A strange occurrence in Chinese mythology is that many well-known Chinese mythological gods, goddesses, and mythical 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 famous mythical characters such as Sun Wukong the Monkey God are completely fictitious. They became so popular, folkloric worship of them began.
There are also syncretized 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.
In short, Chinese mythological deities and characters do not only represent religious precepts and beliefs, they reflect classic Chinese culture, virtues, practices, and values over the centuries. Understanding what each god or hero 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.
Updates for 2023 Edition
This edition focuses on consolidating names that should appear under the same entry. For example, Yuanshi Tianzun and Laozi are now introduced under the San Qing entry, San Qing being the title for the supreme Taoist trinity both deities are famous for.
The above revision, in turn, permits the inclusion of more entries. Most new entries are in Section A.
Various existing entries were also expanded. Either to include details of physical depictions or recorded mentions in historical texts.
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 (道, pronounced as dao in Mandarin). 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 (See below). 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.
- Dongwanggong (东王公): The “King Father of the East” is the consort of Xiwangmu and a high-ranking guardian deity in Taoism. He originated as Dongwang Taiyi (东王太一) during the Warring States era and in this form, he was a solar god. Together with Xiwangmu, he represents Yang energy while Xiwangmu represents Yin energy.
- Doumu Niangniang (斗母娘娘): The mother goddess of the stars; for example, the Big Dipper Stars and Polaris. Her appearance in temples also resembles that of Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation. She is usually shown with four faces and with multiple arms each wielding a holy artifact.
- Puhua Tianzun (普化天尊): The heavenly supreme marshall of the thunders. Described as the avatar of the ninth son of Yuan Shi Tian Jun, Puhua Tianzun has the authority to determine both blessings and calamities.
- Sanguan (三官): The “Three Officers” of Heaven, Earth, and Water, said to be born of Yuanshi Tianzun. There are different versions of whom these Chinese mythological gods are. For example, the Heaven Officer is believed by some to be the Jade Emperor, while others see him as Yao (尧), one of the ancient Chinese emperors. During annual Hungry Ghost Festival rites, the Earth Officer is also venerated for his ability to absolve sins.
- Sanqing (三清):The “Three Purities,” or “Three Pure Ones,” are the highest deities in Taoism. They are viewed as manifestations of the “Tao,” or the cosmic way of the universe. In turn, the Three Purities created the world as we know it. The three deities are:
- Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊): The “Heavenly Lord of the Primordial Beginning” is the creator deity of Taoism and the supreme god who delegated management of the universe to the Siyu. He is credited with the creation of Heaven and Earth, and is believed to have been born from the primordial Tao. In Investiture of the Gods, he was the supreme spiritual leader of the Zhou Forces, the teacher of most of the immortals and gods who fought for the Zhou faction. In the Ming Dynasty compendium Lidai Shenxian Tongjian (历代神仙通鉴), Yuanshi Tianzun was also described as the reincarnation of Pangu. The myth goes that the spirit of the giant flew into the mouth of an ancient goddess and was reborn.
- Lingbao Tianzun (灵宝天尊): Taoist texts describe Lingbao Tianzun, or the “Heavenly Lord of the Divine Treasures” as a manifestation of Yuanshi Tianzun, created to assist the supreme deity in all matters. In temples venerating the Three Purities, he is usually shown holding a ruyi. The Dongxuan Benhang Jing (洞玄本行经) describes him as capable of many forms to reach all sentient beings.
- Taishang Laojun (太上老君): Taishang Laojun is also known as Daode Tianzun (道德天尊) and is the most worshipped of the Three Purities. Like Yuanshi Tianjun, he was formed by primordial energies, and the story goes that during the Shang Dynasty, he descended to the mortal world as the philosopher Laozi (老子) to author the Dao De Jing (道德经), the key text of Taoism, and to start Taoism. In later centuries, Taishang Laojun appears in many folktales and fantasy stories, and in these, he is usually portrayed as a sage riding a green ox and associated with the creation of immortality elixirs.
- Siyu (四御): In Taoism, the “Four Sovereigns” are four heavenly rulers tasked by the Three Purities to govern the universe. They rank after the Three Purities in terms of seniority and are mentioned in various Taoist text, with their formal titles usually very long. In summary, the four rulers can be identified as:
- Yuhuang Dadi (玉皇大帝): The Jade Emperor who governs the gods. Refer to his individual entry for more information.
- Ziwei Dadi (紫微大帝): The Emperor of the Middle Sky who governs the stars. Some traditions identify him as Polaris. In Chinese astrology, the Ziwei Star is also the most auspicious star.
- Gouchen Dadi (勾陈大帝): The Emperor of the Curved Array who governs heaven, earth, and humans. He is identified with the Little Dipper constellation. Some traditions also regard him as the same as Nanji Xianweng, and correspondingly, has to power to bestow longevity.
- Houtu Niangniang (后土娘娘): The Queen of the Earth and the only female of the Four Sovereigns. She governs the earth and soil, as well as supervises all local Tudi gods (See below). In Ancient Chinese myths, she was the goddess who taught Yu the methods to channel the Yellow River. Some traditions also replaces her with Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun.
- Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun (太乙救苦天尊): The Taoist savior of the suffering dead is believed to be an avatar of Lingbao Tianzun. He resides in the East, is famed for his great compassion, and in iconologies, is sometimes depicted as riding a nine-headed lion. In Investiture of the Gods, Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun was reimaged as Taiyi Zhenren (太乙真人) and in this form, he was a disciple of Yuanshi Tianzun and Nezha’s teacher. In that saga, he was also responsible for resurrecting the boy warrior as well as gifting him his most powerful weapons.
- Xiwangmu (西王母): The Queen Mother of the West. Originally an ancient Chinese goddess, she was incorporated into Taoism and came to be associated with immortality and longevity. She is also said to reside at Kunlun, the mythical mountain range of Taoism. The ancient compendium Shanhai Jing (山海经) furthermore describes her as having tiger fangs and other beastly features. However, some modern writers believe these descriptions refer to Xiwangmu’s emissaries.
- Yuhuang Dadi (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.
- 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.
- Zhenwu Dadi (真武大帝): A Taoist warrior god heavily associated with the North, and through that, with the geomancy element of water and the celestial tortoise Xuanwu (玄武). [In Chinese mythology, Xuanwu represents the North] The patron god of Mount Wudang, Zhenwu Dadi is also a god of fertility and longevity. Many shrines and temples on Wudang dedicated to the god were built during the Ming Dynasty by Emperor Yongle. The emperor claimed he managed to seize the throne because of assistance by the god.
B. From Buddhism (佛教)
Historians believe Buddhism first reached China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). In subsequent, Buddhism in China also developed 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.
Note too that in the entries below, “Pusa” is the Chinese term for Bodhisattva, while “Fo” is the Chinese term for Buddha.
- Amituofo (阿弥陀佛): The Chinese name for Amitābha, 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.
- Dashizhi Pusa (大势至菩萨): The Chinese Mahayana Buddhism name for Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. In Chinese temples, Dashizhi Pusa often flanks Amituofo together with Guan Yin. The trio is referred to as the 3 Sages of the West (西方三圣, Xifang Sansheng).
- Dizangwang Puza (地藏王): Dizangwang Pusa 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, Dizangwang Pusa is neither the King of Hell nor the Chinese god of death. Within China, Dizangwang Pusa is also associated with Mount Jiuhua.
- Guanyin Pusa (观音菩萨): Guanyin is the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism name for Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Famous worldwide as the “Chinese Goddess of Mercy,” and arguably the most worshipped Chinese “god,” Chinese depiction of Guanyin is usually that of a benevolent goddess in white robes holding a vase of sacred dew, although Guanyin is described as having multiple forms in Buddhist sutras. Guanyin 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, Guanyin is associated with Mount Putuo. She is also an important supporting character in Journey to the West. She was the Bodhisattva who tasked the Monkey King to escort Tang Sanzang.
- 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) At Chinese Buddhist temples, Mi-Le Fo is usually placed right after the main entrance. His cheery visage encourages all to explore Buddhist teachings.
- Puxian Pusa (普贤菩萨): The Chinese name for Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, Puxian 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.
- Rulaifo (如来佛): In modern Chinese popular entertainment, Rulaifo typically refers to Gautama Buddha, even though “Rulai” 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.
- Sida Tianwang (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:
- Chiguo Tianwang (持国天王): The Keeper of the Realm. He holds a Chinese pipa.
- Zengzhang Tianwang (增长天王): He who grows wisdom and cultivation. He wields a precious sword.
- Guangmu Tianwang (广目天王): He who sees all. He is accompanied by a Chinese serpent.
- Duowen Tianwang (多闻天王): He who hears all. His treasure is a Buddhist parasol.
- Weituo (韦陀): The Chinese Buddhism version of Skanda, the guardian of monasteries. He is always depicted as a young Chinese general wielding a Vajra staff.
- Wenshu Pusa (文殊菩萨): 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.
- Yaoshifo (药师佛): The medicinal Buddha. In Chinese temples, he is usually shown holding a medicinal bowl.
C. Chinese Creation Myths and Ancient Legends
Chinese creation myths predate Buddhism and Taoism, and originated as (often conflicting) oral traditions that were passed down over time. Despite this, several ancient Chinese gods and goddesses were incorporated into the Taoist pantheon; for example, the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Other mythological characters have also earned permanent places in Chinese culture, the most prominent example being Chang’e of the Mid-Autumn Festival fame.
- Cangjie (仓颉): A legendary historian of Huangdi credited with the invention of Chinese written characters. He is said to have four eyes.
- Chang’e (嫦娥): See Hou Yi (below).
- Changxi (常羲): One of the two wives of Di Jun and an ancient Chinese lunar goddess. She gave birth to 12 moons.
- Chiyou (蚩尤): The mythical ruler of the ancient Jiuli (九黎) tribe. Chi You battled Huangdi for supremacy of Ancient China, during which he expelled a thick fog to trap Huangdi’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 is a monstrous being with 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. Some traditions also describe Yu as the mortal form of the Water Officer of the San Guan.
- Di Jun (帝俊): One of the ancient supreme deities of China and the husband of Chang Xi and Xihe. He was also the father of the nine suns shot down by Hou Yi.
- Fangfeng (防风): A giant executed by Da Yu for arriving late during efforts to contain the Great Flood of China.
- Fuxi (伏羲): Sometimes described as the ancient Chinese emperor-god, Fuxi is often regarded as one of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and credited with the invention of many things. For example, the I Ching (易经), the ancient text that 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.
- Gonggong (共工): The ancient Chinese God of Water described as a gigantic serpent with a human head. His epic battle with Zhurong damaged one of the pillars of the world, which would have then exterminated humanity, had Nüwa not magically repaired the pillar.
- Hebo (河伯): The ancient Chinese God of the Yellow River.
- 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 the version, though, Hou Yi’s tale began with him being 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 a reward. Whichever the development, Hou Yi’s wife Chang’e then ended up ingesting the elixir and ascended to the moon as an immortal, forever separated from her beloved husband. In memory of their story, the Chinese celebrate the 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.
- Huangdi (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 (Han) 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 Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经), an ancient Chinese medical thesis.
- Jiutian Xuannü (九天玄女): The “Mysterious Maiden of the Nine Heavens” is an ancient Chinese goddess described as the teacher of Huangdi. In this role, she was the advisor who assisted Huangdi during the latter’s epic confrontation with Chiyou. While usually portrayed as a stunningly beautiful woman in Chinese movies nowadays, her original form was that of a human-headed bird.
- Kuafu (夸父): A grandson of Houtu, Kuafu was a giant obsessed with capturing the sun. He chased the sun till he died of dehydration and exhaustion. The Chinese idiom, Kuafu Zhuiri (夸父追日, Kuafu pursues the sun) thus refers to meaningless, self-destructive endeavors.
- 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.
- Pangu (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 became natural elements such as the wind and the stars.
- Sanhuang Wudi (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 Huangdi, Fuxi, and Shennong appear in most versions.
- Shennong (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 one of Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, historians now believe Shennong was actually Yandi (炎帝), the latter also a mythical ancient Chinese ruler. Other versions describe Shennong as the original lord of Chiyou, thus making him an indirect opponent of Huangdi.
- Si Xiong (四凶): Known in English as “The Four Perils,” these are four ancient evil beings defeated by Huang Di. They are:
- Hundun (混沌): A winged demon with six legs and no face.
- Qiongqi (窮奇): A man-eating monster.
- Taowu (檮杌): A savage, tiger-like creature.
- Taotie (饕餮): A gluttonous demon similar to Abaddon in Christian mythology.
- Xiangshuishen (湘水神): Xiangshuishen refers to Ehuang (娥皇) and Nüying (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.
- Xingtian (刑天): A fearsome ancient deity who fought against Huangdi. After defeat and decapitation, he continued to battle, using his nipples as eyes and his naval as a new mouth.
- Yutu (玉兔): The Jade Rabbit of the Moon. After Chang’e isolation on the Moon, the Jade Rabbit became her only companion.
- Zhurong (祝融): The Ancient Chinese God of Fire, whose epic battle with Gonggong damaged one of the pillars of the world. The calamities that resulted would have exterminated humanity, had Nüwa not magically repaired the damage. Today, the Chinese phrase “patronage of Zhurong” still means a fire outbreak.
D. Popular Chinese Household Deities
The following Chinese mythological gods and goddesses frequently appear in Chinese fantasy sagas and pop culture entertainment. Many are also still actively worshiped by Chinese households today.
- Caishen (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, i.e., the “scholarly” Caishen. There is also the “martial” Caishen, who dons armor and rides a tiger. The latter is usually prayed to by business owners.
- Ershiba Xingsu (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.
- Fulushou (福禄寿): Alternative known as the Three Stars or Sanxing, the trio represents the three positive qualities of life in Chinese culture. These are: Fu (blessing), Lu (prosperity), and Shou (longevity).
- Huaguang Dadi (华光大帝): One of the Four Guardian Marshal Gods of Taoism, Lord Huaguang is venerated by Cantonese Opera troupes as the God of Performance Arts.
- Kuixing (魁星): The Chinese God of Examinations. The Chinese character Kui (魁) means “first” or “leader,” and during the Ming Dynasty, the character/title was granted to scholars who aced examinations. Kui could furthermore refer to the bowl of the Big Dipper or the one at the tip of the bowl, i.e., Dubhe.
- Lu Ban (鲁班): A Chinese inventor and engineer from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Nowadays revered as a patron of builders. Some folktales describe him as a master of automation too, capable of building wooden birds that could fly and horsecarts that could operate by themselves.
- Mazu (妈祖): The Chinese Goddess of the Sea. One of the most widely worshiped goddesses in the Southern China coastal districts and Southeast Asia, Mazu is said to be the deified form of a Southern Song Dynasty Fujian villager born with the powers of prophecy and magic. She is also commonly referred to as Tianhou (天后), a title that means “heavenly empress.”
- Tai Sui (太岁): Tai Sui refers to Chinese gods presiding over the years. The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on cycles of 60 years, with the system derived from the solar orbit of Jupiter. Under Chinese folkloric beliefs, each lunisolar year is governed by one Tai Sui. Those with Chinese zodiac signs opposing the reigning Tai Sui must perform a worship ritual at the start of a new year to avoid misfortune.
- Tudi (土地): Tudi 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 Tudi upon reaching an unfamiliar place.
- Wenchang (文昌): The Chinese God of Scholarly Success and Learning. He is also venerated as a remover of obstacles.
- Yuelao (月老): The “Old Man of the Moon” is the Chinese God of Marriage. He connects couples with a magical red thread.
- Zaojun (灶君): The Chinese God of the Hearth. It is said that he always returns to the Heavenly Court seven days before the Chinese New Year to submit his annual reports. This belief, in turn, began the “necessity” of cleaning the household before that date so as to avoid heavenly chastisement. Of note, Zao (灶) means “hearth” and Zhuang Zi (庄子) described the deity as a beautiful female in one of his texts. The male form only came about during the Han Dynasty.
- Zhusheng Niangniang (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 sentenced to being the ride of the holy monk 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. As further atonement 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). 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 also Sun Wukong’s second master. He was consistently portrayed by author Wu Cheng’en as naïve, hapless, and excessively benevolent.
- Tieshan 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 leading to the collapse 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, and Ancient Chinese myths, many protagonists of the saga are still actively worshiped in Chinese communities today.
Notably, key chapters of Investiture were adapted by Light Chaser Animation Studios and Beijing Enlight Pictures into a series of new-age animations. These animated movies were meant to be mainland China’s response to the cinematic trend of a “shared universe” of superheroes. However, all productions heavily edited the original stories, in the process, calling into question some of the most debatable tropes of the original myths.
- Da Ji (妲己): The human avatar of a nine-tailed fox, Da Ji was dispatched by Nüwa to bewitch Di Xin, the final Shang Dynasty 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. In the Chinese language, the character Lei (雷) also means “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. To control Nezha, Li was also 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 often also referred to by his epithet of “Pagoda Bearing Heavenly King.”
- Nanji Xianweng (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 Yuanshi Tianzun. 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 Sanxing 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, before joining the Zhou Forces with his father. Today, Nezha, or the “Third Prince,” is one of the most venerated Taoist deities in Taiwan. Since the 1970s, numerous Chinese movies and TV series also featured Nezha as an antihero protagonist, with the latest animated productions heavily modifying the story.
- 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.
- Tongtian Jiaozhu (通天教主): In the saga, Tongtian Jiaozhu was a fellow disciple of Laozi and Yuanshi Tianzun, 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 Tongtian’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 was that of a third “heavenly eye” on his forehead. He was also capable of a vast variety of supernatural abilities, assisted by a heavenly hound, and near undefeatable throughout the saga. In Journey to the West, Yang Jian famously fought Sun Wukong too. He was the only warrior god from the Jade Emperor’s pantheon able to battle the Monkey King to a standstill. Lastly, folktales describe Yang Jian as the nephew of the Jade Emperor, born to a mortal man and the Jade Emperor’s sister. Because of this, the “second son god” refused to reside in heaven and reacted most vehemently when he discovered his younger sister’s romance with a human. As depicited in the tale of The Magic Lotus Lantern, he even punished his sister for this relationship by imprisoning her under Mount Hua. However, the 2022 animation, New Gods: Yang Jian completely retconned this classic story.
