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Religions in China - Chenghuang 城隍, the City Gods


The City Gods (chenghuang 城隍) are deities traditionally venerated in all towns and cities that were surrounded by a city wall. The term chenghuang actually means "city wall" (cheng) and "moat" (huang). It is first mentioned in the rhapsody Liangdu fu 兩都賦 by the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) historian Ban Gu 班固. It is not known when wall and moat were first thought to be protectable by deities. Various sources speak of the Three Empires period 三國 (220-280), the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), or even the time of the mythological emperor Yao 堯, yet a documentary evidence of the veneration city gods can only be found in the dynastic history Beiqishu 北齊書, where it is said that in 555 the army of the southern state of Liang 梁 (502-557) besieged the town of Yingcheng 郢城. The whole people of the city prayed to the city god (chenghuangshen 城隍神) who thereupon brought wind and rain.
The veneration of city gods was already very widespread during the Tang period 唐 (618-907). In southern China it was common that each district town was protected by a city wall and disposed of a shrine for the city god. Many Tang period writers and poets mention city gods and the festivals during which they were offered sacrifices. One of the earliest texts dedicated to the city gods is Zhang Shuoshou's 張說首 Ji huangcheng wen 祭城隍文 from 717. They are also mentioned in prose writings of Zhang Jiuling 張九齡, Xu Yuan 許遠, Han Yu 韓愈, Du Mu 杜牧, Li Shangyin 李商隱, Li Yangbing 李陽冰, Duan Quanwei 段全緯 or Lü Shu 呂述, and in poems of Du Fu 杜甫 and Yang Shi'e 羊士諤.
The city gods were prayed to in many circumstances. Inundations, drought or pestilence were reasons to venerate them as protectors of the city and its inhabitants. In the 9th century the custom arose to bestow city gods honorific titles. The text Diwang buchong ji san 帝王部崇祀三, quoted in the encyclopedia Cefu yuangui 册府元龜, says that the Protective Deity of the Huguo Temple 護國廟 of Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang, was venerated as King Chongde 崇德王 "Venerating Virtue", and the city god as King Shunyi baoning 順義保寧王 "Obedient Righteousness and Protecting Peace". In Chaozhou 湖州 he was given the title of King Fusu ancheng 阜俗安成王 "Abundant Customs and Completion of Peace", in Yuezhou 越州 that of Xingde baoyin 興德保闉王 "Flourishing Virtue and Protecting the Gates". In 950 the city of Mengzhou 蒙州 was besieged by pirates, but withstood their attacks. The city god was thereupon elevated to King Linggan 靈感王 "Numinous Grateful".
From the Song period 宋 (960-1279) on the city gods were part of the pantheon of deities venerated by the central government. It was ordered that in all town and cities shrines were to be erected for the city gods. For these shrines, the government bestowed a tablet inscribed with the name of the temple that was attached to the entrance gate or the main hall. During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) the city god of the capital Dadu 大都 (modern Beijing) was bestowed the title of King Yousheng 祐聖王 "Assisting Holy". In 1329 he was renamed King Huguo baoning 護國保寧王 "Securing the City and Protecting Peace", and his wife was likewise venerated. This is the earliest instance that city gods were venerated as a couple.
The city god of the early Ming 明 (1368-1644) capital Nanjing 南京 was given the title of Prince Chengtian jianguo simin shengfu mingling 承天鑒國司民升福明靈王 "Assisting Heaven, supervising the town, administering the people, generating fortune, bright spirit". The gods of Kaifeng 開封, Linhao 臨濠, Taiping 太平, Hezhou 和州 and Chuzhou 滁州 were even bestowed a official rank (1A) according to the hierarchy in the state officialdom. City gods of first class prefectures (fu 府) were thought to have the rank 2A and the nobility title of Duke Weiling 威靈公 "Authoritative Spirit", those of second class prefectures (zhou 州) rank 3 and the title of Marquis Lingyou 靈祐侯 "Spiritual Assistance", and those of districts (xian 縣) the official rank 4 and the title of Earl Xianyou 顯祐伯 "Manifest Support". The importance of city gods is even stressed in the book Diangu jiwen 典故紀聞, which is actually focusing on regulations of statecraft. In the eyes of the despotic first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taiyu 明太祖, r. 1368-1398) the city gods were not only to protect the people in the town, but also to intimidate them to make the populace obedient subjects. When a new prefect or magistrate arrived in his place of service, he presented himself to the city god and promised to cooperate with him to protect the people and to spy out evil-doers. It was custom to bring sacrifices to the city gods during the mid-autumn festival, but also two times a month (on days of new moon and full moon), incense was offered, and an official prayed for rain and sun.
City gods were sometimes identified with historical persons. The Tang period statecraft encyclopedia Tongdian 通典, for instance, quotes from Bao Zhi's 鮑至 Nanyongzhou ji 南雍州記, where Xiao Xiangguo 蕭相國 (Xiao He 蕭何), Counsellor-in-chief of the early Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), is mentioned as the city god. The Taiping guangji 太平廣記 narrates a story in which the administrative official (neishi 内史) Huan Yi 桓彝 appeared as a city god. Zhao Yushi's 趙與時 book Bintuilu 賓退錄 from the Song period enumerates the cities in which the city god had the personal name Ji Xin 紀信, Guan Ying 灌嬰, Ying Bu 英布, Yao Yizhong 姚弋仲, Pang Yu 龐玉, Jiao Ming 焦明, Qu Tan 屈坦 or Ying Zhixu 應智頊. The city god of Hangzhou was called Zhou Xin 周新 during the Ming and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, and that of Shanghai Qin Yubo 秦裕伯.
It was believed that the city god was keeping secret registers about all events in the town, and especially about the performance of the local government. As a protective deity, and with his character as a judge over individual behaviour, the city gods soon entered the Daoist pantheon. Du Guangting's 杜光庭 revised version of the Daomen kefan daquan ji 道門科範大全集 mentions the city gods as deities prayed to to invoke rain and wind, and to ward off natural disasters and plagues. The Song period book Daomen dingzhi 道門定制 by Lü Yuansu 呂元素 mentions the register of the city god (chenghuang die 城隍牒) as one of the administrative deities in the empire. The souls of the deceased townspeople were guided to his altar. The Ming period text Taishang laojun shuo chenghuang ganying xiaomie jifu miaojing 太上老君說城隍感應消滅集福妙經 concretely speaks of the hierarchy and duties of the city gods' administrative apparatus. They represented the Heavenly principle (tianli 天理), warded off evil and protected the city, cared for wind and rain (ganze 甘澤 "sweet dew"), judged the living and the death, and brought fortune and longevity to those who obeyed the law. The city gods disposed of 18 assistant judges (panguan 判官). Shrines and temples of city gods were managed by Daoist priests. The 11th day of the 5th month was thought to be the birthday of the city god.

Sources: Li Yangzheng 李養正 (ed. 1993), Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), p. 184. ● Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

December 22, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail