This exhibition features a large and marvelously detailed Chinese pantheon painting featuring a range of Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and popular Chinese deities. The religious traditions to which these gods belong have coexisted in China for well over one-thousand years. While the discrete religious and philosophical traditions maintained their integrity, over time deities, and sometimes even historical figures, were co-opted by popular religions, from which syncretic imagery of pantheon paintings and prints emerged.
Depictions of pantheons are traditionally displayed in Chinese homes on New Year’s Day when, popular belief holds, chief gods visit earth for an annual inspection at the close of the lunar year. Images of the deities were displayed in the courtyards of family homes together with offerings on altars in anticipation of the superhuman arrival. The gods included in these images have varied over the course of time, and even from town to town and family to family. This work dates to the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, when pantheon images flourished in mainland China.
The importance of the time that has passed over the course of the year and the divine reckoning that follows is emphasized in this painting. Three of the Four Daoist Meritorious Officers who guard time by day, month, year, and season (sizhi gongcao) hold their reports in respectful offering to major deities. The Meritorious Officer who guards the seasons, for example, kneels before the Daoist Jade Emperor at the center of the heavens and offers his report, followed by his colleague, the Officer who guards the days, on horseback. At the bottom of the painting, the one who guards the months, on horseback, offers his report to the God who Rids Dwellers of Evil Spirits as he begins his rounds, and the fourth, the one who guards the year, gallops toward the City God with his account.
Heaven, Earth, and Water—the three realms (sanjie) that are overseen by the Three Great Emperor-officials of Daoism who appear at the center right of the painting—provide the settings for the assembly of gods. The deities appear in a complex, hierarchical bureaucracy consistent with a traditional Chinese world view. Major celestial deities appear at the top and center, and gods dealing with more earthly matters at the lower part of the composition. The artist rendered the landscape, figures, and architecture in the fine line or ink outline (baimiao) technique. He carefully defined the architecture with ruled lines (jiehua). Finally the artist, or the artist and his assistants, began to apply color, although it appears this process was never completed. Why a painting of this quality might have been left incomplete remains open to speculation.
This painting includes eighty-two labels identifying more than half the figures depicted. Through this display and ongoing research into China’s rich and complex religious traditions, we are able to learn more about the relationship between art and belief, and how traditions are adapted and change within China’s diverse population.
This exhibition is part of Asia Society Museum’s ongoing In Focus series, which invites viewers to take an in-depth look at a single, significant work of art.
This assembly of gods underscores the complexity of Chinese religion, which as it shows can be much more nuanced than the categories Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian might suggest. Popular belief changed and adapted across time and space. The painting is remarkable for the skill with which the artist has captured the images of gods, for the written identification of the deities, and for the great number of deities illustrated. The painting includes eighty-two labels identifying nearly half the deities depicted. Numbers have been superimposed on the reproduction of the painting inside this brochure to aid in identifying the labeled deities as follows.
The uppermost part of the heavenly realm in the pantheon painting features Buddhist deities. Guardians and merciful protectors of people, appear in the upper left corner and the upper right corner of the painting:
1. Shakyamuni Buddha (Sajiamouni fo, 釋迦牟尼佛) is the historical Buddha, an Indian prince who at the age of twenty-nine renounced his family and kingdom to seek enlightenment, which he is said to have attained late in the fifth century BCE. He is located at the top center with an elaborate umbrella suspended over him.
2. Bodhisattva Guanyin (Guanyin pusa, 觀世音菩薩) is the bodhisattva of mercy. As with all bodhisattvas, Guanyin postponed reaching nirvana, or enlightenment, for the sake of saving others. The crown and jewels identify this deity as a bodhisattva rather than a buddha.
3. The Four Vajras (Sida jingang, 四大金剛) represent the tantric Buddhist concepts of body, speech, mind, and wisdom. Here each wields a sword and three are depicted as fierce deities with bulging eyes and grotesque bodies.
4. Peacock King (Kongquemingwang fo, 孔雀明王佛), one of the so-called maharaja bodhisattvas who rides on a peacock, is the golden figure next to Manjushri Bodhisattva.
5. Manjushri Bodhisattva (Wenshu pusa, 文殊菩薩), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, holds a sword to cut away delusion and is depicted as a small golden figure to Shakyamuni’s left.
6. Welcoming Buddha (Jieyin fo, 接引佛) is the small golden figure to Shakyamuni’s right.
7. Lord Lao (Lao Jun, 老君) is the golden figure to the left of Welcoming Buddha. Lord Lao is another name for Laozi, who originated as the fifth-century BCE historical figure popularly credited with founding the Daoist philosophy. Here he appears in what believers say is his original form, the supreme celestial being of Daoist worship.
