From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities

From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities

by Xueting Christine Ni


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China is an immense land with a history spanning thousands of years, and its needs and problems are perhaps too many for a single deity to watch over. This book begins to explore the veritable army of gods, immortals, and deities to whom the Chinese have turned for help, support, and intervention--not just in the annals of history but also in the bustling modern world.

From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao offers fascinating insight into the complex interweaving of China's main religions and folklore and the way the gods themselves have evolved to meet changing challenges, finding their way from scriptures and statues to vouchers and videogames. Author Xueting Christine Ni recounts the stories of 60 Chinese gods and goddesses, selected from across the spectrum of China's mythical beings, deified heroes, gods, goddesses, and immortals. They derive from Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folklore, as well as revered sages and protective deities from other traditions. Get to know Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy; Zhong Ku, the demon slayer; Tian Hou, the goddess of the sea; the beloved Monkey King, and a host of other Chinese deities, both ancient and modern.

In addition to exploring the origins and rituals of this eclectic pantheon, this book also looks at how, in a country that has undergone a myriad of changes and upheavals, its gods and goddesses have never been more than a whisper away.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578636259
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,190,962
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Xueting Christine Ni was born in Guangzhou, during China's "re-opening to the West". Having lived in cities across China, she emigrated with her family to Britain at the age of 11, where she continued to be immersed in Chinese culture, alongside her British education, realising ultimately that this gave her a unique a cultural perspective, bridging her Eastern and Western experiences. After graduating in English Literature from the University of London, she began a career in the publishing industry, whilst also translating original works of Chinese fiction. She returned to China in 2008 to continue her research at Central University of Nationalities, Beijing. Since 2010, Xueting has written extensively on Chinese culture and China's place in Western pop media, presenting publicly in collaboration with companies, theatres, institutions and festivals. Having worked on manhua, poetry, documentaries and science fiction, she continues her literary translation of China to the West, with a mission to help improve understanding of Chinese heritage, culture and innovation, and introduce its wonders to new audiences. Xueting currently lives in the suburbs of London with her partner and their cat, both of whom are learning Chinese. You can find out more about her work from her website:

Read an Excerpt


Creator Gods

Creation myths are a fundamental part of any people's belief system, anywhere in the world. Apart from making the world and its inhabitants, these gods had the responsibility of protecting their creations from cataclysmic destruction during primeval times. In the Chinese pantheon, these roles were fulfilled by two gods, the giant Pan Gu, who fashioned the world, and the goddess Nü Wa, creator and savior of humanity.



The Daoist religion, which grew out of China's earliest folk religions and shamanism, believes that the universe and all things in it originate from a single primeval force or element called Yuan Qi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This force or element originated from a perfect, original, incorruptible being named Yuan Shi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), who existed before the birth of the universe and was regarded as the supreme god in the Daoist pantheon. Long after the inception of this myth, during the time of the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE), the creation myth of Pan Gu appeared in the work of the Wu Kingdom historian Xu Zheng (220–265 CE).

The myth of Pan Gu tells of creation coming forth from the splitting open of a cosmic egg, within which resided the deity. Xu Zheng describes it thus in his San Wu Li Ji:

Heaven and earth were opaque as an egg, and Pan Gu lay within. After 18,000 years had passed, the egg split open. All that was light and clear became the sky. All that was heavy and murky became the ground. And Pan Gu stood between them. ... He gave his spirit to the sky. He gave his wisdom to the earth. The sky grew ten feet higher each day. The ground grew ten feet thicker each day. The sky became very high. The ground, very deep.

Daoist practitioners adopted the mythical giant Pan Gu as their Yuan Shi — the elemental original force — then various other creation myths arose to fill in the rest of the story. One told how, when Pan Gu died, his left eye became the sun and his right eye the moon. His hair and beard became the night sky and the stars; his body and limbs became the four corners of the earth. His teeth formed the huge mountain ranges that ringed the states; his bones and marrow became the minerals in the ground. Pan Gu's skin and hair became the earth and the grass, while his sweat and blood fell as rain and flowed as rivers, which eventually merged to form the seas. Thus the body of Pan Gu was the origin, and provided for the distribution of Yuan Qi throughout the world.

When Pan Gu became a god, his legend became more detailed and elaborate. In another work, Xu Zheng describes him as having a dragon's head and a snake's body. His breath summoned the wind, rain, thunder, and lighting. When he opened his eyes, it was day; when he closed them, it was night. The legend of Pan Gu was carried through the ages by works like the novel Accounts of Strange Things (Shu Yi Ji) by Liang Ren Fang (508–460 BCE). By the Ming era, the tale had evolved even more. In the Ming Dynasty compilation Deities Through the Ages (Li Dai Shen Xian Tong Jian or San Jiao Tong Yuan Lu), Pan Gu splits the world open with an axe. This work and How the World Began and Continued (Kai Pi Yan Yi) by 17th-century novelist Zhou You extended the legend again, presenting Pan Gu as the ultimate ancestor of humankind. After his mortal existence, the spirit of Pan Gu traveled the skies and encountered Tai Yuan Sheng Nü, the primeval female being. He dived into her mouth and came out through her spine as an Immortal. With her, he sired three major gods, two of whom in turn spawned the five great ancestors of humanity.

Pan Gu is an important deity, not so much because he is the head of the Daoist pantheon, but because he is a timeless mythical hero who is deeply imprinted in the nation's consciousness. As the world's creator, he is China's ideal type of hero — one who built the world through complete self-sacrifice. The Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, expresses similar sentiments in its lyrics: "Let our flesh and blood construct our new Great Wall." Today, the Pan Gu creation myth is studied as part of the national curriculum in China, and retold by generation after generation with the aid of colorful and enticing children's books and cartoons.

Pan Gu is usually drawn as a muscular, powerfully built, hirsute giant (his hair being a part of the creation story). Sometimes, he is curled up inside the primeval egg. When in the act of separating the sky and the ground, his body is tactfully covered by either a loincloth or a particularly well-placed curling cloud. The Ming version of the myth seems to have stuck, however, and Pan Gu is often shown carrying his world-splitting axe. This is especially true with the popularity in China of Western fantasy narratives like Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and Thor. In older paintings and Daoist icons, Pan Gu is shown with horns on his head, holding heaven and earth in his hands.

You can find old temples to Pan Gu all over China and in Chinese-speaking regions around the world, with as many as 220 in some provinces. The major temples are in Xin Zhu, Taiwan, and Cang Zhou in He Bei, where a village has been named after the god, as well as the local port. Devotees visiting from abroad later added a grave for Pan Gu, where they could pay their respects and give thanks for his sacrifice.

On the borders between Yu Nan and Mi Yang, in He Nan, is Tong Bai Pan Gu Temple, which marks the spot where the giant is said to have stood when he first pried heaven and earth apart. The temple was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but in the 1970s and 1980s, local villagers formed the Pan Gu Society and expressed their love for this mythical ancestor by rebuilding the temple themselves. Incense was lit again and the temple fairs resumed. In 2006, a giant statue of Pan Gu was commissioned that was shipped 400 miles from the Nan Jing studio of the sculptor, Wu Xian Lin.

Temples to Pan Gu are still being built today, like the one in Shen Zhen, a relatively new city. You can also visit the Seed of Pan Gu in Shao Guan, Guang Dong — a giant, entirely natural phallic stone that is part of the region's protected red stone national heritage site. Thousands flock each year to pray for fertility from the seed of the world's procreator. The custom of holding festive temple fairs with re-enactments and lion dances has recently been revived, with events in some regions supported by the local councils that present the god very much as a symbol of their indigenous culture.

Contemporary devotees in many fields have adopted Pan Gu's name, including fantasy writers and the makers of jail-breaking software. The spirit of Pan Gu is also represented by the eponymous punk band from Jiang Xi, rather boringly known as Punk God in English.



If there is one deity that comes immeditely to mind for the Chinese, it is Nü Wa. While Pan Gu is the formidable giant who created the world, Nü Wa saved it from destruction. She also created humankind. Here is her story as generations of Chinese have heard it told through the magic of bedtime stories.

