Chinese gods and immortals

Chinese traditional religion is polytheistic, meaning that many deities are worshipped as part of a pantheistic worldview in which divinity is inherent to the world itself.[1] The gods are energies or principles that reveal or reproduce the way of Heaven orTian.

Gods cannot be counted, 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 in Taoist schools). Also folk religious sects may incorporate them in their theological systems.

While most Chinese worship or respect a number of deities, 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.[2]


In Chinese language there is a terminological distinction between 神 shén, 帝 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; , sometimes translated as "thearch", implies a manifested or incarnate "godly" power.[note 1][4] 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".[5] The latter term 仙 xiān unambiguously means a man who has reached immortality, similarly to the Western idea of "hero".[6]

The universal God

Main article: Chinese theology

Chinese traditional theology, which comes in different interpretations according to the classic texts, and specifically Confucian, Taoist and other philosophical formulations,[7] is fundamentally monistic, that is to say it sees the world and the gods who produce it as an organic whole, or cosmos.[8] There universal principle that gives origin to the world is conceived as transcendent and immanent to creation, at the same time.[9] 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.[6]

The radical Chinese terms for the universal God are Tiān 天 and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Highest Deity") or simply 帝 ("Deity").[10][11] There is also the concept of Tàidì 太帝 (the "Great Deity"). These names are articulated and combined in different ways in Chinese theological literature.

Names of Tian

Tian, besides Taidi ("Great God") and Shangdi ("Primordial Deity"), Yudi ("Jade Deity"), simply Shen 神 ("God"), and Taiyi ("Great Oneness") as identified as the ladle of the Tiānmén 天门 ("Gate of Heaven", the Big Dipper),[12] is defined by many other names attested in the Chinese literary, philosophical and religious tradition:[13]

Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature. In the Wujing yiyi (五經異義, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:[14]


is literally a title expressing dominance over the all-under-Heaven, that is all created things.[16] Tiān is usually translated as "Heaven", but by graphical etymology it means "Great One" and a number of scholars relate it to the same through phonetic etymology and trace their common root, through their archaic forms respectively *Teeŋ and *Tees, to the symbols of the squared celestial pole (dīng 口).[note 2] Zhou (2005) furtherly connects , through Old Chinese *Tees, to the Indo-European Deus.[23]

Lists of gods, deities and immortals

Main altar and statue of Doumu inside the Temple of Doumu in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.
A temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli.

Many classical books have lists and hierarchies of gods and immortals, among which the "Completed Record of Deities and Immortals" (神仙通鑑 Shénxiān tōngjiàn) of the Ming dynasty,[24] and the "Biographies of Deities and Immortals" (神仙傳 Shénxiān zhuán) by Ge Hong (284-343).[25] There's also the older Liexian zhuan (列仙傳 "Collected Biographies of Immortals"). Couplets or polarities, such as Fuxi and Nuwa, Xiwangmu and Dongwanggong, and the highest couple of Heaven and Earth, all embody yin and yang and are at once the originators and maintainers of the ordering process of space and time.[26]

Cosmic gods

Three Patrons and Five Deities

The natural order emanating from the primordial God (Tian-Shangdi) inscribing and designing worlds as tán 壇, "altar", the Chinese concept equivalent of the Indian mandala. The traditional Chinese religious 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.[37]
Statue and ceremonial complex of the Yellow and Red Gods in Zhengzhou, Henan.
Temple of the Three Officer Great Deities in Chiling, Zhangpu, Fujian.
Temple of the Great Deity of the Eastern Peak at Mount Tai, Tai'an, Shandong.

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).[46] This myth symbolises the equipoise of yin and yang, here the fire of knowledge (reason and craft) and earthly stability.[46] Yan 炎 is flame, scorching fire, or an excess of it (it is important to notice that graphically it is a double 火 huo, "fire").[46] 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.[46] Huangdi and Yandi are complementary opposites, necessary for the existence of one another, and they are powers that exist together within the human being.

Gods of celestial and terrestrial phenomena

Temple of the Wind God in Tainan.

Gods of human virtues and crafts

Guan Yu (middle), Guan Ping (his right) and Zhou Cang (his left) at a Chinese folk religious temple in Osaka, Japan. Guandi is one of the most revered gods among Han Chinese.
The Waterside Dame and her two attendants Lin Jiuniang and Li Sanniang, at the Temple of Heavenly Harmony of the Lushan school of Red Taoism in Luodong, Yilan, Taiwan.
Temple of the Dragon Mother in Deqing, Guangdong.

Gods of animal and vegetal life

Bixia mother goddess worship

Taiwanese 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",[lower-roman 8] or also Jiǔtiān Shèngmǔ 九天聖母,[50] "Holy Mother of the Nine Skies"[lower-roman 9])[51] or Houtu, the goddess of the earth.[52] Bixia herself is identified by Taoists as the more ancient goddess Xiwangmu,[53] The general Chinese term for "goddess" is 女神 nǚshén, and goddesses can receive many qualifying titles including (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:[54]

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.[54] A different figure but with the same astral connections as Bixia is the Goddess of the Seven Stars (七星娘娘 Qīxīng Niángniáng).[lower-roman 10] 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.[55] In southeastern provinces the cult of Chenjinggu is identified by some scholars as an emanation of the northern cult of Bixia.[56]

Other goddesses worshipped in China include Cánmǔ[lower-roman 11] (蠶母 Silkworm Mother) or Cángū (蠶姑 Silkworm Maiden),[52] 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),[lower-roman 12][58] Sānzhōu Niángniáng (三洲娘娘 Goddess of the Three Isles),[58] and Wusheng Laomu. Mother goddess is central in the theology of many folk religious sects.[52]

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:

Gods of Indian origin

A shrine of the Four-Faced God in Gaoxiong, Taiwan.

Gods who have been adopted into Chinese religion but who have their origins in the Indian subcontinent or Hinduism:

Gods of northern peoples

See also


  1. The term "thearch" is from Greek theos ("deity"), with arche ("principle", "origin"), thus meaning "divine principle", "divine origin". In sinology is 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 , together with "emperor" and "god".[3]
  2. The graphical etymology of Tian 天 as "Great One" (Dà yī 大一), and the phonetical etymology as diān 颠, were first recorded by Xu Shen.[17] John C. Didier in In and Outside the Square (2009) for the Sino-Platonic Papers discusses different etymologies which trace the character Tian 天 to the astral square or its ellipted forms, dīng 口, representing the northern celestial pole (pole star and Big Dipper revolving around it; historically a symbol of the absolute source of the universal reality in many cultures), which is the archaic (Shang) form of dīng 丁 ("square").[18] Gao Hongjin and other scholars trace the modern word Tian to the Shang pronunciation of 口 dīng (that is *teeŋ).[18] This was also the origin of Shang's 帝 ("Deity"), and later words meaning something "on high" or "top", including 顶 dǐng.[18] The modern graph for Tian 天 would derive from a Zhou version of the Shang archaic form of 帝 (from Shang oracle bone script[19], which represents a fish entering the astral square); this Zhou version represents a being with a human-like body and a head-mind informed by the astral pole (→ ).[18] Didier furtherly links the Chinese astral square and Tian or Di characters to other well-known symbols of God or divinity as the northern pole in key ancient cultural centres: the Harappan and Vedic-Aryan spoked wheels,[20] crosses and hooked crosses (Chinese wàn 卍/卐),[21] and the Mesopotamian Dingir .[22]
  3. The characters yu (jade), huang (emperor, sovereign, august), wang (king), as well as others pertaining to the same semantic field, have a common denominator in the concept of gong (work, art, craft, artisan, bladed weapon, square and compass; gnomon, "interpreter") and wu 巫 (shaman, medium)[27] in its archaic form , with the same meaning of wan (swastika, ten thousand things, all being, universe).[28] The character 帝 is rendered as "deity" or "emperor" and describes a divine principle that exerts a fatherly dominance over what it produces.[29] A king is a man or an entity who is able to merge himself with the axis mundi, the centre of the universe, bringing its order into reality. The ancient kings or emperors of the Chinese civilisation were shamans or priests, that is to say mediators of the divine rule.[30] The same Western terms "king" and "emperor" traditionally meant an entity capable to embody the divine rule: king etymologically means "gnomon", "generator", while emperor means "interpreter", "one who makes from within".
Notes about the deities and their names
  1. 1 2 3 The honorific Tiānhòu (天后 "Queen of Heaven") is used for many goddesses, but most frequently Mazu and Doumu.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The cult of this deity is historically exercised all over China.[31]
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 About the use of the title "duke": the term is from Latin dux, and describes a phenomenon or person who "conducts", "leads", the divine inspiration.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 The cult of this deity is historically exercised in northern China.[36] It is important to notice 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.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 The cult of this deity is historically exercised in southeastern China.[31]
  6. 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.[48]
  7. 1 2 The cult of fox deities is characteristic of northeastern China's folk religion, with influences reaching as far south as Hebei and Shandong.
  8. As the Lady of Mount Tai, Bixia is regarded as the female counterpart of Dongyuedadi, the "Great Deity of the Eastern Peak" (Mount Tai).
  9. 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.
  10. Qixing Niangniang ("Lady of the Seven Stars") is a goddess that represents the seven visible stars of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot.
  11. The cult of Canmu is related to that of Houtu ("Queen of Earth") and to that of the Sanxiao ("Three Skies") goddesses.[57]
  12. Saoqing Niangniang ("Lady who Sweeps Clean") is the goddess who ensures good weather conditions "sweeping away" clouds and storms.



