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Eating and drinking in China

Bowl and lid, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. C.794&A-1910

Bowl and lid, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. C.794&A-1910. Porcelain painted in underglaze blue.

The V&A possesses one of the most comprehensive and important collections of Chinese art dating from 3000 BC to the present time. The China (T T Tsui) gallery at the V&A is organised according to six main themes; living, eating & drinking, temple & worship, burial, ruling and collecting. Here we present some background history on eating and drinking in China, using objects from the collections and quotes from original sources.

Food’s Central Place in Chinese Life

While people the world over must eat and drink, not many have felt the need to develop such a complex cuisine as the Chinese. Perhaps because famine has been a frequent occurrence in the past, the preparation and consumption of food has always been a matter of great interest to Chinese people. Special meals are served at family anniversaries and religious festivals and food is offered to gods and ancestors. Business deals are struck over a meal and presents often consist of food. The medicinal value of food in promoting good health is taken very seriously by Chinese people.

Rice and other food

Rice has been China’s chief grain since the Song dynasty (960-1279), but it is not the only important staple foodstuff. Rice is grown and eaten mostly in south China. In north China, where the main cereal crops are wheat, millet and sorghum, noodles and steamed buns made from dough are more usual. These grains and starchy foods are called fan; vegetables and meat are called cai (prounounced ‘tsai’). A balanced meal contains both fan and cai.

A Portuguese missionary’s view on rice, written by Fr. Martin de Rada, about 1565

The principal food of all Chinos is rice, for although they have wheat and sell bread therefrom, yet they do not eat it save as if it were a fruit. Their chief bread is cooked rice, and they even make a wine from it which is comparable with a reasonable grape-wine and might even be mistaken for it.

Fr. Martin de Rada quoted in  Boxer, CR (ed) South China in the Sixteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, 1953, p.287

K’ang-hsi, Emperor of China, describes the wild resources of China,
written around 1700

There are forests of oak and poplar and beech, and wild pears and peaches, apples and apricots. Riding by, one can pick the little plums known as ulana, pale red like sharp cherries, and in Jehol there are cherries both white and red and the lard sour cherries, perfect in colour and taste; or one can eat the hazelnuts fresh fallen from the trees and mountain walnuts roasted over an open fire. There is tea, made from fresh snow on the little brazier slung between two horses. There is the perfect flavour of bream and carp from the mountain streams, caught by oneself in the early morning – you can keep something of the flavour for Peking eating if you enclose the fish in mutton fat or pickle them in brine before frying them up in sesame oil or lard. There is venison, roasted over an open fire by a tent pitched on the sunny slope of a mountain; or the liver of a newly killed stag, cooked with one’s own hands (even if the rain is falling), and eaten with salt and vinegar. And in the northeast one can have bear’s paw, which the imperial cooks value so highly.

Translated by Jonathan D Spence and quoted in Spence, JD Emperor of China: Self Portrait of K’ang-hsi, Jonathan Cape, 1974, p9 (with permission of Peters, Frasers, Dunlop).

Cooking and eating

Kitchen scene from a mural in an Eastern Han tomb, about 200

Kitchen scene from a mural in an Eastern Han tomb, about 200. From Wenwu 10, 1972, reproduced in Chang, KC (ed) Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, Yale University Press, 1977, illustration 9. The people in this busy kitchen scene are shown carrying firewood and drawing water as well as preparing food.

A densely populated land with limited fuel supplies needs a method of cooking that is economical of resources. Chinese cuisine relies on much labour being spent on preparation, in order that cooking can be done quickly. The most common, but not the only, method used by Chinese cooks is stir-frying, in which food is cut into bite-size pieces and cooked fast at high temperature. The food is brought to the table on serving dishes from which the diners help themselves. Each person usually has a bowl, a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. Chopsticks have been in use since Shang times (about 1700-1050BC).

Fine dining

Among the well-to-do it was the custom to have a separate table for each person. The narrow, rectangular tables were placed close together in a semi-circular arrangement or as three sides of a square.

Table and chair, 1550-1640. Museum nos. FE.67-1983, FE.27-1983, FE.41990, C.128-1928, FE.71-1977, C.127-1928

Table and chair set with a jade ewer and stemcup, a porcelain-lidded food box and a porcelain bowl. Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Several people would have been able to sit round a square table. Raised edges on the table top stopped any spills from dripping in the diners’ laps. Tablecloths were not used to cover the table top although the front and sides were sometimes draped with silk hangings.

A Portuguese missionary’s view, written by Fr. Martin de Rada, about 1565

At banquets, a table is placed for each guest, and when the banquet is a formal one, each guest gets many tables, and to explain this I would like to recount what sort of banquets they offered us, and the way in which they were served.

In a large room, at the top of the hall, they placed seven tables in a row for each one of the Religious, and along the side-walls five tables for each of the Spanish laymen who were there, and three tables for each of the Chinese captains who accompanied us. And next to the doors of the hall, opposite the Religious, sat the captains who had invited us, each one at this own table. In our room they had arranged on one side three tables bearing the covers for each one of us. All these tables were loaded as much as they could be with plates and dishes of food, save that only the principal table contained cooked meats, and all the uncooked food was on the other tables which were for grandeur and display. There were whole geese and ducks, capons, and hens, gammons of bacon and other chops of pork, fresh pieces of veal and beef, many kinds of fish, a great quantity of fruits of all kinds, with elegant pitchers and bowls and other knick-knacks all made of sugar, and so forth. All this which was put upon the tables, when we got up therefrom, was put into hampers and carried to our lodgings.

Fr. Martin de Rada quoted in  Boxer, CR (ed) South China in the Sixteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, 1953, p.287

Concerning table manners, from the Li Ji or ‘Record of Ritual’, 220 AD

When feasting with a man of superior rank and character, the guest first tasted the dishes and then stopped. He should not bolt the food, nor swill down the liquor. He should take small and frequent mouthfuls. While chewing quickly, he did not make faces with his mouth.
Do not [roll] the grain into a ball: do not bolt down the various dishes; do not swill down the soup.
Do not make a noise in eating; do not crunch the bones with the teeth; do not put back fish you have been eating; do not throw the bones to the dogs; do not snatch at what you want.
Do not try to gulp down soup with vegetables in it, nor add condiments to it; do not keep picking the teeth, nor swill down the sauces. If a guest add[s] condiments, the host will apologise for not having had the soup prepared better. If he swill[s] down the sauces the host will apologise for his poverty.

From the Li ji or ‘Record of Ritual’ compiled in the Han dynasty, translated by James Legge, The Li Ki: The Sacred Books of the East, F Max Müller (ed), Vols 27 & 28, Clarendon Press, 1885, pp 468-70

Wine warmer, 500-580. Museum no. C.432-1922

Wine warmer, 500-580. Museum no. C.432-1922. This wine warmer is made from pottery and dates from 500 to 580. Earlier ones were made from bronze and some of these bronze ones from the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD220) have the word jiao (‘to heat’) inscribed on them.


Chinese people have drunk alcohol with their meals since the Neolithic period (about 5000-1700BC). Most alcoholic drinks are produced from cereal grains and some are drunk warm.

The little pot shown here, made between AD 500 and 580, was used for heating wine. The tripod legs would have straddled the heat source. The handle at the side of the pot is hollow to take a wooden extension for lifting it off the stove. At the same time a stick would have been passed through the ceramic loop on the opposite side to steady the hot pot.

The potters who made these wine-warmers sometimes added tails and beast-like heads or faces to the pot, or by giving the tripod legs hooves or paws.

Stemcups were only ever used for alcoholic drinks. The Chinese term means ‘urging cup’: the drinker toasts his companions and at the same time urges them to down another cup.


Tea Bowls, 1984 and 1000-1125. Museum nos. C.18-1935, W.3-1938, FE.51-1984

Tea Bowls, 1984 and 1000-1125. Museum nos. C.18-1935, W.3-1938, FE.51-1984. The tea bowl on the right was made in 1984 at the Zibo kiln in Shandong. The bowl on the stand, which dates from 1000 to 1125, came from the same kiln.


Tea is China’s most popular beverage. Chinese people drink green unfermented tea, taken hot without milk or sugar, with meals and snacks and on its own throughout the day. Today, they use mugs with lids and handles, but up until this century tea was always drunk from small bowls.

Eight hundred years separate the two tea bowls made in the same kiln (Zibo, Shandong) shown in the image on the right. The bowl on the right was made in 1984. The tea bowl on the stand was made between 1000 and 1125, by which time tea drinking had become an everyday habit for most and an art for some.

Aristocrats and educated monks and nuns would gather together to taste fine teas and appreciate beautiful utensils. The powdered tea favoured at this time was whisked up with hot water in the tea bowl until it formed a froth. The white whipped topping showed up well against black tea bowls like this, which was one reason for their popularity. Tea making competitions were held, the winner being the person whose froth lasted longest.

The thick sides of stoneware bowls mean the heat of the tea is not lost quickly and the tea- drinker’s fingers do not get scalded. Stands were used for serving or to raise steaming tea bowls to the lips.

Teapots, 1650-1660 and 1984. Museum nos. C.871-1936, FE.31-1984

Teapots, 1650-1660 and 1984. Museum nos. C.871-1936, FE.31-1984. These two teapots were made at the same kiln site at Yixing. The local clays there are cream, red or a warm brown. The teapot on the left was made by the potter Hui Mengchen sometime between 1650 and 1660. The one on the right in the shape of a water chestnut was made in 1984 by the woman potter Jiang Rong.

By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) tea was no longer made in the bowl because leaf tea replaced powder and the dried and rolled up leaves were brewed in teapots. These were often quite small, just big enough to make one or two cups. The small size meant that good leaves were not wasted. Pots from the Yixing kilns are particularly suitable for tea-making. Stoneware keeps the tea warm and they pour well. They are manufactured in a wide range of imaginative shapes, such as the one on the right in the form of a water chestnut.

Poem about Tea by Bai Juyi,
about 820 AD

The white porcelain jar is scrupulously clean.
The red charcoal is burning with great intensity.
The fragrant powdered tea is under the froth
Blossoms float atop the fish-eye bubbles.
The fine colour is presented in a bowl.
The fragrance remains after the feast.
(Poet’s note: Exuberance over tea after a nap, in memory of Master Yang of Tongzhou)

The poet Bai Juyi (772-846) quoted by Song Boyin in ‘Tea Drinking, Tea Ware and Purple Clay Ware’ in KS Lo Collection in the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, Part 2 Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1984


Chinese Five Poison Symbols


The Five Poisons



The Fifth Day of the Fifth Month

One of the most dangerous and inauspicious days of the year in ancient China was the 5th day of the 5th month, according to the lunar calendar, which was popularly referred to as “Double 5” or “Double 5th“, and also known as tian zhong jie (天中节).  This day marked the beginning of summer which by midseason meant dangerous animals and insects, the spread of infectious diseases, and the appearance of evil spirits.

Five Poison CharmFurthermore, the most dangerous period of that day was considered to be “noon”.  The Chinese actually divided each day into twelve two-hour periods known as shichen (时辰).  “Noon”, then, would be the two hour period from 11AM – 1PM which according to shichen is called wu (午).

One popular way to protect oneself during this day was to drink realgar wine (xiong huang jiu 雄黄酒).  Realgar contains arsenic sulfide which was believed to be an antidote for poisons and would therefore drive away evil spirits and kill insects and other poisonous animals.

Since realgar wine was too strong for children to drink, parents would use the wine to write the Chinese character “king” (wang 王) on a child’s forehead as a form of protection.

The Chinese would also mix into wine powdered cinnabar (dan sha 丹砂 or zhu sha 朱砂), which is the mineral from which mercury is made.  The cinnabar would turn the wine red which the Chinese believe would help fend off attacks from evil spirits.

Other protective measures included hanging branches of artemisia or mugwort (ai 艾) over gates and doors because the leaves resemble the paws of tigers and the aroma is believed to repel insects.  Calamus or “sweet flag” is also hung above gates because the leaves resemble swords.

It was also customary to hang pictures of Zhong Kui, brandishing his magic sword which could slay evil spirits, on doors and gates.

However, one of the most common forms of protection from the dangers was the wearing of “five poison” charms.  Chinese parents would also have their children wear an amulet bearing the images of the five poisons or hang small bags filled with mugwort around their necks.

Examples of old five poison charms are displayed and discussed below.

It should be noted also that in China today the fifth day of the fifth month is celebrated as the popular Duanwu Festival (duan wu jie 端午节) or “Dragon Boat Festival”.  The day commemorates the life and suicide of Qu Yuan (屈原) (340 BC – 278 BC), a famous poet and minister from the State of Chu of the Warring States Period.

The Five Poisons

The “five poisons” (wudu 五毒) actually refer to five poisonous animals.  In contrast to what one might expect, the purpose of the five poisons depicted on an amulet is to counteract pernicious influences.  This is because the Chinese believe in combating poison with poison as shown by the above examples of drinking realgar (arsenic) wine and mixing cinnabar (mercury) with wine.

There is legendary evidence to support this belief of combating poison with poison.  Shennong (神农), also known as the Yan Emperor (yandi 炎帝), was a ruler who lived about 5,000 years ago and is credited with teaching the Chinese how to cultivate crops.  He is also considered the Father of Chinese Medicine because he discovered and personally tested upon himself hundreds of medicinal and poisonous herbs.  He was able to test these herbs because he allegedly had a transparent body and could therefore observe their effects.  He never suffered long-term effects, however, because the poisons apparently canceled each other out.

Some historical sources refer to the five poisons as consisting of the snake, scorpion, centipede, toad and spider.  Other references have the lizard replacing the spider.  Still other sources mention the five poisons as the snake, scorpion, centipede, spider and the “three-legged toad”.  (Learn more about the “three-legged toad” at Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad.)

Finally, the tiger is sometimes included as one of the five poisons as explained below.

Five Poison Charms

"Fifth day of fifth month" Chinese charm

The inscription on this charm reads wu ri wu shi (五日午时) which translates as “noon of the 5th day” and which refers to noon on the 5th day of the 5th month.

As you can see, the charm has a crack.  If you look closely, you will see an area at the upper left of the square hole that has been flattened.  Most likely, this charm was at some time nailed to the gate of an old traditional Chinese house to protect the family from evil spirits and poisonous animals associated with this unlucky day.

Five poison charm displaying scorpion, tiger, three-legged toad, snake and centipedeThe reverse side of the charm displays members of the five poisons.

Above the square hole is the centipede with its venomous claws.

At the upper right is a lizard.  Unfortunately, the lizard’s head has been flattened by the nail so that the only discernable feature is the tail.

At the lower right is a tiger which is shown running in full stride.

The tiger is the only member of the group that is not poisonous so why is it included with the five poisons?

The reason has to do with the nature of the tiger. The Chinese consider the tiger to be a solitary animal.

There is an old Chinese proverb which says hu du bu chi zi (虎独不吃子) which literally means “tiger solitary does not eat children.  The character for “solitary” (独) and the character for “poison” (毒) are both pronounced du.  When spoken, the proverb can thus be interpreted as “tiger poison does not eat children”.

Tigers are frequently included on amulets of this type for this reason and also because they see well in the dark and have the ability to make evil spirits flee.

At the lower left is the three-legged toad which is discussed in detail at Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad.

To the left of the square hole is the snake.

There is one final point worth noting about this charm.  You will notice that, unlike most charms, this particular charm is not round.  It is actually eight-sided.

This eight-sided shape is believed to enhance the effectiveness of the charm because the number “8” (ba 八) is a lucky number due to its similar pronunciation in certain Chinese dialects to the word “prosper” or “wealth” (fa cai 发财).

This charm has a diameter of 29 mm and a weight of 7.5 grams.

Ancient Chinese five poisons charm

On the left is shown the reverse side of an amulet with the centipede and spider to the right, the snake at the bottom and a “three-legged toad” to the left of the center hole.

The animal at the top is a tiger.  Tigers are sometimes put on amulets because they are believed to have the ability to set evil spirits to flight and because they see well in the dark.

Images of tigers (see Peach Charms) are considered particularly effective in scaring away malignant spirits and protecting children.

Five poisons charm with inscription -- riches and honor, prosperity and happiness

While the reverse side of this piece is meant to protect, which is the purpose of an amulet, the obverse side is more like a charm in that it is meant to bring good luck.

The obverse side, shown at the left, has the four Chinese characters fu gui chang le (富贵昌乐) written in seal script and read top to bottom and right to left.

The meaning is “riches and honor, prosperity and happiness”.

This charm has a diameter of 47.8 mm and weighs 25.9 grams.

Old Chinese charm displaying five poisons

This is the reverse side of another old Chinese five poison charm.

The large animal at the right is a tiger or cat.  To the right of the cat’s tail is a lizard and to the left is a spider.  A snake is at the left of the center hole and the three legged toad is at the lower left.

Old Chinese five poison charm with inscription "Expel evil and send down good fortune"The inscription on the obverse side of the charm is read top to bottom as qu xie jiang fu (驱邪降) which translates as “Expel evil and send down good fortune”.

At the very top of the charm is a spider.  In this case, the spider is not one of the five poisons.  When not grouped with other members of the five poisons the spider is actually considered an auspicious symbol on its own. This is because another word for spider in Chinese is xizi (虫喜 子) where the first character has the same pronunciation as the word for “happy” (xi 喜).  A picture of a spider dropping down is therefore a visual pun for “happiness being sent down from the sky”.

