Military Cult of Xuan Tian Shang Di

Great Wall near Lanzhou, Credit: Avi Nahum.

Great Wall near Lanzhou, Credit: Avi Nahum.

Richard G. Wang’s 2000 essay “Four Steles at the Monastery of Sublime Mystery (Xuanmiao guan): A Study of Daoism and Society on the Ming Frontier” is an in-depth analysis of four Ming Dynasty steles, dated 1540 and 1541 (Wang 39), from a Daoist monastery in the city of Lanzhou.

Lanzhou is now the capital of Gansu Province in China’s northwest. Wang writes that “Lanzhou in the Ming was commonly a target of Mongol attacks, and therefore maintained a heavy military presence” (73). The Great Wall used to run through Lanzhou during the Ming Dynasty (Wang 41).

Among many other topics in his essay, Wang discusses how “The large population of military men in and around Lanzhou produced an important source of patronage and support for the Monastery of Sublime Mystery” (77). Wang quotes Barend J. Ter Haar’s 1990 “The Genesis and Spread of Temple Cults in Fukien” in providing an explanation for why this was the case:

Ter Haar has argued that “the first and foremost way in which a cult bound together local people was by providing a locus for identification, which was invested with shared memories.” The identification as border military men and the memories of hardship, risks and monotony in military bases and forts near and on the Great Wall caused many to rely on religion for relief and salvation. (77)

One of the primary deities worshiped by the soldiers was Xuan Tian Shang Di:

Xuanwu (Zhenwu), or Xuandi, the Dark Emperor, known for his military prowess, was believed to be a military god. We have many examples of northern frontier Ming military men who believed in the Dark Emperor (or Zhenwu, the Perfect Warrior). As early as in the Northern Song, Zhenwu was worshipped by the military.

In the Ming, the cult of Zhenwu reached a popular high point in its history. In the case of Lanzhou, a Temple of Zhenwu was built on the city wall of the Jincheng Pass, a military fortress on the north side of the Yellow River. It was obviously built for military men to worship Zhenwu there. The Temple of the Dark Warrior (Xuanwu Miao) was built on Mount Renshou in Anning Fort, Lanzhou, a military base. Apparently, this temple was dedicated to Zhenwu by military servicemen.

Other Lanzhou military forts such as the Zhenlu Fort, the Yanchang Fort, the Fort of Three Wells (Sanyanjing bao), the Yongtai Fort, and the Fort of Xigu Town (Xigu cheng bao) all had temples or shrines dedicated to Zhenwu. The Zhenwu shrines in the Yongtai Fort and the Yanchang Fort were even built on the city walls, just like the Zhenwu temple in the Jincheng Pass, for the convenience of military servicemen on duty to worship the god. (77-78)

There was a very good reason why the soldiers at Lanzhou turned to Xuan Tian Shang Di specifically, for “Historically, the Zhenwu cult was associated with the threat from the north. From the Song to the Ming, Zhenwu as a god of the north was believed to possess the power to defend the north by wiping out barbarians and demons” (Wang 78). Wang quotes the Jiajing emperor as having said the following:

[My ancestor] established the capital in You and Yan [Beijing], which corresponds with Occult Tenebrity (Xuanming). Therefore [the Emperor of the Dark Heavens] wiped out the smell of mutton (namely, the Mongols) and cleaned up China…Although sometimes there appeared one or two minor frontier alerts of ill-fate, they were exterminated quickly. (78-9)

Other gods worshiped by the soldiers included Guan Di and Ma Wang (the Horse God):

According to a stone inscription […] during the Ming, in the Fort of Three Wells, which belonged to the Lanzhou Guard, military defenders there “built the temples of the Dark Emperor, King Guan, the Horse Deity, and the Mountain Deity for the purpose of praying for blessings. Within three years, there has been no alarm of barbarian raids.” Apparently, the Zhenwu cult in Ming-era Lanzhou functioned as a form of military protection, and was worshipped by military men for blessings. (Wang 79)

Exactly how widespread was the worship of Xuan Tian Shang Di in Northern China?

According to Xu Daoling’s survey conducted in the 1940s, in Beijing there were thirty to forty Zhenwu temples dated to the Yuan-Ming period. Susan Naquin also points out that in the Ming Imperial City of Beijing “a great many workplace shrines were dedicated to Zhenwu.”

Willem Grootaers in 1948 surveyed 348 villages in Shanxi and Hebei, all near the Ming northern frontier. He found 169 temples of Zhenwu, most of which dated to the Ming or earlier. Thus, Grootaers drew the simple statistical conclusion that perhaps about one in two villages had such a temple.

A more recent ethnological study of Xuejiawan, a village in Yongdeng county that in Ming times neighbored Lanzhou to the northwest and is part of present-day Lanzhou, shows that the main god of this community’s religious cult is none other than Zhenwu, locally known as Wuliang zushi. In the Lanzhou area today, Zhenwu is still locally known as Wuliang zushi and is worshipped in many temples, some of which are dated to the Ming. I assume that the situation in Lanzhou during the Ming period might have been similar. (Wang 79)

Wang mentions that inland military garrisons did not have much Daoist religious participation as those on the frontier, such as Lanzhou, and again refers to Ter Haar’s theory about religious communities:

The cult of Zhenwu spread to Gansu as early as the Northern Song, and continued disseminating in Gansu throughout the Song, Jin, Yuan and Ming time periods. The concentration of military men in the stele lists and their participation in the religious activities and rituals of the Monastery show manifestly that this temple was extremely important to the military servicemen.

If “by performing miracles for the good of the community” against bandits, attacks or raids, “the deity built up a broad local following” in the Ming, then it is perhaps Zhenwu’s protection of the north that attracted these soldiers’ and officers’ involvement.

Ter Haar has generalized that a temple or cult functions as the locale of communal organizations; in his words, “local cults generally stood for local communities.” The Monastery meant the same for the military community in Ming Lanzhou. It was common in the Ming that military men in the frontier regions actively participated in Daoist temple festivals and temple building […] This distinguishes the Ming religious practice in military bases of the frontiers from other inland towns and cities. (Wang 80)

Xuan Tian Shang Di is a warrior god, and it’s important to know the history of his worship by warriors. In fact, entire dynasties of emperors gave thanks to him for their accession to the throne through violence, but those are stories for another post.

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