  1. Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 71
  2. Zhao (2012), p. 45.
  3. Pregadio (2013), p. 504, vol. 2 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").
  4. 1 2 Medhurst (1847), p. 260.
  5. Zhao (2012), p. 51.
  6. 1 2 & Gong (2014), p. 63.
  7. Adler (2011), pp. 4-5.
  8. Cai (2004), p. 314.
  9. Adler (2011), p. 5.
  10. Chang (2000).
  11. & Gong (2014), pp. 63-67.
  12. John Lagerwey, Marc Kalinowski. Early Chinese Religion I: Shang Through Han (1250 BC-220 AD). Two volumes. Brill, 2008. ISBN 9004168354. p. 240
  13. Lu, Gong. 2014. pp. 63-66
  14. Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 65
  15. Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 63
  16. & Gong (2014), p. 64.
  17. Didier, 2009. Vol. III, p. 1
  18. 1 2 3 4 Didier, 2009. Vol. III, pp. 3-6
  19. Didier, 2009. Vol. II, p. 100
  20. Didier, 2009. Vol. III, p. 7
  21. Didier, 2009. Vol. III, p. 256
  22. Didier, 2009. Vol. III, p. 261
  23. Zhou (2005).
  24. Yao, 2010. p. 159
  25. Yao, 2010. p. 161
  26. Lagerwey & Kalinowski (2008), p. 984 (Ch. Pirazzoli-T'serstevens, Michèle. "Death and the Dead").
  27. Mark Lewis. Writing and Authority in Early China. SUNY Press, 1999. ISBN 0791441148. pp. 205-206.
  28. Didier, 2009. Vol. III, p. 268
  29. Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 64
  30. Joseph Needham. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. III. p. 23
  31. 1 2 Overmyer, 2009. p. 148
  32. John Lagerwey, Marc Kalinowski. Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang Through Han (1250 BC-220 AD). Two volumes. Brill, 2008. ISBN 9004168354. p. 983
  33. Max Dashu. Xiwangmu: The Shamanic Great Goddess of China., 2010.
  34. 1 2 Fowler (2005), pp. 206-207.
  35. Pierre Marsone, John Lagerwey. Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960-1368 AD). Two volumes. Brill, 2014. ISBN 9004271643. p. 512
  36. Overmyer, 2009. chapter 5: Gods and Temples. passim.
  37. Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 121.
  38. Journal of Chinese Religions, 24-25, 1996. p. 6
  39. Fowler (2005), pp. 200-201.
  40. 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. [...]".
  41. Sun & Kistemaker (1997), pp. 120-123.
  42. 1 2 3 4 5 Fowler (2005), pp. 200-201.
  43. Pregadio (2013), pp. 504-505, vol. 2 A-L.
  44. 1 2 Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 120.
  45. Yves Bonnefoy, Asian Mythologies. University of Chicago Press, 1993. ISBN 0226064565. p. 246
  46. 1 2 3 4 Keekok Lee. Warp and Weft, Chinese Language and Culture. Strategic Book Publishing, 2008. ISBN 1606932470. pp. 156-157
  47. 1 2 Yao, 2010. p. 202
  48. Overmyer (2009), p. 144.
  49. Erik Tvetene Malme. "平安神 Mao Zedong as a Deity". University of Oslo's Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages. Spring 2014.
  50. Overmyer (2009), p. 137.
  51. Ann Elizabeth Barrott Wicks. Children in Chinese Art. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. ISBN 0824823591. pp. 149-150
  52. 1 2 3 Jones, 2013. pp. 166-167
  53. Louis Komjathy. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. ISBN 1441196455. Chapter: Daoist deities and pantheons.
  54. 1 2 Ann Elizabeth Barrott Wicks. Children in Chinese Art. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. ISBN 0824823591. pp. 149-150; some goddesses are enlisted in the note 18 at p. 191
  55. Overmyer (2009), p. 135.
  56. J. Hackin. Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. Asian Educational Services, 1932. ISBN 8120609204. pp. 349.350
  57. Jones, 2013. p. 167
  58. 1 2 Chamberlain, 2009. p. 235
  59. Martin-Dubost, Paul (1997), Gaņeśa: The Enchanter of the Three Worlds, Mumbai: Project for Indian Cultural Studies, ISBN 8190018434. p. 311


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