Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Some of the Chinese Gods: Part I

It is well known that the traditional religion of the Chinese is polytheistic. And two of our most popular deities are Guan Yu (关羽) and Avalokitesvara (阿婆卢吉低舍婆罗).

According to Chen Shou (陈寿), Guan was born in between 147 to 167 AD in Shanxi (山西). Near the end of Eastern Han Dynasty (东汉, 200 – 220 AD), he was recruited by the warlord Liu Bei (刘备) at Hebei (河北) and became his bodyguard. When Liu was defeated by Cao Cao (曹操), Guan was captured and given a post in Cao’s administration.

However, because of his loyalty to Liu, he did not stay long with Cao and later returned to Liu. He was subsequently killed and decapitated in Hubei (湖北). Guan's death is intricately related to Zhuge Liang's (诸葛亮) decision for not dispatching military forces to assist Guan when he was surrounded by Sun Quan's (孙权) men.

Deitification of Guan and mass constructions of temple worshiping Guan actually started about 900 years ago. During this period, Guan was given many honorific titles by many imperial governments. For examples, the titles 显列王 and 义勇武安王 was awarded by Zhao Xu (宋哲宗赵煦, reigned 1086 – 1100), and Zhao Ji (宋徽宗赵佶, reigned 1101 – 1125), respectively.

Possibly under the influence of the novel named Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志通俗演义), Guan was elevated to a status comparable to the ruling emperors during the Ming Dynasty. For example, in 1614, Zhu Yijun (明神宗朱翊钧, reigned 1573 – 1620) awarded Guan the title: 三界伏魔大帝神威远镇天尊关圣帝君.

And during the Qing Dynasty, public worship of Guan grew stronger. Statistics from Jingshi Qianlong Ditu (京师乾隆地图) revealed that there were about 116 temples and shrines devoted to Guan, this was almost 10% of the all the temples found in Beijing. During this period, Guan received titles like 忠义神武关圣大帝 from Shunzhi (顺治) in 1652 and 忠义神武灵佑仁勇威显护国保民精诚绥靖翊赞宣德关圣大帝 from Guangxu (光绪) in 1879.

The reason for honoring Guan is clearly politically motivated, as the Chinese emperors would like to exploit the celebrity status of Guan as a symbol for bravery, loyalty, and faithfulness.

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