Land Granny, the Heavenly Bureaucrat and other tiny deities

In shopping mall filled Hong Kong, districts still exist where altars to gods outnumber coffeehouses. Wandering haphazardly around the New Territories, I’ve randomly stumbled across and photographed many tiny deities. While they added a touch of local color to my explorations, I have only recently become more curious about who they are and what they represent. This week I finally took the time to do some research and discovered that these little god figurines front some fascinating back-stories.

Land Granny and her partner, the ‘Modest Heavenly Bureaucrat’

Looking as warm and caring as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, this pair of tiny gods can often be found around Hong Kong’s villages. I spotted this particular set at an altar beside the Tin Hua Temple in Lam Tsuen.

Land Granny and Tu Di Gong in Lam Tsuen, Hong Kong

Initially, I simply assumed they were symbolic ancestral relatives used in a generic form of ancestor worship. A very silly assumption on my part! With more careful sleuthing, I’ve discovered that they are “Land Granny” (Tu Di Po/Tou Dei Po 土地婆) and “Earth God” (Tu Di Gong/Tou Dei Gung 土地公).

According to Wikipedia, Earth God was historically revered by common people who relied on the land for their livelihoods:

[He was] not all-powerful, but was a modest heavenly bureaucrat to whom individual villagers could turn in times of drought or famine.

So he is a simple celestial administrator; he can’t win wars, but he can make sure your agricultural balance sheet remains in the black. Beloved by many, the Earth God is often simply called “Ye ye” (grandpa).

His partner, Land Grandma, is often viewed as having a similar benevolent temperament, but is sometimes thought to negatively temper Earth God’s potential generosity. The particular representation of her above, however, looks like the archetype of a warm, loving and generous grandma and must represent the former, non-stingy, interpretation.

A Nuanced God of War

In the same area of Hong Kong’s New Territories, I passed by this jumble of roadside gods:
Lam Tsuen, Hong Kong

A partner-less Earth God can be seen on the right, but the scene is dominated by the red skinned “God of War” (Guan Yu/Gwaan Jyu/Kwuan Yu 关羽, 關羽 ). Having visited several temples at least partially dedicated to the “God of War,” I thought of him as a one-dimensional god of aggression. I was wrong again. Guan Yu was a real historical figure whose non-fiction life has morphed into a fictional tale of grandeur via the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” where he stars in such stories as “Guan Yu crosses five passes and slays six generals” and “Guan Yu attends a banquet alone armed with only one blade.”

Symbolically, Guan Yu represents loyalty and righteousness. He is widely worshiped by the Hong Kong police force. Unexpectedly, but because he also represents the “code of brotherhood,” he is also widely revered by Hong Kong’s criminal underworld who respect him from an “honor among thieves” perspective.

Guan Yu, it turns out, is a character much more interesting than a bluntly violent action figure; he is a nuanced symbol of strength with honor.

The Goddess of Mercy and Possibly Air Travel

Near the old police station that now houses the Ping Shan Heritage Trail Visitor’s Centre, I spied a tiny “Goddess of Mercy” (Guan Yin/Gun Jam/Kwuan Yam 观音, 觀音 ) perched on a tree stump:
Tai Shui Wai, Hong Kong

Guan Yin is a very widely worshipped bodhisattva who seems to have become all things to all people. The Goddess of Mercy provides compassion and unconditional love, protects women and children, champions the downtrodden, liberates souls from karmic woe, promotes fertility, aids fishermen, and may even protect air travelers.

The two small children who flank her hint at further interesting tales to be explored. They are two of her acolytes “Dragon Girl” (Long Nü) and “Child of Wealth” (Shan Cai).

An utterly enormous version of Guan Yin is under construction in Tai Po district, but I prefer this modest tree stump representation.


For now, I’ll conclude this random walk around the Chinese pantheon of gods.

Have I gotten something wrong? Please correct me. Do you have another interesting deity-related story to add? Please share it.

I heavily mined Wikipedia for this information. Let me know if you have a good book recommendation on this topic. Here are direct links to the relevant Wikipedia source articles:

Land Granny and Earth God

Guan Yu or God of War

Guan Yin or Goddess or Mercy

7 responses to “Land Granny, the Heavenly Bureaucrat and other tiny deities

  1. Wow, this is so cool! I see these guys/gals around the show but never put too much thought into exactly what they represent or who they are…which is kind of lame of me considering I’m a Religious Studies major, haha. I’m going to use this post as a starting point to learn more stuff 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I’m impressed at your knowledge of these gods, Jen! The other day I went with a gf to an old temple (erected in the 1800s) in Taipei. There were 5 levels of gods – everything from the more traditional Guan Yin and Earth God to God for Getting As on your Finals and God Knows What Else God. We burned incense and kowtowed our way up and down the different levels (there’s a certain path you must follow and you kowtow to the lesser gods first then the big honcho in the middle) and I came home smelling like an incense altar. I like how someone finally breaks down the god levels the way you do!

    • It’s amazing what a small amount of Wikipedia browsing can do to give a superficial veneer of understanding! I still don’t know much, but the interesting stories that I did come across are enough bait to ensure that I’ll look up every little god I encounter in Hong Kong from now on.

  3. Thanks for this educational post, Jen! I always wondered who the little figurines were. Even in the more dense urban areas in HK you sometimes find a cubby hole outside a shop that has the tiny figurines in them. It’s also interesting to compare and contrast these figurines with say the cute white money-cat!

    • I have no idea why I previously assumed they weren’t interesting enough to bother figuring out! They are awesomely cool symbols. I also love that cute, beckoning money cat!

  4. Pingback: Take a Hike | Expat Lingo·

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