Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
A strange occurrence in Chinese mythology is that many well-known Chinese mythological gods and characters were heavily influenced by classic literature, and correspondingly underwent notable transformations.
For example, the three-eyed Taoist deity Erlang Shen was originally a Chinese god of agriculture. However, he is today more commonly remembered as the warrior deity from the classical novels, Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods.
Other characters such as Sun Wukong the Monkey God are completely fictitious. They became so popular, folkloric worship of them began.
Add to which there are localized Buddhist “gods,” as well as historical heroes who were so revered, they were deified. The most prominent example of the latter is Guan Yu, a Shu Han general from the Three Kingdoms Era.
The short of it, Chinese mythological gods and characters do not only represent religious precepts and beliefs, they reflect classic Chinese culture, virtues, practices, and values too. Understanding what each god represents is in turn, a major step in deciphering the complex 5000-year-old civilization that is China.
Sections are categorized based on origin, with individual entries alphabetically arranged.
- A. From Taoism
- B. From Buddhism
- C. Creation Myths and Ancient Legends
- D. Popular Household Deities
- E. Journey to the West
- F. Investiture of the Gods
- G. From Popular Folktales
- H. Chinese Mythological Heroes
- I. Hell
- J. Others
Classical Chinese fantasy sagas such as Journey to the West are also renowned/notorious for having hundreds of characters. For this list, only major, i.e., well-known characters from such classical works are featured.
A. From Taoism (道教)
Occasionally described as China’s indigenous faith, Taoism is an ancient religion and philosophy that emphasizes harmonious living with the universal way i.e. Tao. Over the centuries, a plethora of rituals and practices were incorporated into the faith. Taoists also worship a wide pantheon of gods and deities, as well as honor a variety of Chinese myths.
- Ba Xian (八仙): The “Eight Immortals” are a group of Taoist deities typically represented by the unique artifacts they wield. Their most famous story is that of them crossing the Eastern Sea and coming into conflict with the Eastern Dragon King. Individually, they are:
- Li Tieguai (李铁拐) – A crippled beggar man with crutches.
- Han Zhongli (汉钟离) – A jovial ex-general with a large Chinese fan
- Lü Dongbin (吕洞宾) – A Taoist priest-like character with magical twin swords.
- He Xiangu (何仙姑) – A beautiful young lady holding a lotus blossom.
- Lan Caihe (蓝采和) – A young, almost androgynous boy with a flower basket.
- Han Xiangzi (韩湘子) – A Chinese scholar with a bamboo flute.
- Zhang Guolao (张果老) – A sagely old man riding a donkey and holding a Chinese fish-drum.
- Cao Guojiu (曹国舅) – An ex-courtier holding Chinese castanets.
- Dou Mu Niang Niang (斗母娘娘): The mother goddess of the Big Dipper stars. Originally worshiped by the ancient Chinese as the progenitor of the stars and constellations.
- Ling Bao Tian Jun (灵宝天君): One of the Three Purities in Taoism, Ling Bao Tian Jun roughly means the “Heavenly Lord of the Divine Treasures.” He is said to hold the mysteries of the universe within his eyes.
- San Guan (三官): The “Three Officers” of Heaven, Earth, and Water. The “Three Officers” of Heaven, Earth, and Water. There are different versions of who these Chinese mythological gods are. For example, the Heaven Officer is believed by some to be the Jade Emperor, while others see him as one of the ancient Chinese emperors. During annual Hungry Ghost Festival rites, the Earth Officer is also venerated for his ability to absolve sins.
- Tai Shang Lao Jun (太上老君): Tai Shang Lao Jun, also known as Dao De Tian Jun (道德天君), is the common Taoist title for Laozi, the mythical founder of Taoism. Believed to be the author of the Dao De Jing i.e. the key text of Taoism, Tai Shang Lao Jun is furthermore, part of the Three Purities i.e. the supreme divine trinity in Taoism. One of the most worshiped Taoist divinities, Tai Shang Lao Jun appears in many classical and modern Chinese fantasy stories. In these, he is usually portrayed as a sage riding a green ox, and associated with the creation of immortality elixirs.
- Xi Wang Mu (西王母): The Queen Mother of the West. Originally an ancient Chinese mother-goddess, she was incorporated into Taoism and subsequently associated with immortality and longevity. Legend goes that she resides at Kun Lun, the mythical mountain range of Taoism.
- Yu Huang Da Di (玉皇大帝): More widely known as the “Jade Emperor” outside of China, Yu Huang Da Di is the Taoist ruler of heaven. Unlike other cultures, though, he is not the supreme deity in Chinese myths; some beliefs even regard him as merely a representative of the Three Purities. Within Chinese fantasy stories and sagas, the Jade Emperor typically represents traditional social hierarchies and taboos.