A long, long time ago, just after the world was first created, a mythical being with the upper body of a woman, the horns of an ox, and the lower body of a serpent wandered the earth. She found it a beautiful place. But she felt alone and longed for the company of beings like herself to share all the wondrous things in the world. One day, as she mused by the banks of a river, she scooped up some mud with her hands and, glancing at her reflection in the water, fashioned it into images of herself. She decided to give the images legs instead of a serpent's tail so they could walk.

When Nü Wa placed the figures on the riverbank, they came to life and their prancing made the goddess laugh and filled her heart with joy. She worked day and night trying to create enough of these delightful little beings to fill the world, but she was soon exhausted. So she took a length of vine, dipped it in mud, and whirled it in the air. Droplets of mud fell from the vine and transformed into more dancing figures as they touched the ground. The goddess was content. Little did she know that, soon, she would have her hands full.

The god of water, Gong Gong, was fighting with the god of fire, Zhu Rong, in a contest for control of their realm. Having lost the battle, Gong Gong was so ashamed that he struck his head continuously against Mount Bu Zhou, the Pillar of Heaven. It came crashing down, tearing a great hole in the sky. Fire and water spewed from the heavens, flooding some parts of the earth and setting other parts on fire. Nü Wa's creations fled in desperation from destroyed homes and farms. Unable to bear their suffering and the destruction of the exquisite world she loved, she resolved to save them.

Nü Wa gathered stones of five colors from riverbeds and melted them into a viscous substance with which she patched up the gaping hole in the heavens and repaired the broken firmament. To give the skies extra support, she took the legs of a giant turtle and placed them on the four points of the compass. Gathering ashes from the burning reeds, she built dams to stop the flooding waters. Although Nü Wa had saved the earth and humankind, traces of this upheaval left its mark on the landscape, for it had caused the heavens to tilt to the northwest, leaving a void in the southeast. This is why all the rivers in China flow to the east.

Even in the children's stories of today, Nü Wa is presented as sensible, wise, and benevolent. In these tales, Gong Gong is one of her subjects in charge of administering punishments. His violent temper eventually turned him into a rebel, and he challenged the minister Zhu Rong to a fight that ended up irrevocably damaging the world.

The earliest renditions of the Nü Wa myth present her as a mystical ruler of the Chinese people who succeeded her brother, Fu Xi, as sovereign around 2900 BCE. Traditionally, Fu Xi has been associated with Nü Wa during the Han Dynasty, when the pair frequently appeared on funeral stone bas-reliefs with human upper bodies and intertwined serpentine lower bodies. Fu Xi holds the sun or the compass and Nü Wa holds the moon or the carpenter's square. The image symbolizes the harmony of the universe, between the Yin and Yang, with Fu Xi as Nü Wa's husband and Nü Wa his assistant. In this book however, I focus on Nü Wa, the creator of human beings, as the far more interesting story and to bring a major female goddess, too long overshadowed by her male counterpart, to the forefront. Variations of her appearance include her having the head of an ox. Despite her only partly human physique, however, she possessed all the virtues of a divine sage, according to China's first great historian, Si Ma Qian (145–87 BCE), in his famous 8th-century Shi Ji (Historical Records).

While Pan Gu was a giant of great strength who sacrificed every fiber of himself, Nü Wa was a brave, intelligent, and kind matriarch. In children's tales, her serpentine lower body is often glossed over and she is rarely illustrated with horns on her head, as these features are considered inconsistent with her motherly image. In fact, these elements of her appearance are a reflection of prehistoric animal and totem worship. While her appearance may share some commonalities with spirits in Greek mythology — like the lamia — creatures like spiders, toads, and bats, which typically connote dark and evil forces in Western culture, are often auspicious and powerful symbols in traditional Chinese beliefs.

Although Nü Wa is full of love for humankind, she is not a deity to be trifled with. She watches over the human world and has powerful sway in the course of history. The widely influential Ming fantasy novel Feng Shen Yan Yi (Investiture of the Gods) by Xu Zhong Lin (circa 1560–1630), which molded the images of many Chinese deities in the popular consciousness, starts with the premise that Zhou Wang, the last ruler of Shang, incurred the wrath of this goddess.

In the novel, after succeeding to the throne, Zhou Wang rules peacefully for six years. In the seventh year, however, news comes of rebellion. At the instigation of the imperial tutor, Zhou Wang visits the temple of Nü Wa on her feast day to ask the goddess for help. When he approaches the statue of the goddess, he is mesmerized by her beauty, so much so that he impetuously leaves a love poem on the temple wall, refusing to rectify his behavior even when reminded by ministers that he should be praying for the prosperity of his country, the well-being of his people, and their protection from natural and man-made disasters.

On this day, the goddess descends from heaven and is furious to see the poem on the wall. She summons all the demons under her sovereignty and chooses three of the most deadly — a 1,000-year-old fox spirit, a nine-headed bird spirit, and a scorpion spirit — and charges them with the task of misleading Zhou Wang and aiding his rival's efforts to take his place. Thus begins a story of battles and quests of gods, men, and demons. Eventually, the Shang Dynasty was toppled, just as surely as the tyrant had been 600 years before — with the aid of the same goddess.

My first memories of Nü Wa in children's tales are of a strong-armed goddess with flowing black hair and skin the color of the earth from which she had created humankind. In our contemporary search for relatable, yet authentic, representations of the goddess, her upper body — including her head — is pretty consistently depicted as human, rather than bovine. Her serpent's tail, however, is displayed in its full glory in a lot of contemporary artwork.

In depictions today, she stands strong amid a landscape of falling giant rocks, chaotic lights, and raging torrents — like a steady ray of light in the collapsing darkness. Her arms open wide, sending huge rocks up toward the firmament, the one thing standing in the way of the destruction of the world. She usually wears very little, yet the exposure of her breasts and voluptuous figure never appears lewd. Rather it supplements her power and glory. This is unusual in traditional Chinese culture, which prefers willowy femininity and favors a subtle, discrete appreciation of the body, which is usually covered up.

Countless artists have posted their own interpretations of Nü Wa mending the sky on the Internet. Sculptures and statues of the goddess in variations of this image adorn memorials around the country, where Nü Wa cultural festivals are often celebrated with re-enactment dances and ritual ceremonies on the goddess's feast day, the fifteenth day of the third lunar month. You can visit the biggest statue, a bronze figure that stands sixteen meters high on the Nü Wa Mountains in Zhu Shan county, Hubei, the location where she is said to have repaired the heavens. May is the best time to visit. Thanks to recent legislation, all women can enter free of charge during the week that begins with the Chinese Mother's Day as part of Veneration of Motherhood Week.

Today, the Chinese are coming to realize the importance of preserving their heritage and take pride in their indigenous culture. So, like Pan Gu, Nü Wa enjoys great fame. Domestic online role-playing games (RPGs) like Wang Zhe Rong Yao (King Pro League) feature her as a major character with powerful attack capabilities that include remote assault as well as the ability to use magic. Online poetry journals that focus on China's literary heritage have borrowed her name. Ping Li County in Shaan Xi, one of the eight major tea-producing regions in the Tang Dynasty and provider of imperial tribute teas, has named their entire range of green tea after the goddess. The range includes high-quality and rare varieties like Long Jing, Mao Feng, Yun Wu, and Yin Feng.

Nü Wa recently appeared in Cheang Pou-soi's 2014 movie Monkey King, yet another retelling of a famous episode in the Journey to the West (1592) in which Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, wreaks havoc in heaven (see chapter 10). The film follows the original novel, in which the chaotic monkey spirit is born from a 1,000-year-old stone — one of the very stones the goddess had used to repair the heavens and thus imbued with her magic. Today, an Internet series based on The Nü Wa Diaries net novel by Ling Wu Shui Xiu, which tells a comic story of young gods transplanted into contemporary China, is being filmed in Shanghai. The animated series has already been released.


Excerpted from "From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Xueting Christine Ni.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction xiii

Chapter 1 Creator Gods 3

Pan Gu, The Origin 3

Nü Wa, Mother of Humankind 6

Chapter 2 Xi Wang Mu, The Supreme Goddess 13

Chapter 3 Kuan Yin, Goddess of Universal Mercy 17

Chapter 4 Nature Deities 23

Hou Tu, Lady Earth 23

Tu Di Ye, Grandfather Earth 26

Lei Gong, Lord of Thunder 28

Lei Gong and Dian Mu: Lord of Thunder and Mother Lightning 32

Feng Bo, Uncle Wind 33

Yu Shi, Master of Rain 35

Chapter 5 Chang'E, Lady of the Moon, and Other Lunar Spirits 39

Chapter 6 Guardians of the Netherworld 47

Yan Wang, Lord of the Underworld 48

Hei Bai Wu Chang, Soul Hunters 50

Meng Po, Guardian of the Last Gate 53

Chapter 7 Gods of Prosperity and Good Fortune 57

Wen Cai Shen, Patron of Scholars' Wealth 58

Wu Cai Shen, Patron of Military Fortunes 59

Wu Lu Shen, Gods of Household Prosperity 60

Chapter 8 Gods of the Household 63

Men Shen, Door Guardians 63

Zao Shen, Kitchen God 67

Chuang Shen, Protectors of Sleep 71

Liu Hai Chan, The Golden Toad 73

Chapter 9 Gods of Invention 77

Cang Jie, Father of Chinese Writing 77

Huang Di, The Yellow Emperor 80

Shen Nong, The Divine Farmer 86

Chapter 10 Protectors and Guardian Spirits 91

Cheng Huang, Guardian of the City 91

Guan Yu, Lord of Loyalty and Justice 95

Ji Gong, The Mad Monk 100

Tian Hou, Celestial Queen of the Sea 103

Wong Tai Sin, Immortal of Crimson Pine 107

Zhong Kui, The Demon Slayer 110

Ne Zha, Child. Hero, Reborn Protector 115

Zi Gu, Goddess of the Toilet 118

Chong Wang, Patron of Pest Control 120

Sun Wu Kong, The Monkey King 122

Chapter 11 Gods of Health and Happiness 127

Fu Shen, God of Good Fortune 128

Lu Shen, God of Success 129

Shou Xing, God of Longevity 130

He He Er Sheng, The Sages of Harmony 133

Wen Chang, God of Scholarly Success 135

Yue Lao, The Old One Under the Moon 141

Chapter 12 Patrons of Trades and Crafts 145

Du Kang, Immortal of Wine 145

Lei Zu, Mother of Silk 148

Li Yuan Shen, Patron of Performing Arts 151

Lu Ban, Master Maker and God of Crafts 154

Mei Gei Sages, Patrons of Cloth-Dying 158

Yao Shen, Spirits of the Kiln 160

Bai Mei Shen, Guardian of Sex Workers 164

Chapter 13 Immortal Sages 167

Kong Fu Zi, Confucius 167

Lao Zi, The Old Sage 170

Lu Yu, The Tea Sage 174

Chapter 14 The Eight Immortals 179

Tie Guai Li, Iron Crutch Li 180

Han Zhong Li, The Mad Daoist 183

Zhang Guo Lao, Immortal Trickster 185

Lü Dong Bin, Celestial Swordsman 188

He Xian Gu, Celestial Healer 191

Lan Cai He, Immortal Songster 196

Han Xiang Zi, Green-Fingered God of Gardening 198

Cao Guo Jiu, Immortal Statesman 201

Chapter 15 Tian Long Ba Bu 203

Chapter 16 Dragons Everywhere 207

Chapter 17 Chairman Mao, Benefactor of the East 213

Bonus Deity: Ma Shen, Horse Gods 217

Appendix A Calendar of Chinese Festivals 221

Appendix B Timeline of Chinese Dynasties and Periods 223

Bibliography 227

Endnotes 229

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