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.
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
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:
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: