The Jade Emperor: Ruler of Heaven and the Chinese Pantheon of Gods
In Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor is one of the most powerful and popular deities in the Chinese pantheon. The Jade Emperor, also known in China as Yu Huang or Yu Di, is the ruler of Heaven and is often called the first Chinese emperor. As the Heavenly emperor, he governs both the Heaven and Earth realms, much like the earthly emperors ruled over their Dynastic empires.
The Jade Emperor oversees a heavenly court and administers its positions, which are filled by other Chinese deities or former mortals who are given immortality. As administrator of the Heavenly realms, the Jade Emperor reigns over 30 distinct Heavens, and also assigns rulership over the underworld.
Known by many names, the Jade Emperor is called Heavenly Grandfather, Heavenly Duke, the Jade Lord, the Highest Emperor, Great Emperor of Jade, Pure August Emperor On High, or simply Mr. Heaven.
As the ruler of heaven and first Chinese emperor, the Jade Emperor is considered representative of the first god. In Taoist philosophy, the Jade Emperor assists the Three Pure Ones (the pre-existent aspects of the Tao). He is also known by many names among many different religions – in Vietnamese Caodaism he is called Ngoc Hoang Thuong De; in Korean mythology he is known as Heaneullim; and in Chinese Buddhism the Jade Emperor is representative of Sakra.
The Jade Emperor is usually depicted as fair, just, and righteous. As Yu Huang was perceived as the ideal authority, Chinese emperors sought to parallel his positive attributes within their own rulership. China’s Dynastic courts sought to emulate the courts revealed in the stories of the Jade Emperor. During the Song Dynasty the Jade Emperor became the official deity of the Chinese Imperial Family.
The Jade Emperor is the husband of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. As the primary deities of heaven, the Jade Emperor and Xiwangmu have many children, with three of their daughters holding a respected place in Chinese mythology – Zhu Niangniang (fertility goddess, especially for couples who have had difficulty having children), Yenkuang Nianniang (patron deity of the blind), and Zhinu (the goddess of weaving who suffered loss due to her love of a human).
In artwork and literature, the Jade Emperor is often represented as a middle-aged man with a long goatee and mustache. He wears flowing Imperial style and dragon embroidered robes with thirteen pearl tassels. The Jade Emperor often holds a ceremonial table in which his decrees are written. He is often depicted sitting on a large royal throne. Other representations show him wearing battle-dress uniform with a long sword.
The Jade Emperor is still highly honored today and plays a significant role in the lives of China’s people. During Chinese New Year, the Jade Emperor is said to judge the lives of every person and will reward or punish them in the new year according to their deeds.
Who is the Jade Emperor in Chinese Mythology
The Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven and one of the most powerful gods in the Chinese pantheon. Known by many names, the Jade Emperor is a popular figure in many of the ancient myths of China.
There are a number of origin myths concerning the Jade Emperor.
One of the more popular myths told in ancient China is that the Jade Emperor was originally a mortal named Zhang Denglai. Zhang Denglai was a minor soldier in the Zhou Dynasty who died in a war against the ruling Shang family. In the underworld, as he was awaiting his rewards for his honorable service, he was lined up with other soldiers and heroes that had died along with him.
The honors and titles were being given out by Jiang Ziya, the leader of the Zhou forces. As Ziya went down the line he called out the position he was handing out, said the words deng-lai (which means wait a second) to pause for effect, and then handed out the position that his follower would hold in heaven.
Soon, only the position of Jade Emperor was left. Jiang Ziya as the leader, however, was planning on naming himself to the position. Following his pattern of announcing the title, saying deng-lai, and then handing the position to someone, Jiang Ziya stood ready to announce himself as Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven.
However, when he said deng-lai and paused, Zhang Denglai thought he heard his name and stepped forward, bowed on the ground, and thanked Jiany Ziya for making him the Jade Emperor.
Jiang Ziya was stunned. However, he was now honor-bound to grant the role of Jade Emperor to Zhang Denglai. As Jiang Ziya handed the title to the newly anointed Jade Emperor, he cursed him saying Your sons will become thieves and your daughters will become prostitutes. And while this curse never came true, many of the Jade Emperor’s children would face difficulties in their lives to come.
