One of the most important and popular figures in Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor (玉皇) is the supreme ruler of Heaven and the first emperor of China. He is also considered to be an especially important Taoist deity. With all of its specialized roles and social hierarchies, the Jade Emperor’s court parallels the structure of ancient Chinese monarchies. The emperor’s fairness, benevolence, and mercy were traits that real Chinese emperors sought to emulate.
Even today, the Jade Emperor plays a significant role in Chinese life, especially around Chinese New Year. During the New Year, the Jade Emperor is said to judge the character of each individual over the past year and punish or reward them accordingly.
The Jade Emperor’s name consists of the Chinese characters yù (玉), meaning “jade,” and dì (皇), meaning “emperor.” However, the Jade Emperor has many other names and titles as well. His full title, written as yǜ huáng shàng dì ( 玉皇上帝), means the “Pure August Emperor on High,” though this is seldom used. The Jade Emperor is more commonly referred to as tiān gōng (天公), or “heavenly grandfather.”
In art and cinema, the Jade Emperor is usually depicted as a middle-aged man sporting a thin mustache and a long, sagely goatee. He typically appears wearing long, flowing robes and sitting on a royal throne, though he is also sometimes depicted wearing full battle armor and wielding a large sword.
The Jade Emperor is married to the Celestial Queen Mother, Xiwangmu (西王母). The couple are said to have had an enormous amount of children together, and three of their daughters hold important places in Chinese mythology.
Zhu niang-niang is a fertility goddess that helps couples in need of children, and Yen-kuang nian-niang is the protector of the blind who can grant the power of eyesight to those in need. Perhaps their most famous daughter, Zhinü is famous not for her role as a goddess but for her actions: she infamously fell in love with a human and suffered as a result.
In some versions of his origin story, the Jade Emperor came into existence when the universe was created by Pangu (盤古). In most popular myths, he is commonly described as having been a mortal man prior to becoming a god.
The Origin of the Jade Emperor as a Soldier
The Jade Emperor was said to have been a soldier named Zhang Denglai who fought in a bloody civil war during the Zhou Dynasty. In the midst of a particularly vicious battle, Denglai and his entire battalion were wiped out. When Denglai woke up in the afterlife, he found his commander handing out honorary positions in the celestial court to each of the other soldiers.
Gradually, all of the men were awarded positions in the court except for the commander and Denglai. His commander was secretly scheming to save the highest ranking position of Jade Emperor for himself. Just as he was about to declare himself emperor, however, he paused and said “děng lái,” meaning “wait a moment.” In those days, it was customary for high officials and royals to pause before accepting a promotion and reflect on the great responsibilities they would be taking on. Seeing a huge opportunity, Denglai feigned ignorance of this tradition and acted as if he had heard his name. Thus, Denglai stepped forward and accepted the role of the Jade Emperor.
The Origin of the Jade Emperor as a Virgin Birth
In other versions of his story, the Jade Emperor was born to a chaste queen who had been praying for an heir to succeed the throne of her sick, elderly husband. One night as she slept, the queen had a vision of the Daoist philosopher, Laozi, and miraculously became pregnant. As soon as the baby was born, it was obvious that there was something special about him. He gained the ability to walk and talk prematurely, and was unusually patient and kind for a small child.
When his father died, the Jade Emperor assumed the throne and devoted his time to helping the needy and ensuring the prosperity of his subjects. After achieving all of his goals in just a few short years, the Jade Emperor abdicated the throne to a relative because he saw no use in having so much power.
After he left the court, the Jade Emperor devoted his life to meditation and studying Daoist philosophy. After years of study, he achieved enlightenment, learned the secret to immortality, and became a powerful deity.
The Seamstress and the Cowherd
The story of the seamstress and the cowherd is one of the most famous Chinese folktales ever told and remains very popular to this day. Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor’s daughter, a talented weaver, and a humble cowherd fell in love. Enraged that his daughter would leave heaven to marry a human, the Jade Emperor banished the couple to live on opposite sides of the milky way. After seeing how unhappy his daughter was, however, he allowed them to see each other once a year. “Chinese Valentine’s Day” is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar—the day when the two lovers are said to reunite each year.
Journey to the West
One of the most popular myths in the Chinese canon, Journey to the West is the story of a humble Buddhist monk named Tang Sanzang who journeys from Southern China to India in order to bring back holy texts and help enlighten his countrymen.
The Jade Emperor’s role in the story revolves around the Monkey King, Sun Wukong (孫悟空). Wukong was once a member of the Jade Emperor’s court but was thrown out of heaven and pinned underneath a mountain for 500 years for defying the Emperor’s authority. Whereas Wukong is the epitome of jealousy, impatience, and bitterness, the Jade Emperor is a model example of kindness, compassion, and wisdom. After repenting and serving as Sanzang’s disciple, Wukong achieves Buddhahood and is accepted back into the Jade Emperor’s court.
The Zodiac Animals
One day, the Jade Emperor sent letters to all the animals in his earthly kingdom inviting them to meet him at his palace. The animals that showed up were to be named honorary members of the zodiac.
Knowing he was the most handsome of all animals, the Cat was sure that he would be granted a spot. He was also very lazy, however, and loved to sleep in. Feeling sleepy, the Cat asked his friend the Rat to wake him up when it was time to go to the Jade Emperor’s palace.
The Rat had not been invited to the Jade Emperor’s palace and knew that he did not have a chance of getting into the zodiac—not when people were disgusted by his mere presence. The Rat saw only one choice in front of him: he must let the Cat sleep and go in his place.
When the Cat woke up the next morning, he realized that he had slept through most of the day. He looked around for the Rat to ask him why he had failed to wake him up and saw him strolling happily through the streets. Angry at the Rat’s betrayal, the Cat began to chase after him; this is why cats hunt rats to this very day.
The Jade Emperor is one of the most important and popular deities in Chinese folk religion. There are hundreds of temples dedicated to the Jade Emperor throughout Asia, and nearly every temple has at least one shrine devoted to him.
The Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration is held on the ninth day of the Lunar calendar, and this day of worship is an integral part of celebrating Chinese New Year. During the New Year, everyone’s deeds are told to the Jade Emperor by the Stove God, Zao Jun (灶神), who lives in the kitchen and bears witness to everything that happens within the house. The Jade Emperor then decides if that family should be rewarded or punished in the coming year based off their behavior in the previous one. People will often give candy to Zao Jun either to sweeten him up or to make his mouth so sticky that he won’t be able to speak.
During the New Year, worshipers often create elaborate, tiered offering shrines, burn incense, and offer prayers to the Jade Emperor to appease him and bring themselves luck in the coming year. He is said to have the ability to aid and intervene in any kind of trouble worshipers may have, so it is especially important not to skip his celebration. One of the popular prayers reads as follows:
Help the sick and all who suffer, protect the hermits against serpents and tigers, navigators against the fury of the waves, peaceable men against robbers and brigands! Drive far from us all contagion, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Preserve us from drought, flood, and fire, from tyranny and captivity. Deliver from the hells those who are tormented there... Enlighten all men with the doctrine that saves. Rebirth that which is dead, and let become green again that which is dried up.
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Yang, Lihui, Deming An, and Jessica Anderson. Turner. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.