks, trees, planets, animals, humans -- could be animated by spirits, good or bad.” As support for that thesis he quotes a disciple of Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar): “Between Heaven and Earth there is no thing that does not consist of yin and yang, and there is no place where yin and yang are not found. Therefore there is no place where gods and spirits do not exist.” [Source: Jan J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith, 6 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892-1910), 4:51; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos ]

“Gods” in Chinese Religion

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The complicated term “god,” in the sense either of a being believed to be perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness or a superhuman figure worthy of worship, does not correspond straightforwardly to a single Chinese term with a similar range of meanings. Instead, there are general areas of overlap, as well as concepts that have no correspondence, between the things we (in the West) would consider “gods” and specific Chinese terms. Rather than pursuing this question from the side of modern English usage, we begin with the important Chinese terms and explain their range of meanings. [See the topic The Emperor in the Cosmic Order for a related discussion on the concept of “Heaven.”] [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“According to Chinese popular religion, there are three domains in the cosmos -- Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld -- and each domain is populated by a host of important gods and goddesses. The Heavenly Domain is ruled by the Jade Emperor, who presides over a court of important deities who are worshipped throughout China. Human beings who have lived exemplary lives can enter this domain after death by crossing the “the silver bridge” and being reborn as gods. <|>

“Ordinary people treated most gods with a mixture of awe and an interest in negotiation. The gods were prayed to and worshipped, but they could also be bribed and appeased with offerings and gifts. The gods sometimes left Heaven to visit the Earthly Domain, and though they were not supremely powerful, they did have the power to help and hurt people in the Earthly Domain. The gods also had their foibles and could be capricious and get angry. One had to take care to not agitate the gods and work hard to remain on their “good side.”“ <|>

Chinese Spirits

The writer and dissident Liao Yiwu met one man in prison who was there because he burned his wife alive, convinced she was possessed by an evil dragon. The man converted to Christianity and prayed everyday, “hoping that evil dragon will not come back and harm people again."

Some villagers say that ghosts no longer exist because Mao got rid of them in 1957. Even so, to hedge their bets perhaps, they wear charms with clusters of old coins. “The more coins the more you can avoid unclean ghosts," one village women told the writer Amy Tan.

Many Chinese believe in animals spirits. The fox spirit is particularly well known. So too are the rabbit and snake. Some people protect their house from the fox's influence with a circle incense.

Many Chinese believe that certain people have the ability to see the spirit world. Clairvoyants are called mingbairen, “those who understand." They were discouraged in the Mao era but have made a comeback in recent years.

Shen, Spirits, and the Spiritual

According to Asia for Educators: “One of the terms crucial to understanding Chinese religion is shen, which in this unit is translated with different versions of the English word “spirit.” Below, these three words are analyzed separately as consisting of three distinct spheres of meaning, but one should keep in mind that the three senses are all rooted in a single Chinese word. They differ only in degree or realm of application, not in kind. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]


spirit of the well

“The first meaning of shen is confined to the domain of the individual human being: it may be translated as “spirit” in the sense of “human spirit” or “psyche.” It is the basic power or agency within humans that accounts for life. To extend life to full potential the spirit must be cultivated, resulting in ever clearer, more luminous states of being. In physiological terms “spirit” is a general term for the “heavenly souls,” in contrast to the yin elements of the person. <|>

“The second meaning of shen may be rendered in English as “spirits” or “gods,” the latter written in lowercase because Chinese spirits and gods need not be seen as all-powerful, transcendent, or creators of the world. They are intimately involved in the affairs of the world, generally lacking a perch or time frame completely beyond the human realm. An early Chinese dictionary explains: “Shen are the spirits of Heaven. They draw out the ten thousand things.” [Source: Shuowen jiezi, Xu Shen (d. 120), in Shuowen jiezi gulin zhengbu hebian, ed. Duan Yucai (1735-1815) and Ding Fubao, 12 vols. (Taibei: Dingwen shuju, 1977), 2:86a.] <|>

“As the spirits associated with objects like stars, mountains, and streams, they exercise a direct influence on things in this world, making phenomena appear and causing things to extend themselves. In this sense of “spirits,” shen are yang and opposed to the yin class of things known in Chinese as gui, “ghosts” or “demons.” The two words put together, as in the combined form guishen (“ghosts and spirits”), cover all manner of spiritual beings in the largest sense, those benevolent and malevolent, lucky and unlucky. In this view, spirits are manifestations of the yang material force, and ghosts are manifestations of the yin material force. <|>

Shen in its third meaning can be translated as “spiritual.” An entity is “spiritual” in the sense of inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts. The Classic of Changes states, “‘Spiritual’ means not measured by yin and yang.” [Source: Zhouyi yinde, Harvard-Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series, Supplement no. 10 (reprint ed., Taibei: Ch’eng-wen Publishing Co., 1966), p. 41a.]<|>

“Things that are numinous cross categories. They cannot be fathomed as either yin or yang, and they possess the power to disrupt the entire system of yin and yang. A related synonym, one that emphasizes the power of such spiritual things, is ling, meaning “numinous” or possessing unusual spiritual characteristics. Examples that are considered shen in the sense of “spiritual” include albino members of a species; beings that are part-animal, part-human; women who die before marriage and turn into ghosts receiving no care; people who die in unusual ways like suicide or on battlefields far from home; and people whose bodies fail to decompose or emit strange signs after death. <|>

“The fact that these three fields of meaning (“spirit,” “spirits,” and “spiritual”) can be traced to a single word has important implications for analyzing Chinese religion. Perhaps most importantly, it indicates that there is no unbridgeable gap separating humans from gods or, for that matter, separating good spirits from demons. All are composed of the same basic stuff, qi, and there is no ontological distinction between them. Humans are born with the capacity to transform their spirit into one of the gods of the Chinese pantheon.” <|>

Jade Emperor and the Bureaucracy of Heaven


Daliuren

According to Asia for Educators: “ The Jade Emperor (Yuhuang or Yudi) was considered to be the ruler of Heaven. He was thought to be like a human emperor, in that he ruled over a heavenly court populated by all the important gods of China. For many years it has been a truism that the Chinese conception of gods is based on the Chinese bureaucracy, and that the social organization of the human government is the essential model that Chinese people use when imagining the gods. At the apex of the divine bureaucracy stands the Jade Emperor in Heaven, corresponding to the human Son of Heaven (Tianzi, another name for emperor) who rules over Earth. The Jade Emperor is in charge of an administration divided into bureaus, and each bureaucrat-god takes responsibility for a clearly defined domain or discrete function. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“The local officials of the celestial administration are the Gods of Walls and Moats (also called the City Gods), one per locality, and below them are the Gods of the Hearth (also called the Stove or Kitchen gods), one per family, who generate a never-ending flow of reports on the people under their jurisdiction. They are assisted in turn by gods believed to dwell inside each person’s body, who accompany people through life and into death, carrying with them the records of good and evil deeds committed by their charges. The very lowest officers (also known as the ten Magistrates of Hell) are those who administer punishment to deceased spirits passing through the purgatorial chambers of the Underworld. They too have reports to fill out, citizens to keep track of, and jails to manage. <|>

“Bureaucratic logic is also a striking part of Chinese iconography, temple architecture, and ritual structure. For peasants who could not read in traditional times, the bureaucratic nature of the gods was an apodictic matter of appearance: gods were dressed as government officials. Their temples are laid out like imperial palaces, which include audience halls where one approaches the god with the proper deportment. Many rituals involving the gods follow bureaucratic procedures. Just as one communicates with a government official through his staff, utilizing proper written forms, so too common people depend on literate scribes to write out their prayers, in the correct literary form, which are often communicated to the other world by fire. <|>

“It is important to note, however, that recent scholarship has begun to criticize the generalization that most Chinese gods are bureaucratic, raising questions about the way in which the relation between the human realm and the divine realm should be conceptualized. Should the two realms be viewed as two essentially different orders, with one taking priority over the other? Should the two bureaucracies be seen as an expression in two spheres of a more unitary conceptualization of power? Is the attempt to separate a presumably concrete social system from an allegedly idealized projection wrong in the first place? Other studies suggest that some of the more significant deities of Chinese religion are not approached in bureaucratic terms at all. <|>

Gods in the Jade Emperor’s Court


Ming-era painting of the Jade Emperor

According to Asia for Educators: “The gods at the Court of the Jade Emperor were important deities who were worshipped throughout China. For example, every village had a village temple where many gods were worshipped, including one major god who was the protector or patron of that village. Different gods and goddesses were worshipped from village to village, but it was understood that all these gods actually resided in Heaven, at the Court of the Jade Emperor. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

Important gods at the Jade Emperor’s Court included Mazu (or Tian Hou, “Empress of Heaven”), who was associated with the sea and thought to be a protector of fishermen, and Guan Yu (or Guandi, “Emperor Guan”), who was linked to warfare and military valor. Both Mazu and Guan Yu were believed to have been mortals who had led exemplary lives and became gods after death. Mazu is said to have been an exceptional young woman named Lin Moniang who lived during the 10th century; Guan Yu was a famous warrior of the late Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 CE). <|>

“In theory human beings who had led exemplary lives had a chance to become gods in the afterlife. After being escorted to the Underworld by the local City God and standing in judgment before one of the ten Magistrates of Hell, an exemplary soul could be released from the Underworld and choose to cross the Silver Bridge into Heaven, which would mean that he or she would be reborn as a god. It was generally understood, however, that very few people ever had the opportunity to leave the Underworld this way.” <|>

Mazu


Mazu

The Goddess of the Sea — known as Mazu or Matsu in Fujian Province and Taiwan, and Tianhau or Tian Hou in Hong Kong and Guangdong — is popular in coastal areas. Mazu is regarded as a protector of fishermen. Many Chinese fishing vessels carry a shrine dedicated to her. is believed to have been a mortal who led an exemplary life and became a god after death. She is said to have been an exceptional young woman named Lin Moniang who lived during the 10th century. According to legend she used her powers to predict the weather and save fishermen from storms. Thousands visit a shrine dedicated to her on Meizhou Island.

In 2009, Mazu and customs associated with her were inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “As the most influential goddess of the sea in China, Mazu is at the centre of a host of beliefs and customs, including oral traditions, religious ceremonies and folk practices, throughout the country’s coastal areas. Mazu is believed to have lived in the tenth century on Meizhou Island, where she dedicated herself to helping her fellow townspeople, and died attempting to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck. [Source: UNESCO =]

“Local residents built a temple in her honour and began to venerate her as a goddess. She is celebrated twice each year in formal temple fairs, when Meizhou residents, farmers and fisherfolk temporarily suspend their work to sacrifice marine animals, venerate statues of Mazu and enjoy a variety of dances and other performances. Smaller worship ceremonies take place throughout the year in the other 5,000 Mazu temples around the world and in private homes; these may involve floral tributes; candles, incense and firecrackers; and evening processions of residents bearing ‘Mazu lanterns’. Followers may implore the god for pregnancy, peace, the solution to a problem or general well-being. Deeply integrated into the lives of coastal Chinese and their descendants, belief in and commemoration of Mazu is an important cultural bond that promotes family harmony, social concord, and the social identity of these communities.” =

Guan Yu

Guan Yu (or Guandi, “Emperor Guan”) is a god linked to warfare and military valor. He is believed to have been a mortal who led an exemplary life and became a god after death. Guan Yu was a famous warrior of the late Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 CE). <|>


Peking Opera Guan Yu

Guan Yu along with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei are the “Three Heroes” of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a popular historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th Century based on some real-life historical figures and events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era, starting in A.D. 168 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.

In the early part of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”: the sworn brothers Guan Yu, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei swear allegiance to the Han Dynasty (in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden) and pledge to do their best to serve the emperor and the common people. However, their goals and ambitions are been realized till the later part of the novel. [Source: foreignercn.com <^> ]

In “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, according to foreignercn.com. “Sun Quan, tired of Liu Bei’s repeated refusals to hand over Jingzhou, made plans to retake it. He made peace with Cao Cao and was bestowed the title of Prince of Wu. Liu Bei left his sworn brother Guan Yu in charge of Jingzhou, and Guan led the Jingzhou troops to attack Cao Cao. Sun Quan took advantage of the situation and sent Lu Meng to seize Jingzhou. Lu Meng disguised his troops as merchants and finessed a quiet entry. As Guan was besieging Wei general Cao Ren, Lu Meng's forces attacked Guan from the rear, and routed his army with ease. In desperate retreat, his army scattered, Guan Yu was captured. Sun Quan had him beheaded after he refused to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bei. Liu Bei deeply grieved the death of Guan Yu and the loss of Jingzhou. He was already planning to avenge Guan Yu when he heard that his other sworn brother, Zhang Fei, had been murdered in his sleep by subordinates who then fled to Eastern Wu. Liu Bei was determined to avenge both brothers. Disregarding advice from Zhuge Liang and others, Liu Bei led a formidable army of 750,000 to attack East Wu.” <^>

Local Deities in China

The god Fachu is worshiped by people who are recovering from an illness or who want to succeed in business. He is particularly revered by tea merchants. On Fuchu's birthday worshipers go to a temple and present his image with two red "turtle" rice cakes that represents payment plus interest for a wish granted in the previous year.

The Dragon King is a popular deity in Shaanxi Province. A visitor to a temple honoring the god told Newsday, “I pay respects to the Dragon King. If you have a problem, you come here and cast lots. That can tell you how to solve your problems.

In the village of Xialing in Guangdong Province, peasants make offerings at roadside altars to wooden images of the Heaven Mother and the King of Three Mountains. Villages say the gods are not connected to Taoism or Buddhism but are local deities that "bring the village prosperity, harmony, wealth and strong children."

Many households have statues or other objects associated with deities. These objects are not regarded as bought but rather are “invited” into one's home in the belief they will bring good fortune.

Guanyin (Kuan-yin)

20080219-guanyin 8th century.jpg
8th century Guanyin
Guanyin (Kuanyin), the Goddess of Mercy, is arguably the most popular deity in China. Found in Buddhist and Taoist temples and on family altars at home but regarded as a Buddhist goddess, she is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is usually represented sitting on a lotus blossom. The lotus symbolizes purity because it grows from dirty water without getting dirty. Some say Guanyin was originally the God of Mercy. He became the Goddess of Mercy after the introduction of Christianity to China as an answer to the Virgin Mary. Others say Guanyin was a real person who lived in southwestern China around 300 B.C. and was killed by her father because she refused to marry the man he wanted her to marry. According to legend, after she died she transformed hell into paradise and was permitted by the God of the Underworld to return to earth. During her nine year stay on earth she performed many deeds and miracles, including saving her father.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Kuan-yin (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara), also known as Kuan-shih-yin ("Beholder of All Sounds") or Kuan-tzu-tsai ("Sovereign Beholder") represents the Bodhisattva of the Ten Stages in Mahayana Buddhism. The belief in Kuan-yin originated in India and entered China and spread rapidly after the third century and divided into the three forms of Sutrayana, Tantrayana, and Sinified. The image of Kuan-yin in the "Universal Gate Chapter of the Kuan-yin Bodhisattva" in The (Sublime Dharma of the) Lotus Sutra in the National Palace Museum collection belongs to the Sutrayana system. The Kuan-yin Sutra represents a classic example of the Tantrayana type, its Kuan-yin image belonging to the esoteric Kuan-yin form. The sinification of Kuan-yin belief was much influenced by popular literature, giving rise to various forms with incarnations having as many as 32 or 33 heads. To this day, many temples and monasteries are dedicated to Kuan-yin throughout the country. Known as the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, countless numbers of followers have called upon this deity for salvation and intervention. Kuan-yin thus has become one of the most well known bodhisattvas in the Mahayana (popular) sect of Buddhism. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“The first translation into Chinese of the "Lotus Sutra," which contains a chapter devoted to Kuan-yin, was completed in 286 by Dharmaraksa, marking the introduction of this deity to China. Over the following 1700 years, learned monks have translated more than eighty scriptures associated with Kuan-yin. To further propagate the belief in this deity in China, non-orthodox scriptures based on Buddhist canons (sutras) have been written, countless collections of miracle tales have been compiled, and many stories and legends have been spread. Through the slow yet steady process of sinification, the male form of Kuan-yin as originally seen in Indian art gave way to the female one of motherly compassion. Popularly known as the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan-yin evolved from foreign origins to become an integral part of Chinese culture. \=/

Types of Kuan-yin in China


Guanyin of a Thousand Arms

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In China, the belief in Kuan-yin is varied and complex. Overall, however, three types may be observed; the exoteric ("general"), esoteric ("secret"), and sinified (Chinese) types of Kuan-yin. The images associated with these types also differ accordingly. The exoteric Kuan-yin type is based on the general sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, such as The Kuan-yin Chapter of the "Lotus Sutra," the "Avatamsaka Sutra," and the "Amitabha Sukhavativyuha" This Kuan-yin has a single head and two arms, wears a crown adorned with a Buddha, and often holds such objects as a lotus blossom, a willow branch, a water vase, rosary beads, or a water cup. To this day, many temples and monasteries are dedicated to Kuan-yin throughout the country. Known as the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, countless numbers of followers have called upon this deity for salvation and intervention. Kuan-yin thus has become one of the most well known bodhisattvas in the Mahayana (popular) sect of Buddhism. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“The esoteric Kuan-yin type is based on such esoteric Buddhist canons as "Sutra of the Eleven-headed Kuan-yin," "Sutra of the Thousand-armed Kuan-yin of Great Compassion," and the "Cundi Sutra." This Kuan-yin either has one head and many hands or many heads and many hands, which are often shown holding ritual objects of various kinds to relieve suffering and provide salvation. Examples in this exhibition include "Kuan-yin of Great Compassion" attributed to Fan Ch'iung and "Cundi" by a Ming artist. The sinified form of Kuan-yin is based on Chinese texts, miracle tales, pao-chuan ("precious scrolls" folk literature), and native stories and legends. \=/

“The image of this Kuan-yin form was strongly influenced by popular fiction and includes such varieties as the White-robed Kuan-yin, Kuan-yin Bestowing Children, Kuan-yin of the Fish Basket, and the South Sea Kuan-yin. Furthermore, in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it was popularly believed that Kuan-yin (according to descriptions in The 25 Great Ones from the "Surangama Sutra" and The Kuan-yin Chapter from the "Lotus Sutra") could transform at will and appear in more than thirty human forms to expound the Buddhist faith. At the time, compilations of 32 and 33 forms of Kuan-yin images were collected to create the 32 Manifestations of Kuan-yin and the 33 Manifestations of Kuan-yin. Most of these images are not found in orthodox sutras and thus reflect one of the most concrete expressions of the sinification of Kuan-yin. \=/

Earth God and Gods of the Household and Earthly Domain

According to Asia for Educators: “According to Chinese popular religion, there are three domains in the cosmos -- Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld -- and each domain is populated by a host of important gods and goddesses. The Earthly Domain is quite crowded, with ordinary people as well as a great assortment of deities that interact with people in a variety of ways. [Source: adapted from Richard J. Smith, “China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912,” 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 178-79; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Traditional Chinese homes reflected beliefs in a complex religious world. They were served by religious agents such as priests and geomancers and protected by a host of deities and guardian figures. The majority, at least in South China, had an altar to the household Lord of the Earth or Earth God (Tudi Gong) on the floor outside the door, a niche for the Heavenly Official (Tianguan) above it, and a place for the God of the Hearth or Kitchen God (Zao Jun) near the cooking stove. Wealth gods might be located in the hall or the main room of the house, along with Guanyin (the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) or another patron deity. But the focal point of religious life in virtually every Chinese home was the ancestral altar, located in the principal room. Earth Gods, like Kitchen Gods, were often represented as a married couple, reinforcing the notion that these gods of the Earthly Domain were very close to human beings, both in terms of proximity and life patterns.” <|>

The Earth God was a local protective deity and a subordinate of the City God (see below). Every village had its own Earth God, every neighborhood had its own Earth God, and many families had their own Earth God as well. Unlike the major gods and goddesses found in the village temples, such as Mazu or Guan Yu, each village’s Earth God was a separate entity. That is, Mazu was worshipped at many different village temples, but she was understood to be one goddess who resides in Heaven at the Court of the Jade Emperor. Each village, on the other hand, had its own Earth God who was different from the next village’s Earth God. The two gods were not emanations of one Earth God in Heaven. Rather, Earth Gods were thought to live amongst and interact with human beings. [Source: adapted from “China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912,” by Richard J. Smith; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

Kitchen God and His Wife


Kitchen God

According to Asia for Educators: “One of the most important deities of the Earthly Domain was the Kitchen God (or Zao Jun, also known as the Hearth God or the Stove God). Every family had its own Kitchen God, who was considered to be that particular family’s guardian. The Kitchen God was an important intermediary between a family and other important gods. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“The Kitchen God was sometimes referred to as the Stove God, and this points to the importance of this god to family life, as the stove was thought to represent the unity of the family. In late-imperial China there was a process known as “family division,” in which two brothers who were both married and had children could decide that they can no longer live together practically as one family and want to split up into two families. When this happened, at least one of the brothers had to dedicate a new Kitchen God, for two families could not share one Kitchen God. <|>

“The Kitchen God was often represented with his wife, or, as shown in the image at right, with his two wives. Paper images such as these had a special place above the family’s stove. It was widely held that once a year, just before the Lunar New Year, the Kitchen God went to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. The family “sent” its Kitchen God to Heaven to make his report by burning the paper image that had hung over their stove for the entire year. But in order to ensure a good report before the Jade Emperor, a bit of honey would first be rubbed on the lips of the paper god, so that he would have only sweet things to say to the Jade Emperor (or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth, and no bad news would get out). <|>

Chinese City God


Spirit that clears the way

According to Asia for Educators: “Every major city had a City God (or Chenghuang Ye, “Lord of the Wall and Moat”) appointed by the imperial government, and by government statute every administrative seat had a City God temple. Like his subordinate the Earth God, each City God was a unique entity, and every city had a different City God. Popularly considered the human magistrate’s supernatural or divine counterpart, the City God was as an important religious link between state and society. The state encouraged the belief of most people that the City God occupied an important position in a pantheon of gods organized in a supernatural hierarchy paralleling that of the imperial government. A City God was usually considered to be the reincarnation of a human being who had been an official in earlier times.[Source: adapted from “China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912,” by Richard J. Smith; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“The City God was thought to change every three years, just as a living magistrate would change office every three years. Both the magistrate and the god held sway over the same administrative area -- the magistrate attending to this-worldly affairs and the City God to the supernatural. The magistrate, depending on one’s interpretation, either paid formal reverence to the City God or worshipped him, and was expected to appeal to the City God for supernatural assistance during droughts, floods, or other crises beyond direct human control. Among other duties the City God had the responsibility of dispatching the souls of the dead in his district to the Underworld realm. One of the most spectacular annual events in both rural and urban China was the City God’s “birthday,” which would draw tens of thousands of people in a procession that would march through the city that was his jurisdiction.”<|>

“The City God cult represented a kind of symbolic meeting point between official religion and popular religion. Official worship of the deity involved solemn, dignified ceremonies in which only officials and degree holders could participate. These activities helped legitimize the state in the eyes of the common people and preserved local status distinctions. But popular worship of the City God had no such purpose and involved no such explicit distinctions. Individuals prayed to him for any and all kinds of favors (especially good health), and the ceremonies for the City God on his “birthday” and during his thrice-yearly tours of the city were among the largest, most impressive, and most widely observed public activities in traditional Chinese community life. On these occasions, the City God temple and its environs bustled with all kinds of activity: markets; theatrical performances; the selling of food; huge crowds; the noise of firecrackers, gongs, and drums; and the burning of incense. Most of these features were not to be found in the austere ritual of official religions.

Taoist Deities


Wen Chung, Minister of Thunder

Taoism is a polytheist religion. Taoists believes that the universe can be divided into two parts, human being and gods. The latter can also be further divided into smaller groups, such as gods and ghosts. Each kind of god has its highest commander. The highest revered god is personalized into "San Qiang" gods, i.e. Yu Qing, Shang Qing, and Tai Qing. Tai Qing is Laozi, the legendary founder of Taoism.

