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YUHUANG , the Jade Emperor, has been the supreme deity of the Chinese popular pantheon since at least the tenth century ce.

An essential and deeply rooted feature of Chinese culture is the concept of a single, centralized empire under the sovereignty of an emperor who is a sacerdotal as well as a secular ruler. This concept influenced religion in many ways. Both the Daoist and the popular pantheon are modeled on the civil bureaucracy of the Chinese state. Communication between the gods and encounters between deities and mortals often involve ritual similar to that between the vassal and his sovereign or the administrator and his superior.

The highest deity of the religion of antiquity, the Emperor on High (Shangdi) already was the ruler of a heavenly court. About the supreme deity of folk religion we know nothing until the ninth century ce. Belief and cult of the Jade Emperor took shape during the time of the most perfect realization of the bureaucratic universal empire, the Tang dynasty (618906). Poems and paintings of the tenth century attest to a fully developed myth, in which the Great Jade Emperor (Yuhuang Dadi) is attended by his heavenly court composed of all the deities who rule above and below the earth, the gods of stars, wind, rain and thunder, mountains and lakes, and others. The Song emperor Zhenzong (r. 9981022) reinforced his own authority by claiming descent from mythical culture heroes, a lineage that had been revealed to him by an emissary of the Jade Emperor. In 1017, a state cult was instituted for the Jade Emperor, and he was canonized under the title Great Heavenly Emperor, Majesty of [the Heaven of] Jade Purity (Yuqinghuang Da tiandi).

Jade Emperor is not a name but the title of a ruler with a particular function. Patterned after the terrestrial emperor, the Jade Emperor is the supernatural ruler of the universe, including the divine pantheon. His foremost role is to confer all advancement in the supernatural bureaucracy and in the religious hierarchies of this world, and to oversee the investiture of emperors and of gods, as in the popular novel Fengshen yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods). Supreme arbiter, judge, and sovereign of the universe, he is nevertheless merely the executor of orders emanating from the highest heavenly triad, the Daoist Three Pure Ones (San Qing) who are deities too remote and formidable for the popular cults.

His feast day is the ninth day of the first lunar month. His popular name is Master Heaven (Tiangong). He is represented in the dragon-embroidered robe and pearly headgear of the Chinese emperor, seated on a throne and surrounded by his courtiers. His canonical scripture, the Yuhuang benxing jing (twelfth to thirteenth century; Daozang nos. 10, 11, 12), plays an important role in Daoist ritual.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia.


There is yet no monograph on this important deity. The best description is still that by Henri Maspero in "The Mythology of Modern China," in Taoism and Chinese Religion, translated by Frank A. Kierman (Amherst, Mass., 1981). Some additional material has been presented by H. Y. Feng in "The Origin of Yü Huang," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 1 (1936): 242250.

Anna Seidel (1987)