10 Chinese Gods and Goddesses and their Powers
World History Edu dives into the fascinating realm of Chinese mythology with a look at its ten most famous deities. From compassionate Guan Yin to the wise Jade Emperor, each has a unique place in China’s rich cultural tapestry, influencing centuries of art, literature, and religious beliefs.
Yu Huang (Jade Emperor)
The Jade Emperor is a key figure in Taoist cosmology, revered as the ruler of Heaven and all realms of existence below, including Earth and Hell.
He is believed to govern the cosmos and known for his wisdom and fairness. Yu Huang was originally the assistant of the Celestial Master, who later ascended to become the Jade Emperor.
Also known as Shangti, Yu Huang was worshiped as not just the god of justice, order and law, but he was seen as the god of creation.
Read More: The Jade Emperor’s Ascension to Heaven
Cai Shen is the Chinese god of prosperity and commerce. He is often depictd in the garments of a Chinese nobleman, carrying a “ruyi” scepter (symbolizing power and good fortune) and often seated on a tiger or dragon (symbols of power and protection). In some representations, he holds or is surrounded by gold ingots, emphasizing his association with wealth.
His origins vary among different tales, but a common story describes him as a man named Bi Gan during the Shang Dynasty. He was a minister known for his virtue and kindness. However, King Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty, was a tyrant. When Bi Gan criticized his rule, the king was enraged and ordered Bi Gan’s heart to be cut out. After his death, Bi Gan was deified as Cai Shen, the God of Wealth.
On the lunar New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional for Chinese people to welcome Cai Shen into their homes in the belief he would bring them good fortune for the coming year.
According to the myth, in the beginning, the universe was an indistinguishable, chaotic blend of heaven and earth. This chaos coalesced into a cosmic egg, within which Pangu was formed. After 18,000 years, the egg hatched, and Pangu emerged.
The lighter, pure elements of the egg floated upwards to form the heavens (yang), and the heavier, impure elements sank downwards to form the earth (yin). To prevent the two from re-merging, Pangu stood between them, with his head holding up the sky and his feet firmly on the earth, growing ten feet taller each day for another 18,000 years.
Upon his death, Pangu’s body transformed into the world and its elements. His breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the thunder. One eye became the sun, and the other became the moon. His body and limbs turned into the mountains, his blood formed rivers, his muscles the fertile lands, his facial hair the stars and his fur the bushes and forests. His bones became minerals and his bone marrow precious jewels. Finally, the fleas on his body carried by the wind became human beings, thus populating the earth.
The myth of Pangu offers a vision of a harmonious universe balanced between yin and yang, order and chaos. It also illustrates the interconnectedness of all things, as everything in the world is made from Pan Gu’s body.
Sun Wukong (The Monkey King)
A beloved character from the 16th-century novel “Journey to the West”, Sun Wukong is a skilled fighter capable of taking on the gods. He is a trickster who often uses his wit and powers (including the ability to transform into various animals and objects) to outsmart opponents.
According to “Journey to the West,” Sun Wukong was born from a magical stone atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The stone was nourished by the heavens and earth and gained the power to give birth to a stone egg. From this stone egg, Sun Wukong emerged. Being born from this magical stone granted him incredible strength and powers.
Sun Wukong possesses superhuman strength and speed, and is able to cover 54,000 kilometers in one somersault. He’s incredibly intelligent and a skilled fighter, having learned the way of Tao, various magical arts, and the 72 transformations, allowing him to change into almost any form.
This trickster god also possesses a magical staff, Ruyi Jingu Bang, which can change its size, multiply itself, and fight according to the will of its master. This weapon was originally used by the Dragon King of the Eastern Seas to measure the depth of the sea and Sun Wukong won it from him.
Read More: How and Why Sun Wukong Invaded Heaven
In Chinese mythology, Gonggong is usually described as having a human body with the head of a red serpent or dragon. He is frequently associated with the watery chaos and is often considered the cause of devastating floods.
One of the most famous legends involving Gonggong concerns the aftermath of a great battle between him and another deity, Zhurong, the god of fire and the south. The conflict was said to have resulted from Gonggong’s dissatisfaction with the ruling of the Heavenly Emperor. The two gods clashed, and their great battle caused enormous chaos on earth.
When Gonggong was defeated by Zhurong, in his fury and humiliation, he smashed his head against Mount Buzhou, one of the pillars supporting the heavens. This caused the pillar to collapse, leading to a tilt in the earth’s axis that resulted in flooding and general catastrophe. This is often used as a mythological explanation for the tilt of the Earth’s axis in relation to the ecliptic.
Nuwa, the mother goddess who created humanity, had to repair the damage by cutting off the legs of a giant tortoise and using them to prop up the sky again. She also had to burn reeds to stop the flooding, and this caused the different variations in human skin color due to the varying amounts of soot falling on different people. This myth is significant as it gives a mythical explanation for natural disasters, the earth’s tilt, and human diversity.
Despite his destructive nature, Gonggong also has positive connotations. As a water deity, he was also associated with the life-giving aspects of water, and in some regions, he was worshipped as an irrigation god.
Xihe is a solar goddess in Chinese mythology, known for being the ‘mother’ of ten suns. These suns are often depicted as three-legged crows residing in a mulberry tree in the East Sea. Each day, Xihe would bathe one of her sun children in the river and then carry it in her chariot across the sky, representing the journey of the sun across the sky during the day.
Xihe’s mythology is closely tied to the legend of the archer Hou Yi. According to the legend, there was a time when all ten of Xihe’s sun-children rose into the sky simultaneously, causing great disaster on Earth due to the intense heat. Hou Yi, a renowned archer, was tasked with solving the problem. He shot down nine of the ten suns, leaving only one sun to provide light and warmth to the world. This feat made Hou Yi a great hero in Chinese mythology.
In some versions of the myth, Xihe is also portrayed as the wife of Emperor Jun, also known as the Heavenly Emperor, and is considered a high-ranking goddess.
Guan Yin (also spelled Guanyin, Kuan Yin, or Quan Yin) is a beloved figure in Chinese mythology, known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the Goddess of Mercy. Her name translates to “the one who perceives the sounds of the world,” signifying her role as a being who hears the cries of the world and offers mercy.
Guan Yin is associated with numerous legends in Chinese culture. One of the most famous is the tale of Miao Shan, a princess who defied her father to become a nun. Despite her father’s efforts to force her into marriage and punish her for her defiance, she remained steadfast, demonstrating her unwavering compassion and mercy. She was eventually executed, but her spirit persisted, and she became Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Guan Yin is often depicted as a beautiful woman dressed in white, sometimes carrying a child, reflecting her role as a patroness of women and a grantor of children. Other common attributes include a vase containing healing waters and a willow branch to symbolize her ability to bend or adapt but not break in the face of adversity.
She’s also often portrayed with a thousand hands and eyes, symbolizing her ability to perceive the suffering of the world and reach out to help all those in need. This representation is known as the “Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara.”
Chang’e is the subject of several legends in Chinese mythology, most of which involve her flying to the moon after stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband Hou Yi. She has been worshipped by the Chinese people throughout history, especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival, when mooncakes are offered to her.
Chang’e, sometimes spelled Chang-Er, is the Chinese goddess of the moon. Her story is one of the most famous in Chinese mythology and has been the subject of numerous adaptations and references in various forms of Chinese media.
China’s lunar exploration program is named after her, which includes missions like Chang’e 5, which successfully returned lunar samples to Earth in December 2020.
Yu Shi, often referred to as the Chinese god of rain, is a significant figure in Chinese mythology. He is also known as Yu the Great, primarily due to his role in controlling a great flood.
However, it’s essential to note that Yu the Great and Yu Shi, the rain god, are two distinct figures in Chinese mythology, and their stories have been conflated over time.
Let’s first talk about Yu the Great. He was a legendary ruler in ancient China who was famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by establishing the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character.
The story goes that Yu’s father, Gun, was given the task of controlling a great flood that was causing disaster across the country. When Gun failed in this duty, Yu was appointed to take his place. Unlike his father, who tried to stop the flood by building a massive dike system, Yu dredged new river channels to serve both as outlets for the torrential waters and as irrigation conduits to distant farm fields.
As for Yu Shi, the rain god, he is typically depicted as a deity in Chinese tradition and folklore who has control over rainfall and weather, crucial for agrarian societies. Yu Shi’s control over the rain is deeply connected to the ancient Chinese people’s dependence on farming. When people experienced droughts, they prayed to Yu Shi for rain. Similarly, during floods, they would pray for the rain to stop.
In many accounts, Nüwa is regarded as the creator of humankind. According to the myth, after Heaven and Earth were separated from the chaos, Nüwa felt lonely as the only being among the universe. She decided to create people from yellow clay to keep her company. As it was a tiresome process, she then swung a rope with mud around, and every droplet that fell on the ground turned into a human being. The first method created individuals who were nobles, while the latter method created commoners.
In art, Nüwa is often depicted as a beautiful woman, and in some cases, she has the body of a snake or dragon, reflecting her ability to shapeshift. She has been widely worshipped throughout history, especially by those praying for a good marriage and children. Nüwa is also celebrated during the Chinese New Year as a part of a tradition that honors the figures who created the world.