8. Each of the Four Great Heavenly Kings (Sida tianwang, 四大天王) holds his symbolic item—from left to right—a sword, the musical stringed instrument known as a pipa, an umbrella, and a serpent. Together, these four deva kings of the four quarters are often found guarding the sacred space of Buddhist temples.
9. Bodhisattva of Great Compassion (Dabei pusa, 大悲菩薩) is often regarded as the same deity as Guanyin. Dabei Pusa’s numerous arms represent almighty power and the ability to know everything and reach everyone.
10. Skanda (Weitou pusa, 韋陀菩薩) is a guardian bodhisattva also known as Weitou (韋馱). He is seen here in one of his iconic positions, resting his weapon horizontally across his arms with his palms together in front of him.
11. Buddha of Exalted Virtue (Chongde fo, 崇德佛) is seated below Shakyamuni Buddha to his left.
12. Tathagata (Rulai fo, 如来佛) is seated below Shakyamuni Buddha to his right. This is the form of the historical Buddha when he was on earth and in the midst of his transformation into the Buddha.
13. Maitreya the Buddha of the Future (Miqin fo, 彌勤佛) the Buddha of the Future, is seated below the Buddha of Exalted Virtue.
14. Zhangjia Buddha (Zhangjia fo, 章迦佛), seated next to the Tathagata and flanked by monks wearing the hats of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug School, is most likely a Rinpoche, or Spiritual Leader, of the Gelug School.
15. Maitreya Buddha (Mile fo, 彌勒佛), also called the Laughing Buddha (Xiao fo, 笑佛) or Fat Buddha (Pang fo, 胖佛), is a localized folkloric Maitreya known for his optimism and contentment. He is also a bringer of good fortune and luck.
16. Ksitigarbha (Dizang pusa, 地藏菩薩) is the bodhisattva who vowed to see all hells emptied before he entered the state of nirvana, or enlightenment. Like Guanyin and Dabei Bodhisattva, his eyes are cast downward to represent his compassionate nature.
The deities labeled in this detail of the upper central part of the painting include the highest deities in both Confucian and Daoist traditions.
17. The Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, 玉皇大帝), the highest ruler in the Daoist belief system who governs all deities, is seated at the center. He is often depicted as an emperor seated on a throne, wearing robes and a crown from the Han tradition. Here, a luminous halo shines behind him and he is flanked by two young attendants.
To the right and left of the Jade Emperor are four Daoist mythological creatures who guard the earth.
18. The Vermilion Bird (Zhu que, 朱 雀), who guards the southern corner of earth and represents the summer season. Here, the bird is depicted in human form, but the third eye on his forehead indicates a sense of otherworldliness.
19. The Black Tortoise (Xuan wu, 玄 武), who guards the northern corner of earth and represents the winter season. Here, he is in human form, but the third eye on his forehead indicates otherworldliness.
20. The Blue/Green Dragon (Qing long, 青 龍), who guards the eastern corner of earth and represents the spring season. Here, the dragon is represented as a human with extraordinary red hair.
21. The White Tiger (Bai hu, 白 虎), who guards the western corner of earth and represents the autumn season. He is depicted in human form, but has a feline nose.
Seated below this group are three important Confucian figures.
22. Confucius (Kongzi, 孔子), the major Chinese philosopher who contributed to the formation of Confucianism. His ideas on the matters of social ethics, family relationships, and governmental responsibilities became major foundations of Chinese culture. Here, he wears an honorable mortar-board-shaped headdress and layers of robes, giving him a sense of volume and importance.
23. Yan Hui (顏回), one of Confucius’s most respected disciples and often worshiped in Confucian temples along with Confucius. Here, he is depicted with a beard and an honorable mortar-board-shaped headdress, looking composed and wise.
24. Zilu (子路), one of Confucius’s eldest disciples and known for his frank and straightforward personality, as well as his faithfulness to his teacher. His clean-shaven face makes him look like a young disciple.
25. The Divine Official (Ling guan, 靈官) a Daoist guardian deity. He appears in this painting to specifically represent the Fire Divine Daoist Official (Wang Linguan, 王靈官), who is associated with fire and often depicted with red hair and a weapon in hand.
26. Great Emperor Perfected Martial (Zhenwu dadi, 真武大帝) is a Daoist deity with a national cult and stands close to the Jade Emperor in this painting. The Jade Emperor sent him down to earth to subdue an army of demon-kings ravaging the universe.
27. The Goddess of Mount Tai (Taishan shengmu, 泰山聖母), also known as Bixia yuanjun (碧霞元君), is a protector of women and children. Riding a colorful phoenix, she is depicted here as a beautiful young woman.
The deities in the upper left of the painting are the Five Sacred Peaks in China. They are powerful cosmic gods in charge of various realms and fields.
28. Southern Sacred Mountain (Nanyue tianqi, 南嶽天齊) governs creatures with scales and shells that live in the water.
29. Northern Sacred Mountain (Beiyue tianqi, 北嶽天齊) governs all rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans in the world, and also looks after all walking animals, including reptiles and insects.
30. Eastern Sacred Mountain (Dongyue tianqi, 東嶽天齊) governs the underworld and has the ability to determine life and death, and to call upon spirits. The most powerful of the Five Sacred Peaks, he is depicted here in a calm upright position to elicit reverence.
31. Western Sacred Mountain (Xiyue tianqi, 西嶽天齊) governs all types of metals as well as birds.
32. Central Sacred Mountain (Zhongyue tianqi, 中嶽天齊) governs swamps, river valleys, canals, and forests. He stands in profile with his back toward the audience and looks gravely at the Eastern Sacred Mountain.
Daoist deities in charge of various tasks appear in both the central right-hand side and the central left-hand side of the painting.
33. Heaven-aiding Thearch (Xietian dadi, 協天大帝), also named Guan Yu (關羽), is a third-century warrior who appears as a protagonist in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi). He came to be worshiped as a Daoist god of wealth. Sitting behind a desk and in front of a painted screen, he is depicted here as an important bureaucratic official.
34. Red Robe (Zhuyi, 朱衣) is a Daoist god who is an assistant to the God of Literature. As the distributor of examination outcomes, he is accompanied by two young attendants who carry the test results. Students also venerate Red Robe for support during examinations.
35. The God of Literature (Wenchang dijun, 文昌帝君) governs all literary matters. He is a popular deity and worshiped in temples across China. Dressed in a scholar’s official robe, he wears a composed expression and holds a scroll in front of him. To his right is his companion deity Kuixing.
36. Largest Star in the Big Dipper Constellation (Kuixing, 奎星) is a stellar spirit and the companion deity to the Daoist God of Literature. He governs the matter of examinations. Holding a brush and standing on a dragon, this deity is commonly worshiped by students undergoing examinations.
37. Dark Altar (Xuantan, 玄壇), a Daoist guardian figure who is believed to be the mythical figure Zhao Gongming (趙公明). Zhao Gongming is venerated as both the God of Prosperity (Cai shen, 財神) and the God of Pestilence (Wen shen, 瘟神). He holds a swirl-like sword up in the air, looking fierce as he confronts a tiger.
38. The Meritorious Officer who Guards the Hours (Shi zhigongcao, 時職功曹) keeps a record of the labor of all humanity, specifically in the measurement of hours. He used to be found depicted in temples throughout China. With his back to the viewer, he kneels in front of The Jade Emperor and presents him with his official report.
39. The Meritorious Officer who Guards the Days (Ri zhigongcao, 日值功曹) keeps a record of all the activities of humanity in the measurement of days, and reports it to his superiors. In the pre-modern period he was found in temples throughout China. Riding on a horse, he follows immediately behind The Meritorious Officer Who Guards the Hours.
40. Erlang God (Erlang shen, 二郎神) a Daoist drain god that prevents flooding and drought, oversees water irrigation and the harvest. Attended by two servants, he stands proudly as he examines the land below him.
The deities labeled in the central right-hand side of the painting include the Three Great Emperor-officials of Daoism wearing mortar-board headgear with strings of dangling pearls.
41. The Earthly Official (Di guan, 地官), who is in charge of the Five Emperors of the Five Sacred Mountains and of the Earthly Immortals of all places. On the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, he is believed to come to the human world, inspect the sins of men, and absolve them.
42. The Heavenly Official (Tian guan, 天官), who oversees the emperors of all the heavens. On the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, he visits the human world to inspect and judge the sins and blessings of men. Like the other Great Emperor-officials he holds an audience tablet (hu, 笏) before his chest.
43. The Water Official (Shui guan, 水官), who is in charge of the immortals residing in water. On the fifteenth day of the tenth month of the lunar calendar, he descends to the human world to inspect sins and good fortune, and eliminates the misfortunes of men. Here he has turned to face the Jade Emperor.
