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Qing dynasty Water and Land Ritual painting (水陆画) of Buddhist, Daoist, and Folk Deities.
A complex of deities at an outdoor fountain-altar with incense burners at a pilgrimage area in Weihai, Shandong. At the centre stands Mazu, surrounded by the four Dragon Gods (龍神) and various lesser deities. Distant behind Mazu stands the Sun Goddess (太陽神).

Chinese gods and immortals are beings in various Chinese religions seen in a variety of ways and mythological contexts.

Many are worshiped as deities because traditional Chinese religion is polytheistic, stemming from a pantheistic view that divinity is inherent in the world.[1]

The gods are energies or principles revealing, imitating, and propagating the way of heaven (, Tian),[2] which is the supreme godhead manifesting in the northern culmen of the starry vault of the skies and its order.[citation needed] Many gods are ancestors or men who became deities for their heavenly achievements. Most gods are also identified with stars and constellations.[3] Ancestors are regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society,[4] and therefore, as the means of connecting back to Heaven, which is the "utmost ancestral father" (曾祖父, zēngzǔfù).[5]

There are a variety of immortals in Chinese thought, and one major type is the xian, which is thought in some religious Taoism movements to be a human given long or infinite life. Gods are innumerable, as every phenomenon has or is one or more gods, and they are organised in a complex celestial hierarchy.[6] Besides the traditional worship of these entities, Chinese folk religion, Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and formal thinkers in general give theological interpretations affirming a monistic essence of divinity.[7]


"Polytheism" and "monotheism" are categories derived from Western religion and do not fit Chinese religion, which has never conceived the two things as opposites.[8] Tian bridges the gap between supernatural phenomena and many kinds of beings, giving them a single source from spiritual energy in some Chinese belief systems.[2] However, there is a significant belief in Taoism which differentiates tian from the forces of earth and water, which are held to be equally powerful.[9]

Since all gods are considered manifestations of (), the "power" or pneuma of Heaven, in some views of tian, some scholars have employed the term "polypneumatism" or "(poly)pneumatolatry", first coined by Walter Medhurst (1796–1857), to describe the practice of Chinese polytheism.[10] Some Taoists consider deities the manifestation of the Tao.[citation needed]

In the theology of the classic texts and Confucianism, "Heaven is the lord of the hundreds of deities".[11]

Modern Confucian theology sometimes compares them to substantial forms or entelechies (inner purposes) as described by Leibniz as a force that generates all types of beings, so that "even mountains and rivers are worshipped as something capable of enjoying sacrificial offerings".[12]

Unlike in Hinduism, the deification of historical persons and ancestors is not traditionally the duty of Confucians or Taoists.[clarification needed] Rather, it 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 honours 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.[13]

God of Heaven

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,[14] is fundamentally monistic, that is to say, it sees the world and the gods who produce it as an organic whole, or cosmos.[15] The universal principle that gives origin to the world is conceived as transcendent and immanent to creation, at the same time.[16] 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.[17]

The radical Chinese terms for the universal God are Tian () and Shangdi (上帝, "Highest Deity") or simply, (, "Deity").[18][19] There is also the concept of Tàidì (太帝, "Great Deity"). 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.[20] Tian 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 north celestial pole godhead (, Dīng).[3][21] These names are combined in different ways in Chinese theological literature, often interchanged in the same paragraph, if not in the same sentence.[22]

Names of the God of Heaven

Besides Shàngdì and Tàidì, 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.[23] As the hub of the skies, the north celestial pole constellations are known, among various names, as Tiānmén (天門, "Gate of Heaven")[24] and Tiānshū (天樞, "Pivot of Heaven").[25]

Other names of the God of Heaven are attested in the vast Chinese religio-philosophical literary tradition:

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:[27]

All these designations reflect a hierarchical, multiperspective experience of divinity.[17]

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 are the "Completed Record of Deities and Immortals" (神仙通鑑, Shénxiān Tōngjiàn) of the Ming dynasty,[29] and the Biographies of the Deities and Immortals (Shenxian Zhuan) by Ge Hong (284–343).[30] The older Collected Biographies of the Immortals (Liexian Zhuan) also serves the same purpose.