- 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 to 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 | Liang Shanbo Yu Zhu Yingtai)
- The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传 | Baishe Zhuan)
- Lady Meng Jiang (孟姜女 | Meng Jiang Nü)
- The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎织女 | Niulang Zhinu)
Some references replaces The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl with The Legend of Dong Yong and the Seventh Fairy (董永与七仙女 | Dongyong Yu Qixian Nü). This is unsurprising as the two stories share a very similar premise. In Chinese opera, the latter story is also known as Tianxian Pei (天仙配).
Outside of the above folktales, The Legend of Liu Yi (柳毅传书 | Liuyi Chuanshu) is also a beloved folktale. Like most of the classic stories, it revolves around a romance between a mortal and an immortal.
- 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 Fahai, an exorcist monk who vehemently opposed their marriage. She also used her magic to flood his temple. After defeat by Fahai, Bai Suzhen was imprisoned in the Thunder Peak Pagoda.
- Dong Yong (董永): Impoverished Dong Yong was forced to sell himself into slavery to pay for his father’s funeral. His piety moved the Seventh Fairy, or Qixian Nü, the latter then magically weaved 14 bolts of splendid cloth overnight to redeem him from indenture. The couple subsequently married but unfortunately had to be separated when Qixian Nü was forced to return to heaven.
- Fahai (法海): As the abbot of the Temple of the Golden Mount, and an exorcist monk, Fahai 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 Hangzhou’s 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 (祝英台). 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 her 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.
- Longgong Sangongzhu (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 meeting 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 an allegory 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 (织女), 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. This classic folktale is also widely known and cherished in other parts of East Asia. For example, in Japan, it is known as Tanabata. This classic folktale is also widely known in other parts of East Asia. For example, in Japan, it is known as Tanabata.
- Qixian 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, Qixian Nü married Dong Yong and lived with him in the mortal world, till forced to return to heaven. Some Chinese consider the tale of Dong Yong and Qi Xian Nü to be an alternate version of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
- Xiaoqing (小青): Xiaoqing was the green snake companion of Bai Suzhen. Though younger and weaker in power, she managed to escape imprisonment by Fahai 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 Fahai.
H. Chinese Mythological Heroes
As mentioned in the preface, many Chinese mythological gods are deified historical heroes. Generally speaking, all 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 Western literature, Guan Yu is sometimes described as the Chinese god of war.
- Menshen (门神): The practice of protecting a household by placing images of Menshen, 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 some Taoist traditions, he is hailed as the ruler of the Chinese netherworld too. Some traditions additionally believe that he is the authority overseeing the Ten Judges of Hell. There are furthermore many different stories regarding his identity. Some legends describe him as the ancient emperor Tai Hao (太昊). Others believe that the god was formed from the head of Pangu.
- Fengdu Dadi (丰都大帝): The supreme ruler of the netherworld in Taoism and Chinese folkloric beliefs. He was first mentioned during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, and was said to reside at Mount Luofeng. By the Song Dynasty, however, the ruler has “relocated” to Sichuan. Today, the “Fengdu Ghost City” temple complex in Sichuan is world-famous for its many ghostly temples and statues.
- 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 hell officers responsible for capturing sinful souls, rewarding the virtuous, and punishing the wicked. Their signature traits are the long tongue of the White Impermanence and the ogre-like fangs of the Black Impermanence. 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 underworld, 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 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. The 2021 Chinese animated film New Gods: Nezha Reborn reimagines him as the powerful leader of a subdued dragon tribe.
- 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.
- Huashan Shengmu (华山圣母): The protagonist of The Magic Lotus Lantern opera is an illegitimate niece of the Jade Emperor and the owner of an all-powerful magical lantern. First mentioned in the Tang Dynasty Guangyi Ji (广异记), she was punished for marrying a mortal with imprisonment under Mount Hua. In all versions of the myth, her son Chen Xiang later 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.
- Luoshen (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.
- 少林木子 (Ed.). (2006). 神仙传奇故事. 线装书局. ISBN: 7801066561.
- 山北 篤, & 佐藤 俊之. (2000). 中国. In 悪魔事典 (pp. 358–365). essay, 新紀元社. ISBN: 4883173534.
- 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/.
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.