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Chinese mythology is the home of many unique deities, myths, and characters. However, even though it is so different from Western religions and mythologies, it still tells many of the same human stories and allegories, but with its own, fascinating Chinese twist.
A great example of that is the story of Yue Lao – a Chinese god of marriage and love. Instead of shooting people destined for love with his magical arrows, like Eros of Greek mythology, Yue Lao used to tie their ankles together with a red cord.
Who is Yue Lao?
Depicted as an old, greying man in long and colorful robes, Yue Lao was called The Old Man Under the Moon. Depending on the myth, he was believed to live either in the moon or in Yue Ming, the Obscure regions, which can be equated to the Greek underworld Hades.
Whatever his dwelling place is, Yue Lao is immortal, as a god should be, and his main focus is finding the perfect marriage matches for people. He is often found sitting on the ground under the moonlight, reading books and playing with his bag of silk threads.
What Does Yue Lao Do?
This is the beginning of the main Yue Lao myth.
It takes place during the Tang dynasty between the 7th and 10th century BCE. In it, a young man by the name of Wei Gu encountered Yue Lao as he was sitting in the moonlight, reading a book. Wei Gu asked the old man what he was doing and the god told him:
I am reading a book of marriage listing for who is going to marry whom. In my pack are red cords for tying the feet of husband and wife.
The two then went to the local marketplace and Yue Lao showed Wei Gu a blind old woman who was carrying a three-year-old girl in her arms. The god told Wei Gu that the little girl would one day become his wife.
Wei Gu didn’t believe him, however, and in an effort to thwart the prophecy, he ordered his servant to stab the baby with his knife.
Fourteen years later, the governor of the Xiangzhou province Wang Tai gave his 17-year-old daughter to Wei Gu in marriage. The young girl was beautiful but had difficulties walking as well as a scar on her back. When Wei Gu asked her what the problem was, she explained that she was stabbed fourteen years ago by an unknown person.
Wei Gu married her nevertheless and the two lived a happy life and had three children. Years later, Wei Gu sought out Yue Lao to ask him to find suitable matches for his two sons and daughter but Yue Lao refused. So, the man’s bloodline ended as neither of his three children ever married.
Symbolism and Meaning of Yue Lao
The basis of the Yue Lao myth is very similar to those of love deities in other religions and cultures.
One notable nuance is the fact that Yue Lao is not a young magical man or woman like most other such gods, but is an old and learned Chinese man.
Yue Lao symbolizes destiny and fate, and the predetermination of factors such as marriage. His existence was proof that the men and women of the time didn’t have any say in who they would get married to. This was preordained by fate and, therefore, unavoidable.
This ties well with the traditional Chinese reverence of the elderly and the tradition of pre-arranged marriages. It was also a way of delegating the responsibility of marriage to fate rather than to the families that would arrange the marriage.
By doing this, even if there was conflict and unhappiness in the marriage, the responsibility did not lie with the family.
Importance of Yue Lao in Modern Culture
While he isn’t mentioned too often in Western culture, Yue Lao is featured in Robert W. Chamber’s The Maker of Moons 1896 story. More recently, he also appears in the TV series Ashes of Love as well as in Grace Lin’s 2009 novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
FAQs About Yue Lao
- How do you pray to Yue Lao? Devotees of Yue Lao place a piece of red string on the deity after saying a small prayer. Some stipulate that an offering of money must be made to the deity if the prayer or wish is to come true.
- When does Yue Lao appear? He typically appears at night.
- What are Yue Lao’s symbols? His most recognizable symbols are the book of marriage and the red string or cord, with which he tired couples together.
- What does the name Yue Lao mean? The deity’s full name is Yuè Xià Lǎo Rén’s (月下老人) which translates as old man under the moon. The name Yue Lao is the shortened form.