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Chinese traditional religion is polytheistic; many deities are worshipped as part of a pantheistic worldview in which divinity is inherent in the world. The gods are energies or principles revealing, imitating and propagating the way of Heaven (天, Tian), which is the supreme godhead, the northern culmen of the skies and its order. Many gods are ancestors, that is to say men who were deified for their heavenly achievements; most gods are also identified with stars and constellations.
Gods are innumerable, as every phenomenon has or is one or more gods. Besides the traditional worship of these entities, Confucianism and Taoism give theological interpretations and arrange the deities in complex hierarchies (this is especially true for Taoist schools). Also folk religious sects may incorporate them in their theological systems. Like ancient Greek gods, they are conceived as similar to human beings or capable of taking human form.
While most Chinese worship or respect a number of deities in the celestial hierarchy, the formal thinkers in Chinese theological thought have asserted 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.
Complex of deities at an outdoors fountain-altar with incense burners at a pilgrimage area in Weihai, Shandong. At the centre stands Mazu umbegone by the four Dragon Gods (龍神) and various lesser deities. Distant behind Mazu stands the Sun Goddess (太陽神).
In Chinese language there is a terminological distinction between 神 shén, 帝 dì and 仙 xiān. 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 仙 xiān 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 卍 ("all things") in Chinese, and the Mesopotamian 𒀭 Dingir/An ("Heaven"),Tiān refers to the northern celestial pole, the pivot and the vault of the sky with its spinning constellations. Here is an approximate representation of the Tiānmén 天門 ("Gate of Heaven") or Tiānshū 天樞 ("Pivot of Heaven") as the precessional north pole with the Chariot constellations in the four phases of time.
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 Tiān 天 and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Highest Deity") or simply Dì 帝 ("Deity"). There is also the concept of Tàidì 太帝 (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.Tiān 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 *Teeŋ and *Tees, to the symbols of the squared north celestial pole (dīng 口). These names are articulated and combined in different ways in Chinese theological literature.
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 Tiānmén 天門 ("Gate of Heaven") and Tiānshū 天樞 ("Pivot of Heaven").
Other names of the God of Heaven are attested in the vast Chinese religio-philosophical literary tradition:
Tiānshén 天神, the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) as "the being that gives birth to all things";
Shénhuáng 神皇, "God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath");
Tiāndì 天帝, the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven";
A slang Chinese term is Lǎotiānyé (老天爺), "Old Heavenly Father".
Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature of things. In the Wujing yiyi (五經異義, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:
Huáng Tiān 皇天 —"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
Hào Tiān 昊天—"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
Mín Tiān 旻天—"Compassionate Heaven" for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-heaven;
Shàng Tiān 上天—"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-heaven;
Cāng Tiān 蒼天—"Deep-Green Heaven", for it being unfathomably deep.
Yudi (玉帝 "Jade Deity") or Yuhuang (玉皇 "Jade Emperor" or "Jade King"), meaning the human-like representation of Tian. Jade traditionally represents purity, so it is a metaphor for the unfathomable source of creation.
Doumu (斗母 "Mother of the Great Chariot"), often entitled with the honorific Tianhou (天后 "Queen of Heaven")[i] is the heavenly goddess representing the Big Dipper (Great Chariot), which seven stars in addition to two not visible ones are the Jiuhuangdadi (九皇大帝 "Nine Great Divine Kings") her sons. She is the consort of Shangdi, also named Doufu (斗父 "Father of the Great Chariot").
Pangu (盤古), a macranthropic metaphor of the cosmos. He separated yin and yang creating the earth (murky yin) and the sky (clear yang), and from his body all things were made after he died.
Xiwangmu (西王母 "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 (東王公 "King Duke of the East";[iii] also called Mugong, 木公 "Duke of the Woods"), who represents the yang principle.
Yi the Archer (Hòuyì 后羿) was a man who sought for immortality reaching Xiwangmu on her mountain Kunlun.
Yinyanggong (陰陽公 "Yinyang Duke"[iii]) or Yinyangsi (陰陽司 "Yinyang Controller"), the personification of the union of yin and yang.
Three Patrons and Five Deities
The natural order emanating from Heaven inscribing worlds as tán 壇, "altar", the Chinese concept equivalent to the Indian mandala. The traditional Chinese cosmology shows Huangdi (the Four-Faced God), embodiment of Shangdi, as the hub of the universe and the other Four Deities as his emanations. The diagram illustrated above 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.
三皇 Sānhuáng — Three Patrons (or Augusts) or 三才 Sāncái — Three Potencies; they are the "vertical" manifestation of Heaven spatially corresponding to the Three Realms (三界 Sānjiè), representing the yin and yang and the medium between them, that is the human being:
伏羲 Fúxī the patron of heaven (天皇 Tiānhuáng), also called Bāguàzǔshī (八卦祖師 "Venerable Inventor of the Bagua") by the Taoists, is a divine man reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting.
女媧 Nǚwā the patron of earth (地皇 Dehuáng), is a goddess attributed for the creation of mankind and mending the order of the world when it was broken.