In another version of the Jade Emperor’s origin, the Jade Emperor was born a human to a virgin empress after she had a vision of Laozi, the founder of Taoism. The empress ruled over the kingdom of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments.
When her child was born, out of the boy came a bright light that filled the kingdom, and as he grew, the young prince proved himself to be brilliant and kind. He was devoted to helping the neglected and those that could not help themselves. He was respectful of all creation and thought highly of all living creatures. When his father died and he took the throne, he worked hard to make sure that all of his subjects found peace of mind and happiness.
After many years of successful rule, he told his ministers that he would like to go to the Bright and Fragrant Cliff to pursue the Tao further. After 226,800,000 years (1,750 eons), he reached Golden Immortality. After another 100,000,000 years of contemplation he attained the level of Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven.
Another common version of the Jade Emperor is that the Jade Emperor was formerly the assistant to Yuanshi Tianzun, also called the Divine Master of the Heavenly Origin. Yuanshi Tianzun was said to be the creator of Heaven and Earth who picked Yu Huang as his successor. In this version of the myth, the role of the Jade Emperor is not an eternal one and will eventually be given over to the Heavenly Master of the Dawn of Jade of the Golden Door.
Naming of the Jade Emperor as supreme sovereign
In the beginning, the earthly realms were chaotic and filled with powerful demons and monsters. Gods that could protect humans were few and far between, and the demons and spirits had little fear of the immortals. The Jade Emperor, filled with compassion for humanity, did what he could, but he was little help. His powers could only help relieve suffering temporarily.
Realizing he needed to build his power so he could truly help humanity, the Jade Emperor hid himself in a cave to cultivate Tao. In the cave, the Jade Emperor spent the next 9.6 billion years passing 3,200 trials to attain unrivalled power.
While the Jade Emperor was in his cave, a powerful demon arose with the desire to conquer all of heaven and earth and declare itself as god of the universe. Knowing it must build its own power, like the Jade Emperor, the demon went into a cave and began to grow its power. After 9 billion years and passing 3,000 trials, the demon emerged from the cave believing nothing in heaven and earth could defeat it. The demon raised an unholy army and began to ravage creation.
The immortals were not strong enough to resist the demon’s power. The war nearly lost, the gods despaired for their fate and the world’s.
As the demon stood ready to assume power, the Jade Emperor emerged from the cave. As he ventured out, he began to change the land and crops began to bloom. The monsters that roamed the land turned their attention to the new threat, but the Jade Emperor easily defeated him.
Knowing something was wrong, as the situation was much worse than when he entered the cave, the Jade Emperor looked towards the heaven and saw the evil presence covering it. And after ascending, he saw the gods had no hope of defeating the powerful demon.
The Jade Emperor walked before the demon and challenged it to battle. As they fought, the heavens and earth shook. Mountains collapsed and rose as they battled upon them. Seas and rivers emptied as the earth quaked. Because of his deeper cultivation of the Tao and his goodness, the Jade Emperor eventually stood victorious. He bound the demon and set the rest of the immortals after the now leaderless evil army.
Due to his powerful acts and his love for creation, the realms declared the Jade Emperor as supreme sovereign and heavenly emperor.
The Seamstress and the Cowherd
The myth of the Seamstress and Cowherd is one of China’s most enduring legends and is still told today. The Jade Emperor’s daughter, Zhinu, was responsible for weaving the clouds in the heavenly realm. She also weaved the Silver River, seen in the night sky as the Milky Way.
Zhinu loved to descend to the earthly realm every day to bathe. To help her ascend and descend, she enlisted the aid of a magic robe. One day as she was bathing, a cowherd named Niu Lang chanced upon her. Niu Lang was immediately smitten with the goddess, and he took her magic robe which she had left on the stream embankment. Unable to escape back to the heavens, when Zhinu stepped from the water, Niu Lang snatched her and took her to his home.
