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Religions in China - Siyu 四御, the Four Guides


The Siyu 四御 "Four guides" or "controllers" are assistant deities to the 三清 Sanqing "The three pures", the three highest deities in the Daoist pantheon. Their number is in accordance to the traditional system of classifying Daoist scripures in the Daozang 道藏. While the Sanqing are connected each with one of the three "cavern" traditions (Sandong 三洞) of the Dongzhen 洞真, Dongxuan 洞玄 and Dongshen 洞神 revelations, the Four guides are connected with the so-called "Four lacunae" or "helpers" (sifu 四輔) into which the scriputres of the revelations of the Taixuan 太玄, the Taiping 太平, the Taiqing 太清 and the Zhengyi 正一 traditions are divided.
The Four Guides are:
  • Yuhuang dadi 玉皇大帝 "The Great Jade Emperor"
  • Zhongtian ziwei beiji dadi 中天紫微北極大帝 "The great emperor of the purple and subtle northern pole in central Heaven"
  • Gouchen shanggong tianhuang dadi 勾陳上龔天皇大帝 "The great Heavenly emperor of the supreme palace in the Crooked Constellation"
  • Hou Tu huangdi zhi 后土皇地祇 "The Soil Deity of the August Earth"
Of those the Yuhuang dadi 玉皇大帝 "Great Jade Emperor", is the highest venerated deity. He has also the epitheta of Xuanqiong gaoshang yuhuang dadi 玄穹高上玉皇大帝 "Great Jade Emperor of the highest mysterious void" or Haotian jinque zhizun yuhuang dadi 昊天金闕至尊玉皇大帝 "Great highly venerated Jade Emperor of the golden towergate in the bright Heaven". The name of Jade emperor first appears in Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 Zhenling weiye tu 真靈位業圖, a chart of the Daoist pantheon written during the Liang period 梁 502-557. The Jade Emperor is an assistant of the Yuqing yuanshi tianzun 玉清元始天尊, one of the Sanqing "Three Pures", and is given the two names of Yuhuang daojun 玉皇道君 "Jade Emperor, Lord of the Dao" and Gaoshang yudi 高上玉帝 "Highest Jade Emperor", surprisingly in two positions below the Yuanshi tianzun. In the book Sandong zhunang 三洞珠囊 he is identified as a parallel to the Buddhist deity Krakucchanda, the first of the "historical" Buddhas of the present kalpa age. The Tang period 唐 (618-907) Daoist Shi Chong 史崇 still explains the name of Yuhuang as an alternative name to the Yuanshi tianzun, concretely: the past "incarnation" of the Yuanshi tianzun, who will be - analogous to the Buddhist Maitreya, the future Buddha - the future Taiji tianzun 太極天尊 "Heavenly venerated of the great extreme". This is the concept of the Sandai tianzun 三代天尊 "The Heavenly venerated of the three ages". There are also traditions who interpret the Yuhuang as one of ten names of the Yuanshi tianzun, Yuhuang being the ninth of it, and the designation bixia 陛下 (actually a minister's adress to an emperor, like "Your Majesty") a tenth designation. This concept is very important and played a crucial role for the structure of the Daoist Heaven. The Jade Emperor was thus seen as a Heavenly parallel to the worldly emperor. He similarly was assisted by ministers and held court in the Heaven, just like the emperors on earth did. For most persons he was thus a much more concrete deity than the much more conceptual deity Yuanshi tianzun, the personification of the Dao. The emperors of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) who equally patronized Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism worshipped the Jade Emperor and adressed him with the voluminous title of Taishang kaitian zhifu yuli hanzhen tidao haotian yuhuang shangdi 太上開天執符御曆含真體道昊天玉皇上帝 "Highest Jade Emperor of bright Heaven, opening Heaven, holding the registers, controlling the calendar, embracing the perfect, embodying the Dao". He was, practically, by all Daoist believers seen as the highest deity although he was ranked below the Three Pures. Daoist scholars later explained this discrepancy with the fact that the Three Pures were the deities of the teaching or theory while the Jade emperor and the three other Guides were deities for practice. All seven had, nontheless, equal status.
The second of the Four Guides, the Beiji dadi 北極大帝 "Great Emperor of the Northern Polestar", is an assistant to the Jade Emperor and helps him controlling the Heavenly and terrestrial Daoist writings, ordering the starry sky, the seasons and the weather. He has his seat in the Ziwei yuan "Purple (i. e. mysterious or dark) and subtle (i. e. invisible)" Fortess 紫微垣, the center of Heaven. In astronomy he is a personification of the polestar (beiji 北極) around whom the whole world is moving. He can thus also be seen as a deity to which the emperor, the "polestar" of the earth, is analogous.
The third of the Four Guides, the Tianhuang dadi 天皇大帝 "Great Heavenly Emperor", is likewise an assistant to the Jade Emperor in controlling the northern and the southern poles and the stars. He is furthermore responsible for the ordering of the three realms (sancai 三才) of Heaven, Earth and mankind. As to the human world, he is especially entrusted with war and dynastic changes. Gouchen 勾陳 is the name of the starry constellation where he has his seat.
The fourth guide, Hou Tu 后土, the Earth deity, is first mentioned during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). His name was Goulong 句龍, and he was a son of Gong Gong 共工, a deity entrusted with the stablization of the nascent world. The emperor of the central world (zhongyangtu 中央土) was Huangdi 黄帝, the Yellow Emperor, its deity was Hou Tu. Although Hou Tu was always seen as a male deity, Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 684/690-704) of the Tang period made sacrifices to her as a female deity. Empress Pan 潘后 from the Song period had erected a shrine for Hou Tu on Mt. Song 嵩山. The deity was also bestowed the title of Chengtian xiaofa houde guangda Hou Tu huangdi zhi 承天效法厚德光大后土皇地祇 "Bright Great Empress, August of the Earth, Soil Deity, supporting Heaven, effecting the standard, esteeming virtue" during that time. From then on Hou Tu was indisputedly a female deity. She has the duty to control the balance of Yin and Yang 陰陽, the flourishing of men, animals and plants, and the stability of the earth, mountains and rivers.

An older interpretation connects the Four Guides with the four cardinal directions. Ziwei dadi, the god of the north, controlled the stars; Changsheng dadi 長生大帝 "Great Emperor of longevity", the god of the south, controlled the souls and spirits; Tianhuang dadi 天皇大帝, gold of the west, controlled the gods, and Qinghua dadi 青華大帝 "Great Emperor of the Azur Flower", the god of the east, controlled the mortal beings. In similar interpretations the Four Guides are misinterpreted as identical to the Five Old Lords (Wulao 五老君), personifications of the Five Agents 五行.

Source: Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

August 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail