In Chinese mythology, the Sanguan Dadi (三官大帝) are three emperor officials who lord over the Earth under the command of the Jade Emperor (玉皇). In Taoism, they are some of the highest-ranking deities in the belief system.
Each of the three officials has jurisdiction over a particular realm—earth, water, or sky—and are tasked with keeping a watchful eye on their respective domains. They observe and report the deeds of people, and hand out rewards or punishments to them appropriately. The Sanguan Dadi can determine the lifespan of all human beings and are therefore seen as a very powerful set of deities.
Sānguān Dàdì (三官大帝) literally translates as “The Three Great Officials of Heaven.” Although they are collectively known as Sanguan Dadi, each have their own individual titles:
The Official of Heaven—Tiānguān (天官), meaning “Official of Heaven,” is also called Běijí Zhōngtiān Xingzhu (北極中天星主), meaning “The North Star Deity of Middle Heaven.” This hefty title is often shortened to simply “Zǐwēi Dàdì,” which means “The Polestar Emperor.”
The Official of Earth—This official is usually referred to as Dìguān (地官), meaning “Official of Earth.” His more formal and lengthier title is Zhōngyuán Erpǐn Shèzuì Dìguā (中元二品赦罪地官), which means “The Official of Earth Who is Second Ranking and Absolves Sins.”
The Official of Water—Like his associates, this official has a casual title, Shuǐguān (水官), meaning “Official of Water.” He has a much more formal title, Xiàyuán Sānpǐn Jiě è Shuǐguān (下元三品解厄水官), which means “The Water Official of Third Rank Who Eliminates Misfortune.”
Each of the Sanguan Dadi dresses in imperial robes and have long beards. They differ in their modes of transportation. The Official of Heaven is usually shown riding a wind-blown cloud; the Official of Earth is often depicted riding a horse or mule; and the Official of Water’s preferred way of getting around is a dragon.
In ancient times, minor demons were initially tasked with the responsibility of keeping humanity in check, but they often doled out punishments needlessly and excessively. So, the Jade Emperor entrusted these tasks to some of his most trusted advisors—the Sanguan Dadi.
The Official of Heaven
The Official of Heaven is arguably the most prominent of the Sanguan Dadi, perhaps because he has the ability to bestow blessings. He oversees the happenings of the Sun, Moon, and Earth, and is also responsible for the changing of the seasons. Additionally, he has authority over the assortment of deities that command the constellations, rivers, and mountains. He makes his annual inspection of the Heavens on every 15th day of the first month of the lunar year.
The Official of Earth
The Official of Earth travels on the back of a horse or mule. He has the ability to absolve people of crimes and erase any negative karma that they might have accumulated. The Official of Earth visits his realm every 15th day of the seven month of the lunar year.
The Official of Water
The Official of Water can eliminate misfortune or hardships from people’s lives, and is accompanied by warriors and soldiers to enforce his will. The Official of Water inspects his realm every 15th day of the tenth month of the lunar year.
Since they have the ability to determine a person’s lifespan, the Sanguan Dadi are treated with a lot of respect. In the theater world, productions would often include a skit called the “The Official of Heaven Brings Happiness” before each play. In ancient times, people believed that illnesses, especially chronic ones, were the result of bad deeds, or the accumulation of karmic guilt. So, if a person was particularly sick, a priest could petition the Sanguan Dadi on their behalf. One petition would be burned so that it could reach the Official of Heaven, another buried so it could be read by the Official of Earth, and the last would be submerged in water or thrown into the ocean so that it could be delivered to the Official of Water.
During their holidays, sacrifices are given to each official in a specific way. The Book of Rites, or “Lǐjì,” states that “The sacrifice for Heaven is burned with wood, the sacrifice for the river is sunken in the water, and the sacrifice for earth is buried.” This method of communicating with the officials would be popularized by the ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer, Zhang Heng.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Sanguan.” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sanguan.
Wikipedia contributors. “Three Great Emperors-Officials.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Great_Emperor-Officials.