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Traditional Chinese folklore and mythology are as rich and diverse as they are confusing for those new to them. Polytheistic and pantheistic at the same time, Chinese mythology is comprised of three different religions and philosophies – Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – as well as multiple additional philosophical traditions.
The end result is a never-ending pantheon of deities, cosmic forces and principles, immortal heroes and heroines, dragons and monsters, and everything else in between. Mentioning all of them would be an impossible task but we’ll try to cover as many of the most famous gods and goddesses of Chinese mythology in this article.
Gods, Deities, or Spirits?
When talking about gods, every religion and mythology seems to have a different definition for what that means. What some religions call gods, others would call demi-gods or just spirits. Even the singular and omniscient gods of monotheistic religions can seem insignificant and overly reductionary to a pantheist, for example.
So, what gods are the Chinese gods, exactly?
All of the above, really.
Chinese mythology literally has gods of all shapes and sizes. There are the somewhat monotheistic gods of Heaven and the Cosmos, there are smaller gods of the various celestial and terrestrial phenomena, patron gods of certain virtues and moral principles, gods of certain professions and crafts, and then there are gods of specific animals and plants.
Another way to categorize the many gods of Chinese mythology is by their origin. The three main groups here are the gods of Northeast China, the gods of Northern China, and the gods of Indian origin.
Dividing these deities by their Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist origin can also be attempted, but the three religions are constantly exchanging deities, myths, and heroes between one another.
All in all, Chinese terminology recognizes three different terms for gods – 神 shén, 帝 dì, and 仙 xiān. Shén and Di are generally viewed as the Chinese equivalents of the English words for God and Deity, and xiān more accurately translates as a man who has reached immortality, i.e. a hero, a demi-god, a Buddha, and so on.
The Most Famous Gods of Chinese Mythology
Trying to define Chinese mythology as either polytheistic, pantheistic, or monotheistic is akin to trying to put a hexagonal piece in a round, square, or triangular hole – it won’t fit perfectly (or at all) anywhere. These are just Western terms and Chinese mythology is just a bit difficult to accurately describe in these terms.
For us, this means a long list of different gods and goddesses that seem like they belong in many different religions… because they do.
The Pantheistic Divinity
All three of the main Chinese religions are technically pantheistic which means that their higher “god” is not a thinking and personal being but is the Divine Universe itself.
There are many names for it, depending on who in China you ask:
- Tiān 天 and Shàngdì 上帝 mean The Highest Deity
- Dì 帝 means just The Deity
- Tàidì 太帝 stands for Great Deity
- Yudiis the Jade Deity
- Taiyiis the Great Oneness, and dozens more, all referring to the same God or Divine Cosmic Nature
This Cosmic Deity is usually described as both personal and impersonal, as well as immanent and transcendent. Its three main qualities are Dominance, Destiny, and the Nature of things.
Aside from this main Cosmic divinity, Chinese mythology also recognizes several other “smaller” celestial or terrestrial gods and divinities. Some are just moral principles that are given human form while others are legendary Chinese heroes and rulers who have been ascribed divinity over the years. Here are some of the most notable ones:
Yudi 玉帝 – The Jade Deity or Yuhuang 玉皇
The Jade Emperor or Jade King are not just other names for Tiān and Shàngdì but are also viewed as a human representation of that god on Earth. This deity often symbolizes purity as well as the awesome source of creation.
This is another deity that’s a metaphor for the Cosmos. Pangu is believed to have separated the Yin and Yang as well as to have created the Earth and Sky. Everything on Earth is made out of his body following his death.
The Mother of the Great Chariot. This Goddess is also often given the honorific title Tianhou 天后 or Queen of Heaven. More importantly, she’s worshipped as the mother of the Big Dipper constellation (the Great Chariot in Chinese).
The Great Chariot
This is a constellation made up of 7 visible stars and 2 invisible ones. All nine of them are known as the Jiuhuangshen, The Nine God-Kings. These nine sons of Doumo are themselves viewed as Jiuhuangdadi (The Great Deity of the Nine Kings), or as Doufu (Father of the Great Chariot). These are other names for the main god of the Cosmos Tiān in Chinese mythology which makes Doumu both His mother and His wife.
Yinyanggong 陰陽公 – Yinyang Duke, or Yinyangsi 陰陽司 – Yinyang Controller
This is meant to be the literal personalization of the union between Yin and Yang. A Taoist deity, Yinyanggong often assisted the gods and lords of the Underworld such as Emperor Dongyue, Wufu Emperor, and Lord Chenghuang.
This is a Goddess known as The Queen Mother of the West. Her main symbol is the Kunlun Mountain in China. This is a goddess of both death and immortality. A dark and chthonic (subterranean) goddess, Xiwangmu is both creation and destruction. She is pure Yin as well as a terrifying and benign monster. She’s also associated with the tiger and weaving.
The Purgatory King in Chinese mythology. He is the ruler of Diyu, the Underworld and he’s also called Yanluo Wang or Yamia. He also acts as the judge in the Underworld and is the one who passes judgment on the souls of the people who’ve passed away.
Heibai Wuchang 黑白無常, the Black and White Impermanence
This deity assists Yanwang in Diyu and is supposed to be the living embodiment of both the Yin and Yang principles.
Ox-head and Horse-face
These peculiarly named deities are guardians of the Diyu Underworld. Their main role is to escort the souls of the dead to Yanwang and Heibai Wuchang.
The Dragon Gods or Dragon Kings
龍神 Lóngshén, 龍王 Lóngwáng, or Sìhǎi Lóngwáng 四海龍王 in Chinese, these are four deities or water spirits that rule over the seas of the Earth. The Chinese believed that there are four seas in the world, one in each direction and each ruled over by a Dragon god. These four dragons included the White Dragon 白龍 Báilóng, the Black Dragon 玄龍 Xuánlóng, the Blue-green Dragon 青龍 Qīnglóng, and the Red Dragon 朱龍 Zhūlóng.
The Great Sun Goddess, or The Mother of the Ten Suns, is a solar deity and one of the two wives of Di Jun – an ancient Emperor of China who is believed to be a god as well. His other wife was Changxi, a lunar goddess.
Wēnshén 瘟神 – the Plague God
This deity – or a group of deities, all referred to by this name – is responsible for all the diseases, illnesses, and plagues that occasionally befall the people of China. Those belief systems that view Wēnshén as a single deity, usually believe that he commands an army of wen spirits who do his bidding and spread diseases through the land.
The patron goddess of the major Xiang river. She is also often viewed as a multitude of goddesses or female spirits who were also the daughters of Emperor Yao, a legendary ruler who is one of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors of Chinese mythology – the legendary rulers of ancient China.
The Three Patrons and Five Deities
Not to be confused with the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, these are the embodiments of the three “vertical” realms of the Cosmos and the five manifestations of the Cosmic deity.
伏羲 Fúxī – the patron of Heaven, 女媧 Nǚwā – the patron of earth, and 神農 Shénnóng – the Peasant God, the patron of humanity all make up 三皇 Sānhuáng – the Three Patrons.
Similarly, 黃帝 Huángdì – the Yellow Deity, 蒼帝 Cāngdì – the Green Deity, 黑帝 Hēidì – the Black Deity, 白帝 Báidì – the White Deity, and 赤帝 Chìdì – the Red Deity all make up 五帝 Wǔdì — the Five Deities or Five manifestations of the Cosmic deity.
The Thunder God or Thunder Duke. Coming from Taoism, this deity is married to Diànmǔ 電母, the Lightning Mother. Together, the two punish the mortal people of the Earth when ordered to do so by the higher gods of Heaven.
The Wealth God. This miniature deity is a mythological figure who is said to have taken the forms of many historic Chinese heroes over the centuries, including some Emperors.
The Dragon Mother. This goddess was initially a mortal woman. However, after raising five infant dragons she was deified. She symbolizes the strength of motherhood and of the familial bonds we all share.
Yuèxià Lǎorén 月下老人
Old Man Under the Moon, also called Yue Lao for short. This is the Chinese god of love and matchmaking. Instead of shooting people with magic arrows, he ties red bands around their legs, destining them to be together.
The Hearth God. Zao Shen is the most important god of a lot of “domestic deities” in Chinese mythology. Also known as the Stove God or the Kitchen God, Zao Shen is a protector of the family and their wellbeing.
There are literally hundreds of other Chinese gods and goddesses, ranging from supernatural aspects of the Cosmos to gods of the toilet (yes, you read that right!) or the road. No other religion or mythology seems able to boast as many different and fascinating deities as the ancient Chinese mythology.