Yu Huang, Heavenly Grandfather
Early Taoist creation myths
Son of the King of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments
The Jade Emperor, also known as Yu Huang, was viewed by Taoists as the ultimate ruler of heaven , earth, and the land of the dead. According to legend, the Jade Emperor was once a prince who looked after the needy in his kingdom. He became immortal—or able to live forever— and after over two hundred million years of existence, he was selected by a panel of sages to become the single ruler of all things.
When Yu Huang was born, he gave off light that filled the kingdom where he lived. When he grew older, he retreated and went into meditation (a state of focused thought) and eventually became immortal. Yu Huang was concerned mosdy with helping to improve the living conditions of people, and after spending much time working on this issue, he resumed his meditation—which involved passing mental “trials” in order to become more powerful—so that he might find even better ways to help.
When he emerged from his meditation, which had lasted many millions of years, he discovered that a demon had amassed an army of monsters and was attempting to take over control of heaven. Although Yu Huang was not a god, he traveled to heaven to see what was happening. When he found that the gods were not powerful enough to stop the demon, he stepped forward and battled the demon himself. The two beings fought not with their fists or weapons, but with the power of their minds. In the end, Yu Huang was victorious. The gods were so grateful that they, along with other immortals and humans, chose to elect Yu Huang as their ruler and gave him the title of Jade Emperor.
Jade Emperor in Context
For those outside Chinese culture, the reference to jade in Yu Huang's title may not seem significant. However, jade has been one of the most culturally important stones throughout the history of China. As early as 3000 bce, jade—which is a hard stone that resists wear—was used to create some tools, but its beauty meant that it was often saved for the creation of decorative and ceremonial items. The stone was regarded in much the same way gold has been viewed in other parts of the world, and jade items were indicators of wealth or royal connections. Nobles during the Han dynasty, roughly between 200 bce and 200 ce, were often buried in suits made of intricately sewn jade tiles; they believed the jade had special qualities that would preserve human remains.
Key Themes and Symbols
The main theme of the myths of the Jade Emperor is the superior power of the mind over the physical realm. Yu Huang becomes immortal by meditating until he reaches a higher state of being. He continues to meditate for millions of years in order to increase his powers. When he fights the demon who is attempting to overtake heaven, the battle is waged through their minds instead of through weapons. Yu Huang's association with jade represents his connection to other Chinese rulers and to all that is sacred and beautiful in nature.
Jade Emperor in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Though he originally sprang from Taoist beliefs, the Jade Emperor has become one of the most significant mythical figures in Chinese culture as a whole. In modern times, the Jade Emperor still serves as a mythical judge of a person's good deeds; on the eve of the Chinese New Year, families burn a paper depiction of a god that relays the household activities of the past year, good and bad, to the Jade Emperor. Outside China, the Jade Emperor has appeared as a character in the Japanese comic and animated series Fushigi Yugi (1992) by Yuu Watase, and in the American science fiction television series Stargate SG-1.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Jade Emperor is unique as a leader of the deities in the Chinese pantheon, or collection of recognized gods and goddesses. Compare him to leaders of the pantheons of other cultures, such as Zeus (Greek) or Odin (Norse). How is he different from these gods? How do you think this reflects different attitudes among the people of the Chinese, ancient Greek, and Norse cultures?