In Taoism and the Arts of China, Stephen Little covers a wide array of topics relating to Daoism and its representation in Chinese art. One of the topics Little covers is the Earth Gods, or Tu Di Gong, discussed in this earlier post. Little writes that “their origins can be traced to the early gods of the soil (she), worshipped in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and earlier” (260).
Little quotes an extended passage from David Johnson’s 1985 article “The City God Cults of T’ang and Sung China,” which was originally published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies:
When the Zhou feudal order was replaced by the Qin-Han bureaucratic system, cities, towns, and villages continued to have she. These sacrifices were mandated by statute as part of the official religion. In county and prefectural capitals, the expenses of the cult were evidently borne by the government; in villages and hamlets, the inhabitants had to meet the costs themselves.
In Han times formal worship of the god of the soil in the county and prefectural cities thus was in the hands of the officials. The cult was thoroughly rationalized: the earth-god had long since been depersonalized and universalized, and was as featureless and abstract as the deities of the hills, rivers, thunder, rain, and other features of the natural world that received official sacrifice.
The open altar was made of earth and was extremely plain, with only a stone pillar, representing the god, and a tree to mark it. Sacrifices there were offered only twice a year, on days in the second and eight months fixed by statute. (260)
Notice that as in the previous post on Tu Di Gong, the god can be and was at times represented with a simple stone pillar, though statues of Tu Di Gong in human form are much more common these days. I’m not altogether sure what is meant by the “featureless” and “abstract” deities of other natural features, as many of them are ruled or presided over by anthropomorphic gods. Johnson also says that the altar was underneath a tree: the previous post contained a photograph of an altar with human-shaped Tu Di Gong and his family underneath a tree. Perhaps there is a connection?
I find it interesting that Johnson points out that while the cult of the City Gods especially was government-sponsored, in the smaller villages, the Earth God’s worship was carried out entirely by the villagers themselves. This, of course, continues to be the case. On the other hand, the sacrifices seem to have been much less frequent than the contemporary bimonthly offerings made in Taiwan (as discussed in the previous post).
Little notes that “the emergence of the cults of both City Gods and Earth Gods out of the traditional worship of the ancient god of the soil appears to have begun during the Six Dynasties period (420-489) and to have accelerated during the Tang dynasty (618-906)” (260). To see how far the cult of Tu Di Gong has come from the days of stone pillars, check out the following statue from Yilan, Taiwan:
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a stone or two cannot represent the local land god perfectly well. And admittedly, the size of this statue is not exactly the norm anywhere.