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To call Caishen A God of Wealth can feel a bit misleading. The reason is that there are actually numerous historic figures who are believed to be embodiments of Caishen and are themselves gods of wealth. Such embodiments of Caishen can be found both in the Chinese folk religion and in Taoism. Even some Buddhist schools recognize Caishen in one form or another.
Who is Caishen?
The name Caishen is made of two Chinese characters, which together mean God of Wealth. He is one of the most invoked gods of Chinese mythology, especially at Chinese New Year, when people invoke Caishen to bless the year ahead with prosperity and wealth.
Like many other gods and spirits in Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion, Caishen isn’t just one person. Instead, he is a virtue and a deity who lives through people and through the heroes of the different ages. As such, Caishen has had many lives, many deaths, and many stories told about him, often by different and conflicting sources.
This makes Chinese deities very different from most other Western gods. For example, while we can tell the story of the Greek god of wealth chronologically, we can only tell Caishen’s stories through what we know of the different lives he’s lived.
Caishen as Caibo Xingjun
One story tells of a man named Li Guizu. Li was born in the Chinese province of Shandong, in the Zichuan district. There, he managed to attain the position of a country magistrate. From that station, Li managed to contribute a lot to the district’s welfare. The man was so beloved by the people that they even built a temple to worship him in after his death.
That’s when the then-Emperor Wude of the Tang dynasty conferred upon the late Li the title of Caibo Xingjun. From then, he was viewed as another personification of Caishen.
Caishen as Bi Gan
Bi Gan is one of the most famous embodiments of the Chinese god of wealth. He was the son of King Wen Ding and a wise sage who advised the king on how to best govern the country. According to the legend, he was married to a wife with the surname Chen and had a son named Quan.
However, Bi Gan was unfortunately put to death by his own nephew – Di Xin, the King Zhou of Shang. Di Xin murdered his own uncle because was tired of hearing Bi Gan’s (good) advice on how to run the country. Di Xin executed Bi Gan via an “extraction of the heart”, and argued his decision to execute his uncle with the pretext that he wanted “to see whether the sage’s heart had seven openings”.
Bi Gan’s wife and son managed to escape into the woods and survived. After that, the Shang dynasty collapsed and King Wu of Zhou proclaimed Quan as the ancestor of all Lins (people with the name Lin).
This story later became a popular plot element in the philosophic discourse about the Warring States of China. Confucious also honored Bi Gan as “one of the three men of virtue of Shang”. After that, Bi Gan became revered as one of the embodiments of Caishen. He was also popularized in the popular Ming dynasty novel Fengshen Yanyi (Investiture of the Gods).
Caishen as Zhao Gong Ming
The Fengshen Yanyi novel also tells the story of a hermit named Zhao Gong Ming. According to the novel, Zhao used magic to support the failing Shang dynasty during the 12th century BCE.
However, a person by the name of Jiang Ziya wanted to stop Zhao and wished for the Shang dynasty to fall. Jiang Ziya supported the opposing Zhou dynasty so he made a straw effigy of Zhao Gong Ming and spent twenty days tell incantations over it to connect it to Zhao’s spirit. Once Jiang succeeded he shot an arrow made of peach-tree wood through the heart of the effigy.
The moment Jiang did this, Zhao fell ill and died soon after. Later on, as Jiang was visiting the temple of Yuan Shi, he was scolded for killing Zhao as the latter was revered as a good and virtuous man. Jiang was made to carry the hermit’s corpse into the temple, apologize for his mistake, and extoll Zhao’s many virtues.
When Jiang did that, Zhao was canonized as an incarnation of Caishen and a post-mortem president of the Ministry of Wealth. Since then, Zhao has been viewed as a “Military God of Wealth” and a representation of the “Center” direction of China.
The Many Other Names of Caishen
The three historical/mythological figures above are just some of the many people believed to be incarnations of Caishen. Others who are also mentioned include:
- Xiao Sheng – God of Collecting Treasures associated with the East
- Cao Bao – God of Collecting Valuables associated with the West
- Chen Jiu Gong – God of Attracting Wealth associated with the South
- Yao Shao Si – God of Profitability associated with the North
- Shen Wanshan – God of Gold associated with the North-East
- Han Xin Ye – God of Gambling associated with the South-East
- Tao Zhugong – God of Wealth associated with the North-West
- Liu Hai – God of Luck associated with the South-West
Caishen in Buddhism
Even certain Chinese Buddhists (Pure Land Buddhists) view Caishen as one of the 28 incarnations (so far) of Buddha. At the same time, some esoteric Buddhist schools identify Caishen as Jambhala – a God of Wealth and a member of the Jewel Family in Buddhism.
Depictions of Caishen
Caishen is typically depicted holding a golden rod and riding a black tiger. In some depictions, he is shown holding an iron too, which could turn iron and stone into gold.
While Caishen symbolizes the guarantee of prosperity, the tiger represents persistence and hard work. When Caishen rides the tiger, the message is that simply relying on the gods will not guarantee success. Rather, the gods bless those who are hard-working and persistent.
Symbols and Symbolism of Caishen
Caishen’s symbolism can be easily discerned when looking at his many personifications. In every life he’s lived, Caishen is always a wise sage who understands people, economics, and the key principles of proper government. And, in each of his lives, he uses his talents to help the people around him with sound advice or by directly taking a governing role.
As a man, he always dies in one way or another – sometimes peacefully and of old age, sometimes killed by other people’s envy and pride. The latter stories are even more symbolic as they speak of how many people are too egotistical to allow another to be deservedly revered.
Notably, every time an embodiment of Caishen is murdered, the province or dynasty falls to ruin after his death, but when Caishen dies of old age, the people after him continue to prosper.
Caishen is a complex god in Chinese mythology and plays a role in many of the Chinese religions. While he is embodied by many historical figures, the general symbolism of the deity is that of wealth and prosperity. Caishen guarantees prosperity for those who work hard and are persistent.