Xuan Tian Shang Di: Imperial Worship

Yesterday, I mostly wrote about Xuan Tian Shang Di’s worship amongst soldiers, but I also mentioned that many emperors gave thanks to him for reaching their position. A previous post attributed much of his popularity to his worship amongst the common people, but also specifically linked the construction of his temple complex on Mt. Wudang to a victory over the Mongols by the Yongle emperor. Now, we will see that this was not the only reason the Yongle emperor had to thank Xuan Tian Shang Di. Nor was he the only emperor to pay homage to this god.

In Taoism and the Arts of China, Stephen Little outlines Xuan Tian Shang Di’s worship by Chinese emperors over the course of history. We start, once again, with his transformation from the ancient representation of a snake encircling a tortoise to an anthropomorphic warrior:

The transformation of the Dark Warrior (Xuanwu) into the anthropomorphic god known as the Perfected Warrior (Zhenwu) occurred in the early Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). Imperial recognition of this transformation happened during the reign of Song Zhenzong (r. 998-1022), who was deeply devoted to religious Taoism. Zhenzong was the first to build a temple to Zhenwu in the capital of Bianling (Kaifeng, Henan province), after the miraculous appearance of a tortoise and snake in 1017. Xuanwu’s name was changed to Zhenwu at this time, to avoid a taboo on the name of the Song imperial ancestor Zhao Xuanlang.

Zhenwu was particularly associated with healing, and is said to have cured Emperor Renzong (r. 1023-64) from illness in 1056. (Little 291)

The association with healing was not one I’d specifically come across before.

As mentioned previously, imperial decrees granted him successively more impressive titles, culminating in 1304 with the rank of Supreme Emperor (Shang Di). By this time, China was ruled by the Mongols, who called themselves the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368). This is rather ironic, of course, since as we discussed yesterday, Xuan Tian Shang Di’s popularity had a lot to do with him protecting China against the Mongols and other tribes from the North.

Nor was the Yuan Dynasty the only instance where Xuan Tian Shang Di was worshiped by non-Han tribes.

Zhenwu’s efficacious power even led the Tangut rulers of the Xixia dynasty (982-1227) to begin worshipping him in the early eleventh century. Two of the earliest surviving images of Zhenwu as an anthropomorphic warrior come from Xixia archaeological contexts. One […] is a twelfth-century banner depicting Zhenwu with a tortoise and snake, recovered from the ancient site of Kharakhoto by P. K. Kozlov (1863-1935) in 1909; the other is a twelfth-century silk banner, excavated in 1990 from a ruined Buddhist pagoda in Helan county, Ningxia Autonomous Region.

Just to clarify: the Xixia Dynasty, or Tangut Empire, ruled areas that are part of modern China, but never ruled China as a whole. It was contemporaneous with the Song Dynasty, and both were eventually conquered by the Mongols.

However, it was during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), after the Mongols were expelled, that Xuan Tian Shang Di’s worship enjoyed its “greatest influence and popularity” (Little 291). His veneration by the imperial family began with the very first Ming emperor, but really took off with the third:

The first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (Taizu, r. 1368-98), ordered sacrifices to Zhenwu on the god’s birthday (the third day of the third lunar month) and the day of his ascension to heaven (the ninth day of the ninth lunar month). It was the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di (Yongle, 4. 1403-24), however, whose personal devotion to Zhenwu led to the greatest rise in the god’s national prestige. (Little 291-2)

Why was Zhu Di, the Yongle emperor, so devoted to Xuan Tian Shang Di? Well, he had to give thanks for his victory in a three year long civil war:

The Yongle emperor was himself famous as a warrior, and in 1403 he usurped the throne from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor. The emperor credited Zhenwu with aiding him in this successful campaign. (Little 292).

The Yongle emperor was responsible, as has been mentioned multiple times before, for the construction of a large temple complex at Mt. Wudang:

In 1412, the emperor ordered a massive building campaign on Wudang Shan, Zhenwu’s sacred peak […] During the Yongle reign, Wudang Shan was renamed Taihe Shan (mountain of Supreme Harmony), and took precedence over the Five Sacred Peaks, formerly the most important sacred Taoist mountains in China.

At several times during the Yongle reign, miraculous manifestations of Zhenwu were seen at the mountain; these are recorded in both the Taoist Canon […] and in a large handscroll now owned by the Baiyun Guan (White Cloud Monastery) in Beijing […]

He also built a temple to Xuan Tian Shang Di within the Forbidden City:

When Zhu Di moved the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421 and rebuilt the Forbidden City, he constructed a temple to Zhenwu, prominently positioned along the north-south axis of the palace. This temple, the Qin’an Dian (Hall of IMperial Peace), is significantly the northernmost building in the Forbidden City, appropriate given that Zhenwu is god of the northern celestial quadrant.

The original temple burned down in the late fifteenth century, and it was subsequently rebuilt during the Jiajing reign (1522-66), a time of devoted patronage of religious Taoism. This temple still stands […] Despite Qing dynasty renovations carried out by the Yongzheng emperor (r.1723-35), the temple is still dedicated to Zhenwu, and contains three large statues of the god as its primary icons. (Little 292)

Little stresses that the Yongle emperor may have vastly expanded the worship of Xuan Tian Shang Di by the imperial family, but all of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty continued it:

It is clear that by the mid-fifteenth century, Zhenwu had become the most important god in the Taoist pantheon, to some extent even supplanting the deified Laozi [whom he was seen as the 82nd manifestation of, at times]. No longer just a powerful god of healing and exorcism, Zhenwu was also a celestial protector of the emperor and the state.

Imperial patronage of the Zhenwu cult continued through the remainder of the Ming dynasty. As John Lagerwey has written, “All Ming emperors after Chengzu [Yongle] announced their accession to the throne by sending a sacrifice to Zhenwu.” (292)

Finally, the Ming were conquered by yet another tribe from the North, the Manchus. They, like the Tangut and the Mongols, also adopted Xuan Tian Shang Di as one of their gods: “Zhenwu continued to be worshipped by the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911)” as well (Little 292).


5 responses to “Xuan Tian Shang Di: Imperial Worship

  • Daily Prompt: The Artist’s Eye – Art Makes Us Human | SERENDIPITY

    […] Xuan Tian Shang Di: Imperial Worship (heathenchinese.wordpress.com) […]

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    Yes, these are very true facts of chinese history. I am philosophically a follower of the Chinese legalism and emperor Yong le like myself am strongly opposed to Confucionism and Buddhism which stressed the mandatory law of civil government and the ideal benevolent ruler and his opposition to Buddhism was because Emperor Yong le was a highly megomanic power emperor and a legalist militant autocrat and the Taoist faith in the immortalisation of Xuan wu reinforced his legitimate claim to power to rule while Buddhsim taught universial compassion and redemption from suffering and was tantric Tibetan Buddhism was popularly practised by the mongols having been vanquished by the establishment of the Ming monarchy . And I am myself totally opposed to all moral values and virtues and any meaningful purpose to life and knowledge of the truth and the attainment of universial redemption because I am only interested in being a power autocrat and Xuan Wu reinforces not only my militant life concept but my personal investments in oil and shipping and connecting with my Hokkien overseas Chinese roots in which Xuan wu is venerated by the overseas Fukien communities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Kao hsiung and Central Java.

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    Emperor Yong le built the forbiiden city based on Feng shui architecture in which the north pole god reinforced his central administration . This was why he elevated Xuan wu which was the chinese great bear Ursa major to true absolute divine divine marshall ruler of the cosmos and changed it to Zhen wu meaning true military ruler or commander . The local hokkiens call it Thee gong or imperial lord.

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    the black tortoise is the pet associated with shang di as the aquarain symbol of water for long life as well as used in Chinese astrology and qigong . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_astrology

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