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Chinese Gods and Immortals
Complex of deities at an outdoors fountain-altar with incense burners at a pilgrimage area in Weihai, Shandong. At the centre stands Mazu surrounded by the four Dragon Gods () and various lesser deities. Distant behind Mazu stands the Sun Goddess ().
Chinese traditional religion is polytheistic; many deities are worshipped in a pantheistic view where divinity is inherent in the world. The gods are energies or principles revealing, imitating and propagating the way of Heaven (Tian?), which is the supreme godhead manifesting in the northern culmen of the starry vault of the skies and its order. Many gods are ancestors or men who became deities for their heavenly achievements; most gods are also identified with stars and constellations. Ancestors are regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society, and therefore as the means connecting back to Heaven, which is the "utmost ancestral father" ( z?ngz?fù).
Gods are innumerable, as every phenomenon has or is one or more gods, and they are organised in a complex celestial hierarchy. Besides the traditional worship of these entities, Confucianism, Taoism and formal thinkers in general give theological interpretations affirming a monistic essence of divinity. "Polytheism" and "monotheism" are categories derived from Western religion and do not fit Chinese religion, which has never conceived the two things as opposites. Since all gods are considered manifestations of ?qì, the "power" or pneuma of Heaven, some scholars have employed the term "polypneumatism" or "(poly)pneumatolatry", first coined by Walter Medhurst (1796-1857), to describe the practice of Chinese polytheism. In the theology of the classic texts and Confucianism, "Heaven is the lord of the hundreds of deities". Modern Confucian theology compares them to intelligences, substantial forms or entelechies (inner purposes) as explained by Leibniz, generating all types of beings, so that "even mountains and rivers are worshipped as something capable of enjoying sacrificial offerings".
The deification of historical persons and ancestors is not traditionally the duty of Confucians or Taoists, but depends on the choices of common people; persons are deified when they have made extraordinary deeds and have left an efficacious legacy. Yet, Confucians and Taoists traditionally may demand that state honour be granted to a particular deity. Each deity has a cult centre and ancestral temple where he or she, or the parents, lived their mortal life. There are frequently disputes over which is the original place and source temple of the cult of a deity.
In Chinese language there is a terminological distinction between ?shén, ?dì and ?xi?n. Although the usage of the former two is sometimes blurred, it corresponds to the distinction in Western cultures between "god" and "deity", Latin genius (meaning a generative principle, "spirit") and deus or divus; dì, sometimes translated as "thearch", implies a manifested or incarnate "godly" power.[note 1] It is etymologically and figuratively analogous to the concept of di as the base of a fruit, which falls and produces other fruits. This analogy is attested in the Shuowen Jiezi explaining "deity" as "what faces the base of a melon fruit". The latter term ?xi?n unambiguously means a man who has reached immortality, similarly to the Western idea of "hero".
God of Heaven
Like other symbols such as the swastika,wàn? ("myriad things") in Chinese, and the Mesopotamian ? Dingir/An ("Heaven"), and also the Chinese ?w? ("shaman"; in Shang script represented by the cross potent ?),Ti?n refers to the northern celestial pole ( B?ijí), the pivot and the vault of the sky with its spinning constellations. Here is an approximate representation of the Ti?nmén ("Gate of Heaven") or Ti?nsh? ("Pivot of Heaven") as the precessional north celestial pole, with ? Ursae Minoris as the pole star, with the spinning Chariot constellations in the four phases of time. According to Reza Assasi's theories, the wan may not only be centred in the current precessional pole at ? Ursae Minoris, but also very near to the north ecliptic pole if Draco (Ti?nlóng ) is conceived as one of its two beams.[note 2]
Chinese traditional theology, which comes in different interpretations according to the classic texts, and specifically Confucian, Taoist and other philosophical formulations, is fundamentally monistic, that is to say it sees the world and the gods who produce it as an organic whole, or cosmos. The universal principle that gives origin to the world is conceived as transcendent and immanent to creation, at the same time. The Chinese idea of the universal God is expressed in different ways; there are many names of God from the different sources of Chinese tradition.
The radical Chinese terms for the universal God are Ti?n? and Shàngdì (the "Highest Deity") or simply Dì? ("Deity"). There is also the concept of Tàidì (the "Great Deity"). Dì is a title expressing dominance over the all-under-Heaven, that is all things generated by Heaven and ordered by its cycles and by the stars.Ti?n is usually translated as "Heaven", but by graphical etymology it means "Great One" and a number of scholars relate it to the same Dì through phonetic etymology and trace their common root, through their archaic forms respectively *Tee? and *Tees, to the symbols of the squared north celestial pole godhead (D?ng?). These names are combined in different ways in Chinese theological literature, often interchanged in the same paragraph if not in the same sentence.
Names of the God of Heaven
Tian is known by many names. Besides Shangdi and Taidi, other names include Yudi ("Jade Deity"), and Taiyi ("Great Oneness") who, in mythical imagery, holds the ladle of the Big Dipper (Great Chariot) providing the movement of life to the world. As the hub of the skies, the north celestial pole constellations are known, among various names, as Ti?nmén ("Gate of Heaven") and Ti?nsh? ("Pivot of Heaven").
Other names of the God of Heaven are attested in the vast Chinese religio-philosophical literary tradition:
Ti?ndì --the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven": "On Rectification" (Zheng lun) of the Xunzi uses this term to refer to the active God of Heaven setting in motion creation;
Ti?nzh? --the "Lord of Heaven": In "The Document of Offering Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth on the Mountain Tai" (Fengshan shu) of the Records of the Grand Historian it is used as the title of the first God from whom all the other gods derive.
Ti?nhuáng --the "King of Heaven": In the "Poem of Fathoming Profundity" (Si'xuan fu), transcribed in "The History of the Later Han Dynasty" (Hou Han shu), Zhang Heng ornately writes: «I ask the superintendent of the Heavenly Gate to open the door and let me visit the King of Heaven at the Jade Palace»;
Ti?ng?ng --the "Duke of Heaven" or "General of Heaven";
Ti?nj?n --the "Prince of Heaven" or "Lord of Heaven";
Ti?nz?n --the "Heavenly Venerable", also a title for high gods in Taoist theologies;
Ti?nshén --the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen Jiezi as "the being that gives birth to all things";
Shénhuáng --"God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath");
Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature of things. In the Wujing yiyi (?, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:
Huáng Ti?n --"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
Hào Ti?n --"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
Mín Ti?n --"Compassionate Heaven", for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-Heaven;
Shàng Ti?n --"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-Heaven;
C?ng Ti?n --"Deep-Green Heaven", for it being unfathomably deep.
Yudi ( "Jade Deity") or Yuhuang ( "Jade Emperor" or "Jade King"), is the popular human-like representation of the God of Heaven.Jade traditionally represents purity, so it is a metaphor for the unfathomable source of creation.
Doumu ( "Mother of the Great Chariot"), often entitled with the honorific Tianhou ( "Queen of Heaven")[i] is the heavenly goddess portrayed as the mother of the Big Dipper (Great Chariot), whose seven stars in addition to two invisible ones are conceived as her sons, the Jiuhuangshen ( "Nine God-Kings"), themselves regarded as the ninefold manifestation of Jiuhuangdadi (?, "Great Deity of the Nine Kings") or Doufu ( "Father of the Great Chariot"), another name of the God of Heaven. She is therefore both wife and mother of the God of Heaven.
Pangu (), a macranthropic metaphor of the cosmos. He separated yin and yang, creating the earth (murky yin) and the sky (clear yang). All things were made from his body after he died.
Xiwangmu ( "Queen Mother of the West"),[ii] identified with the Kunlun Mountain, shamanic inspiration, death and immortality. She is the dark, chthonic goddess, pure yin, at the same time terrifying and benign, both creation and destruction, associated with the tiger and weaving. Her male counterpart is Dongwanggong ( "King Duke of the East";[iii] also called Mugong, "Duke of the Woods"), who represents the yang principle.
Yi the Archer (Hòuyì ) was a man who sought for immortality reaching Xiwangmu on her mountain Kunlun.
Yinyanggong ( "Yinyang Duke"[iii]) or Yinyangsi ( "Yinyang Controller"), the personification of the union of yin and yang.
Three Patrons and Five Deities
W?f?ng Shàngdì ? -- The order of Heaven inscribing worlds as tán?, "altar", the Chinese concept equivalent to the Indian mandala. The supreme God conceptualised as the Yellow Deity, and Xuanyuan as its human form, is the heart of the universe and the other Four Deities are his emanations. The diagram is based on the Huainanzi.
Statue and ceremonial complex of the Yellow and Red Gods in Zhengzhou, Henan.
Temple of the Three Officials of Heaven in Chiling, Zhangpu, Fujian.
S?nhuáng -- Three Patrons (or Augusts) or S?ncái -- Three Potencies; they are the "vertical" manifestation of Heaven spatially corresponding to the Three Realms ( S?njiè), representing the yin and yang and the medium between them, that is the human being:
Fúx? the patron of heaven ( Ti?nhuáng), also called B?guàz?sh? (? "Venerable Inventor of the Bagua") by the Taoists, is a divine man reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting.
N?w? the patron of earth ( Dehuáng), is a goddess attributed for the creation of mankind and mending the order of the world when it was broken.
Shénnóng -- Peasant God, the patron of humanity ( Rénhuáng), identified as Yándì ( "Flame Deity" or "Fiery Deity"), a divine man said to have taught the techniques of farming, herbal medicine and marketing. He is often represented as a human with horns and other features of an ox.
W?dì -- Five Deities, also W?f?ng Shàngdì (? "Five Manifestations of the Highest Deity"), W?f?ng Ti?nshén (? "Five Manifestations of the Heavenly God"), W?f?ngdì ( "Five Forms Deity"), W?ti?ndì ( "Five Heavenly Deities"), W?l?oj?n ( "Five Ancient Lords"), W?dàoshén ( "Five Ways God(s)"); they are the five main "horizontal" manifestations of Heaven and according with the Three Potencies they have a celestial, a terrestrial and a chthonic form. They correspond to the five phases of creation, the five constellations rotating around the celestial pole and five planets, the five sacred mountains and five directions of space (their terrestrial form), and the five Dragon Gods which represent their mounts, that is to say the material forces they preside over (their chthonic form).
Huángdì -- Yellow Emperor or Yellow Deity; or Huángshén -- Yellow God, also known as Xu?nyuán Huángdì (? "Yellow Deity of the Chariot Shaft"), is the Zh?ngyuèdàdì (? "Great Deity of the Central Peak"): he represents the essence of earth and the Yellow Dragon, and is associated with Saturn. The character ?huáng, for "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with ?huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", identifying the Yellow Emperor with Shangdi (the "Highest Deity"). Huangdi represents the heart of creation, the axis mundi (Kunlun) that is the manifestation of the divine order in physical reality, opening the way to immortality. As the deity of the centre, intersecting the Three Patrons and the Five Deities, in the Shizi he is described as "Yellow Emperor with Four Faces" (?Huángdì Sìmiàn). As a human, he is said to have been the fruit of a virginal birth, as his mother Fubao conceived him as she was aroused, while walking in the country, by a lightning from the Big Dipper (Great Chariot). She delivered her son after twenty-four months on the mount of Shou (Longevity) or mount Xuanyuan (Chariot Shaft), after which he was named. He is reputed to be the founder of the Huaxia civilisation, and the Han Chinese identify themselves as the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi.
C?ngdì -- Green Deity; or Q?ngdì -- Blue Deity or Bluegreen Deity, the D?ngdì ( "East Deity") or D?ngyuèdàdì (? "Great Deity of the Eastern Peak"): he is Tàihào , associated with the essence of wood and with Jupiter, and is the god of fertility and spring. The Bluegreen Dragon is both his animal form and constellation. His female consort is the goddess of fertility Bixia.