At the bottom of the charm is the three legged toad. The three-legged toad on charms is regarded as auspicious and conducive to good fortune.  For a more detailed discussion, please see Liu Hai and the Three-Legged Toad.

There is some disagreement as to the figure at the right.  Some say it is Liu Hai and others say it is
Zhong Kui.  For a detailed discussion of Liu Hai, please see the above link.  For information on Zhong Kui, please see Daoist (Taoist) Charms and Chinese Pendant Charms.

This charm has a diameter of 46 mm and a weight of 26.3 grams.

"Expel evil and send down good fortune" five poison charm

The charm at the left is very similar to the one above although the person on the right appears to be different.

The inscription is qu xie jiang fu (驱邪降) meaning “expel evil and send down good fortune”.

This charm also has the spider, here representing “happiness”, at the eleven o’clock position and the three-legged toad at the bottom.

Reverse side of Chinese charm displaying tiger, three-legged toad, lizard, snake and spider

The images of the “five poisons” on the reverse side are the same as those on the above charm although they are drawn a little differently and are in a slightly different order.

Beginning at the right and moving clockwise are the tiger, three-legged toad, lizard, snake and spider.

This charm has a diameter of 44 mm and a weight of 24.6 grams.

After read this info we can explaine why very rare the  five Poison symbol motif on the ceramic plate or other pottery.

Dr Iwan Only found one collection from each type of the poison above let’s we look the rae collections below


Yuan Snake Symbol Bowl



Ming Tiger  Plate





chu jung God Of Fire


Foundry artisans needed fire to melt gold or silver: therefore they worship the God of Fire. This is one picture of the deity, carrying a pot and wearing a black gauze cap. One of the two servants carries a plate of ore, the other a mine. Before the god’s seat is a whole stack of gold ingots. Some technicians are melting gold and silver in the front of the furnace. Others are hammering gold into foil. This picture sheds some light on how artisans of old used to cast gold and silver


God of literature kue

Chu Jung was created by Taiwan to gain their independence from China. He possesses the powers of the God of Fire and was made to believe this to be his true identity.
He was shown the truth by the true gods of China. Although he does not remember his past, he still will fight for China.



i wang tin chung



Because of its long emphasis on scholasticism, and the high status placed on the literati it is perhaps natural that the Chinese should have had a god of literature or a god of scholars.

There are several versions as to who Wen Chang may have been: he is variously said to have been an actual scholar in the Tang Dynasty, the Chin Dynasty (265-316 CE) and the Sung Dynasty (1000 CE).

The mythological version, however, centers around the story of a scholar named Chung K’uei whose face was badly deformed. As was customary, the unfortunate man was supposed to have received the golden rose from the emperor after passing his exam.

 At the “graduation” ceremony, however, the emperor was so horrified by Chung K’uei’s appearance that he refused to give him the golden rose. In despair, Ching K’uei drowned himself. His spirit drifted to the heavens where he became the arbiter of the fate of scholars with the honorific name of Wen Chang.

In pictures of Wen Chang he is usually surrounded by a demon-like character wielding a pen named K’uei Hsing and a man known as “Red Coat.” K’uei Hsing is the conferer of degrees and diplomas, hence scholars prayed to him for success in the Imperial Exams. Red Coat or the God of Good luck was regarded as the deity responsible for finding jobs for scholars. He was regarded particularly as the protector of those who were not very good students. In one story, an examiner, disgusted by a weak essay, was ready to fail the candidate when a strange man in red appeared from nowhere. Silently the man in red nodded to the examiner to signal that he should pass the candidate. Completely taken aback by the celestial visitor, the examiner passed the candidate!

In Chinese mythology there is also another god who is regarded as the god of literature. Strangely enough this god of literature, Kuan Yu, is also the god of war. Kuan Yu is one of the most venerated gods of the Chinese pantheon and his heroic exploits are detailed in the classic work The Three Kingdoms.

God Of The Kitchen

In Chinese folk religion and Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun or Zao Shen, is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. In addition he is celebrated in Vietnamese culture as well.

It is believed that on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Chinese New Year he returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao Jun’s yearly report.The Story of Zao Jun[edit]

Zao Jun from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner

Though there are many stories on how Zao Jun become the Kitchen god, the most popular dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on earth whose name was Zhang Lang. He eventually became married to a virtuous woman, but ended up falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him to resort to begging to support himself. Once, while begging for alms, he happened across the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize her. Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked him a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her. As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep. Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang’s former wife told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored. Recognizing the wife he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.

The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began Zao Jun’s association with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as “Zhang Lang’s Leg”.

Alternatively, there is another tale where Zao Jun was a man so poor he was forced to sell his wife. Years later he unwittingly became a servant in the house of her new husband. Taking pity on him she baked him some cakes into which she had hidden money, but he failed to notice this and sold the cakes for a pittance. When he realized what he had done he took his own life in despair. In both stories Heaven takes pity on Zhang Lang’s tragic story. Instead of becoming a vampirish hopping corpse, the usual fate of suicides, he was made the god of the Kitchen, and was reunited with his wife.

The origin of the Kitchen god differs. Another possible story of the “Stove god” is believed to have appeared soon after the invention of the brick stove. The Kitchen god was originally believed to have resided in the stove and only later took on human form. During the Han Dynasty, it is believed that a poor farmer named Yin Zifang, was surprised by the Kitchen god who appeared on Lunar New Year as he was cooking his breakfast. Yin Zifang decided to sacrifice his only yellow sheep. In doing so, he became rich and decided that every winter he would sacrifice one yellow sheep in order to display his deep gratitude.

Worship and customs[edit]

Traditionally, every Chinese household would have a paper effigy or a plaque of Zao Jun and his wife (who writes down everything that is said in the household over the year for her husband’s report to Jade Emperor) above the fireplace in the kitchen. This tradition is still widely practiced, and Zao Jun was the most highly worshiped god of those who protect the household and family. Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao Jun on his birthday (the third day of the eighth lunar month) and also on the twenty third day of the twelfth lunar month, which marks his return to Heaven to give his New Year’s report to the Jade Emperor. On this day, the lips of Zao Jun’s paper effigy are often smeared with honey to sweeten his words to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), or to keep his lips stuck together. After this, the effigy will be burnt and replaced by a new one on New Year’s Day. Firecrackers are often lit as well, to speed him on his way to heaven. If the household has a statue or a nameplate of Zao Jun it will be taken down and cleaned on this day for the new year.

Many customs are associated with the Kitchen god, especially defining the date of the “Kitchen god festival”, also known as “Little New Year”. It is noted that the date differed depending on the location. It is believed that people in northern China celebrate it on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, while the people in southern China celebrate it on the twenty-fourth. Along with location, traditionally the date may also be determined by one’s Profession. For example, “feudal officials made their offerings to the Kitchen god on the twenty-third, the common people on the twenty-fourth, and coastal fishing people on the twenty-fifth”.[1] In addition, generally it was the males of the household that lead the sacrificial rites.[1]

In order to establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families must be organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom during “Little New Year”. It is believed that in order for ghosts and deities to depart to Heaven, both their homes and “persons” must be cleansed. Lastly, the old decorations are taken down, and there are new posters and decorations put up for the following Spring Festival.[1]


Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. Because circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, The sons divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves. This invites the Stove god to join their newly formed households ( Ahern, Martin, Wolf 1978). This process is called “pun chu” or dividing the stove. This indicates the “soul” of the family and it signifies fate of the family.

A Chinese story says,” When a shaman informed one family that there were ants and other things in their stove, they destroyed the stove and threw the bricks and coals into the river”. A neighbor explained, ” There was nothing else they could do. A family will never have peace if they dont have a good stove”. (Ahern, Martin, Wolf 1978, 131-133).

Ahern, Martin, Wolf, 1978 state that “The association of Stove God and God is thus an association of God and family. The Character of the relationship is essentially bureaucratic; the family is the smallest corporate unit in society, and the Stove God is the lowest ranking member of a supernatural bureaucracy”. This relates a correlation of the Stove god and the importance of this deity is to the family unit (pg.133).

The domestic deity is seen as being in charge of watching over the home life. It has been expressed that his presence is more like that of a policeman sent from above to observe the family. This practice is known as a bureaucratization of religion in Chinese society. The Jade Emperor is in charge of an administration divided into bureaus, and each bureaucrat-god takes responsibility for a clearly defined domain or discrete function. The Kitchen God would thus serve the role of the home domain as he would overlook the daily dynamics of a family, the members and their behaviour (Ting, 2002, pg.326).

Ting, 2002, also states that there are 3 levels of Cosmology containing an organization of heaven is like that of the organization on earth. With a supreme deity- an Emperor (Jade Emperor or Heavenly God) — Local Officials (City gods) — Commoners (gods of the hearth)(pg.326). This confirms the organization of the heavens and how the Kitchen god reports to higher level God, the Jade Emperor.

According to Mann 1997, There is another god that shares the realm of the household. “Pollution, sickness, and death were everyday concerns for women in the household as well as the focal points of their spiritual and ritual lives. Within their households they worshiped the deities who oversaw these homely concerns. The goddess of the household were territorial deities who shared the domain with the Kitchen God, worshiped by men. This God is known as the Purple Goddess/ or Privy Goddess/”. The Privy goddess was worshipped only by woman and no temples have been erected in her honor and has no relation or interaction with the Kitchen god (pg.,186).

Zao Jun in literature[edit]

Laurence Yep‘s novel Dragonwings describes the honey ritual, but the book refers to the deity as the Stove King.

Zao Jun’s story is interwoven with a feminist spin into the protagonist’s story in Amy Tan‘s novel The Kitchen God’s Wife. She reflects on her life story as a Chinese American woman. She uses the symbolism of the Kitchen god’s story and uses it as a parallel towards modern day life. She outlines the patriarchy that still exists within modern day life but more significantly in Chinese cultural practices. Tan also illustrates several facets of the humble status of women in Chinese society in the early 20th century (Tan, 1991).

In Tan’s story, there is an elaborate description of the coming of Zao Jun. The character Winnie goes into detail about how he came to be and attempts to address cultural struggles as she removes the picture of the Kitchen God from her daughter Pearl’s stove, as she does not believe this is the kind of luck Pearl needs. She then promises to fill the altar with the image of another god. In addition to this cultural struggle there is also a feminist undertone at the core, suggesting that this ritual is sexist, outdated, and inappropriate in today’s world. The story can be viewed as a struggle between traditionalism and biculturalism (Tan, 1991).

In popular culture[edit]

Zao Jun was one of the minor gods played in Supernatural‘s 5th series “Hammer of the Gods”.


Kuan Yu God Of War



Guan Yu (Wade-Giles spelling: Kuan Yu) (died 219] was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty of China.

He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period, of which Liu Bei was the first emperor. As one of the best known Chinese historical figures throughout East Asia, Guan’s true life stories have largely given way to fictionalized ones, mostly found in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms or passed down the generations, in which his deeds and moral qualities have been lionized.

Guan is respected as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. Guan was deified as early as the Sui Dynasty and is still worshipped by many Chinese people today, especially in southern China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and their descendants overseas. He is a figure in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to Guan are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants




In 219, Guan Yu attacked the nearby enemy city of Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei), which was guarded by Cao Ren, and besieged it. In autumn, heavy showers in the region caused the Han River next to the city to overflow.

 The flood destroyed reinforcements troops from Cao Cao led by Yu Jin and Pang De. Both Yu Jin and Pang De were captured by Guan Yu in battle. However, reinforcements led by Xu Huang managed to force Guan Yu’s troops to retreat.At that time, Guan Yu realised that Sun Quan had secretly formed an alliance with Cao Cao and attacked Jing Province while he was attacking Fancheng. Mi Fang and Shi Ren, whom he left in charge of Jing Province, had surrendered to Sun Quan. When Guan Yu’s troops received news that their families in Jing Province had fallen into the control of Sun Quan, some of them started deserting and returning to Jing Province to reunite with their families. Guan Yu’s army was severely depleted due to the desertions so he attempted to retreat to Yi Province in the west but was surrounded and besieged by Sun Quan’s forces at Maicheng (southeast of present day Dangyang, Hubei). Guan Yu attempted to break out of the encirclement with his son Guan Ping and subordinate Zhao Lei but failed. They were captured in Zhang Town (east of present-day Yuan’an County, Hubei) and executed by Sun Quan after refusing to surrender. Sun Quan sent Guan Yu’s severed head to Cao Cao, who performed the proper funeral rites and buried Guan’s head with full honours.

In 260, Liu Shan gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of “Marquis Zhuangmou” ( ), which states that he does not live up to his name in terms of his ability.

Tsai Tsen Yai The God Of Wealth



The Tsai Shen Yeh or “Choy San” (God of Wealth) is one of the most popular symbols of Fortune and Prosperity.

The God of Wealth is depicted on top of a Tiger. Dressed in auspicious Dragon Robes, he is carrying a gold ingot and a bundle of auspicious Chinese coins tied together with red string. Following collections of Gods of Wealth for your Feng Shui business

The Mystery Of Money Tree

The Mystery of the Money Tree Revealed

nsf, chinese money tree, chemisty, history

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CREDIT: Tami Lasseter Clare, Portland State University

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Buried in ancient Chinese tombs, money trees are bronze sculptures believed to provide eternal prosperity in the afterlife.

One money tree was crafted in southwest China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). Supported by a ceramic base, this rare piece of art stands 52 inches tall and spans 22 inches wide. Dragons and phoenixes — symbols of longevity — and coins decorate the tree’s 16 bronze leaves.The Portland Art Museum acquired the tree as a gift from a private

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Unearthed from Han Tomb No.2 in Hejiashan Village, Sichuan Province, the money tree in the Eastern Han Dynasty is 198cm high and is comprised of foundation, trunk and crown, etc., all together 29 components. The foundation is made of red pottery and the whole tree is cast with bronze. The crown can be divided into seven layers. The top layer is decorated with phoenixes and birds, and the next two layers are decorated with the images of West Queen, heracles and cliffs, etc. The lower four layers are inserted with 24 out-stretching branches and leaves decorated with patterns of dragon head, rose finch, dog, elephant, deer and strings of coins. The leaves are in pairs, with some in the shape of plantain leaf and others in oval shape. Both leaves and branches are cast with circular coins with a square hole as well as portraits and flying dragons. The whole tree is featured by exquisite casting effect and beautiful design.

Chinese legend has it that money tree is a kind of holy tree, which can bring money and fortune to the people, and that it is a symbol of affluence, nobility and auspiciousness. It can be traced back to the primitive society when the adoration of holy tree was prevalent. It is said that the ancestor of Chinese-style architecture Youchao taught people to build houses on trees, which contributed to the improvement of the living environment. There also exists a holy tree named Chinese Hibiscus in Chinese myth. According to the existing historical materials, the concept “money tree” is derived at the latest from the Han Dynasty.

Money trees have been excavated by the archaeologists from Han tombs for many times, an indication that the adoration of the money tree was prevailing in the Han Dynasty. Since then, “money tree” has gradually become a pet phrase for the general public


 Chinese Fans


vintage picture of Chinese Hand Fan

chinese lady with their fans

Have you ever noticed that Chinese hand fan is an important symbol of China, its culture and the people? If we look back to ancient time we would explore that they invented hand fans a long time ago around 3000 years ago or more. Though, no one knows the exact time when Chinese hand fans were invented. Since then Chinese hand fans are referred as useful tool and decorative item in China. It is a part of Chinese art and tradition.

Chinese hand fans became very much popular in the Han Dynasty. It is said that Chinese hand fans first were made by only bamboo, they used to craft very brilliantly. They were the real artists. Have you seen any Chinese hand fans, I think if you have then you have noticed that their hand fans are designed with nice paintings. Shaolin monks in China still use hand fans while they practice Kung fu. It is a great weapon for them. This is a very handy item and dangerous if you see these Chinese hand fans to shaolin monks’ hands. Be careful!

Image credit:


Chinese Nylon-Cloth Dragon Hand Fan in Brilliant Red or Black Simple Colors: Red Color

Red color of hand fan! It looks very nice, Right!

Would you like to present this hand fan for your little girl? She would would happy because of this red color Chinese hand fan. This is one kind of traditional style Chinese hand fan. If you are serious and finding for a unique gift ideas for others then I recommend this Chinese hand fan.
Chinese Nylon-Cloth Dragon Fan in Brilliant Red or Black Simple Colors: Red

Chinese Nylon-Cloth Dragon Fan in Brilliant Red or Black Simple Colors: Red

Are you looking for Chinese style of hand fan? If you are then this is the perfect one for you. It is read with dragon painting. I think this hand fan never would dissatisfy you because of its colorful design and dragon painting. It is about 10.5″ high and 18″ wide. Don’t you think it could be a nice gift for others? Get it and present it to others since it is a great colorful hand fan.

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Amico Black Plastic Frame Embroidery Floral Detail Folding Hand Fan

Black Color of Embroidery Hand Fan

Do you like black color? This is my one of the favorite colors of my mom. Actually if you like black color then I hope you would not bother to decorate your beautiful house with this hand fan. It is a perfect hand fan for wall decoration.If you like black color and searching for decorating your home’s wall with black color of decor item then i highly recommend this hand fan to you. It is made by plastic, fabric and metal. This handmade hand fan is well designed with embroidered flower. This is an ideal gift for girls and women, who want to decor home, make cool airflow and stage performance for dancing.