Upon finding out about his daughter’s kidnapping, the Jade Emperor was furious. And soon, he grew even angrier, as he heard that Zhinu had fallen in love with her kidnapper and married him! Honor bound to recognize the marriage, the Jade Emperor fumed at Zhinu’s choice, but was powerless to stop her.
As the years went by, Zhinu began miss her father. One day, while working in her home she found her magic robe hidden away. Desiring to visit her father, she put the robe on and ascended to the throne room of heaven. But after Zhinu arrived, the Jade Emperor commanded the silver river to flow across the sky, stopping any chance of Zhinu easily returning to earth.
Filled with despair, Zhinu threw herself at her father asking for mercy. Taking pity on his daughter, the Jade Emperor acquiesced to allow Zhinu and Niu Lang to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.
This day is honored during the yearly Qixi Festival in China, which is much like Valentine’s Day in the west. It is said that if it rains on that day, it is Zhinu crying tears of joy in being united with her husband in the heavenly realms.
The Chinese Zodiac
There are many stories of how the zodiac was formed in Chinese mythology. One story that includes the Jade Emperor has proven popular over the centuries.
Even though he was the ruler over the heavens and the earth, since he had become the Jade Emperor, Yu Huang had not often traveled to the Earthly realms. He wondered what the creatures of the earth had come to look like over the years and sent out a decree that all the animals were to come visit heaven.
The Cat was the handsomest of all animals but was also the laziest. Wanting to sleep, the Cat asked his friend the Rat to wake him on the day the animals were to attend the heavens. The Rat, however, had not been invited. It also knew that people were disgusted by him and that he would never have a chance to meet the Emperor. So, when the Rat was supposed to wake the Cat, he let it sleep and went to the heavens in the Cat’s place.
The Jade Emperor was delighted with the many animals that answered his call and honored them with a place in the Chinese zodiac. Sleeping through it all, when the Cat woke, he was furious with the Rat and began to chase him. And this is why cats chase and kill rats to this day.
The Ancient Heavenly Emperor That Is Still Worshipped Today
As one of the most popular gods in the Chinese pantheon, belief in the Jade Emperor is still strong today. Hundreds of temples and shrines dedicated to the heavenly ruler are still popular places of worship, and almost every Chinese temple has a shrine within it devoted to him.
At the New Year, the Jade Emperor’s birthday is celebrated on the ninth day. It is believed that the god of the stove, Zao Jun, recounts the deeds of every living human to the Jade Emperor. Once hearing of the acts of the people, the Jade Emperor then hands out rewards and punishments to households based on their deeds.
During the New Year’s celebrations, adherents build elaborate multi-tiered shrines, and offer prayers and incense to the Jade Emperor to gain his favor. Known as a loving benefactor to those he blesses, the Jade Emperor’s New Year’s celebrations are often the most popular.
The Jade Emperor, the Ruler of Heaven
In Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor is one of the most popular deities of the Chinese pantheon. Known in China as Yu Huang or Yu Di, he is the ruler of Heaven and is often called the first Chinese emperor.
- The Jade Emperor rules over the Heaven and Earth Realms
- Dynastic courts were often modelled on the mythical courts of the Jade Emperor
- Positions in the Jade Emperor’s court were given to other gods and immortals
- The Jade Emperor goes by many names, including Heavenly Grandfather and Mr. Heaven
- In art, the Jade Emperor appears as a middle-aged man with a long goatee and mustache with flowing Imperial styled robes
- The Jade Emperor is still highly honored today and plays a significant role in the lives of China’s people
- Due to his status, the Jade Emperor appears in many Chinese myths, including multiple origin and status myths, the myth of the Seamstress and Cowherd, the Chinese zodiac, and many more
- During Chinese New Year, the Jade Emperor is said to judge the lives of every person and will reward or punish them in the new year according to their deeds and his celebrations are often the most popular
As the most powerful deity in the pantheon, the Jade Emperor is a fixture of Chinese mythology with legends and stories spanning thousands of years. When looking into the heavens, know he is there staring back, and ruling with benevolence and care.