H?idì -- Black Deity, the B?idì ( "North Deity") or B?iyuèdàdì (? "Great Deity of the Northern Peak"): he is Zhu?nx? (), today frequently worshipped as Xuánw? ( "Dark Warrior") or Zh?nw? (), and is associated with the essence of water and winter, and with Mercury. His animal form is the Black Dragon and his stellar animal is the tortoise-snake.
Chìdì -- Red Deity, the Nándì (? "South Deity") or Nányuèdàdì (? "Great Deity of the Southern Peak"): he is Shennong (the "Divine Farmer"), the Yandi ("Fiery Deity"), associated with the essence of fire and summer, and with Mars. His animal form is the Red Dragon and his stellar animal is the phoenix. He is the god of agriculture, animal husbandry, medicinal plants and market.
Báidì -- White Deity, the X?dì ( "West Deity") or X?yuèdàdì (? "Great Deity of the Western Peak"): he is Sh?ohào (), and is the god of the essence of metal and autumn, associated with Venus. His animal form is the White Dragon and his stellar animal the tiger.
S?ngu?n or ?S?ngu?ndàdì -- Three Officials [of Heaven] or Three Officer Great Deities: Yao? the Official of Heaven (Ti?ngu?n ), Shun? the Official of Earth (Degu?n ), and Yu? the Official of Water (Shu?gu?n ).
In mythology, Huangdi and Yandi fought a battle against each other; and Huang finally defeated Yan with the help of the Dragon (the controller of water, who is Huangdi himself). This myth symbolises the equipoise of yin and yang, here the fire of knowledge (reason and craft) and earthly stability.Yan? is flame, scorching fire, or an excess of it (it is important to note that graphically it is a double ?huo, "fire"). As an excess of fire brings destruction to the earth, it has to be controlled by a ruling principle. Nothing is good in itself, without limits; good outcomes depend on the proportion in the composition of things and their interactions, never on extremes in absolute terms. Huangdi and Yandi are complementary opposites, necessary for the existence of one another, and they are powers that exist together within the human being.
Lóngshén -- Dragon Gods, or Lóngwáng -- Dragon Kings: also Sìh?i Lóngwáng (? "Dragon Kings of the Four Seas"), are gods of watery sources, usually reduced to four, patrons of the Four Seas (sihai ) and the four cardinal directions. They are the White Dragon ( Báilóng), the Black Dragon ( Xuánlóng), the Red Dragon ( Zh?lóng), and the Bluegreen Dragon ( Q?nglóng). Corresponding with the Five Deities as the chthonic forces that they sublimate (the Dragon Gods are often represented as the "mount" of the Five Deities), they inscribe the land of China into an ideal sacred squared boundary. The fifth dragon, the Yellow Dragon ( Huánglóng), is the dragon of the centre representing the Yellow God.
Wéndi -- Culture Deity, or Wénch?ngdì -- Deity who Makes Culture Thrive, or Wénch?ngwáng -- King who Makes Culture Thrive: in southern provinces this deity takes the identity of different historical persons while in the north he is more frequently the same as Confucius (K?ngf?z? )
Kuíx?ng -- Chief Star, another god of culture and literature, but specifically examination, is a personification of the man who awakens to the order of the Great Chariot
W?dì -- Military Deity: Gu?ndì -- Divus Guan, also called Gu?ng?ng -- Duke Guan,[iii] and popularly Gu?ny?[ii]
Another class is the Zhànshén -- Fight God, who may be personified by Ch?yóu () or Xíngti?n (, who was decapitated for fighting against Tian)
Chénghuángshén -- Moat and Walls God, Boundary God: the god of the sacred boundaries of a human agglomeration, he is often personified by founding fathers or noble personalities from each city or town[ii]
Chénjìngg? -- Old Quiet Lady, also called ?Línshu? F?rén -- Waterside Dame[v]
Taiwanese wooden icon of the Queen of the Earth (Houtu).
The worship of mother goddesses for the cultivation of offspring is present all over China, but predominantly in northern provinces. There are nine main goddesses, and all of them tend to be considered as manifestations or attendant forces of a singular goddess identified variously as the Lady of the Blue Dawn (Bìxiá Yuánj?n?, also known as the Ti?nxi?n Niángniáng?, "Heavenly Immortal Lady", or Tàish?n Niángniáng?, "Lady of Mount Tai",[viii] or also Ji?ti?n Shèngm??, "Holy Mother of the Nine Skies"[ix]):149-150 or Houtu, the goddess of the earth. Bixia herself is identified by Taoists as the more ancient goddess Xiwangmu, The general Chinese term for "goddess" is n?shén, and goddesses may receive many qualifying titles including m? (? "mother"), l?om? ( "old mother"), shèngm? ( "holy mother"), niángniáng ( "lady"), n?inai ( "granny").
The additional eight main goddesses of fertility, reproduction and growth are::149-150; 191, note 18
?B?nzh?n Niángniáng, the goddess who protects children from illness;
?Cu?sh?ng Niángniáng, the goddess who gives swift childbirth and protects midwives;
?N?im? Niángniáng, the goddess who presides over maternal milk and protects nursing;
?Péig? Niángniáng, the goddess who cultivate children;
?Péiy?ng Niángniáng, the goddess who protects the upbringing of children;
?Y?ngu?ng Niángniáng, the goddess who protects eyesight;
?Y?nméng Niángniáng, the goddess who guides young children.
Altars of goddess worship are usually arranged with Bixia at the center and two goddesses at her sides, most frequently the Lady of Eyesight and the Lady of Offspring.:149-150; 191, note 18 A different figure but with the same astral connections as Bixia is the Goddess of the Seven Stars (?Q?x?ng Niángniáng).[x] There is also the cluster of the Holy Mothers of the Three Skies (?S?nxi?o Shèngm?; or ?S?nxi?o Niángniáng, "Ladies of the Three Stars"), composed of Yunxiao Guniang, Qiongxiao Guniang and Bixiao Guniang. The cult of Chenjinggu present in southeast China is identified by some scholars as an emanation of the northern cult of Bixia.
Other goddesses worshipped in China include Cánm?[xi] ( Silkworm Mother) or Cáng? ( Silkworm Maiden), identified with Léiz? (, the wife of the Yellow Emperor), Mág? ( "Hemp Maiden"), S?oq?ng Niángniáng (? Goddess who Sweeps Clean),[xii]S?nzh?u Niángniáng (? Goddess of the Three Isles), and Wusheng Laomu. Mother goddess is central in the theology of many folk religious sects.
Gods of northeast China
Northeast China has clusters of deities which are peculiar to the area, deriving from the Manchu and broader Tungusic substratum of the local population. Animal deities related to shamanic practices are characteristic of the area and reflect wider Chinese cosmology. Besides the aforementioned Fox Gods ( Húxi?n), they include:
Huángxi?n -- Yellow Immortal, the Weasel God
Shéxi?n -- Snake Immortal, also variously called Li?xi?n -- Immortal Liu, or Chángxi?n -- Viper Immortal, or also M?ngxi?n -- Python or Boa Immortal
Báixi?n -- White Immortal, the Hedgehog God
H?ixi?n -- Black Immortal, who may be the W?y?xi?n -- Crow Immortal, or the Hu?xi?n -- Rat Immortal, with the latter considered a misinterpretation of the former
Sìmiànshén -- "Four-Faced God", but also a metaphor for "Ubiquitous God": The recent cult has its origin in the Thai transmission of the Hindu god Brahma, but it is important to note that it is also an epithet of the indigenous Chinese god Huangdi who, as the deity of the centre of the cosmos, is described in the Shizi as "Yellow Emperor with Four Faces" (?Huángdì Sìmiàn).
Xiàngtóushén -- "Elephant-Head God", is the Indian god Ganesha
Genghis Khan (?Chéngjís?hán), worshipped by Mongols and Chinese under a variety of divinity titles including ?Shèngw? Huángdì -- "Holy Military Sovereign Deity", ?F?ti?n Q?yùn "Starter of the Transmission of the Law of Heaven", and Tàiz? -- "Great Ancestor" (of the Yuan and the Mongols).
^The term "thearch" is from Greek theos ("deity"), with arche ("principle", "origin"), thus meaning "divine principle", "divine origin". In sinology it has been used to designate the incarnated gods who, according to Chinese tradition, sustain the world order and originated China. It is one of the alternating translations of ?dì, together with "emperor" and "god".
^Whether centred in the changeful precessional north celestial pole or in the fixed north ecliptic pole, the spinning constellations draw the wàn? symbol around the centre.
Notes about the deities and their names
^ abcThe honorific Ti?nhòu ( "Queen of Heaven") is used for many goddesses, but most frequently Mazu and Doumu.
^ abcdefgThe cult of this deity is historically exercised all over China.
^ abcdeAbout the use of the title "duke": the term is from Latin dux, and describes a phenomenon or person who "conducts", "leads", the divine inspiration.
^ abcdefghijklmnopqrstThe cult of this deity is historically exercised in northern China. It is important to note that many cults of northern deities were transplanted also in southern big cities like Hong Kong and Macau, and also in Taiwan, with the political changes and migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
^ abcdeThe cult of this deity is historically exercised in southeastern China.
^The cult of Mazu has its origin in Fujian, but it has expanded throughout southern China and in many northern provinces, chiefly in localities along the coast, as well as among expatriate Chinese communities.
^As the Lady of Mount Tai, Bixia is regarded as the female counterpart of Dongyuedadi, the "Great Deity of the Eastern Peak" (Mount Tai).
^The "Nine Skies" ( Ji?ti?n) are the nine stars (seven stars with the addition of two invisibile ones, according to the Chinese tradition) of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot. Thus, Bixia and her nine attendants or manifestations are at the same time a metaphorical representation of living matter or earth, and of the source of all being which is more abstractly represented by major axial gods of Chinese religion such as Doumu.
^Qixing Niangniang ("Lady of the Seven Stars") is a goddess that represents the seven visible stars of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot.
^The cult of Canmu is related to that of Houtu ("Queen of Earth") and to that of the Sanxiao ("Three Skies") goddesses.
^Saoqing Niangniang ("Lady who Sweeps Clean") is the goddess who ensures good weather conditions "sweeping away" clouds and storms.
^Pregadio (2013), p. 504, vol. 1, A-L: "Each sector of heaven (the four points of the compass and the center) was personified by a di? (a term which indicates not only an emperor but also an ancestral "thearch" and "god")".
^Mair, Victor H. (2011). "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China". In Krech, Volkhard; Steinicke, Marion (eds.). Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe: Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives. Leiden: Brill. pp. 85-110. ISBN9004225358. pp. 97-98, note 26.
^Cheu, Hock Tong (1988). The Nine Emperor Gods: A Study of Chinese Spirit-medium Cults. Time Books International. ISBN9971653850. p. 19.
^DeBernardi, Jean (2007). "Commodifying Blessings: Celebrating the Double-Yang Festival in Penang, Malaysia and Wudang Mountain, China". In Kitiarsa, Pattana (ed.). Religious Commodifications in Asia: Marketing Gods. Routledge. ISBN113407445X.
^Little & Eichman (2000), p. 250. It describes a Ming dynasty painting representing (among other figures) the Wudi: "In the foreground are the gods of the Five Directions, dressed as emperors of high antiquity, holding tablets of rank in front of them. [...] These gods are significant because they reflect the cosmic structure of the world, in which yin, yang and the Five Phases (Elements) are in balance. They predate religious Taoism, and may have originated as chthonic gods of the Neolithic period. Governing all directions (east, south, west, north and center), they correspond not only to the Five Elements, but to the seasons, the Five Sacred Peaks, the Five Planets, and zodiac symbols as well. [...]".
Feuchtwang, Stephan (2016), "Chinese religions", in Woodhead, Linda; Kawanami, Hiroko; Partridge, Christopher H. (eds.), Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations (3nd ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 143-172, ISBN1317439600