Hsi-wang Wu Royal Lady Of The West 

Xi Wangmu,

 the shamanic great goddess of China


the goddess seated on a wild mountain, holding the ling zhi and a peach, with the three-legged raven

One of the oldest deities of China is Xi Wangmu (Hsi Wang Mu). She lives in the Kunlun mountains in the far west, at the margin of heaven and earth. In a garden hidden by high clouds, her peaches of immortality grow on a colossal Tree, only ripening once every 3000 years. The Tree is a cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, a ladder traveled by spirits and shamans.

A good pair of Chinese famille rose plates, brightly decorated with the Eight Horses of Mu Wang,

each plate with four horses frolicking beneath a flowering tree, the borders with bold peony blooms and colourful butterflies, Qianlong 1736-95, 22.7cm. (2)

In Chinese mythology the Eight Horses drew the chariot of the Emperor Mu Wang (Zhou dynasty, C.1028-221BC) on his journey to the Western Gardens in search of the Peach of Immortality. The design is also known in blue and white as well as copied on Worcester porcelain and on Delftware.

Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.

The name of the goddess is usually translated as Queen Mother of the West. Mu means “mother,” and Wang, “sovereign.” But Wangmu was not a title for royal women. It means “grandmother,” as in the Book of Changes, Hexagram 35: “One receives these boon blessings from one’s wangmu.” The classical glossary Erya says that wangmu was used as an honorific for female ancestors. [Goldin, 83] The ancient commentator Guo Pu explained that “one adds wang in order to honor them.” Another gloss says it was used to mean “great.” Paul Goldin points out that the Chinese commonly used wang “to denote spirits of any kind,” and numinous power. He makes a convincing case for translating the name of the goddess as “Spirit-Mother of the West.” [Goldin, 83-85]

The oldest reference to Xi Wangmu is an oracle bone inscription from the Shang dynasty, thirty-three centuries ago: “If we make offering to the Eastern Mother and Western Mother there will be approval.” The  inscription pairs her with another female, not the male partner invented for her by medieval writers—and this pairing with a goddess of the East persisted in folk religion. Suzanne Cahill, an authority on Xi Wangmu, places her as one of several ancient “mu divinities” of the directions, “mothers” who are connected to the sun and moon, or to their paths through the heavens. She notes that the widespread tiger images on Shang bronze offerings vessels may have been associated with the western mu deity, an association of tiger and west that goes back to the neolithic. [Cahill, 12-13]

After the oracle bones, no written records of the goddess appear for a thousand years, until the “Inner Chapters” of the Zhuang Zi, circa 300 BCE. This early Taoist text casts her as a woman who attained the Tao [Feng, 125]:

Xi Wang Mu attained it and took her seat on Shao Guang mountain.
No one knows her beginning and no one knows her end.

These eternal and infinite qualities remain definitive traits of the goddess throughout Chinese history.

The Shan Hai Jing
Another ancient source for Xi Wangmu is the Shan Hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”). Its second chapter says that she lives on Jade Mountain. She resembles a human, but has tigers’ teeth and a leopard’s tail. She wears a head ornament atop her wild hair. [Remi, 100] Some scholars interpret this as a victory crown. [Birrell, 24] Most think it is the sheng headdress shown in the earliest reliefs of the goddess: a horizontal band with circles or flares at either end. [Cahill, 16; Strassberg, 109]

seated goddess wearing the sheng headdress, with knobs at both ends
Xi Wangmu wearing the Sheng Crown

The sheng is usually interpreted as a symbol of the loom. The medieval Di Wang Shih Zhi connects it to “a loom mechanism” the goddess holds. Cahill says that the sheng marks Xi Wangmu as a cosmic weaver who creates and maintains the universe. She also compares its shape to ancient depictions of constellations—circles connected by lines—corresponding to the stellar powers of Xi Wangmu. She “controls immortality and the stars.” Classical sources explain the meanings of sheng as “overcoming” and “height.” [Cahill, 45; 16-18]

This sign was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, “the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.” [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, “when the divine and human worlds touch,” and cosmic energies were in perfect balance. [Despeux / Kohn, 31]

goddess presiding over shamanic dances and other rites
Xi Wangmu seated amidst worshippers, dancing frog, magical raven, nine-tailed fox, and various ritual scenes. Directly beneath her is a possible representaation of the celestial Grindstone.

The Shan Hai Jing goes on to say of the tigress-like Xi Wangmu: “She is controller of the Grindstone and the Five Shards constellations of the heavens.” [Cahill, 16] The Grindstone is where the axial Tree connects to heaven, the “womb point” from which creation is churned out. [Mitchell cite] In other translations of this passage, she presides over “the calamities of heaven and the five punishments.” [Strassberg, 109] For Guo Pu, this line referred to potent constellations. [Remi, 102] The goddess has destructive power—she causes epidemics, for example—but she also averts them and cures diseases. [Asian Mythology]

The passage above also says that the tiger-woman on Jade Mountain “excels at whistling.” Other translators render this line as “is fond of roaring” or “is good at screaming.” The character in question, xiào, does not translate easily. It is associated with “a clear, prolonged sound” that issues from the throats of sages and shamans. (It may have resembled Tuvan throat singing.) Xiào was compared to the cry of a phoenix, a long sigh, and a zither. Its melodic sound conveyed much more than mere words, and had the power to rouse winds and call spirits. Taoist scriptures also refer to the xiào, and in the Songs of Chu it appears “as a shamanistic ritual for calling back the soul of the deceased.” [Yun, online]

The twelfth chapter of the Shan Hai Jing returns to the goddess, seated on She Wu mountain: “Xi Wangmu rests on a stool and wears an ornament on her head. She holds a staff. In the south, there are three birds from which Xi Wangmu takes her nourishment. They are found to the north of the Kunlun mountains.” [Remi, 481] The three azure birds that bring fruits to the goddess belong to her host of shamanic spirits and emissaries that turn up in art and literature.

tigress-woman seated on mountainside as three phoenix-like birds fly toward her

An 18th-century woodcut depicts the goddess in her old shamanic form, with tiger’s teeth and bamboo staff, sitting on a mountaintop with various chimeric animals. From an edition of the Shan Hai Jing.

This description places Xi Wangmu on the mountain She Wu—“Snake Shaman.” Wu is the Chinese name for female shamans. Its written character depicts two dancers around a central pillar—the same cosmic ladder that recurs in the iconography of Xi Wangmu. The Songs of Chu, a primary source on ancient Chinese shamanism, describes Kunlun mountain as a column connecting heaven and earth, endlessly deep and high. [Cahill, 47] It is the road of shamanic journeys between the worlds.

Xi Wangmu has shamanic attributes in the Shan Hai Jing. She is depicted as a tigress, an animal connected to shamans in China and over much of Asia. As early as 2400 bce, Indus Valley seals depict tiger-women and women dancing with tigers. In the early Shang dynasty,bronzes of the early Shang dynasty show a tigress clasping children in her paws—possibly a clan ancestress, or a shamanic initiator—and tigers flank the head of a child being born on a colossal fangding. The taotie sign represents a tiger on innumerable Shang and Zhou offering vessels—and on masks. [On the taotie as tiger, Rawson, 244]

Mathieu Remi observes of the tigress form of Xi Wangmu, “There are good reasons for thinking that here we have a description of a shaman in trance.” He points to Chinese scholars who compare her staff to the staff of sorcerers. [Remi, 100, 481] Cahill draws the same conclusion, calling attention to modern parallels: “The stool, headdress, and staff—still part of the shaman’s paraphernalia in Taiwan today—reflect her shamanistic side.” [Cahill, 19]

three birds swoop toward a tiger-woman seated on a mountainside, attended by a three-legged raven, chilin and other animals.

Chapter 16 of the Shan Hai Jing returns to Xi Wangmu in the western wilderness. It describes “the mountain of Wangmu” in the country of the Wo people, who eat phoenix eggs. Whoever drinks the sweet dew of this place will be able to attain every desire. On the great mountain Kunlun is a spirit with a human face and a tiger’s body and tail. (Both are white, the color of the West and the goddess.) Finally, Xiwangmu is again described with tiger teeth and tail, with new details: she “lives in a cave,” on a mountain that “contains a thousand things.” [Remi, 575-78]

The Daren fu of Sima Xiangru concurs that Xi Wangmu lives in a grotto. In his account, the white-haired goddess is served by a three-footed crow and is unimaginably long-lived. [Remi, 481-2, 588] The ancient Huainan Zi contains the first written reference to Xi Wangmu granting the elixir of immortality. She bestows it on the Archer Yi, but his wife Chang E takes it and floats up to the moon where she becomes a toad (and the moon goddess). [Lullo, 270, 285] Xi Wangmu also grants longevity in the Songs of Chu. Seekers ask her for the divine nectar, or drink it, in many artistic depictions.

The marvellous Kunlun mountain lies somewhere far in the west, beyond the desert of Flowing Sands. It was often said to be in the Tian Shan (“heaven mountain”) range of central Asia, and the source of the Yellow River. But Kunlun is a mysterious place outside of time, without pain or death, where all pleasures and arts flourished: joyous music, dancing, poetry, and divine feasts.[Cahill, 19-20, 77]

Kunlun means “high and precarious,” according to the Shizhou Ji, because “its base is narrow and its top wide.” [Despeux / Kohn, 28] It is also called the Highgate or Triple Mountain. The Shan Hai Jing names it Jade Mountain, after a primary symbol of yin essence. In the Zhuang Zi, Xi Wangmu sits atop Shao Guang, which represents the western skies. Elsewhere she sits on Tortoise Mountain, the support of the world pillar, or on Dragon Mountain. In the Tang period, people said that the goddess lived on Hua, the western marchmount of the west in Shaanxi, where an ancient shrine of hers stood. [Cahill, 76, 14-20, 60]

woodcut of the nine-tailed foxThe sacred mountain is inhabited by fantastic beings and shamanistic emissaries. Among them are the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, a dancing frog, and the moon-hare who pounds magical elixirs in a mortar. There are phoenixes and chimeric chi-lin, jade maidens and azure lads, and spirits riding on white stags. A third century scroll describes Xi Wangmu herself as kin to magical animals in her western wilderness: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.” [Cahill, 51-3]

Medieval poets and artists show the goddess riding on a phoenix or crane, or on a five colored dragon. Many sources mention three azure birds who bring berries and other foods to Xi Wangmu in her mountain pavilion, or fly before her as she descends to give audience to mortals. The poet Li Bo referred to the three wild blue birds who circle around Jade Mountain as “the essence-guarding birds.” They fulfil the will of the goddess. Several poets described these birds as “wheeling and soaring.” [Cahill, 99; 92; 51-3; 159]

The Jade Maidens (Yü Nü) are companions of the goddess on Kunlun. They are dancers and musicians who playjade maidens gather in a wilderness garden  as the goddess flies in on a phoenix chimes, flutes, mouth organ, and jade sounding stones. In medieval murals at Yongle temple, they bear magical ling zhi fungi on platters. In the “Jade Girls’ Song,” poet Wei Ying-wu describes their flight: “Flocks of transcendents wing up to the divine Mother.” [Cahill, 99-100]

Jade Maidens appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanic Songs of Chu and some Han poems. The Shuo wen jie zi  defines them as “invocators [zhu] …women who can perform services to the shapeless and make the spirits come down by dancing.” [Rawson, 427] Centuries later, a Qing dynasty painting shows a woman dancing before Xi Wang Mu and her court, moving vigorously and whirling her long sleeves. [Schipper, 2000: 36] Chinese art is full of these ecstatic dancing women.

Tang poets describe Xi Wangmu herself performing such dances in her rainbow dress and feathered robe with its winged sleeves. In The Declarations of the Realized Ones she dances while singing about the Great Wellspring; the Lady of the Three Primordials replies in kind. [Cahill, 165-6, 187]

The Jade Maidens act as messengers of the goddess and teachers of Taoist mystics. They impart mystic revelations and present divine foods to those blessed to attend the banquet of the goddess. But the Book of the Yellow Court warns spiritual seekers against “the temptation to make love to the Jade Maidens of Hidden Time.” [Schipper 1993:144]

Sometimes Yü Nü appears as a single divinity, in connection with other goddesses. In Chinese Buddhism, she is the dragon king’s daughter, and presented to the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Or she is born from an appeal to Tian Hou (“Empress of Heaven”), a title posthumously bestowed on the coastal saint Ma Zi (who was syncretized with the goddess of the East). [Stevens, 167]

The immortals journey to Kunlun to be with Xi Wangmu. The character for immortal (xian) reads as “mountain person,” and alternately as “dancing person.” [Schipper: 2000:36] The goddess lives in a “stone apartment” within her sacred mountain grotto—from which spring the underground “grotto heavens” of medieval Taoism. It is the paradise of the dead; a tomb inscription near Chongqing calls it a “stone chamber which prolongs life.” [Wu, 83]

Xi Wang Mu is an eternal being who guides vast cosmic cycles. In her mysterious realm, the passage of time is imperceptible: “A thousand years are just a small crack, like a cricket’s chirp.” A visitor turns his head for a second, and eons have passed. When king Mu returns from his visit to her paradise, the coats of his horses turn white. [Cahill, 47; 84; 114-15; 129] The goddess of the West confers elixirs of immortality, even as she receives the dead and presides over their realm. 

Mirrors and Tombs
Ancient art is rich in iconography of the goddess: bronzes, murals, painted lacquers, clay tiles, and stone reliefs. Much of this art is from funerary contexts, befitting the signification of the West. The goddess sits with hands tucked into voluminous sleeves, on a throne perched above an irregular stone pillar or a multi-tiered mountain. An ancient lacquer bowl from a tomb at Lelang depicts her thus, wearing a leopard hat and sitting on a leopard mat, with a jade maiden beside her and a canopy above. [Liu, 40] Sometimes she is enthroned in pavilions or halls.

goddess seated in hall, hands in sleeves, with large birds
The goddess seated in pillared hall: sarcophagus from Sichuan

In an important find near Tengzhou, Shandong, an incised stone depicts Xi Wangmu with a leopard’s body, tail, claws, teeth, and whiskers—and a woman’s face, wearing the sheng headdress. Votaries make offerings to her on both sides. The inscription salutes Tian Wangmu: Queen Mother of the Fields. [Lullo, 271] This alternate title reflects her control of the harvests, a tradition attested elsewhere. [Cahill, 13]

At Suide in Shaanxi, a sheng-crowned Xi Wangmu receives leafy fronds from human and owl-headed votaries, while hares joyously pound exilir in a mortar (below). The magical fox, hare, frog, crow, and humans attend her in a tomb tile at Xinfan, Sichuan. The tomb art of this province shows the goddess of transcendence seated in majesty on a dragon and tiger throne. [Liu, 40-3] This magical pair goes back to the Banpo neolithic, circa 5000 BCE, where they flank a burial at Xishuipo,  Henan. [Rawson, 244] Tiger and dragon represented yin and yang before the familiar Tai Ji symbol came into use during the middle ages.

goddess worshipped with fronds by animal spirit biengs
Tomb relief from Suide, Shaanxi

The Western Grandmother presides at the summit of the intricate bronze “divine trees” that are unique to Sichuan. Their stylized tiers of branches represent the multiple shamanic planes of the world mountain. The ceramic bases for the trees also show people ascending Kunlun with its caverns. [Wu, 81-91] “Universal mountain” censers (boshanlu) also depict the sacred peak with swirling clouds, magical animals and immortals. [Little, 148]

Xi Wangmu often appears on circular bronze mirrors whose backs are filled with concentric panels swirling with cloud patterns and thunder signs. She is flanked by the tiger and dragon, or the elixir-preparing rabbit, or sits opposite the Eastern King Sire, amidst mountains, meanders, “magic squares and compass rings inscribed with the signs of time.” [Schipper 1993: 172] Some mirrors are divided into three planes, with a looped motif at the base symbolizing the world tree. At the top a pillar rests on a tortoise—a motif recalling the mythical Tortoise Mountain of Xi Wangmu. [Wu, 87]

Han dynasty people placed bronze mirrors in burials as blessings for the dead and the living, inscribed with requests for longevity, prosperity, progeny, protection, and immortality. Taoists also used these mystic mirrors in ritual and meditation and transmissions of  potency. One mirror depicting Xi Wangmu bears a poem on the transcendents:

When thirsty, they drink from the jade spring; when hungry, they eat jujubes. They go back and forth to the divine mountains, collecting mushrooms and grasses. Their longevity is superior to that of metal or stone. The Queen Mother of the West. [Cahill, 28-9]

The Goddess in popular movements
The Han Shu and other ancient histories indicate that the common people saw Xi Wangmu as a savior, protector, and healer in a time of severe drought and political disorder. A popular movement devoted to the goddess arose and spread rapidly. It reached its height in 3 BCE, as described as the Monograph on Strange Phenomena: “It happened that people were disturbed and running around, passing a stalk of grain or flax from one to another, and calling it ‘the tally for transmitting the edict.’” [Lulo, 278]

The common people marched westward through various provinces, toward the Han capital. Many were barefoot and wild-haired (like their untamed goddess). People shouted and drummed and carried torches to the rooftops. Some crossed barrier gates and climbed over city walls by night, others rode swift carriages in relays “to pass on the message.” They gathered in village lanes and fields to make offerings. “They sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of the West.” [Lullo, 278-9]

People passed around written talismans believed to protect from disease and death. Some played games of chance associated with the immortals. [Cahill, 21-3] There were torches, drums, shouting. Farming and normal routines broke down. This goddess movement alarmed the gentry, and the Confucian historian presented it in a negative light. He warned the danger of rising yin: females and the peasantry stepping outside their place. The people were moving west—opposite the direction of the great rivers—“which is like revolting against the court.” The writer tried to stir alarm with a story about a girl carrying a bow who entered the capital and walked through the inner palaces. Then he drew a connection between white-haired Xi Wangmu and the dowager queen Fu who controlled the court, accusing these old females of “weak reason.” His entire account aimed to overthrow the faction in power at court. [Lullo, 279-80]

Change was in the air. Around the same time, the Taiping Jing (Scripture of Great Peace) described “a world where all would be equal.” As Kristofer Schipper observes, “a similar hope drove the masses in search of the great mother goddess.” [Schipper: 2000, 40] Their movement was put down within the year, but the dynasty fell soon afterward.