- Yuan Shi Tian Jun (元始天君): Roughly translated as the “Heavenly Lord of the Primordial Beginning,” Yuan Shi Tian Jun is one of the Three Purities of Taoism, and said to be the original ruler of heaven. (He subsequently delegated this task to the Jade Emperor). He is also credited with the creation of heaven and earth, and is believed to have been born from the primordial way. In Investiture of the Gods, he was the supreme spiritual leader of the Zhou Forces.
- Zhang Daoling (张道陵): The founder of the Zhengyi Sect of Taoism. Usually referred to as Zhang Tianshi, with Tianshi meaning “heavenly master.” Zhang is one of the most important historical figures in Taoism.
B. From Buddhism (佛教)
Historians believe Buddhism first reached China during the Han Dynasty. In the centuries that followed, Buddhism in China also developed its own unique characteristics as well as established a curious synthesis with Taoism. Today, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and various Buddhist mythical Guardians are widely venerated within the same Chinese temple complexes as Taoist gods and goddesses. This is not just so in China but also for Chinese temples in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
- Ami Tuo Fo (阿弥陀佛): The Chinese name for Amita, the Celestial Buddha of the Pure Land. In many Chinese fantasy and Wuxia stories, monks are frequently shown citing his name as a conversation opener or lament.
- Da Shi Zhi (大势至): The Chinese Mahayana Buddhism name for Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. In Chinese temples, Da Shi Zi often flanks Ami Tu Fo together with Guan Yin. The trio is referred to as the 3 Sages of the West (西方三圣, xi fang san sheng).
- Di Zang Wang (地藏王): Di Zang Wang is the Chinese name for Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. A guardian of souls, Chinese depiction of him is inevitably that of a monk donning a splendid cassock. Note that while the Chinese character “wang” (王) means king or duke, Di Zang Wang is neither the King of Hell nor the Chinese god of death. Within China, Di Zang Wang is also associated with Mount Jiuhua.
- Guan Yin (观音): Guan Yin is the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism name for Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Famous worldwide as the “Chinese Goddess of Mercy,” Chinese depictions of Guan Yin is usually that of a benevolent goddess in white robes holding a vase of sacred dew. Guan Yin is furthermore widely worshiped throughout Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, with many famous temples in these countries, such as Tokyo’s Sensoji, dedicated to her. Lastly, within China, Guan Yin is associated with Mount Putuo. The island mountain is correspondingly full of monasteries and shrines.
- Ji Gong (济公): The raggedly, beggar-like reincarnation of an Arhat who’s credited with incredible powers of healing. One of the most beloved Chinese mythological gods and folkloric heroes, it is said that even the dirt on Ji Gong’s body is capable of miraculous healing.
- Mi Le Fo (弥勒佛): The Chinese name for Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Mi Le Fo is often portrayed in China as a jovial monk carrying a large bag, thanks to historical associations with the legendary monk Budai. In Japan, Budai is known as Hotei and is one of the Japanese Seven Lucky Gods.
- Pu Xian (普贤): The Chinese name for Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, Pu Xian represents perseverance and is usually shown riding a white elephant. He is also associated with Mount Emei and has a cameo in Investiture of the Gods as one of the twelve Yuxu sages.
- Ru Lai Fo (如来佛): In modern Chinese popular entertainment, Ru Lai Fo typically refers to Gautama Buddha, even though “Ru Lai” simply means Buddha and could be any of the other enlightened beings in the Buddhist universe. This practice began with Journey to the West, in which Gautama Buddha was named as such.
- Si Da Tian Wang (四大天王):A common feature at Chinese temple entrance halls, the “Four Heavenly Kings” have been variously featured in many Chinese fantasy sagas. They are:
- Chi Guo Tian Wang (持国天王): The Keeper of the Realm. He holds a Chinese pipa.
- Zeng Zhang Tian Wang (增长天王): He who grows wisdom and cultivation. He wields a precious sword.
- Guang Mu Tian Wang (广目天王): He who sees all. He is accompanied by a Chinese serpent.
- Duo Wen Tian Wang (多闻天王): He who hears all. His treasure is a Buddhist parasol.
- Wei Tuo (韦陀): The Chinese Buddhism version of Skanda, the guardian of monasteries. He is always depicted as a Chinese general wielding a young Vajra staff.
- Wen Shu (文殊): Wen Shu is the Chinese name for Bodhisattva Manjushri. In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, he represents wisdom and is usually depicted as riding a lion and wielding a sword that cuts down ignorance. Wen Shu has a cameo in Investiture of the Gods as one of the twelve Yuxu sages, and within China, is associated with Mount Wutai.
- Yao Shi Fo (药师佛): The medicinal Buddha. In Chinese temples, he is usually shown holding a medicinal bowl.
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C. Chinese Creation Myths and Ancient Legends
Chinese creation myths predate Buddhism and Taoism, and originated as oral traditions that were passed down over time. Despite this, several ancient Chinese mythological gods and goddesses were incorporated into the Taoist pantheon; for example, the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Other mythological characters have also earned permanent place in Chinese culture, the most prominent example being Chang’e of the Mid-Autumn Festival fame.
- Cang Jie (仓颉): A legendary historian of Huang Di credited with the invention of Chinese written characters. He is said to have four eyes.
- Chang’e (嫦娥): See Hou Yi (below).
- Chang Xi (常羲): One of the two wives of Di Jun and an ancient Chinese lunar goddess. She gave birth to 12 moons.
- Chi You (蚩尤): The mythical ruler of the ancient Jiu Li (九黎) tribe. Chi You battled Huang Di for supremacy of Ancient China, during which he breathed out a thick fog to trap Huang Di’s troops. Later, he also summoned a fearsome storm. Ultimately, though, he still lost the war and was beheaded. Legend has it that Chi You had a bronze head, four eyes, and six arms. He also wielded different deadly weapons in his hands.
- Da Yu (大禹): In Chinese mythology, Yu was the founder of the Xia Dynasty and famous for controlling the Great Flood of China. His father, Gun, was tasked by King Yao to contain the flood and once of age, Yu joined the efforts, succeeding where his father failed. To reward him, King Yao’s successor, Shun, appointed Yu as the new ruler of China. Note that “Da” is not part of Yu’s name. That character means “Big” or “Great.” Yu is one of the rare Chinese rulers accorded this honor.
- Di Jun (帝俊): One of the ancient supreme deities of China and husband of Chang Xi and Xihe. He was also the father of the nine suns shot down by Hou Yi.
- Fang Feng (防风): A giant executed by Da Yu for arriving late during efforts to contain the Great Flood of China.
- Fu Xi (伏羲): Sometimes described as the ancient Chinese emperor-god, Fu Xi is often regarded as one of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and credited with the invention of many, many things. For example, the I Ching (易经), which in turn heavily influenced Chinese concepts of the Yin and Yang. He is also said to be the brother and husband of Nüwa, and is often described as having a snake-like lower body. Lastly, together with Nüwa, Fu Xi created mankind. The couple did so by imbuing clay figures with magical life.
- Gong Gong (共工): The ancient Chinese God of Water. His epic battle with Zhu Rong damaged one of the pillars of the world, which would have then exterminated humanity, had Nüwa not magically repaired the pillar.
- He Bo (河伯): The ancient Chinese God of the Yellow River.
- Hou Tu (后土): The ancient Chinese Goddess of the Earth. During the Great Flood of China, Hou Tu assisted Da Yu by showing him the right way to channel drainage.
- Hou Yi (后羿): Hou Yi was a mythical archer in Ancient China, and there are starkly different stories when it comes to his deeds. Regardless of version, though, Hou Yi’s tale began with him tasked by King Yao to deal with the ten suns scorching the world. Hou Yi successfully shot down nine of these suns, after which he either needed an elixir of immortality to restore himself or was given one as reward. Whichever the development, Hou Yi’s wife Chang’e then ended up ingesting the elixir instead, and ascended to the moon as an immortal, forever separated from her beloved husband. In memory of their story, the Chinese celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival, with the act of placing mooncakes and food before the full moon a reflection of Hou Yi’s eternal longing for his wife.
- Huang Di (黄帝): The “Yellow Emperor” is one of the most significant icons in Chinese culture. One of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, he is credited with the invention of many things as well as venerated as the ancestor of the whole Chinese race. As for inventions, his most “important” creation is that of the Compass Chariot, which he supposedly used to defeat Chi You. Lastly, a good number of ancient texts were also attributed to him. For example, the Huang Di Nei Jing, an ancient Chinese medical thesis.
- Jiu Tian Xuan Nü (九天玄女): The “Mysterious Maiden of the Nine Heavens” is an ancient Chinese goddess described as the teacher of Huang Di. In this role, she was also the advisor who assisted him during the epic confrontation with Chi You. While usually portrayed as a stunningly beautiful woman in Chinese movies nowadays, her original form was that of a human-headed bird。
- Kua Fu (夸父): A grandson of Houtu, Kua Fu was a giant obsessed with capturing the sun. He chased the sun till he died of dehydration and exhaustion.
- Nüwa (女娲): The mother goddess of ancient Chinese beliefs, Nüwa was the sister and wife of Fuxi. Her most famous myth is that of her repairing a damaged pillar of heaven with a five-colored stone. Nüwa also cameoed in Investiture of the Gods as the goddess who laid the cornerstone for the Shang-Zhou conflict.
- Pan Gu (盘古): Born from a cosmic egg, Pangu was the Chinese mythical creator of the world and the very first living being in the universe. Using his magical ax, he separated Yang and Yin, and pushed the sky till it was high above the earth. After his passing, different parts of his body also became natural elements such as the wind and the stars.
- San Huang Wu Di (三皇五帝): In Chinese myths, the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors,” are said to be the very first rulers of Ancient China. There are many variations of the composition, but Huang Di, Fu Xi, and Shen Nong appear in most versions.
- Shen Nong (神农): The “Divine Farmer” was an ancient Chinese leader credited with the development of medicine and agriculture. Legend goes that he tested hundreds of herbs by ingesting them himself, ultimately dying when he ate the extremely toxic “intestine rupturing grass.” Sometimes considered as one of Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, historians now believe Shen Nong was actually Yan Di (炎帝), the latter also a mythical ancient Chinese ruler. Other versions describe Shen Nong as the original lord of Chi You, thus making him an indirect opponent of Huang Di.
- Si Xiong (四凶): Known in English as “The Four Perils,” these are four ancient evil beings defeated by Huang Di. They are:
- Hun Dun (混沌): A winged demon with six legs and no face.
- Qiong Qi (窮奇): A man-eating monster.
- Tao Wu (檮杌): A savage, tiger-like creature.
- Tao Tie (饕餮): A gluttonous demon similar to Abaddon in Christian mythology.
- Xiang Shui Shen (湘水神): Xiang Shui Shen refers to Er Wang (娥皇) and Nü Ying (女英), two Goddesses of the Xiang River. Daughters of Emperor Yao, they married Yao’s successor, Shun.
- Xihe (羲和): An ancient Chinese goddess of the sun and one of the two wives of Di Jun. She is said to be the mother of the ten suns that scorched Ancient China.
- Xing Tian (刑天): A fearsome ancient deity who fought against Huang Di. After defeat and decapitation, he continued to battle, using his nipples as eyes and his naval as a new mouth.
- Yu Tu (玉兔): The Jade Rabbit of the Moon. After Chang’e isolation on the Moon, the Jade Rabbit became her only companion.
- Zhu Rong (祝融): The Ancient Chinese God of Fire, whose epic battle with Gong Gong damaged one of the pillars of the world. The calamities that resulted would have exterminated humanity, had Nüwa not magically repaired the damage.
D. Popular Chinese Household Deities
The following Chinese mythological gods are frequent characters in Chinese fantasy sagas and pop culture entertainment. Many are also still actively worshiped by Chinese households today.
- Cai Shen (财神): The Chinese God of Wealth is nowadays synonymous with Chinese New Year celebrations. The most popular depiction of him is that of a jovial man in imperial courtier robes.
- Er Shi Ba Xing Siu (二十八星宿): The deified forms of the 28 constellations of Chinese astrology are seldom worshiped. However, these Chinese gods of the stars occasionally appear in Chinese fantasy sagas as heavenly officers.
- Fu Lu Shou (福禄寿): Alternative known as the Three Stars or San Xing, the trio represents the three positive qualities of life in Chinese culture. These being Fu (blessing), Lu (prosperity), and Shou (longevity).
- Hua Guang Da Di (华光大帝): One of the Four Guardian Marshal Gods of Taoism, Lord Huang Guang is also venerated by Cantonese Opera troupes as the God of Performance Arts.
- Kui Xing (魁星): The Chinese God of Examinations.
- Lu Ban (鲁班): A Chinese inventor and engineer from the Zhou dynasty. Nowadays revered as a patron of builders.
- Ma Zhu (妈祖): The Chinese Goddess of the Sea. One of the most widely worshiped goddesses in the southern coastal areas of China and Southeast Asia, Ma Zu is said to be the deified form of a Southern Song Dynasty Fujian villager born with powers of prophecy and magic. She is also commonly referred to as Tian Hou (天后), a title that means "heavenly empress."
- Tai Sui (太岁): Tai Sui refers to the personified forms of the 60 stars opposite Jupiter during the latter’s 12-year orbit. In Chinese astrology, each lunar year is always presided by one Tai Sui. Those with Chinese Zodiac signs opposing the reigning Tai Sui must then perform a worship ritual at the start of the new year to avoid misfortune.
- Tu Di (土地): Tu Di is not one god but the generic title for a whole host of earth spirits/guardians. They are invariably depicted as small-sized elderly men too. In Journey to the West, Sun Wukong always summons the local Tu Di upon reaching an unfamiliar place.
- Wen Chang (文昌): The Chinese God of Culture, Literature, and Learning.
- Yue Lao (月老): The “Old Man of the Moon” is the Chinese God of Marriage. He connects couples with a magical red thread.
- Zao Jun (灶君): The Chinese God of the Kitchen. It is said that he always returns to the Heavenly Court to submit his annual reports seven days before Chinese New Year. This belief, in turn, began the “necessity” of cleaning the household before that date so as to avoid heavenly chastisement.
- Zhu Sheng Niang Niang (注生娘娘): The Chinese Goddess of Childbirth and Fertility. Worship of her is common in Fujian and Taiwan.
E. Journey to the West (西游记)
Arguably the most famous classic Chinese fantasy saga, Journey to the West was written by Ming Dynasty writer Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century. The saga is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.
- Baigu Jing (白骨精): The White Bone Demoness is one of the most famous villains of Journey to the West, notorious for her repeated attempts to bewitch Tang Sanzang. She was ultimately pounded to death by Sun Wukong’s golden cudgel.
- Bai Long Ma (白龙马): The white stallion steed of Tang Sanzang was previously a dragon prince. He was punished with this transformation after he willfully destroyed a precious pearl given to his father by the Jade Emperor.
- Hong Haier (红孩儿): The immensely powerful son of Niu Mo Wang, born with the ability to manipulate all forms of fire. Even the mighty Sun Wukong wasn’t a match for him and had to enlist the help of Guan Yin. After Guan Yin subdued him with a rigged lotus, the demon child was transfigured into Shan Cai Tongzi, the Buddhist Child Propagator of Wealth.
- Niu Mo Wang (牛魔王): Niu Mo Wang, or Ox Demon King, is but one of the many demons vanquished by Sun Wukong in Journey to the West. He is, however, widely remembered as one of Sun’s sworn brothers. His wife and son also famously battled the Monkey King.
- Sha Wujing (沙悟净): The third disciple of Tang Sanzang is always depicted as a Chinese “wild monk,” and within the saga, was the voice of reason and mediation. Before the pilgrimage, Sha was also a heavenly general. He was punished with the task after he destroyed a previous vase during a fit of anger.
- Sun Wukong (孙悟空): The world-famous protagonist of Journey to the West, Sun Wukong the Monkey King was born from a magical rock. Mischievous, fiercely loyal, and very quick-tempered, Sun repeatedly battled the Taoist pantheon, and after defeat, was imprisoned by Gautama Buddha in a magical mountain. To further atone for his sins, he was later also ordered to protect Tang Sanzang during the holy monk’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of Buddhism. Upon completion of the pilgrimage, Sun Wukong achieved Buddhist enlightenment and was conferred the title of Dou Zan Sheng Fo (斗战胜佛, Buddha of Combat). Till today, Sun Wukong remains one of the most beloved characters in Chinese mythology.
- Tang Sanzang (唐三藏): More famously known as Tripitaka to the Western World, Tang Sanzang was based on Xuan Zang, a real-life Tang Dynasty Monk who went on a pilgrimage to India to collect Buddhist sutras. In Journey to the West, he was Sun Wukong’s second master. He was also consistently portrayed by author Wu Cheng’en as naïve, hapless, and excessively benevolent.
- Tie Shan Gongzhu (铁扇公主): The Princess of the Iron Fan was the wife of Niu Mo Wang. She came into conflict with Sun Wukong and his fellow disciples after she refused to loan her eponymous treasure to Sun to extinguish the Flaming Mountains.
- Zhu Bajie (猪八戒): The comic relief of the saga, pig-faced Bajie was greedy, lascivious, lazy, and terribly jealous of Sun Wukong. Formerly a heavenly marshal, he was cursed with his awful form as punishment for lusting after Chang’e. In Arthur Waley’s translation, Bajie was renamed as Pigsy.
F. Investiture of the Gods (封神演义)
A supernatural retelling of the historical conflict preceding the fall of the Ancient Shang Dynasty, Investiture of the Gods was written in the 16th century by Ming Dynasty writer Xu Zhonglin. As Xu based many of his characters on actual Buddhist and Taoist deities, several protagonists of the saga are still actively worshiped in Chinese communities today.
- Da Ji (妲己): The human avatar of a nine-tailed fox, Da Ji was dispatched by Nüwa to bewitch Di Xin i.e. the final Shang Emperor, after the latter insulted the goddess in her own temple. The story goes that Da Ji then got carried away and created great suffering in China with her many vile acts. Xu Zhonglin based Da Ji on a “real-life” consort of the historical Di Xin, one said to be just as wicked.
- Jiang Ziya (姜子牙): Historically, Jiang Ziya was a noble who played a major role in the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty. In Investiture of the Gods, however, he was an elderly disciple of Yuan Shi Tian Jun, the one who was dispatched to the mortal world to assist the Zhou Forces. Throughout the saga, he played the role of chief strategist, though he occasionally joined the battle too.
- Lei Zhenzi (雷震子): A half-brother of Zhou Wu Wang, Lei Zhenzi was transfigured into a hawkish being with wings and a beak after eating two magical almonds. An adept of weather magic, the winged deity then served under his half-sibling as a capable vanguard, earning several notable victories during the war. Some readers nowadays consider Lei Zhenzi’s image in the saga to be the appearance of Lei Gong, the Chinese mythological god of thunder.
- Li Jing (李靖): Originally a high-ranking Shang officer, Li Jing defected to the Zhou forces and became one of Zhou Wu Wang’s leading generals. His greatest joy in life, and burden, was his rebellious third son Nezha, with whom he once severed all relationships with. To control Nezha, Li was thereafter given a magical pagoda, one that could instantly imprison most beings. Readers familiar with other Asian mythologies will immediately notice Li’s resemblance to the Japanese Buddhist Guardian Bishamon. Li Jing is also often referred to with his epithet of “Pagoda Bearing Heavenly King.”
- Nan Ji Xian Weng (南极仙翁): The Divine Sage of the South Pole is a minor character in Investiture of the Gods, one who occasionally assisted the Zhou forces in his role as the eldest disciple of Yuan Shi Tian Jun. Outside of that, the immortal also appears in several other classical works and is commonly associated with longevity by the Chinese. Some consider him to be the “Shou” of the San Xing as well.
- Nezha (哪吒): The most famous protagonist of the saga and one of the most beloved Chinese mythological characters in Chinese culture, Nezha was the impetuous third son of Shang General Li Jing. He was also the reincarnation of a divine spirit and was born after his mother bore him for 42 months. After many fracases with his father and other supernatural characters, Nezha committed suicide but was resurrected using a lotus-made body. Thereafter, he gained a slew of new abilities and weapons, also joining the Zhou Forces with his father. Today, Nezha, or the “Third Prince,” is one of the most venerated Taoist deities in Taiwan.
- Shengong Bao (申公豹): A fellow disciple of Jiang Ziya, Shengong Bao defied the will of heaven and sided with the Shang forces. He also repeatedly battled Jiang Ziya and many Zhou forces generals till defeated and imprisoned in the far north. Shengong Bao’s most noted magic is the ability to detach and reattach his head.
- Tai Yi Zhen Ren (太乙真人): Tai Yi Zhen Ren is a major deity in Taoism, equivalent to Amita Buddha is his role as savior of the dead. In Investiture of the Gods, however, he was the teacher of Nezha and one of the twelve “Yu Xu (玉虚)” sages, these being the leading immortal disciples of Yuan Shi Tian Jun. He is remembered for gifting Nezha with many fantastical weapons.
- Tong Tian Jiao Zhu (通天教主): In the saga, Tong Tian was a fellow disciple of Laozi and Yuan Shi Tian Jun, and the spiritual leader of the Shang forces. A secondary plot of the saga was the supernatural conflict between Laozi’s Chan (阐) Sect and Tong Tian’s Jie (截) Sect, these sects being the respective patrons of the Zhou and Shang forces. The two magical factions ultimately reached an armistice in the final third of the saga.
- Yang Jian (杨戬): One of the most powerful warriors of the Zhou Forces, Yang Jian was based on Erlang Shen, a widely worshiped deity in Taoism. His defining feature is that of a third “heavenly eye” on his forehead. Capable of a vast variety of supernatural abilities and assisted by a heavenly hound, Yang Jian was near undefeatable throughout the saga too. In Journey to the West, Yang Jian famously fought Sun Wukong. He was furthermore the only warrior god from the Jade Emperor’s pantheon able to battle the Monkey King to a standstill.
- Zhou Wu Wang (周武王): Also referred to by his ancestral name of Ji Fa (姬发), Zhou Wu Wang was historically, the first emperor of the Ancient Zhou Dynasty. He largely retained this identity in Investiture of the Gods, leading the Zhou forces till their ultimate victory over the Shang Dynasty
G. The Four Folktales (四大民间传说)
The Four Folktales are oral traditions that are widely known in Chinese communities. They are
- The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台)
- The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传)
- Lady Meng Jiang (孟姜女)
- The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女)
The following two stories are sometimes also regarded as part of the Four Folktales. They replace Lady Meng Jiang and The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
- The Legend of Liu Yi (柳毅传书)
- The Legend of Dong Yong and the Seventh Fairy (董永与七仙女)
- Bai Suzhen (白素贞): A white snake spirit who achieved human form after centuries of cultivation, Bai Suzhen made the mistake of loving and marrying human physician Xu Xian. For his sake, she then battled Fa Hai, an exorcist monk who vehemently opposed their marriage. She also used her magic to flood his temple. After defeat by Fa Hai, Bai Suzhen was imprisoned in the Thunder Peak Pagoda.
- Dong Yong (董永): Impoverished Dong Yong was forced to sell himself into slavery in order to pay for his father’s funeral. His piety moved the Seventh Fairy, or Qi Xian Nü, the latter then magically weaving 14 bolts of splendid cloth overnight to redeem him from indenture. The couple subsequently married but unfortunately had to be separated when Qi Xian Nü was forced to return to heaven.
- Fa Hai (法海): As the abbot of the Temple of the Golden Mount, and an exorcist monk, Fa Hai strongly opposed the marriage of Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen. He considered such a union of man and spirit grossly unnatural. After subduing Bai, he imprisoned her in the Thunder Peak Pagoda.
- Liang Shanbo (梁山伯): The male protagonist of the famous Butterfly Lovers story, Liang was a bookworm who completely failed to notice his “sworn brother” and study partner was a lady i.e. Zhu Yingtai. When he did find out, he fell head over heels in love with Zhu, but could not marry her as she was already betrothed. Wallowing in grief, his health then deteriorated and he eventually died. Later, when passing by Liang’s grave during her wedding procession, Zhu begged heaven to open the grave, thereafter throwing herself into the pit when the wish was granted. Their spirits then emerged from the grave as a pair of inseparable butterflies, giving rise to the common name of the story.
- Liu Yi (柳毅): Philologist Liu Yi chanced upon the suffering Third Dragon Princess at Lake Dong Ting. After learning of her plight, he assisted with informing her family, who then dispatched a massive army to free the princess. Because of this kindness, the princess fell in love with Liu Yi, but out of guilt over the princess’ abusive husband dying in the conflict, Liu Yi rejected her love. Thankfully, the princess’ uncle intervened and the couple ultimately married.
- Long Gong San Gong Zhu (龙宫三公主): Translated literally as the Third Princess of the Dragon Court, the princess was ill-treated by her husband and banished to Lake Dong Ting. There, she languished till encountering Liu Yi (see above).
- Meng Jiao (梦蛟): In some versions of the Legend of the White Snake, Meng Jiao was the son of Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen. He freed his mother from the Thunder Peak Pagoda after scoring the top position in Chinese imperial examinations. His name means “dream python” and he is alternatively called Shi Lin.
- Meng Jiang Nü (孟姜女): The story goes that Lady Meng Jiang’s husband was conscripted by the Qin Dynasty to build the Great Wall of China. After receiving no news of him for years, Meng Jiang set off to find him. At a site, she learned that her husband has died and in her grief, she was inconsolable and wept miserably. The sound of her sobs then brought down a portion of the unfinished wall, revealing her husband’s bones. In modern times, the folktale has been reinterpreted as a metaphor for the struggle against tyrannical rule.
- Niu Lang (牛郎): Niu Lang means “cowherd” and was a human who fell in love with the immortal Zhi Nü i.e. weaver girl. As their romance was forbidden, they were banished to opposite ends of the Milky Way, permitted to only meet once a year on a magical bridge of magpies. In astrology, Niu Lang represents the star Altair while Zhi Nü is the star Vega. Lastly, this classic folktale is also widely known in other parts of East Asia. For example, in Japan, it is known as Tanabata.
- Qi Xian Nü (七仙女): The “Seventh Fairy” was a heavenly weaver who was moved by Dong Yong’s self-sacrificing filial piety. After magically assisting him to free himself from slavery, Qi Xian Nü married Dong Yong and lived with him in the mortal world, till forced to return to heaven. Many Chinese consider the tale of Dong Yong and Qi Xian Nü to be an alternate version of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
- Xiao Qing (小青): Xiao Qing was the green snake companion of Bai Suzhen. Though younger and weaker in power, she managed to escape imprisonment by Fa Hai after the Battle at Golden Mount. In some versions of the legend, she was the one who later freed Bai Suzhen.
- Xu Xian (许仙): A physician, Xu Xian’s life was forever changed after he met and fell in love with Bai Suzhen, a kindly white snake spirit. Though they married, their union ended in tragedy, no thanks to the fervent opposition of exorcist monk Fa Hai.
- Zhi Nü (织女): See Niu Lang (above).
- Zhu Yingtai (祝英台): See Liang Shanbo (above).
H. Chinese Mythological Heroes
As mentioned in the preface, many Chinese mythological gods are actual historical figures who have been deified. Generally, they embody widely celebrated classic virtues.
- Bao Zheng (包拯): Bao Zheng was a Northern Song Dynasty magistrate renowned for his upright character and relentless pursuit of justice. He is also alternatively referred to as Bao Qingtian (包青天), “Qingtian” being the Chinese metaphor for justice. Believed to be the avatar of Wen Chang, it is said that in his sleep, Bao also judges the dead as Yan Luo Wang.
- Guan Yu (关羽): Guan Yu was a sworn-brother of Liu Bei, one of the three faction leaders of the tumultuous Three Kingdoms Era of China. Deeply respected for his loyalty and honor, progressive deification in subsequent centuries resulted in Guan Yu now being one of the most venerated Chinese deities in both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. Worshippers also typically refer to Guan Yu as Guan Gong (关公) or Guan Er Ge (关二哥), and see him as the personification of brotherly honor. Lastly, in the western world, Guan Yu is sometimes described as the Chinese god of war.
- Men Shen (门神): The practice of protecting a household by placing images of Men Shen, or Door Gods, at the main entrance long existed in China. However, in the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong ordered the images of these Chinese gods to be those of his loyal generals Qin Shubao (秦叔宝) and Yuchi Gong (尉迟恭). This practice endured till today.
- Zhong Kui (钟馗): In Chinese folklore, Zhong Kui was a brilliant scholar who was denied his rightful official post because of his savage appearance. After committing suicide, Zhong Kui was made a vanquisher of evil spirits by the King of Hell. In some versions of the story, the indignant scholar was also given the mythical title of the King of Ghosts.
