In Honor of Xuan Tian Shang Di

xtsd prayer plaque

As I mentioned two days ago, today is the birthday of the mortal-turned-god Xuan Tian Shang Di.

Christopher Todd Stoll at the Xuan Tian Shang Di blog wrote an essay entitled “Mirrors, Swords and True Form in Beiyou ji.” The essay [seemingly no longer available online, sadly – 2015] analyzes the 1602 “folk novel” Beiyouji (Journey to the North) by Yu Xiangdou (余象斗). Beiyouji collected and re-presented existing stories and hagiographies of the god Xuan Tian Shang Di, who had already been worshiped for many centuries.

The title parallels the more famous Xiyouji or Journey to the West, which was published in 1592 and describes the adventures of a Buddhist pilgrim and his supernatural bodyguards (most famously Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King).

Todd Stoll uses Beiyouji to explore the older Daoist beliefs and practices it built upon, especially as they relate to the ritual items of mirrors and swords. He also discusses the history of the god’s worship.

In Beiyouji

The novel describes Xuan Tian Shang Di as going through four mortal reincarnations in the course of the story, at least three of which are as princes of nations (9-10). He is shown, through the use of a mirror, that his original identity was the Jade Emperor, and told that he can either work towards becoming an Immortal or become an ox in his next reincarnation.

In the fourth incarnation, he abandons his kingdom and follows the goddess Doumu (deity of the Big Dipper constellation, which “governs mortal lifespan”) to Wudang Shan, where he studies Daoist scriptures and meditations (11). He then undergoes an ordeal where “the Gutting God cuts out his stomach and intestines to free his body of the Filth of the Five Viscera” (11). Unbeknownst to him, his removed organs turn into demons (12).

At the time, he is more focused on the “Treasure Sword” (baojian 寶劍) which he is granted by a “Celestial Worthy” (11). With it, he can “confront his own desires, see through false forms, and cut off his attachments,” and can also channel “either True Water (zhenshui 真水) or True Fire (zhenhuo 真火) to defeat demons embodying the five elements (wuxing 五行)” (11).

xtsd amuletAmulet. Notice the sword in his hand.

However, he later fights a demon that the Treasure Sword doesn’t defeat; in fact, it kills him “with a flurry of flying swords” and he has to be “revived by the Three Pure Ones with True Words (zhen yan 真言) and three breaths” (12). It turns out that the demon was originally a sword belonging to Guan Yu (Guan Gong), who had left it behind while he went to the Western Heaven to study Buddhism. Todd Stoll discusses how things become demons in the context of ling (which was discussed in a previous post):

Both the perfected and demonic may acquire ling. The nature of this efficacy is different, however. Perfected ling is acquired through a return to original essence, while demonic ling is acquired through mutated distance from that original essence. (12)

Xuan Tian Shang Di travels to the Western Heaven, and talks to Buddha and Guan Yu. The Beiyouji then has Buddha as well as Guan Yu declare themselves Xuan Tian Shang Di’s subordinates: “Guan Yu then subdues and reclaims his sword, and both pledge allegiance to Xuantian shangdi” (13)!

Todd Stoll writes of Guan Yu’s sword that “This misplaced object is similar to Xuantian shangdi’s stomach and intestine which also became demons after being cut out” (12). My understanding (though it is not made explicit in the passage below) is that Xuan Tian Shang Di finds out about, and then deals with, this problem after he attains apotheosis:

Xuantian shangdi reaches self-perfection and is led to heaven, but there he learns that evil clouds have filled the world below. Further still, he learns that the source of that evil arises from his very own subordinates who have run away down into the Middle World (zhongjie 中界) of mortals. Therefore, his mission after perfection involves conquering these demons, and converting them back into his generals. This mission clearly illustrates the relationship between demonic and perfected form in Beiyou ji. Here the demonic is not some unknowable other, but part of the self.


According to the Jindeyuan Temple, a Buddhist temple in Jakarta where Xuan Tian Shang Di is worshiped, his internal organs took the form of a snake and turtle, thus tying Xuan Tian Shang Di to the ancient Xuan Wu symbol. The story they tell is quite interesting:

According to belief, [the] turtle originated from the stomach & the snake from the intestine of Zhen Wu […] in his meditation […] without eating and drinking, Zhen Wu felt his intestine and belly […] quarreling. It seemed that a very extreme hunger caused both his body organ[s to blame] each other. […] In his annoyance, he split his belly and took out both organs, then threw them out to the grass behind him. Then as if nothing happened, he continued his meditation.