Yet veneration of the goddess crossed class lines, reaching to the most elite levels of society, as it had since Shang times. Imperial authorities of the later Han dynasty set up altars to the goddess. But courtly ceremonies differed from rural festivals, and religious interpretations were contested. Unfortunately, the Hanshu is the only written account of folk religion, from a hostile Confucian perspective. [Cahill, 24; Lullo, 277-81] The literati did not value peasant religion, so it was not recorded: “what is certain is that the religion of the common people, with its worship of holy mountains and streams, as well as the great female deities, was systematically left out.” [Schipper: 2000, 34]

Patriarchal revisions
From the Han dynasty forward, the image of Xi Wangmu underwent marked changes. [Lullo, 259] Courtly writers tried to tame and civilize the shamanic goddess. Her wild hair and tiger features receded, and were replaced by a lady in aristocratic robes, jeweled headdresses, and courtly ways. Her mythology also shifted as new Taoist schools arose. She remains the main goddess in the oldest Taoist encyclopedia (Wu Shang Bi Yao). But some authors begin to subordinate her to great men: the goddess offers “tribute” to emperor Yu, or attends the court of Lao Zi. [Cahill, 34, 45, 121-2] They displace her with new Celestial Kings, Imperial Lords, and heavenly bureaucracies—but never entirely.

In the later Han period, the spirit-trees of Sichuan show Xi Wangmu at the crest, with Buddha meditating under her, in a still-Taoist context. [Little, 154-5; Wu, 89] By the Six Dynasties, several paintings in the Dun Huang caves show the goddess flying through the heavens to worship the Buddha. [Cahill, 42] (In time, Taoism and Buddhism found an equilibrium in China, and mixed so that borders between the two eroded.) But cultural shifts never succeeded in subjugating the goddess.

She held her ground in the Tang dynasty, when Shang Qing Taoism became the official religion. She was considered its highest deity, and royals built private shrines to her. Her sheng headdress disappears, and is replaced by a nine-star crown. Poets named her the “Divine Mother,” others affectionately called her Amah, “Nanny.” But some literati demote the goddess to human status, making her fall in love with mortals, mooning over them and despairing at their absence. In a late 8th century poem she becomes “uncertain and hesitant” as she visits the emperor Han Wudi. [Cahill, 82-3; 58-69; 159]

Others portrayed her as young and seductive. [Lullo, 276] Worse, a few misogynists disparaged the goddess. The fourth century Yü Fang Bi Jue complained about her husbandless state and invented sexual slurs. It claimed that she achieved longevity by sexually vampirizing innumerable men and even preying upon boys to build up her yin essence. But the vigor of folk tradition overcame such revisionist slurs—with an important exception.

The ancient, shamanic shapeshifter side of Xi Wangmu, and her crone aspect, were pushed aside. Chinese folklore is full of tiger-women: Old Granny Autumn Tiger, Old Tiger Auntie (or Mother), Autumn Barbarian Auntie. They retain shamanic attributes, but in modern accounts they are demonized (and slain) as devouring witches. Two vulnerable groups, old women and indigenous people, become targets. [ter Harrm, 55-76] Yet the association of Tiger and Autumn and Granny goes back to ancient attributes of Xi Wangmu that are originally divine.

In another shift, the Han elite invented a husband for the Western Queen Mother: the Eastern King Sire (Dong Wang Gong). As Susan Lullo observes, there is “no evidence in Han literature that the King Father ever existed in myth.” (There was a god of Tai Shan, the sacred mountain of the East, but he never seems to be coupled with Xi Wangmu.) The new husband was added to the eastern wall of tombs, opposite the Western Mother, for “pictorial balance”—but also to domesticate the unpartnered goddess. [Lullo, 273-4, 261]

The attempt to marry the goddess did not find favor in popular tradition. Two thousand years later after the Shang inscription to the Eastern and Western Mothers, folk religion continued to pair Xi Wangmu with a goddess of the East. Often it was Ma Gu or Ma Zi, goddess of the Eastern Sea, whose paradise island of Penglai was equivalent to Kunlun. Ma Zi is another eternal being who oversees vast cycles of time, as the Eastern Sea gives way to mulberry fields, and then back to ocean again. Some sources say that Xi Wangmu traveled to this blessed Eastern Isle. [Cahill, 118; 62; 77] These goddesses also share a title; like Wangmu, the name Ma Zi means “maternal ancestor, grandmother.” [Schipper, 166; Stevens, 137]

Another Eastern partner of the goddess was Bixia Yüanjün, Sovereign of the Dawn Clouds. She was the daughter of the god of Mt. Tai, and her sanctuary stood on its summit. Bixia Yuanjün oversaw birth as her counterpart Xi Wangmu governed death and immortality. [Little, 278] A major shrine to Xi Wangmu stood along the path up this mountain. [Stevens, 53] The great poet Li Bo referred to “the Queen Mother’s Turquoise Pond” from which pilgrims drank while ascending Mount Tai. Stone inscriptions describe a rite of “tossing the dragons and tallies” in which monks threw bronze dragons and prayers for the emperor’s longevity into the waters of the goddess. [Cahill, 1-2, 59]

Taoist mysticism
From very ancient times the Grandmother of the West was associated with the tiger, the element metal, autumn, and the color white. These associations were part of the Chinese Concordance, which assigned to each direction (including the center) an animal, element, organ, emotion, color, sound, and season. Also known as Five Element or Five Phases, this concordance is the basis of Chinese medicine, astrology, and geomancy (feng shui).

Xi Wangmu is called Jin Mu Yüan Jün: Metal Mother, Primordial Ruler. [Cahill, 68] She is the great female principle, Tai Yin, which is also the name of the Lung meridian in Chinese medicine. It is linked to autumn, death, and grief. The goddess governs the realm of the dead, but is simultaneously the font of vital energy and bliss. A mural at Yongle Temple in Shanxi shows her with a halo, crowned with a phoenix and the Kun trigram that announces her as the Great Yin. Opposite her is a painting of the Empress of Earth. [Little, 276; 281]

The Book of the Center says that Xi Wangmu is present in the right eye. “Her family name is Great Yin, her personal name, Jade Maiden of Obscure Brilliance.” [Schipper, 1993: 105] The Shang Jing Lao Ze Zhong Jing accords on these points and instructs adepts how to manifest celestial beings within their bodies. It names her “So-of-itself,” “Ruling Thought,” and “Mysterious Radiance.” [Cahill, 35]

In Taoist mysticism the human body is the microcosm that reflects the terrestrial and celestial macrocosm, and these themes are interwoven in traditions about the goddess. Kunlun is present in the body as an inverted mountain in the lower abdomen, at the center of the Ocean of Energies (Qi Hai). The navel is the hollow summit of the mountain, through which the depths of that ocean can be reached. This is the Cinnabar Field (lower Dan Tian), the “root of the human being.” [Schipper 1993: 106-7]

On the celestial level, the goddess also manifests her power through the Dipper Stars, a major focus of Taoist mysticism. [Schipper, 70. He notes that Ma Zi was also seen “as an emanation of one of the stars in the Big Dipper.” (43)] A Shang Qing text dating around 500 says that Xi Wangmu governs the nine-layered Kunlun and the Northern Dipper. The Shih Zhou Zhi also connects Kunlun mountain “where Xi Wang Mu reigns” to a double star in the Big Dipper, known as the Dark Mechanism. The Dipper’s handle, called the Jade Crossbar of the Five Constants, “governs the internal structure of the nine heavens and regulates yin and yang.” [Cahill, 35-8]

Taoist texts repeatedly associate Xi Wangmu with nine planes, a nine-leveled mountain, pillar, or jade palace. She is worshipped with nine-fold lamps. She governs the Nine Numina—which are the original ultimate powers in Shang Qing parlance. The goddess herself is called Nine Radiance, and Queen Mother of the Nine Heavens. [Cahill, 68-9, 126]

