In Chinese mythology, Erlang Shen (二郎神) has an all-seeing third eye in the middle of his forehead. As the god of engineering, he is considered to be one of the greatest warrior gods of Heaven. Erlang Shen is a folk hero god that helped calm catastrophic flooding during ancient times.
Erlang Shen’s name is comprised of the characters for “two,” èr (二), láng (郎), a character that means “boy,” and shén (神) which means “god.” Together, the phrase means “godly second son.” It is an appropriate name as he was the second eldest of his mother’s three children.
Erlang Shen is characterized in art by his signature feature—his third eye. In the popular Chinese novel, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, Erlang Shen’s appearance is described as the following:
His bearing was refined, his visage noble, his ears hung down to his shoulders, and his eyes shone. The hat on his head had three peaks and phoenixes flying, and his robe was of a pale goose-yellow. His boots were lined with cloth of gold; dragons coiled round his socks. His jade belt was decorated with the eight jewels, at his waist was a bow, curved like the moon, In his hand a three-pointed double-edged spear.
Erlang Shen’s family tree is a controversial matter in Chinese mythology. In the most popular versions of his story, Erlang Shen was the son of a sister of the Jade Emperor (玉皇), who ruled over the desire realm, and a commoner that she fell in love with. In other retellings, he was the son of the ancient Chinese engineer, Lǐ Bīng (李冰). He has two siblings: his brother, Yang Jiao, and sister, Yang Chan.
- Yang Jiao
- Yang Chan
As a Demigod
In the most popular interpretation of his myth, Erlang Shen is the offspring of an immortal woman and a mortal man. Together, the couple have three children, including the engineering god. However, since her assigned role on Earth is to limit the love affairs between gods and humans and she herself has transgressed, the Jade Emperor has her eldest son and her husband executed. He then traps her underneath the weight of Mount Tai to punish her for her crimes.
When Erlang Shen grows old enough, he takes his giant, double-edged spear and cleaves the mountain in half to save his mother. In other versions of this myth, Erlang Shen rescues his mother from the underworld and throws lightning bolts at all the demons who are tormenting her. This myth was later construed to be a cautionary tale told to young children encouraging them to behave or else they, too, could be struck with one of Erlang Shen’s thunderbolts.
As the Son of an Engineer
In ancient times, an engineer named Li Bing is hired by the people of Dujiangyan City to help them prevent the catastrophic flooding of the Min River that would annually occur along the Chengdu Plains—the region where the city was situated. Li Bing can’t figure out the source of the flooding, so he sends his son, Erlang Shen, to investigate. After spending a whole year sailing up and down the river, Erlang Shen is still at a loss to find the cause of the flooding.
But then one day, he and his seven companions happen upon an old woman, weeping on the banks of the river near the edge of town. She tells them that one of her grandchildren is going to be sacrificed to the evil river dragon that had been terrorizing the region for years. Erlang Shen devises a plan and tells the distraught old woman that he will take the place of her grandson and would be presented as the dragon’s offering instead.
When the dragon arrives to take his sacrifice, Erlang Shen leaps out from beneath his cloak while the old woman held the dragon down with a chain. Then, the engineering god uses his double-edged spear to cleave the dragon in half, bringing peace to his city and all the other villages that reside in the Chengdu Plains.
Erlang Shen plays a significant role in the Chinese novels Xīyóu Jì (西游記), or Journey to the West, and Fēngshén Yǎnyì (封神演義), or the Investiture of the Gods. He also makes an appearance in the Chinese animated film, Băo Lián Dēng (宝莲灯), or Lotus Lantern. He’s a popular character in many Chinese TV series including Fēng Shén (封神), a modern remake of The Investiture of the Gods, and Journey to the West.