The Jade Emperor (玉皇) is one of the most important and popular figures in Chinese mythology and is an especially important Daoist deity. He is considered to be the supreme ruler of Heaven and the first of all Chinese emperors.
The Jade Emperor's court, with all of its specialized roles and social hierarchies, parallels the structure of ancient Chinese monarchies. His fairness, benevolence, and acts of mercy towards his subjects were meant to serve as an example of what real Chinese emperors should aspire to be like.
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 and accordingly award them punishment or reward in the coming year based on their behavior in the previous one.
The Jade Emperor’s name is made up of the Chinese characters, yù (玉), meaning “jade” and dì (皇) which means “emperor.” However, the Jade Emperor goes by many names and honorary titles. His full title is written as yǜ huáng shàng dì ( 玉皇上帝), which means the “Pure August Emperor on High,” though he’s more commonly referred to as tiān gōng (天公), which simply means “heavenly grandfather.”
In art and in movies, the Jade Emperor is usually depicted as a middle-aged man sporting a thin mustache and a long, sagely goatee. He’s typically dressed in long, flowing robes sitting on a royal throne, though he’s also sometimes shown holding a large sword while wearing full battle armor and elaborate headgear.
The Jade Emperor is married to the Celestial Queen Mother, Xiwangmu (西王母). They’re said to have had an enormous amount of children together, but three of their daughters play important places in Chinese mythology. Zhu niang-niang is a fertility goddess that helps couples in need of children. Yen-kuang nian-niang is the protector of the blind and has the ability to grant the power of eyesight. Zhinü, perhaps their most famous daughter, infamously fell in love with a human, much to her detriment.
In some versions of the Jade Emperor’s story, when the universe was created by Pangu, the Jade Emperor was also suddenly born into existence. However, in most popular myths, he’s most commonly described as having been a mortal man before he was a god.
The Origin of the Jade Emperor as a Soldier
The Jade Emperor is said to have been a soldier named Zhang Denglai who fought in a bloody civil war during the Zhou Dynasty. During a particularly vicious battle, his entire battalion was wiped out. Denglai woke up in the afterlife to find his commander handing out honorary positions of the celestial court to his soldiers.
Gradually, all of the men were awarded positions in 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 the Emperor of the heavens and the earth, he paused and said “děng lái,” which means “wait a moment.” In those days, it was customary for high officials and royals to pause for a second before accepting a promotion and reflect on the great responsibilities they would be taking on. Denglai, however, seeing a huge opportunity, acted as if he had heard his name, 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, she dreamt 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 prematurely gained the ability to talk and walk and was unusually patient and kind for a small child.
When his father died, he assumed the throne and devoted his time to helping the needy and ensuring the happiness and prosperity of his subjects. Once he achieved all of his goals in a couple of years, he abdicated the throne to a relative because he saw no use in having so much power.
After he left the court, he devoted his life to meditation and studying Daoist philosophy. He eventually achieved enlightenment, learned the secret to immortality, and thus became the Jade Emperor.
The Seamstress and the Cowherd
The story of the seamstress and the cowherd is one of the most famous Chinese folktales ever told and is a very popular myth throughout Asia even today. The story goes that the Jade Emperor's daughter, a talented weaver, and a humble cowherd fell in love.
The Jade Emperor was enraged that his daughter would leave heaven to marry a human and banished the couple to live on opposite sides of the milky way. However, after seeing how unhappy his daughter was, he allowed them to see each other once a year. “Chinese Valentine’s Day” is celebrated on the seventh year of the seventh month of the lunar calendar—the annual date when the two lovers are said to unite.
Journey to the West
Journey to the West is one of the most legendary and popular myths in the Chinese canon. It follows the story of a humble Buddhist monk named Tang Sanzang who starts a journey from Southern China to India in order to bring back holy texts to help enlighten his countrymen.
In Journey to the West, the Jade Emperor is mostly involved in the chapters featuring the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. 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 a letter to all the animals in his earthly kingdom letting them know that they were invited to meet him at his palace. The animals that would show up were going to be named honorary members of the zodiac.
The Cat, knowing he was the most handsome of them all, was sure that he was guaranteed a spot. However, he was also very lazy and loved to sleep in. 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 hadn't been invited to the Jade Emperor's palace and knew that he didn't have a chance of getting a spot in the zodiac since people were disgusted just by his presence. So, he decided that he wouldn't wake the Cat up. Instead, he would just go in his place.
When the Cat woke up the next morning, he yawned and stretched his legs and suddenly realized that it was already well into the afternoon. He looked around for the Rat to ask him why he hadn't woken him up and saw him strolling happily through the streets. The Cat was so angry at the Rat's betrayal that he wanted to kill him and started to chase after him. That's why it's said that cats hunt rats even to this day.
The Jade Emperor is one of the most important and popular deities in Chinese folk religion. There are hundreds of temples dedicated to him throughout Asia and almost any temple will have at least one shrine devoted to the Jade Emperor.
The Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration is held on the ninth day of the Lunar calendar. His day of worship is an integral part of celebrating Chinese New Year. During New Years, the deeds of every person are told to the Jade Emperor by the Stove God, Zaojun (灶神), who lives in the kitchen and bear witness to everything that happens in a house. The Jade Emperor then decides if that family should be given rewards or punishments in the coming year based off of their behavior in the previous one. People will often give candy as an offering to Zaojun, so they can literally sweeten him up or make his mouth so sticky and gummy that he won’t be able to speak.
During New Years, worshippers often create elaborate, tiered offering shrines, burn incense, and offer prayers to the Jade Emperor to appease him and bring themselves good luck in the coming year. He is said to have the ability to aid and intervene in any kind of trouble worshippers may have, so it’s especially important to not skip his celebration during New Years. One of the popular prayers worshippers say goes something 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.
Columbia University - http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/heavenly.htm
New World Encyclopedia - http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/JadeEmperor#citenote-7
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jade_Emperor
Werner, F.T.C. Myths and Legends of China. World Book, a Scott Fetzer Company, 2015.
Yang, Lihui, and Deming An. 2005. Handbook of Chinese mythology. Handbooks of world mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576078068 ISBN 9781576078075