Around the year 500, Tao Hung Jing systematized Taoist deities into two separate hierarchies, male and female, with Xi Wangmu ranked as the highest goddess. He gave her a lasting title: The Ninefold Numinous Grand and Realized Primal Ruler of the Purple Tenuity from the White Jade Tortoise Terrace. Other sources, such as the poet Du Fu, describe her as descending to the human realm enveloped in purple vapors. [Cahill, 33; 24; 168]

Teacher of Sages
Taoists recognized the ancient great goddess as a divine teacher and initiator of mystic seekers, and in many cases as the ultimate origin of their teachings and practices. She governs the Taoist arts of self-transformation known as internal alchemy, including meditation, breath and movement practices, medicines and elixirs. Books say that the legendary shamanic emperors Shun and Yü studied with Xi Wangmu. They also credit her as the source of wisdom that the Yellow Emperor learned from the female transcendents Xüan Nü and Su Nü. Over time the goddess comes to be portrayed as a master of Taoist scriptures, with a library of the greatest books on Kunlun. [Cahill, 14-15; 44; 34]

Legend said that the Zhou dynasty king Mu (circa 1000 bce) travelled to Kunlun in search of the Western Mother. Many ancient sources elaborated on their meeting beside the Turquoise Pond. The emperor Han Wudi was granted a similar audience in 110 BCE. The Monograph on Broad Phenomena says that the goddess sent a white deer to inform him of her advent, and he prepared a curtained shrine for her. She arrived on the festival of Double Sevens, riding on a chariot of purple clouds. She sat facing east, clothed in seven layers of blue clouds. Three big blue birds and other magical servitors set up the ninefold tenuity lamp. The goddess gave five peaches to the emperor. He wanted to save the seeds for planting, but she laughed and said that they would not bear fruit for 3000 years. [Cahill, 48-55]

In a later account, the cloud carriage of the goddess is drawn by nine-colored chimeric chilin. She wears a sword, a cord of knotted flying clouds, and “the crown of the Grand Realized Ones with hanging beaded strings of daybreak.” She granted the emperor a long instruction on how to attain the Tao—which he failed to follow. Instead of nourishing essence, preserving breath, and keeping the body whole, he lost himself in carousing and indulgences. [Cahill, 81, 149-153]

Literature focuses on her meetings with emperors, but a deep and broad tradition casts Xi Wangmu as the guardian of women and girls. They worshipped her at the birth of daughters, and she protected brides. [Stevens, 53] Celebrations of women’s fiftieth birthday also honored the goddess. Women who stood outside the patriarchal family system were regarded as her special protegees, whether they earned their own way as singers, dancers, prostitutes, or became nuns, hermits, or sages who attained the Tao. [Cahill, 70]

Though men greatly outnumber women as named and remembered Taoist masters, in practice women acted as teachers and libationers. Female instruction was built in to a greater degree than any “major” religion; tradition demanded that initiation be done by a person of the opposite sex, and the highest degree of initiation “could only be obtained by a man and a woman together.” [Schipper 1993: 58, 128-9]

Many accounts show Xi Wangmu as the ultimate source of teachings transmitted by female sages and transcendents to mortal men. The Zhen Gao scroll lays out a complete spiritual matrilineage that begins with Xi Wangmu and enumerates clans and religious communities in the female line. [Cahill, 34] The female immortal Wei hua-cun was said to have transmitted teachings to the shaman Yang Xi. Shang Qing Taoism arose from her revelations, but it was understood that they were inspired by the Spirit Mother of the West. [Schipper 2000: 44; Cahill, 155] Shang Qing tradition also holds that the female transcendents Xuan Nü (the Dark Woman) and Su Nü (Natural Woman) had taught the Yellow Emperor.

Qi Xi, or the Night of Sevens
Over the centuries the Double Sevens festival drifted away from Xi Wang Mu, and toward the Weaver Girl. This night was the one time in the year that she was allowed to meet Cowherd Boy. An ancient legend says that the god of heaven separated the lovers, or in some versions, Xi Wangmu herself. Angered that the girl was neglecting her loom, she made her return to the heavens. When Cowherd followed, the goddess drew her hairpin across the sky, creating the celestial river of the Milky Way to separate the lovers. (They were the stars Vega and Aquila.) Later, she helped them to reunite by sending ten thousand magpies to create a bridge. So the holiday is sometimes called the Magpie festival.

In this tomb art from Guyuan in Ningxia, it is Xi Wangmu and Dong Wanggong who are separated by the Milky Way, not the Weaver Girl and Cowherd, showing that there were a range of stories around these themes.

In other versions, Weaver Girl is a fairy whose work is to weave colorful clouds in the sky. The cowherd surprises her and her six fairy sisters swimming in a lake. He steals Weaver Girl’s clothes (or all of them) and she is forced to marry him. This angers the goddess of heaven, who commands her to return to heaven.

Xi Wangmu’s connection to weaving has faded, just as her sheng headdress was dropped from Taoist iconography. Now it is Weaving Maid who oversees women’s fabric arts, silk cultivation, and needlework. She rules “the fecund female world of seedy melons and fruits” and “the gathering and storing of precious things.” Yet this too connects her with ancient goddess, whose “numinous melon produces abundantly” every four eons. [Cahill, 77]

The drift of mythic themes pops up in various places. The magpies who form the reunion bridge are sacred to Xi Wangmu. The Milky Way separates not the ill-starred lovers, but the Western Mother and the Eastern King, on a painted coffin in Ningxia. [Liu, fig. 43] Xi Wangmu was traditionally the controller of the North Dipper, but in the famous mystic diagram from Baiyuan Guan, Cowherd is holding the constellation. A Double Sevens song in the Yangzi region invokes the Eastern goddess for transcendent powers: “On this night we should beg for the techniques of immortality, clawing away some of Ma Gu’s medicine to cure the Lady in the Moon.” [Mann, 173

As before, the festival “marked the beginning of autumn,” when ghosts are propitiated and women begin to sew winter clothes. On this day they wash their hair with herbal infusions, spread out offerings of melon and fruit seeds, and atttempt to thread needles by moonlight: the “test for skill.” [Mann, 170, 173] From this custom the festival came to be called the Night of Skills, or Pleading for Skills.

The holiday was “extremely popular among unmarried girls” in the Canton Delta, the year’s best festival. In this region of delayed marriage and sworn spinsters, it is called the Festival of Seven Sisters. Its story does not focus on the lovers, but on the Weaving Maid and her sisters. (Here it is the sisters who became furious at the Weaver Girl’s marriage, and who only permitted her to cross over to her husband once a year.) Women propitiate the Seven Sisters “with elaborate displays of their needle and handicraft skills.” They create altars with candles, incense, flowers, fruits, and finely decorated miniature clothing, shoes, and furniture, all in sevens. The celebration culminates with a “wish-fulfilment banquet.” [Stockard, 42-4]

By the late Ming period, the mixture of Buddhism and Taoism gave rise to a new goddess with attributes of Xi Wangmu and Guanyin: Wusheng Laomu. This Venerable Eternal Mother “created the world in the beginning of time.” She helps and teaches her children—who go to her western paradise at death. [Despeux, 42]

The visionary Tanyangzi was from childhood devoted to Guanyin and Amitabha. Born in 1558 as Wang Taozhen, she meditated and was reluctant to marry. Her parents betrothed her but the fiance died soon after, and the maiden embraced the status of widow, making it possible to remain unwed. She had visions of an unimaginably beautiful “Supreme Perfected.” From this “great goddess,” Tanyangzi received a transmission of a smoky mystic character which she breathed in and absorbed into her body. This initiation enabled her to go without eating and resist sexuality and physicality. At the age of nineteen, Tanyangzi was said to have ascended to Kunlun, where she met Xi Wangmu and received immortality. Yet she died a few months later. [Despeux, 45] Here the Taoist and Buddhist themes are mixed in somewhat contradictory ways! Taoists did not reject sexuality, and their intepretation of immortality did not imply leaving the body behind

Women’s embroidery kept the Western Spirit Mother alive. Their favorite scene seems to have been the goddess flying on a phoenix toward her mountaintop garden, with the Jade Maidens assembled to welcome her return and the peaches of immortality ripening beside the Turquoise Pond.

Left: modern statue of Xi Wang Mu holding a peach of immortality



2 responses to “The Chinese Imperial Ceramic Artwork Found In Indonesia ( Continiu )

  1. Hello
    Before buying Bronze Chinese god of wealth, Tsai Shen Yeh, I would like to know where to place it in the house, which direction? back to the front door or facing the front door. I read so many false things I like to ask you.
    With thanks
    Brigitte from France.

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