Chinese God of War and Wealth

“Ok, there is this famous general during the 3 kingdom of Chinese History, his name is Guan Yu, but he is more commonly known as Guan Gong–it’s a more respectful way of referring to him–and he was a king’s sworn brother, and he was famous for his courage, character, and integrity, and loved by both his enemies and friends. He did not succeed in bringing back his king’s empire, but he was worshiped as this god of war and also the god of wealth.

Nowadays, whenever you go into an old-fashioned–especially Hong Kong–restaurant you will probably see him sitting there in this green robe, holding his knife. His knife has a name, it is called the knife with which he slayed the dragon under the moonlight, yeah that is his knife. And the restaurant’s owner will have apples and oranges and candles under his portrait or statue so that he could watch over the restaurant and guarantee their business to profitable and stuff like that. He is also the god of war and courage, and is worshiped by the police and gangs the same way. If you see a group of people worshiping a Guan Gong with his knife in his left hand, then it would probably a gang member, while people worshiping a Guan Gong in his right hand would be a police officer.”

Context: The informant is one of my roommates, and we were discussing strange and absurd traditions from our respective cultures. She told me this story about a god that restaurants have an “altar” for because of his unique powers. The story is significant, according to the informant, because it shows that the line between folklore and religion is quite blurry. There are many, many gods of wealth in China that are all quite distinct and discrete. However, there is one thing in common: they all were real people. These real people became part of the folklore as their stories were passed down; people thus begin to see these historical figures as gods. There are plenty of people that see them as just role models or icons, but many do begin to worship them as if they were deities. She says that in this way, many historical figures enter folklore, and then cross-over in to more of a religious realm.

Analysis:  I disagree with this, as it seems that Guan Gong moved from a historical and legendary icon to a mythological figure. Based on this story, Guan Gong entered into the legendary realm following the spreading of his story throughout the Chinese public. His actions have spawned various stories–that may or may not be true. However, with the worship of this figure, Guan Gong also became a mythological figure that people saw as a deity. In many cultures, many people will see national heroes or cultural icons as someone that they look up to and eventually this respect can turn into worship. For example, Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who did prolific charity work in India, was not only canonized as Saint of the Church, but is also seen as a goddess in certain regions of Kolkata, a region in India. This shift was due to the fact that Saint Teresa was one of the few people to deal directly with those with “untouchable diseases” like HIV/AIDS and leprosy, and proved to society the importance of showing compassion to all. While this is different from the story of Guan Gong as Saint Teresa was not a legendary figure, there is a common theme; the actions of Guan Gong and Saint Theresa have become the icons that they are because the things that they did in their lifetime.

This is similar to the story of Zhang Lang, who was cursed to be blind and resorted to beg following his adultering behavior. While begging, he stumbled across his former wife; after she restores his eyesight, Zhang Lang, overcome by guilt, self-immolated in the hearth. This story was told over many generations, eventually becoming one of the “kitchen gods” that protect the home and the hearth. For me, the significance of this story is that it shows how a person or story can move between disciplines in folklore, as both legends and myths are genres of narrative folklore.