Recently we talked about the myth of year 年 and some traditions people do to get ready for the new year. People always have the best wishes for the future and hope bad luck can go away. One thing Chinese people do is to put pictures of the door gods on the gate. Menshen门神, the door gods, are a pair of guardians of doors in Chinese mythology. In Chinese mythology, on the contrary to one god belief in Christianity, there are different gods in charge of different things. In a household, there are gods in charge of the gate,the kitchen, the well and the land. Among these, the gate is one of most important one since it connects the house and the outside. Good luck can come through the gate to you and of course bad spirits can haunt for you through the gate too. That’s why on the day of New Year’s eve, we like to put paintings on the gate to protect us from bad spirits. Similarly on Christmas Day, people put wreaths on the gate. Unlike the beautiful wreaths, the paintings of gods of door are kind of scary because they look very ferocious. I remember when I was a kid I always got scared when I saw them on people’s gates.
The earliest version of the divine pair are ShenShu神荼 and YuLv郁垒. In the book Classic of mountains and seas山海经,it says in the Sea Cang 沧海, there is the Mountain DuShuo 度朔山. On the mountain, there is a peach tree and the branches are 3000 miles long. In Chinese mythology, peach trees represents immortality. The east-north of the tree is the ghost gate, which is the gate to the hell. That’s where all the ghosts come in and out. At the gate, two gods ShenShu and YuLv are guarding and watching all the ghosts coming in and out. If they catch any ghosts doing evil in the human world, they would catch them with ropes and feed to tigers. That’s why people carve or paint the two gods on peach wood and attach it on the gate. The ancient Chinese gates are mostly double gates so they could attach one god on each gate. Now people just print them on paper instead of on the wood.
But since Tang Dynasty, the deified generals QinChubao秦叔宝 and YuchiJingde尉迟敬德 have been more popular. In the book SaoJiaoSouShenDaQuan三教搜神大全, it says, Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗, who was the second emperor of Tang dynasty ruling from the year 626 to 649, couldn’t fall asleep and heard ghosts screaming outside. So the Generals QinChubao and YuchiJingde guarded outside the door of him room at night and it went back to normal. Since then Emperor Taizong of Tang let people attached the paintings of them to the door to avoid the ghosts. Of course at first these paintings were only used in the palace and later they were used everywhere by normal people. In modern China, other deities are worshiped and served as door gods too including white tiger.
The next god we are going to talk about is another and the real ghost buster. His name is Zhongkui钟馗. People put his picture on the door too or in the house. Even you don’t know him, you probably see him on a lot of Chinese or Japanese paintings. I love paintings of Zhongkui. You can tell it is him immediately since he has a unique look. He is a grizzly guy with a hat and blue clothes. He is supposed to look ferocious too but I just think he look like a nice guy and the paintings are always about him catching ghosts which are much smaller than him. The paintings are kind of cute and cartoony for me. One of the most famous painting is by Wu Daozi吴道子, a famous artist of Tang Dynasty. On the painting, some people wrote that, Emperor XuanZong of Tang 唐玄宗, the seventh emperor of Tang dynasty, got sick from the trip to Mountain Wuli 武骊山. One night he dreamed two spirits, one big and one small. The small one was wearing red clothing and only one shoe. He had a calf nose and running with a sachet and a jade flute which were stolen from the palace. The big one was wearing hat and blue clothes, wearing leather shoes and showing one arm. The big one caught the small one and took his eyeballs out and arm. In the dream, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang asked the big one who he was. He addressed himself as Zhongkui, and said he failed the imperial examination and would help the emperor vanquish the ghosts and bad spirits. When the emperor woke up, he recovered from his illness and told Wu Daozi to draw this dream.
Remember we mentioned Taizong earlier? It seems ghosts always haunt for emperors. Maybe because they killed too many people and were afraid of they would be assassinated one day. I assume politicians find it hard to fall asleep too. Since Emperor Xuanzong of Tang was a Taoism believer, Zhongkui became a god in the Taoism. Besides catching ghosts, he can command 80000 demons too. In the folktale Zhongkui failed the examination because of his disfigured appearance like Pu Songling蒲松龄, the author of Strange stories from a Chinese studio聊斋志异. The imperial examination was partly a beauty contest. In anger, Zhongkui committed to suicide upon the palace steps. After Zhongkui died, the Hell King gave him the title of king of ghosts to hunt and maintain ghosts. His friend Du Ping杜平, who got the top honors in the exam buried him. To repay his friend’s kindness, Zhongkui gave his younger sister in marriage to him. Although Zhongkui was not good looking, his sister was a beauty. There are paintings of ghosts carrying his sister on the way to the wedding in the history.
An interesting fact is that the name of the single engine fighter aircraft used by the Japanese Air Force in WWII against US Air Force Nakajima Ki-44 is called Shoki, which is Zhongkui in Japanese. Maybe they wished their fighters to defeat the US fighters as Zhongkui catching ghosts. Not sure if ghosts exist, but world peace my wish.
门神 Menshen/ door gods
山海经Classic of mountains and seas
唐玄宗 Emperor XuanZong of Tang
唐太宗 Emperor Taizong of Tang
吴道子 Wu Daozi
聊斋志异Strange stories from a Chinese studio