I. Hell (地狱)
There are two versions of Chinese Hell. One is the Ten Courts of Hell, which is heavily influenced by Buddhist Beliefs. The other is the Eighteen Levels of Hell, which is also based on Buddhist beliefs and originated during the Tang Dynasty.
- Cheng Huang (城隍): The Taoist City God, or more accurately, the God of the City Moat. Cheng Huang is a title rather than an individual deity. Many Chinese folkloric beliefs also state that Cheng Huang are the immortals responsible for keeping records of human virtues and wrong-doings, and for submitting these records to hell.
- Dongyue Dadi (东岳大帝): The God of Mount Tai is not only the leader of all Chinese mountain gods, in Taoism, he is hailed as the ruler of the Chinese netherworld too. Some traditions additionally state that he is the supreme authority overseeing the Ten Judges of Hell.
- Hei Bai Wu Chang (黑白无常): Translated as “the Impermanence of Black and White,” Hei Bai Wu Chang is a duo of ghastly hellish officers responsible for capturing sinful souls, rewarding the virtuous, and punishing the wicked. Their signature traits are their long tongues. Some folkloric beliefs also consider them as Chinese gods of wealth, with both officers honored and prayed to during annual Chinese Ghost Festival celebrations.
- Meng Po (孟婆): In some versions of the Chinese Hell, Meng Po is an elderly lady in charge of forgetfulness. She serves a magical soup to souls before their reincarnation, thus ensuring that all about hell and previous lives are forgotten.
- Niutou Mamian (牛头马面): Niu Tou means “ox head” while Ma Mian means “horse face.” Both are races of hellish officers in charge of bringing souls to hell for judgment. Some beliefs alternatively state that Niutou Mamian are not races but two officers guarding the bridge crossing over to hell.
- Pan Guan (判官): Pan Guan means “judge” in Chinese. In Chinese folkloric depictions of hell, though, Pan Guan is not the actual judge but a bailiff of sorts. His primary duty is that of checking magical records for the purpose of listing a soul’s previous sins.
- Yanluo Wang (阎罗王): Yanluo Wang is the transliteration of the Vedic name “Yama,” and is the generic title used in Chinese conversations to refer to the King of Hell, or the Chinese God of Death. In the Ten Courts version of Chinese Hell, though, Yan Luo Wang specifically refers to the judge presiding over the fifth court. Some Chinese folktales further claim that Yan Luo Wang is none other than Bao Zheng (see above).
J. Other Chinese Mythological Gods and Goddesses From Popular Folktales, Legends, Etc.
- Ao Guang (敖广): The Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean. He often appears as a semi-antagonist in Chinese folktales and fantasy sagas, most famously in Investiture of the Gods.
- Huang Daxian (黄大仙): A Chinese folkloric God of Medicine and Healing. He is widely worshiped in Hong Kong, with an entire district in Kowloon named after him.
- Hua Shan Sheng Mu (华山圣母): The protagonist of The Lotus Lantern opera is an illegitimate niece of the Jade Emperor and the owner of an all-powerful magical lantern. After marrying a mortal, she was punished for the “transgression” by being imprisoned under Mount Hua. In all versions of the myth, her son Chen Xiang subsequently freed her by splitting the mountain apart. He succeeded in doing so after defeating Hua Shan Sheng Mu’s brother Erlang Shen (see above). The latter had earlier swindled away his mother’s precious lantern.
- Luo Shen (洛神): A daughter of Fuxi who became a goddess of the Yellow River (or Luo Shui) after drowning in it. She is most famously remembered as the apparition in Cao Zhi’s third-century poem.
- 尚燕彬, & 张红梅. (2002). 中国古代神话与传说：珍藏版. 北京燕山出版社. ISBN: 9787540214357.
- 么 書儀. (1995). 神話傳說三百篇： 注音今插，音解釋圖. 大連出版社. ISBN: 7-80612-054-8.
- Mark, E. (2021, June 24). Most Popular Gods & Goddesses of Ancient China. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/894/most-popular-gods--goddesses-of-ancient-china/.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, April 1). 中国神话人物列表. Wikipedia. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%AD%E5%9B%BD%E7%A5%9E%E8%AF%9D%E4%BA%BA%E7%89%A9%E5%88%97%E8%A1%A8. [In Chinese]
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, February 13). 中国四大民间传说. Wikipedia. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%AD%E5%9B%BD%E5%9B%9B%E5%A4%A7%E6%B0%91%E9%97%B4%E4%BC%A0%E8%AF%B4. [In Chinese]
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Ced Yong
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on August 27, 2019:
Thanks for reading! There are many more that I did not included, but the ones on this list are the most commonly seen/written about characters.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 27, 2019:
This is so interesting. I often see these images in temples or museums and it is good to know a bit about them.