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Religions in China - Wenshen 瘟神, the Gods of Pestilence


The Gods of Pestilence (wenshen 瘟神), also called the Five Commissioners of Pestilence (wu wen shizhe 五瘟使者), were deities venerated by the traditional Chinese society. According to Chinese custom the five gods of pestilence are identified with historical or semi-historical persons. The Spring God of Pestilence is Zhang Yuanbo 張元伯, the Summer God of Pestilence is Liu Yuanda 劉元達, the Autumn God of Pestilence is Zhao Gongming 趙公明 (also known as the God of Money 財神), the Winter God of Pestilence is Zhong Shigui 鍾仕貴, and the Central and Superior God of Pestilence Shi Wenye 史文業.
In former times, when medical knowledge was not yet as advanced as today, people believed that plagues were caused by evil spirits. In order to ward off these epidemic goblins, protection deities were venerated that were thought to dispel the spirits of contagion. The oldest gods of pestilence are mentioned in the apocryphal classic Li wei xi ming zheng 禮緯稽命證, where it is said that the mythological emperor Zhuan Xu 顓頊 had three sons that died immediately after their birth and became evil spirits spreading plagues. One lived in the Yangtze River and was called Nüegui 瘧鬼 "Ghost of malaria". The second lived in the River Ruo 若水 and was called Wang Liang 魍魎 "Demon ghost", and the third used to dwell in the corners of human abodes. He appeared in the shape of a young boy scaring the inhabitants, and was therefore called Xiao Gui 小鬼 "Small Ghost". The encyclopedia Shiwu jiyuan 事物紀原 quotes from an apocryphal book abbreviated as Liwei 禮緯, where the three ghosts were said to be sons of emperor Gao Yang 高陽 (i.e. Zhuan Xu). The prophesy classic Longyu hetu 龍魚河圖 mentions the "five wet ghosts" (wu shi gui 五濕鬼) who were called the "beadles of the well" (jingli 井吏). People venerating them in the right manner with beans and hemp would be spared disaster.
Later writings adhere to the numbers three or five and narrate the story of the gods of pestilence. One of the earliest stories about the "three ghosts" (san gui 三鬼) is to be found in Gan Bao's 干寶 Soushenji 搜神記 from the Jin period 晉 (265-420). In this story it is told that gentleman cavalier attendant (sanji shilang 散騎侍郎) Wang You 王祐 fell seriously ill and said farewell to his mother. They suddenly heard someone calling Wang's name and explaining that there would be three generals would appease the world. The speaker said he would assist general Zhao Gongming. Wang You knew that there had once been an ancient book referring to such an incident. When he was recovered Wang You went out to discover the lost book, found it and saw that Zhao Gongming and Zhong Shiji 鍾士季 was in fact mentioned in this book. The name of the third general was no mentioned. Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 book Zhengao 真誥 from the Liang period 梁 (502-557) speaks of five gods that are administering the graves of the deceased in the underworld. He only mentions Zhao Gongming, but does not tell the names of the other four gods. Yet a lot of names are mentioned in the Daoist text Taishang yuanyuan shenzhou jing 太上洞淵神咒經 from approximately the same time. This book says that the seven gods Liu Yuanda, Zhang Yuanbo, Zhao Gongming, Li Gongzhong 李公仲, Shi Wenyue, Zhong Shiji and Shao Dufu 少都符 were the leaders of an army of 250,000 ghosts that haunted humanity and brought pestilence over it. The somewhat younger book Zhengyi wensi bi dushen dengyi 正一瘟司辟毒神燈儀 from the Tang period 唐 (618-907) relates the various gods of pestilence with cardinal directions. "Commissioner" (shizhe) Zhang reigns over the eastern sphere, Commissioner Tian 田 over the southern sphere, Zhao (Gongming) over the western part of the world, and Shi (Wenye) over the north. The centre of the world was controlled by Zhong (Shigui). The persons with the family names Tian and Shi are only referred to in this book.
The Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) master Lu Shizhong 路時中, who wrote the book Wushang xuanyuan santian yutang dafa 無上玄元三天玉堂大法, explains that the end of the world was approaching, hearts and minds of the people were in disorder, and therefore, the gods of pestilence haunted the empire. Liu Yuanda, spirit of the agent of wood (see Five Agents 五行) and the east, commanded evil winds. Zhang Yuanbo, spirit of fire and the south, controlled hot venomes. Zhao Gongming, spirit of metal and the west, reigned the "pouring breath" (zhuqi 注氣). Zhong Shiji, spirit of water and the north, was the master of evil venomes, and Shi Wenye, spirit of earth and the centre, caused ulcers and carbuncles.
It was important, Lu Shizhong alleges, to know the names of these deities, because this knowledge would enable men to appease them. The afflicted would only have to call the name three times, and the spirits would disappear. The Ming period 明 (1368-1644) compendium Sanjiiao soushen daquan 三教搜神大全 says that during the reign of Emperor Wen 隋文帝 (r. 581-604) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) there were five strong and tall men, dressed in different kinds of clothes, and using different implements. One was holding a ladle and a jar, another a leather bag and a sword, the third a fan ,the fourth a hammer, and the last a firepot. Emperor Wen asked his secretaries who these deities were, and Zhang Juren 張居仁 answered that these five men of the cardinal directions were living in Heaven as ghosts, but as harbingers of pestilence on earth. Asked by the emperor how to save the people of the empire, Zhang Juren regretted that there would certainly be no way to ward them off. The Emperor thereupon decided to give the five gods the title of generals. The man in the green robe was given the title of Xiansheng jiangjun 顯聖將軍 "General of distinct holiness", that in the red robe Xianying jiangjun 顯應將軍 "General of distinct recompense", the white-clad deity Ganying jiangjun 感應將軍 "General of retribution", the black ghost Gancheng jiangjun 感成將軍 "General of completeness of affection", and the god wearing yellow clothes was made Ganwei jiangjun 感威將軍 "General of authority of affection". There were also annual offerings to the Gods of Pestilence on the 5th day of the 5th month. Thereafter it became custom to erect shrines for the Gods of Pestilence in many parts of the empire, often called Wenzumiao 瘟祖廟 "Temple of the plague ancestors", yet the sacrificial days were not the same in each district. The Song period 宋 (960-1279) book Suishi guangji 歲時廣記, for instance, says that they were brought sacrifices on the New Year's day, while the text Zhushen shengdanri yujia jideng ji 諸神聖誕日玉匣記等集 that the day fo sacrifice was the 3rd day of the 9th month.

Sources: Yuan Ke 袁珂 (ed. 1985), Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), pp. 33-34, 302. ● 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