Divinity in Diversity

Group of People Standing Indoors

The general appearances of ancient Chinese deities lead us to think of them as sober imperial bureaucrats. Mostly, they look like middle aged men dressed in official-looking robes, spending their time reading formal petitions and responding by giving stern orders to their underlings – rather like the more artistic version of our modern politicians. Although several of the most popular deities are female, gender immediately raises problems for the bureaucratic image of some important deities as governing elites tend to favor a religious practice that reflected themselves (male, old, humourless etc). Women, as well as men who are viewed to be rebels or misfits, tends to be excluded from the sites and definitions of power. An example of this is the worship of Tu’er Shen, the god of homosexuality, that was mostly suppressed if not abandoned completely – particularly when Zhu Gui, a grain tax circuit official of Fujian in 1765, attempted to standardize the morality of the people by prohibiting “licentious cults”. So there is not a lot of diversity within the divine pantheon in Chinese mythology.

But the immortals are a different story. The Xiangzhou region of Guangxi, China, has only a few temples to bureaucratic-looking deities. They worship three Taoist hermits who bore little similarities or relationship to the “official” hierarchy of gods. The art of the Jin tombs of the 12th and 13th centuries depicts a group of eight Taoist immortals in wall murals and sculptures – the most of which is a mural in the Yongle Gong (“Eternal Joy Temple”) at Ruicheng. Pa hsien (“the eight Immortals”), are often depicted either together as a group or alone to give more homage to that specific figure. All these indicate that the immortals were also very influential, perhaps as influential as the deities themselves. Additionally, the immortals have very little to do with bureaucracy and are considered to be a very diverse lot.

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