China, one of the oldest civilisations in the world, worshipped various gods and goddesses. Each Asian god had a special area of expertise and the most powerful ones were given their own shrines and temples. We have compiled a list of the most important Chinese gods and goddesses.
Let us take a look at the 10 Most Important Chinese Gods & Goddesses.
1) Guanyin- The Chinese Goddess of Mercy
The first ancient Chinese goddess on our list is Guanyin a.k.a the Goddess of Mercy. She is an important figure in many ancient and contemporary Chinese myths and legends. Guanyin is said to have both masculine and feminine attributes. However, according to Mahayana Buddhism (to which Chinese Buddhism belongs), gender is no obstacle to Enlightenment. Hence the deity is said to be neither man nor woman.
Additionally, Guanyin can hear the sorrows and lamentations of the world and she represents empathy, kindness, and grace. In the contemporary period, Guan Yin is often depicted as an elegant woman, wearing white flowing robes.
2) Nüwa and Fuxi
There are several stories of the origin myth of Nüwa and Fuxi. According to one myth, the two of them were the first two human beings who appeared when Pangu created the world, while another says that they were the only survivors of the Great Flood. Fuxi and his sister and wife Nüwa are essentially the creators of humanity. They repopulated the earth using clay figures that they brought to life using divine assistance. Fuxi also invented music, hunting, fishing, domestication, cooking and the Cangjie system of writing Chinese characters.
3) Shangdi- The Supreme Chinese God
Another Asian god on our list is Shangdi. The name essentially translates to “Emperor (or Sovereign) Above,” “Lord On High,” “Highest Lord,” or “the Supreme God”. He was the most prominent deity during the Shang dynasty. Additionally, he was believed to control victory in battle, harvest, the fate of the kingdom, and the weather.
Moreover, he was considered too distant and mysterious to be worshipped directly by ordinary mortals. As a result, the Shang emperors declared that Shangdi had made himself accessible through the souls of their royal predecessors. The ancient Chinese god was officially worshipped through sacrificial rituals. During the Zhou Dynasty, he was replaced by Tian (Heaven), a more distant and moralistic figure.
4) Xiwangmu- The Asian Goddess of Immortality
Xiwangmu or The Queen of the West is an ancient Chinese goddess who was the dispenser of prosperity, longevity, and eternal bliss. She was essentially the ruler of the immortal gods and spirits, especially female spirits who dwelled in a fairyland called Xihua (“West Flower”). Her mystical garden was filled with rare flowers, unique birds and the pantao (flat peach) of immortality.
Additionally, her appearance depends on her mood, she can either appear as a beautiful woman or an unattractive old woman. She was very popular during the Han Dynasty and numerous shrines were built in her honour. Xiwangmu essentially rewarded her followers with eternal life and punished those who angered her. She is the wife of Mugong, Lord of the Spirits, who watches over males in Donghua (“East Flower”) paradise.
According to Daoist myth, the ancient Chinese goddess’ birthday is celebrated by the Baxian (“Eight Immortals”) with a grand feast during which Xiwangmu serves special foods: bear paws, monkey lips, dragon liver and lastly pantao.
Dragons have been an integral part of the Chinese culture for a long time. In fact, the oldest dragon statue found in China dates back to the fifth millennium BC. The dragon essentially symbolises power, strength, and good luck. Longwang, who is known as the Dragon King is a powerful Asian god who commands the seas, weather, dragons, and all the creatures of the sea.
He is depicted as a fearsome warrior or as a gigantic dragon. In his human form, he is represented as a learned man with the full sun behind his head overseeing a boat full of people. The Dragon King gets his orders from the Jade Emperor and due to his connection to the sea, the deity is popular in the coastal communities of China.
6) Yan wang- The Chinese God of Death
Another Chinese god on our list is Yan wang, the King of Hell. According to myth, he was originally a Hindu god named Yamaraja. With the advent of Buddhism, accounts of Yan Wang spread throughout East Asia. And due to religious syncretism, the legend of Yan Wang gradually evolved as the original myth blended with local beliefs. He is represented as a fearsome male with big, protruding eyes, deep red skin, a stern expression, and a long, black beard. He is accompanied by his minions including a judge who holds a brush and a book and notes down every soul and the allotted death date for every life. Additionally, he is depicted donning traditional Chinese robes and a judge’s cap engraved with the word ‘king’ on it.
Yan Wang is the supreme leader of the ten kings of Hell, supervisor of the underworld, and presides over the judgement of the dead. It is he who decides which souls will be rewarded with good future lives and which are condemned to torture and/or terrible future lives.
Menshen are commonly illustrated on doors and gates in Chinese folk religions. They are essentially the divine guardians of doors and protect against evil influences and promote the entrance of positive ones. There are different stories for its origin myth. However, according to one legend, the Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty had trouble sleeping at night due to terrible nightmares. He then ordered his two most trusted guards to stand outside his door at night. After this, he started sleeping peacefully. He then decided to paint the portraits of his guards on the door. This story subsequently spread across China and people started painting guardians on their doors as well.
8) Pangu- The Asian God of Creation
Another Asian god on our list is Pangu. The Chinese deity is depicted as a hairy dwarf with horns who is often clothed with leaves. As one of the oldest legends in Chinese mythology, Pangu’s origin myth has countless variations. However, one common component is that he was born from a celestial egg. Pangu is said to have broken free from the egg and separated the yin from the yang principles. He subsequently made the yin into the earth and the yang into the sky and pushed them apart from each other. He pushed them apart every day and consequently grew taller. At the same time, he formed the mountains, sun, valleys, moon, stars and divided the four seas.
According to another legend, he got tired of pushing the sky and died. And thus the world was created out of his gigantic corpse. His body became the soil, his eyes formed the sun and the moon, his hair became the trees and plants and his sweat became the water bodies. Additionally, the parasites that infested his body evolved into human beings.
9) Zao Shen
Zao Shen is the Chinese kitchen god who lived in the kitchen of every home. He was represented by a paper image that was hung over the kitchen stove. The god not only watches over the domestic affairs of a family but also keeps a tab on their morals and values.
According to myth, toward the end of the 12th lunar month, Zao Shen must make an annual report to the Jade Emperor. According to Zao Shen’s report, the Jade Emperor would decide whether to reward the family or punish them. Hence before his departure, households would offer a sacrifice called ‘nian gao’ to the deity. ‘Nian gao’ is a traditional Chinese candy made up of sugar and honey. They would smear the sweet onto the god’s mouth, thus bribing him and making him tell a “sweetened” version of the report to the Jade Emperor.
To speed up his ascent to heaven, his image was burned along with offerings and food. Subsequently, as the new year begins, a fresh image is placed above the stove to welcome the returning deity.
10) Caishen- The Chinese God of Wealth
The last on our list of Chinese gods is Caishen, the god of wealth. He is one of the most famous Asian gods, who is honoured in both Taoism and Chinese folklore. Additionally, he is even worshipped today, especially during the Chinese New Year festivities when people pray to him to bless their coming year with prosperity. He is accompanied by several attendants who carry gold ingots, fruits and other treasures. Additionally, artwork often depicts the deity riding a black tiger while holding a tool that turns iron into gold.
One of the diety’s most popular incarnations was Bi Gan. Although Bi Gan led an uneventful life, he had a wife with the surname, Chen. Subsequently, his nephew King Zhou of Shang executed him. Fortunately, Bi Gan’s wife and son managed to escape into the forest. However, this incident marked the end of the Shang Dynasty.
Although Caishen was a very generous god, he required the utmost loyalty from his followers. He expected them to pray regularly to him and work hard. Furthermore, the deity probably had the most shrines and temples in Ancient China.