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.[31]

Immortals, or xian, are seen as a variety of different types of beings, including the souls of virtuous Taoists,[32] gods,[32][33] zhenren,[33] and/or a type of supernatural spiritual being who understood heaven.[34] Taoists historically worshiped them the most and Chinese folk religion practitioners during the Tang dynasty also worshiped them, although there was more skepticism about the goodness, and even the existence, of xian among them.[34]

Chinese folk religion that incorporates elements of the three teachings in modern times and prior eras sometimes viewed Confucius and the Buddha as immortals or beings synonymous to them.[35]

In Taoism and Chinese folk religion, gods and xian[36] are often seen as embodiments of water.[37] Water gods and xian were often thought to ensure good grain harvests, mild weather and seas, and rivers with abundant water.[37] Some xian were thought to be humans who gained power by drinking "charmed water".[36]

Some gods were based on previously existing Taoist immortals, bodhisattvas, or historical figures.[38]

Stoneware figure of a Daoist (Taoist) deity. From China, Ming Dynasty, 16th century CE. The British Museum

Cosmic gods

Three Patrons and Five Deities

Wufang Shangdi (五方上帝), 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.[49]
Statue and ceremonial complex of the Yellow and Red Gods in Zhengzhou, Henan.
Temple of the Three Officials of Heaven in Chiling, Zhangpu, Fujian.
Temple of the Great Deity of the Eastern Peak at Mount Tai, Tai'an, Shandong.

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).[58] This myth symbolizes the equipoise of yin and yang, here the fire of knowledge (reason and craft) and earthly stability.[58]

Yan () is flame, scorching fire, or an excess of it (it is important to note that graphically, it is a double (huo, "fire").[58] 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.[58] 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.
Temple of the Ancestral Mother the Queen of Heaven[i] in Qingdao, Shandong.

Some Taoist gods were thought to affect human morality and the consequences of it in certain traditions. Some Taoists beseeched gods, multiple gods, and/or pantheons to aid them in life and/or abolish their sins.[62]

The six Jade Maidens, as depicted in The Ordination of Empress Zhang (detail)

Gods of animal and vegetal life

Bixia mother goddess worship

"Bixia" redirects here. For the regal address, see Emperor of China.

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 Bixia Yuanjun (碧霞元君, "Lady of the Blue Dawn"), also known as the Tiānxiān Niángniáng (天仙娘娘, "Heavenly Immortal Lady") or Tàishān Niángniáng (泰山娘娘, "Lady of Mount Tai"),[ix] or also Jiǔtiān Shèngmǔ (九天聖母,[66] "Holy Mother of the Nine Skies"[x])[67]: 149–150  or Houtu, the goddess of the earth.[68]

Bixia herself is identified by Taoists as the more ancient goddess Xiwangmu.[69] The general Chinese term for "goddess" is nǚshén (女神), and goddesses may receive many qualifying titles, including (, "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:[67]: 149–150, 191, note 18 

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".[67]: 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).[xi]

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.[70] The cult of Chenjinggu, present in southeast China, is identified by some scholars as an emanation of the northern cult of Bixia.[71]

Other goddesses worshipped in China include Cánmǔ (蠶母, "Silkworm Mother") or Cángū (蠶姑, "Silkworm Maiden"),[68] identified with Leizu (嫘祖, the wife of the Yellow Emperor), Magu (麻姑, "Hemp Maiden"), Sǎoqīng Niángniáng (掃清娘娘, "Goddess who Sweeps Clean"),[xii][72] Sānzhōu Niángniáng (三洲娘娘, "Goddess of the Three Isles"),[72] and Wusheng Laomu. The mother goddess is central in the theology of many folk religious sects.[68]

Gods of northeast China

See also: Wudaxian and Northeast China folk religion

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:[citation needed]

Gods of Indian origin

Temple of the Four-Faced God in Changhua, Taiwan.

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

Gods of North China and Mongolia

Gods of folk and Local

See also


Notes about the deities and their names
  1. ^ a b c The honorific Tiānhòu (天后 "Queen of Heaven") is used for many goddesses, but most frequently Mazu and Doumu.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g The cult of this deity is historically exercised all over China.[43]
  3. ^ a b c d e 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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t The cult of this deity is historically exercised in northern China.[48] 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.
  5. ^ a b c d e The cult of this deity is historically exercised in southeastern China.[43]
  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.[63]
  7. ^ a b The cult of fox deities is characteristic of northeastern China's folk religion, with influences reaching as far south as Hebei and Shandong.
  8. ^ The worship of monkeys in the northern Fujian region has a long history. Influenced by Journey to the West, the worship of the Monkey God in some areas has gradually been replaced by the worship of the Qítiān Dàshèng.[65]
  9. ^ As the Lady of Mount Tai, Bixia is regarded as the female counterpart of Dongyuedadi, the "Great Deity of the Eastern Peak" (Mount Tai).
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Qixing Niangniang ("Lady of the Seven Stars") is a goddess that represents the seven visible stars of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot.
  12. ^ Saoqing Niangniang ("Lady who Sweeps Clean") is the goddess who ensures good weather conditions "sweeping away" clouds and storms.



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  2. ^ a b "tian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-28.
  3. ^ a b Didier (2009), passim.
  4. ^ Zhong (2014), pp. 76–77.
  5. ^ Zhong (2014), p. 84, note 282.
  6. ^ 民間信仰的神明概念 [Hierarchic organisation of the spiritual world]. Archived from the original on 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2017-11-01.
  7. ^ Zhong (2014), p. 98 ff.
  8. ^ Zhao (2012), p. 45.
  9. ^ a b "Sanguan". Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010-02-03. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  10. ^ Zhong (2014), p. 202.
  11. ^ Zhong (2014), p. 64.
  12. ^ Zhong (2014), pp. 31, 173–174.
  13. ^ Feuchtwang (2016), p. 147.
  14. ^ Adler (2011), pp. 4–5.
  15. ^ Cai (2004), p. 314.
  16. ^ Adler (2011), p. 5.
  17. ^ a b Lü & Gong (2014), p. 63.
  18. ^ Chang (2000).
  19. ^ Lü & Gong (2014), pp. 63–67.
  20. ^ a b c d Lü & Gong (2014), p. 64.
  21. ^ Zhou (2005).
  22. ^ Zhong (2014), p. 66, note 224.
  23. ^ Lagerwey & Kalinowski (2008), p. 240.
  24. ^ Reiter, Florian C. (2007). Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3447055130. p. 190.
  25. ^ Milburn, Olivia (2016). The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yan. Sinica Leidensia. BRILL. ISBN 978-9004309661. p. 343, note 17.
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  27. ^ a b Lü & Gong (2014), p. 65.
  28. ^ a b Lagerwey & Kalinowski (2008), p. 981.
  29. ^ Yao (2010), p. 159.
  30. ^ Yao (2010), p. 161.
  31. ^ Lagerwey & Kalinowski (2008), p. 984.
  32. ^ a b "xian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  33. ^ a b "zhenren". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  34. ^ a b Chua, Amy (2007). Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-385-51284-8. OCLC 123079516.
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  36. ^ a b Mackenzie, Donald Alexander (1986). China & Japan (Myths and Legends). New York: Avenel Books. p. 318. ISBN 9780517604465.
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  38. ^ Jiangshan, Wang; Yi, Tian, eds. (October 2020). Imperial China: The Definitive Visual History (First American ed.). New York: DK. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-7440-2047-2.
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  40. ^ Cheu, Hock Tong (1988). The Nine Emperor Gods: A Study of Chinese Spirit-medium Cults. Time Books International. ISBN 9971653850. p. 19.
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  43. ^ a b Overmyer (2009), p. 148.
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  45. ^ Max Dashu (2010). "Xiwangmu: The Shamanic Great Goddess of China".
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  52. ^ 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. [...]".
  53. ^ a b c d e f Sun & Kistemaker (1997), pp. 120–123.
  54. ^ Pregadio (2013), pp. 504–505.
  55. ^ a b Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 120.
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  60. ^ Wang Chunsheng (3 March 2022). "二月二习俗杂谈". Taiyuan Daily (in Chinese (China)).
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  62. ^ Wilson, Andrew, ed. (1995). World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (1st paperback ed.). St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House Publishers. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-55778-723-1.
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  64. ^ Tvetene Malme, Erik (2014). 平安神: Mao Zedong as a Deity (PDF). DUO Research Archive. University of Oslo. pp. 14–20, 23, 26–28, 33, 36.
  65. ^ ""齐天大圣"在福建,比《西游记》还要早几百年". The Paper (in Chinese (China)). 27 January 2023.
  66. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. 137.
  67. ^ a b c Barrott Wicks, Ann Elizabeth (2002). Children in Chinese Art. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824823591.
  68. ^ a b c Jones (2013), pp. 166–167.
  69. ^ Komjathy, Louis (2013). "Daoist deities and pantheons". The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1441196453.
  70. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. 135.
  71. ^ Hackin, J. (1932). Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. Asian Educational Services. pp. 349–350.
  72. ^ a b Chamberlain (2009), p. 235.
  73. ^ 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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