44. Sangharama (Qielan fo, 茄藍佛 also written as 伽藍佛) is a Buddhist guardian deity. Wearing a blue robe with golden embroidery, he smiles good-humoredly as one of his attendants in red dances comically.
Three celestial functionaries appear under the peach tree depicted below the Three Great Emperor-officials.
45. The Stellar God of Prosperity (Luxing, 禄星), the sixth star of the Wenchang cluster (Ursa Majoris), is believed to dictate a person’s prosperity, status, and influence, including success in the imperial examinations. He is shown here holding a baby in his arms, a reference to one of the other names he is known by: Immortal Zhang Presenting a Baby (Songzi zhang xian, 送子張仙).
46. The Stellar God of Good Fortune (Fuxing, 福星) the star of the South Pole (Canopus), wears red robes, has a long beard, and holds in his left hand a scepter with a cloud-shaped decorative element (ruyi) at the top. He is worshiped to bring prosperity and money.
47. The Stellar God of Immortality (Shouxing, 壽星), the planet Jupiter, is identifiable by his elderly characteristics, including a white beard, elongated bald head, and the peach-wood stick he holds. He is venerated to bring long life.
To the left of these Stellar Gods, two deities stand aboard an elegant boat floating on waves.
48. The Mother of Dragons (Longmu, 龍母), who as a human woman is said to have raised five infant dragons with whom she formed a strong filial bond.
49. White Dragon (Bai long, 白龍), a dragon king, who is a Daoist deity believed to be Lord of the Yellow River and controls flooding.
50. Medicine King (Yao wang, 藥王), a Daoist deity known for his invention of medicines and worshiped for his blessing of good health. Clad in an exuberantly red robe, he stands on a tiger-like animal and stretches his arms and legs dynamically in all directions.
51. Old Grandfather Zhao (Laozhao ye, 老趙爺) is an attendant of the Child Bestowing Goddess. Wearing robes in plain colors and a simple headdress, he holds two children in a basket-like container.
52. Child Bestowing Nanny (Songzi huamu, 送子花姆) is a fertility goddess who oversees matters of childbirth and childrearing. Standing underneath a roof and holding a child in arms, she wears an elegant hair piece and a pair of delicate earrings.
53. Bean God (Dou shen, 豆神) is located at the upper right and most likely was worshiped for his protection of the bean crop.
54. God of Pestilence (Wen shen, 瘟神), with flaming-red hair and beard, is positioned next to the Bean God.
55. The Five Commissioners of Pestilence (Wuwen shizhi, 五瘟使者) stand to the left of the God of Pestilence. One has the head of a tiger and holds a banner, and the others have the heads of an ox, cock, horse, and goat, and each holds a tablet (hu) before his breast as Chinese officials did at court when addressing the emperor.
56. The Pagoda-bearing Heavenly King (Tuota tianwang, 托塔天王), who was introduced to China as the Buddhist Guardian of the North, is dressed in purple and holds both a pagoda and a sword.
57. The Elderly God of the Year (Zhenniantaisui, 值年太歲), stands next to the Pagoda-bearing Heavenly King, dressed as an immortal, and appears to move forward as if blind to what is before him. Projecting from his eye sockets are arms with an eye in each hand’s palm.
58. The Immortal Liu (Liu daxian, 柳大仙) is Chunyanglüzu’s disciple and is depicted at his side. The gourds he holds and wears around his waist are symbols of immortality.
59. The Immortal Chunyanglüzu (Chunyanglüzu, 純陽呂祖) the scholarly figure seated next to a table, is one of the Eight Immortals venerated by Daoists and is considered by some to be the leader of this group. The sword he carries on his back is said to dispel evil. He originated as a ninth-century scholar and poet prior to being regarded as a deity.
60. The Immortal Child of Prosperity (Zhaocai tongzi, 招財童子), who brings affluence and good fortune. He is often depicted as a child but also occasionally portrayed as a teenager, as here.
61. The Immortal Official of Profitability (Lishi xianguan, 利市仙官), the bringer of wealth, prosperity, and fortune, is one of the Gods of the Five Paths to Wealth. Popular among devotees, he is sometimes worshiped alone without the other four deities.
62. Gods of the Five Paths to Wealth (Wulu caishen, 五路財神) are the chief officials of the divine Ministry of Wealth. From the eighteenth century on, they were the primary focus of those worshiping the God of Wealth (Wutong shen, 五通神) in China’s prosperous Jiangnan region.