Stomach & intestine, since they [had often] heard Zhen Wu recite [the] holy verses of Taoism, gradually [gained] magic power. Both then changed into turtle and snake, and [snuck] down the mountain to eat livestock and human being[s].

When Zhen Wu found out, he cut the turtle with his sword, leaving scars that are seen to this day, and squeezed the neck of the snake, resulting in snakes having necks thinner than the rest of their bodies. Zhen Wu still distrusts the turtle:

[He] then asked the snake to twist [around the] turtle’s body tightly, in order that all objects it swallowed [would] be vomited again & in order to reveal all crimes that it had ever committed.

xtsd statue

In History

The above story provides a retroactive explanation for why ancient depictions of the Xuan Wu symbol show the snake coiled around the turtle. Todd Stoll writes that this symbol was originally “as an astronomical symbol for the direction north,” but subsequently “began to converge with an anthropomorphic god of the north in the Five Dynasties period ([CE] 907-960)” (19).

Todd Stoll further details the historical progression of the deity, writing that in the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition of Daoism, Xuan Wu was originally one of three (later four) generals serving Beidi, the Northern Emperor and head of the heavenly Department of Exorcism. However, “In the Yuan [Dynasty], his status was raised to Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝)” (20). He then became took over Beidi’s title and duties, in what is either syncretism, another example of the “imperial metaphor” of celestial bureaucracy discussed in my last post, or a bit of both:

With each new regrouping of Xuantian shangdi’s associations, greater importance was focused upon his position as emperor (shangdi 上帝; dadi 大帝). Beginning as part of a quartet of exorcist-generals under Beidi, he then became the leader of generals who individually were known for their demon quelling attributes. In so doing, Xuantian shangdi assumed both the name and function of his former lord, Beidi 北帝. (21)

Beiyouji also describes Xuan Tian Shang Di as assuming command over “the thirty-six generals of the Thunder Agency,” which were previously headed by a god named Lei Gong (Thunder Duke) in the novel and Leisheng Puhua Tianzun in the Shenxiao and Qingwei Daoist traditions (21). However, Todd Stoll stresses, “he is not just the new commander of the Thunder Agency—he is the commander of a new agency of which the thunder gods are just part, albeit an important part” (23).

Thunder God at Mt. Wudang

Thunder God at Mt. Wudang

Todd Stoll describes the typical representation of the anthropomorphic Xuan Wu as having “long loose hair and a beard, […] barefoot, and hold[ing] a sword” (20). It is also common to see the turtle-and-serpent either near his feet or being stepped upon. The Jindeyuan Temple refers to them as his “seat foundation,” which makes more sense when you look at statues and paintings of him such as this one:

xtsd painting

Todd Stoll delves into the worship of Xuan Tian Shang Di among different social classes, first observing that Yu Xiangdou was “a member of the merchant class […] his family operated a publishing house” (26). He then notes that “Almost two centuries before our novel was published by Yu Xiangdou, the Yongle 永樂 emperor transformed Wudangshan into what was arguably the grandest temple complex in the empire” (27).

The Yongle emperor had defeated the Mongols in battle, and then summoned Heavenly Master Zhang (leader of the Zhengyi Daoist sect) to ask the identity of the deity who had  “helped save his life” (27):

The Heavenly Master explain[ed] that the god comes from Wudangshan, and that “river travelers and merchants” built a temple to him at the foot of the mountain. The emperor then travels to Wudangshan and orders that thirty-thousand workers build a Golden Hall at the summit together with thirty-six halls and seventy-two palaces […] After this, the emperor makes arrangements for long-term support of the newly built complex.” (27).

Todd Stoll repeatedly stresses the importance of the “river travelers and merchants” to Xuan Tian Shang Di’s worship:

Seaman argues that Beiyou ji—in particular the last chapter—may be read as an argument to convince the Jiajing emperor to renew such support. I instead understand the audience as the “river travelers and merchants” – the lay devotees of Xuantian shangdi. […]

While it is true that the Jiajing emperor did support the mountain greatly, it was the common people who provided the most sustained support.

The Jindeyuan Temple corroborates his popularity among those who make their living on the river, writing that “the entrepreneurs of bamboo raft[s] in Taiwan & Hong Kong” pray to Xuan Tian Shang Di “in order that turtles and snakes in rivers” would not cause “rolling wave[s] to threaten their business.”

Todd Stole also describes how temples as geographically disparate as Sichuan (in the far southwest), Fujian (in the southeast) and Shǎnxī (Shaanxi, to the northwest) maintained close ties with the cult center at Wudang Shan. The plaque below commemorates a pilgrimage:

xtsd pilgrimage plaque
The final paragraph of Beiyouji lists some of Xuan Tian Shang Di’s powers and spheres of influence:

He saves those who meet with difficulties from their difficulties. He saves those who meet with disasters from those disasters. He calms the wind upon the rivers and brings waves to rest. In those homes where the god is worshipped, the sons are filial and the grandsons obedient. Requests to protect parents, and requests of wives for a family heir are all considered. His renown has reached into the two capitals and thirteen provinces. Those who bring forth incense and pray for good fortune are without number. Those with a reverant heart will see in midair a form, floating naturally in flight towards them, of red satin hanging from the master’s body. This is called “the suspended prize.” (Todd Stoll 27)

There is also a mention of one of his epithets being “Buddha of Boundless Longevity.” Todd Stoll elaborates on the relation of Buddhism to both the novel and the Quanzhen sect of Daoism:

[The] bestowing of a Buddhist title on him only reaffirms my argument of how hostile forces are incorporated through inclusion in the novel. The final cause of Dark Force (heiqi 黑氣) in our novel is a Buddhist monk rising in the west—the direction from which Buddhism entered China. Xuantian shangdi defeats this heterodox force by enlisting the aid of the Crown Prince of Snow Mountain (Xueshan taizi 雪山太子) who has reached perfection through meditations on compassion. That is to say, Xuantian shangdi incorporates a higher level of selfless Buddhist teachings thereby eliminating distinctions. […]

Quanzhen Daoism […] thereby incorporated Buddhist and Confucian teachings. This did not, however, diminish the Daoist agenda of the sect. In practice, it instead helped to broaden its audience by relating its beliefs to those of the other competing dominant ideologies.

Keep in mind that the novel has Buddha swearing allegiance to Xuan Tian Shang Di! Note too, how this statue has Buddhist features such as the elongated earlobes and the gesture of his left hand, but also has the turtle-and-snake between his feet and what appears to be a dragon on his robe:

xtsd looking like buddha

Image Credits: All images are from the Xuan Tian Shang Di blog’s Devotional Material Culture page except for the one with line drawings of Xuan Wu which is from Ancient China & Ancient America at Imperial, and the picture of the Thunder God which is from Michael Saso.

4 responses to “In Honor of Xuan Tian Shang Di

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    A very complex illustration in relation to Tasoit alchemy sciences . MY personal experience is a lot more simple than that :

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    The Black magic tortoise or turtle most certainly plays a major role in Chinese astrology and qigong remedies . while Shang di was popular in the five dynasties, it earlier popular worship originated from dragon king worship in association with thunder and river in which the snake and turtle which are the key symbols of balancing water and fire power was to prevent flood and natural disasters. The real life implications and practical application of this currently are the ecology friendly environmental flood controls and river ecology problems in China of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers. This is especially so for the Thai Hokkien , Vietnamese and Laos communities who have settled in Chonburi and the Mekong Delta and Laos tributaries in which their native religious custom is the combination of the Naga dragon flaming Buddha incorporated from Therevedha Buddhist animism with third prince Nezha the flaming warrior boy-god and this Chinese great bear veneration for river projects and food maintainance

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    the thunder god was one of the principle gods worshipped in association with magic where the taosit monks came with gongs and drums to perform its rites and this practise is still going on in Taiwan today. The chinese Lei gong is actually the Indain transplanted Rain god Varapni just as the greeks had Zesus while the Nordic myths had Thor all with same features of a demi-god with wings and a hammer .
    Chinese minter of Thunger Wen Chung is the agent of Lei zu, wife of the yellow emperor as well as the goddess of horticulture and silk-weaving as she taught the people agriculture, rearing animals and making clothes . Thus in Suzhou, local folklore and religion is the worship of Lei zu relates to shipping and silk textile industries and farming as the thunder queen thunder commands the changes in weather patterns determines food and supply for shipping and bales of silk transported across the grand canal into Jiang su where the silk textile is regionally produced . This is a custom observed in Qing times when by prominent families of Shipping pursers court purveyors of silk clothings for the imperial royal family as illustrated in the dream of the red chamber .

    Lei zu and the thunder queen had many children with the Yellow emperor who was the original ancester emperor of the chinese race associated with the royal astral equatorial realm . Chang yi was the eldest of many who settled in henan which denotes the settlement of the Chjinese civilisation at the Yang zi. This is the evidence that original chinese native religion is thunder worship in association with river dragon empeor worship due to its locomotive settlement at the river deltas. It is not the result of a helio-centric society which contributed to monotheism unlike the Jews and the middle east races which crated the Shang dim lore that came much later post warring states literature .

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