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Chinese gods and goddesses have changed over the millennia-long period we recognize as the history of China today. Scholars recognize four different types of Chinese gods, but the categories have a considerable overlap:
- Mythological or heavenly deities
- Nature spirits, such as gods of rain, wind, trees, water bodies, mountains
- Deified humans both legendary and historical
- Deities specific to the three religions: Confucianism, institutional or clerical Buddhism and institutional or philosophical Taoism
Some of the best-known gods have changed over time, or are shared with other groups in China or in other countries. It's not clear that "god" has the same meaning in western minds as it does in China since the word English speakers translate as "god" is "shen" which means closer to "soul" or "spirit."
The Eight Immortals
Ba Xian or the "Eight Immortals" is a group of eight deities who were partly historical figures and partly legendary, and their names and attributes are figured in lucky charms. They are often depicted in vernacular novels and plays as lascivious drunkards, holy fools, and saints in disguise. Their individual names are Cao Guo-jiu, Han Xiang-zi, He Xian-gu, Lan Cai-he, Li Tie-guai, Lü Dong-bin, Zhang Guo- lao, and Zhong-li Quan.
One of the Ba Xian is Lü Dong-bin, a historical figure who lived during the Tang Dynasty. In life, he was an itinerant religious specialist and now that he is immortal, he takes a wide variety of different shapes and forms. He is a patron god of several tradespeople from ink makers to prostitutes.
Bixie Yuanjun is a Chinese goddess of childbirth, the dawn, and destiny. She is known as the First Princess of Purple and Azure Clouds, Mount Tai Mother, or Jade Maiden, and she is significantly potent in matters of pregnancy and childbirth.
The Bodhisattva Guanyin or Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Bodhisattva Kuan-yin is a Buddhist mother goddess, who sometimes appears in a male guise. Bodhisattva is the term used in the Buddhist religion for someone who could be a Buddha and stop having to be reincarnated but has decided to stay until the rest of us are enlightened enough to make the trip. Bodhisattva Guanyin is shared by Buddhists in Japan and India. When she was incarnated as the Princess Miaoshan, she refused to be wed despite her father's explicit order, defying a Confucian ethos. She is by far the most popular Chinese deity, worshipped by those wanting children and a patron of merchants.
The Stove God (Zaojun) is a heavenly bureaucrat who watches people and is perceived as a voyeur who enjoys watching women unrobe in front of the stove, and in one story was once a gossipy old woman. In some tales, he is thought to represent foreign soldiers stationed among Chinese homes as spies. On New Year's Eve, the Stove God ascends to heaven to report on the behavior of the families he oversees to the Jade Emperor, the chief god among some Chinese societies who can inflict a threat of apocalyptic violence.
General Yin Ch'iao (or T'ai Sui), is a historical hero and a Taoist god with a number of associated legends appearing as a mythical being in Chinese folklore. He is a deity most often connected with the planet Jupiter. If one plans to move, build, or disturb the ground, the fierce T'ai Sui must be placated and worshipped to avert potential calamities.
Historical and Legendary Figures
Fa Chu Kung or the Controlling Duke was probably a historical person but now appears as legendary. He is able to stop and start rain at will, cure any illness, and can transform himself into anyone or anything. His goodwill and agreement are necessary before any petition or prayers are submitted to any other god except the Jade Emperor. He is readily identifiable with his shiny black face and body, unkempt hair and protruding eyes. He carries an unsheathed sword at his right and a red snake curls over his neck.
Cheng Ho was an explorer in the 15th century CE and a eunuch from the imperial palace. Also known as San Po Kung or the Three Jewelled Eunuch, his last expedition was in 1420 and he is a patron god for Chinese sailors and junk crews.