Pure Taoism doesn't dwell on an all-knowing, all-powerful God, or even nature spirits, rather it deals with "nonbeing," the "unity of experience," and "oneness" with chi. Taoism's association with gods is mainly the result of its associations with Chinese folk religions.

There are thousands of Taoist gods. Some are holy men. Others occupy rivers, streams and mountains. Most have individual responsibilities and specific powers and abilities to grant wishes in particular areas of expertise. Taoists who need something pray to the appropriate deity in special shrines called departments or halls in Taoist temples.

Most Taoist gods are associated with a spot in the external world and a corresponding spot on the inside of man and often have a role in preventing disease. The position of Taoist deities in a large pantheon often mirrors those of secular officials in a bureaucracy. Many Chinese cities to this day have a temple dedicated to the City God, the heavenly equivalent of a mayor.

Important Taoist Deities and Immortals


Taoist immortal

Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include Shou Hsing (God of Longevity), Fu Hsing (God of Happiness), Lu Hsing (God of High Rank), Tsai She (God of Wealth), Pao Sheng (God of Medicine), Ju Lai Of (God of Luck), Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility), Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates. Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.

Goddesses, female saints, manifestations of yin play an important role in Taoism. The five legendary emperors, including the great Yellow Emperor, are given prominent roles too. At the top of heap is the all powerful “Greatest One”---described as the “Celestial Venerable of the Mysterious Origin” of the Taoist trinity. The other two members of the trinity are the “August Ruler of the Tao” and the “August Old Ruler." Lao-tze is regarded as the incarnation of the “August Old Ruler."

The Eight Immortals are key figures in Taoism. They include 1) Chung Li Chu, a figure from the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220), who helped feed thousands of people; 2) Lun Tung-pin, an official who traveled widely and helped the poor and exorcized evil demons; 3) Lan Tsa-ho, a poet and singer who sang about life and giving money to the poor; 4) Tsao Kuo-chi; 5) The aforementioned Western Royal Mother, or Heavenly Empress who possessed the peach of immortality, which all the immortals need to retain their immortality. Many Taoist gods have bushy eyebrows. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars in the Great Bear, are also important.

Should Confucius Be Worshipped as a God?

According to Asia for Educators: “There was a debate over many centuries at the highest levels of government in China as to whether Confucius should be made a god. Many scholars were opposed to this idea for a variety of reasons, one key reason being that they did not want Confucius to be represented as something other than a human being acting according to the highest standards of human behavior. The competing notion held that if Confucius were not made a god, people would not ask him for favors, and there was a danger of him becoming irrelevant. For most ordinary people, however, Confucius was already considered to be a deity, and people frequently went to the Confucian temples in their city and prayed for good results in the civil service examinations. Confucius was also considered by many to be the patron deity of the literati, along with Kui Xing and Wen Chang, who were also important Confucian scholars. Many people prayed to all these deities for success in the civil service examinations. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]


Confucius, Laozi and The Buddha

“In considering the State Cult, a question is whether emphasis should be on ritual or on religion -- on the symbolic expression of those social and political values given emphasis in state ideology, or on the worship of the supernatural. For many Chinese thinkers in the Confucian tradition, there was a natural order linking humanity to the rest of the cosmos, which, as a totality, operated on moral principle. Humans are endowed with a nature that is good, and only selfish desires and passions place them in conflict with the (or their) natural order. <|>

“Confucius himself stressed the use of ritual and sacrifice as means to inculcate values of ethical and social importance for the living; rituals thus were used to encourage greater conformity to this natural order, rather than to express dependence on the supernatural. The arrangement of state ritual largely was compatible with such Confucian views; the focus of sacrifice and reverence was on natural forces or historical sages represented as inscribed tablets and not personified by images (which, in contrast, were the focus of Buddhist and Daoist temples). Whether these beliefs were “religious” has been a matter of some debate. However they may be characterized, these elite convictions did contrast with the beliefs in the supernatural held by the masses and indeed by many if not most officials and degree-holders.” <|>

Image Sources: Demon killer, University of Washington; 6) Guanyin, wikipedia; Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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