63. Cao Shen (曹參), seated and wearing red, was the second chancellor of the Western Han dynasty. Originally a historical figure from the second century BCE, he played an important role in the founding of the Han dynasty and is said to have used Daoist techniques in his governing style.
64. Xiao He (蕭何), seated next to Cao Shen, is a second-century BCE Chinese statesman who served Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, during the insurrection against the Qin dynasty. He is also a significant figure for Daoists because he assembled Daoist scholars in the region of Qi to teach him how to carry out benevolent governance.
In the lower left-hand corner of the painting are deities of Daoism and popular religion who oversee the everyday lives of common people.
65. The Three Reporting Officials (Subao sanci, 速報三司) are the City God’s bureaucratic officials, who govern the military, rites, and the issuing of bureaucratic documents. They are seen here standing in a row, but looking in indifferent directions.
66. Land God (Zhenzhaitudi, 鎮宅土地) is a deity local inhabitants look to for the exorcism of evil spirits and to guard their village, town, or region. Wearing a blue robe, he is depicted as an old man with grey hair and a wrinkled face.
67. God of Joy (Xi shen, 喜神) is an auspicious Daoist deity who often appears at festive events, especially weddings. His smiling eyes and relaxed composure convey a sense of joyfulness unseen in the other gods in this painting.
68. God of Nobility (Gui shen, 貴神) is a god of astrological origin who often appears in Daoist divination practices. Turning his pale clean-shaven face toward the branch that he holds in his hand, he seems to be looking for a sign of divination.
69. Horse King (Ma wang, 馬王), commonly known as Ma linguang (馬靈官), is a Daoist guardian deity that protects horses and cattle. His three bulging round eyes, bright red hair, and six strong arms convey his ferocity.
70. Household God (Ao shen, 奥神), also called Dizhu shen (地主神), is a household protector. He stands close to Hearth God, with whom he works closely to look after a household.
71. Cattle King (Niu wang, 牛王), or Ox God, is a protector of domestic animals. Gesturing forward, he seems to be giving instructions to a nearby boy in red and green holding a small water buffalo.
72. The Veritable Lord God of Fire (Huodi zhenjun, 火帝真君) looks after kilns and workshops that use fire. He wears an exuberantly red robe and has red hair and three crescent-shaped eyes.
73. Hearth God (Zao shen, 竃神) is a guardian who oversees the kitchen and food in a household. In this painting, he looks over his shoulder at the Household God.
The deities labeled in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting include the guardians of homes, villages, cities, and rivers.
74. Duke of the Local Land (Tu gong, 土公), Earth God and guardian of local land for a specific district, town, or village, he often appears with his wife, the Earth Goddess, as he does here. He is commonly depicted as an affable elderly man with a staff in hand.
75. Earth Goddess (Tu mu, 土母), a guardian of local land for a specific district, town, or village, she is commonly depicted as an amiable elderly woman with a staff in hand.
76. City God (Duchenghuang, 都城隍), a Daoist official who serves as a supernatural judge or magistrate in a city. He often wears a stern expression, exhibiting his righteous and just nature as an official.
77. The Meritorious Officer who Guards the Months (Yue zhigongcao, 月值功曹) keeps a record of all activities of humanity in the measurement of months, and gives reports to his superiors. In premodern times he and the three other Daoist Meritorious Officers were widely worshipped and found in temples throughout China. Turning his horse in a three-quarter view, he presents his documents respectfully to the Land God.
78. Mountain God (Shan shen, 山神) is the spirit of the mountain. Wearing a helmet and holding a twisted pole weapon in hand, he is represented here as a warrior.
79. Shen Shu (神荼), the elder of the two brothers Shen Shu and Yu Lu known for their power over evil spirits. The brothers catch harmful ghosts and feed them to tigers. The siblings are pasted on entrance doors as door-gods to ward off evil spirits.
80. Yu Lu (鬱壘), the younger of the two brothers Shen Shu and Yu Lu, who are door gods.
81. The Meritorious Officer who Guards the Years (Nian zhigongcao, 年值功曹), keeps a record of the labor of all humanity, specifically in the measurement of years. He was formerly found in temples throughout China. Rushing into the composition on horseback, he holds up a scroll, most likely his report, delicately above his head.
82. The Lord of the River (Hebo jiangjun, 河伯將軍), a spirit of the river, who is believed to be the water god of the Yellow River. Wearing a helmet and resting a sword in his right arm, he is depicted here as a military official.