神農 Shénnóng — Peasant God, the patron of humanity (人皇 Rénhuáng), identified as Yándì (炎帝 "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.
五帝 Wǔdì — Five Deities, also Wǔfāng Shàngdì (五方上帝 "Five Manifestations of the Highest Deity"), Wǔfāng Tiānshén (五方天神 "Five Manifestations of the Heavenly God"), Wǔfāngdì (五方帝 "Five Forms Deity"), Wǔtiāndì (五天帝 "Five Heavenly Deities"), Wǔlǎojūn (五老君 "Five Ancient Lords"), Wǔdàoshén (五道神 "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, 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).
黃帝 Huángdì — Yellow Emperor or Yellow Deity; or 黃神 Huángshén — Yellow God, also known as Xuānyuán Huángdì (軒轅黃帝 "Yellow Deity of the Mysterious Origin"), is the Zhōngyuèdàdì (中岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Central Peak"): he represents the essence of earth and the Yellow Dragon. The character 黃 huáng, for "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with 皇 huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", identifying the Yellow Emperor with Shangdi (the "Highest Deity"). Huangdi represents the hub of creation, the axis mundi (Kunlun) that is the manifestation of the divine order in physical reality, that opens 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" (黃帝四面 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. She delivered her son after twenty-four months on the mount of Shou (Longevity) or mount Xuanyuan (Mysterious Origin), after which he was named. He is reputed to be the founder of the Huaxia civilization, and the Han Chinese identify themselves as the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi.
蒼帝 Cāngdì — Green Deity; or 青帝 Qīngdì — Blue Deity or Bluegreen Deity, the Dōngdì (東帝 "East Deity") or Dōngyuèdàdì (東岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Eastern Peak"): he is Tàihào 太昊, associated with the essence of wood, and is a god of fertility and spring. The Bluegreen Dragon is both his animal form and constellation. His female consort is the goddess of fertility Bixia.
黑帝 Hēidì — Black Deity, the Běidì (北帝 "North Deity") or Běiyuèdàdì (北岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Northern Peak"): he is Zhuānxū (顓頊), today frequently worshipped as Xuánwǔ (玄武 "Dark Warrior") or Zhēnwǔ (真武), and is associated with the essence of water and winter. His animal form is the Black Dragon and his stellar animal is the tortoise-snake.
赤帝 Chìdì — Red Deity, the Nándì (南帝 "South Deity") or Nányuèdàdì (南岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Southern Peak"): he is Shennong (the "Divine Farmer"), Yandi ("Fiery Deity"), and his essence is fire, his animal form the Red Dragon and the stellar animal the phoenix. He is the god of agriculture, animal husbandry, medicinal plants and market.
白帝 Báidì — White Deity, the Xīdì (西帝 "West Deity") or Xīyuèdàdì (西岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Western Peak"): he is Shǎohào (少昊), and is the god of the essence of metal and autumn. His animal form is the White Dragon and his stellar animal the tiger.
三官 Sānguān or 三官大帝 Sānguāndàdì — Three Officials [of Heaven] or Three Officer Great Deities: Yao 堯 the Official of Heaven (Tiānguān 天官), Shun 舜 the Official of Earth (Deguān 地官), and Yu 禹 the Official of Water (Shuǐguān 水官).
Mythologically, 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 炎 is flame, scorching fire, or an excess of it (it is important to note that graphically it is a double 火 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.
龍神 Lóngshén — Dragon Gods, or 龍王 Lóngwáng — Dragon Kings: also Sìhǎi Lóngwáng (四海龍王 "Dragon Kings of the Four Seas"), are gods of watery sources, usually reduced to four, patrons of the Four Seas (sihai 四海) and the four cardinal directions. They are the White Dragon (白龍 Báilóng), the Black Dragon (玄龍 Xuánlóng), the Red Dragon (朱龍 Zhūlóng), and the Bluegreen Dragon (青龍 Qīnglóng). 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 (黃龍 Huánglóng), is the dragon of the centre representing the Yellow God.
雷神 Léishén — Thunder God, or 雷公 Léigōng — Thunder Duke;[iii] his consort is 電母 Diànmǔ — Lightning Mother
木神 Mùshén — Wood God, usually the same as the 春神 Chūnshén — Spring God, and as Jùmáng (句芒)
山神 Shānshén — Mountain God
水神 Shuǐshén — Water God
土地神 Tǔdìshén — God of the Local Land, or 土神 Tǔshén — Earth God, or 土地公 Tǔdìgōng — Duke of Local Land:[iii] the tutelary deity of any locality whose female counterpart is 后土 Hòutǔ — Queen of the Earth[ii]
文帝 Wéndi — Culture Deity, or 文昌帝 Wénchāngdì — Deity who Makes Culture Thrive, or 文昌王 Wénchāngwáng — 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 (Kǒngfūzǐ 孔夫子)
魁星 Kuíxīng — 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
武帝 Wǔdì — Military Deity: 關帝 Guāndì — Divus Guan, also called 關公 Guāngōng — Duke Guan,[iii] and popularly 關羽 Guānyǔ[ii]
Another class is the 戰神 Zhànshén — Fight God, who may be personified by Chīyóu (蚩尤) or Xíngtiān (刑天, who was decapitated for fighting against Tian)
城隍神 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]
陳靖姑 Chénjìnggū — Old Quiet Lady, also called 臨水夫人 Línshuǐ Fūrén — Waterside Dame[v]
祿星 Lùxīng — Firmness Star, god of firmness and success in life and examinations
壽星 Shòuxing — Longevity Star, who stands for a healthy and long life
Gods of animal and vegetal life
花神 Huāshén — Flower Goddess
狐神 Húshén — Fox God(dess), or 狐仙 Húxiān — Fox Immortal", also called 狐仙娘娘 Húxiān Niángniáng — Fox Immortal Lady"[vii]
two other great fox deities, peculiar of northeast China, are the Great Lord of the Three Foxes (胡三太爷 Húsān Tàiyé) and the Great Lady of the Three Foxes (胡三太奶 Húsān Tàinǎi) representing the yin and yang,[vii]
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 Yuánjūn 碧霞元君, also known as the Tiānxiān Niángniáng 天仙娘娘, "Heavenly Immortal Lady", or Tàishān Niángniáng 泰山娘娘, "Lady of Mount Tai",[viii] or also Jiǔtiān Shèngmǔ 九天聖母, "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 女神 nǚshén, and goddesses may receive many qualifying titles including mǔ (母 "mother"), lǎomǔ (老母 "old mother"), shèngmǔ (聖母 "holy mother"), niángniáng (娘娘 "lady"), nǎinai (奶奶 "granny").
The additional eight main goddesses of fertility, reproduction and growth are::149-150; 191, note 18
瘢疹娘娘 Bānzhěn Niángniáng, the goddess who protects children from illness;
催生娘娘 Cuīshēng Niángniáng, the goddess who gives swift childbirth and protects midwives;
奶母娘娘 Nǎimǔ Niángniáng, the goddess who presides over maternal milk and protects nursing;
培姑娘娘 Péigū Niángniáng, the goddess who cultivate children;
培養娘娘 Péiyǎng Niángniáng, the goddess who protects the upbringing of children;
送子娘娘 Sòngzi Niángniáng or 子孫娘娘 Zǐsūn Niángniáng, the goddess who presides over offspring;
眼光娘娘 Yǎnguāng Niángniáng, the goddess who protects eyesight;
引蒙娘娘 Yǐnméng 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 (七星娘娘 Qīxīng Niángniáng).[x] There is also the cluster of the Holy Mothers of the Three Skies (三霄聖母 Sānxiāo Shèngmǔ; or 三霄娘娘 Sānxiāo Niángniáng, "Ladies of the Three Stars"), composed of Yunxiao Guniang, Qiongxiao Guniang and Bixiao Guniang. In southeastern provinces the cult of Chenjinggu is identified by some scholars as an emanation of the northern cult of Bixia.
Other goddesses worshipped in China include Cánmǔ[xi] (蠶母 Silkworm Mother) or Cángū (蠶姑 Silkworm Maiden), identified with Léizǔ (嫘祖, the wife of the Yellow Emperor), Mágū (麻姑 "Hemp Maiden"), Sǎoqīng Niángniáng (掃清娘娘 Goddess who Sweeps Clean),[xii]Sānzhōu Niángniáng (三洲娘娘 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 (狐仙 Húxiān), they include:
黃仙 Huángxiān — Yellow Immortal, the Weasel God
蛇仙 Shéxiān — Snake Immortal, also variously called 柳仙 Liǔxiān — Immortal Liu, or 常仙 Chángxiān — Viper Immortal, or also 蟒仙 Mǎngxiān — Python or Boa Immortal
白仙 Báixiān — White Immortal, the Hedgehog God
黑仙 Hēixiān — Black Immortal, who may be the 烏鴉仙 Wūyāxiān — Crow Immortal, or the 灰仙 Huīxiān — Rat Immortal, with the latter considered a misinterpretation of the former
四面神 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" (黃帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn).
象頭神 Xiàngtóushén — "Elephant-Head God", is the Indian god Ganesha
Genghis Khan (成吉思汗 Chéngjísīhán), worshipped by Mongols and Chinese under a variety of divinity titles including 聖武皇帝 Shèngwǔ Huángdì — "Holy Military Sovereign Deity", 法天啓運 Fǎtiān Qǐyùn "Starter of the Transmission of the Law of Heaven", and 太祖 Tàizǔ — "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 帝 dì, together with "emperor" and "god".
Notes about the deities and their names
^ abcThe honorific Tiānhòu (天后 "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" (九天 Jiǔtiān) 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 帝 (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. Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe: Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives. Leiden: Brill. pp. 85–110. ISBN 9004225358. pp. 97–98, note 26.
^ abMilburn, Olivia (2016). The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yan. Sinica Leidensia. BRILL. ISBN 9004309667. p. 343, note 17.
^ abReiter, Florian C. (2007). Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 3447055138. p. 190.
^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. [...]".
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