Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Guan Yu: Why Koreans Worship a Chinese Tofu Seller

How is it that a Chinese tofu salesman, who lived his entire life in the Middle Kingdom about 1800 years ago and never set foot on the Korean Peninsula, came to be venerated in Korea as a god of both war and wealth? Jacco Swetsloot traces back the story of Guan Yu and shares how this semi-mythical figure, described in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as over 9 foot tall, with a 2-foot long beard, a face as red as a jujube, and eyes like those of a phoenix, first appeared in Korea during the Japanese Hideyoshi invasions of the late 16th century. In a few short years, several shrines were built in honor of Guan Yu, the bean-curd-seller-cum-general. In the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong and his second wife had more shrines built in Seoul, giving the Guan Yu cult more impetus. Why was this?

One cannot directly answer this question without understanding what "worship" means in the Korean language and how the connotations of the word impacts its full meaning. "Worship" in English does not encompass "enshrine" and "venerate', yet in Korean it does. Guan Yu is not only regarded respectfully, given reverence, but he has also been enshrined and is still venerated ... because as a romanticized man he was deified.

Wikipedia on Guan Yu (???? - 220 A.D.)
Guan Yu (died 220),[1][2] courtesy name Yunchang, was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the dynasty and the establishment of the state of Shu Han – founded by Liu Bei – in the Three Kingdoms period.[3] 
As one of the best known Chinese historical figures throughout East Asia, Guan's true life stories have largely given way to fictionalised ones, most of which are found in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms or passed down the generations, in which his deeds and moral qualities have been lionised. Guan is respected as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. 
Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui dynasty and is still worshipped by many Chinese people today, especially in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among many overseas Chinese communities. He is a figure in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism,Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to Guan are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants. He is often reverently called Guan Gong (Lord Guan) and Guan Di (Emperor Guan).[4] His hometown Yuncheng has also named its airportafter him.

Guan Yu - From early beginnings to general ...

Guan Yu started out as a peddler of beans and bean curd but not an uneducated one as he could recite lines from the well-known book Zuo Zhuan. After committing a serious crime, he fled his hometown and volunteered in the militia under Liu Bei, who eventually was promoted, and because of Guan Yu's support and capabilities, he himself was likewise promoted on up through the ranks eventually becoming a general. So Guan Yu went from being a jang su (trader or peddler) to a jang su (general).

... to how he became popular

The Ming Dynasty historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century) lionized his acts as general when in reality he only led his forces, often winning great battles but also losing important battles too. Thus, Guan Yu became more famous in novel than in reality.

In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu was painted as a powerful, fierce warrior with supernatural abilities. And example is "Zuande took a glance at the man, who stood at a height of nine chi (2.07 meters), and had a two chi (46cm) long beard; his face was of the color of a zao (Chinese date/jujube/대추), with red lips; his eyes were like that of a phoenix's, and his eyebrows resembled silkworms. He had a dignified aura and looked quite majestic." In his descriptions also, he was usually described as wearing green robes over his armor. However, in the more serious records of official history Records of the Three Kingdoms no description is given of Guan Yu.

Posthumous deification

Guan Yu was deified in the Sui dynasty (581-618) based on his exaggerated performance as a god-like warrior with unparalleled prowess and fierce appearance. Over time he came to be worshipped as an indigenous Chinese deity, a bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition and as a guardian deity in Taoism. He was also highly esteemed in Confucianism for his righteous-man character. And in the Western word, Guan Yu is sometimes called the Taoist God of War.

Guan Yu, with the courtesy name Yunchang, had many other names and titles bestowed on him. Four decades after his death Liu Shan, the second emperor of Shu, gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of "Marquis Zhuangmou". And higher posthumous titles were added from there. In general worship he is widely referred to as "Emperor Guan", short for his Taoist title "Saintly Emperor Guan" and "Prince Zhuangmou Yiyon Wu'an Yingji" which was revised into another princely name by the Song dynasty. By the mid-19th century he was given a 24-Chinese character name roughly translating as "The Holy and August Emperor Guan, the Loyal, Righteous, of Supernatural Prowess and Spiritual Protection, Whose Benevolence and Courage is Majestically Manifest", and shortened is "Saint of War", which oddly enough is the same rank of Confucius, who was known as "Saint of Culture". These are but a few of the many many names Guan Yu was given.

Guan Yu worship in China - past and present

To put into perspective how revered Guan Yu was in pre-communist China is to compare him with Confucius. In pre-communist days there were about 3,000 temples where Confucius was revered, but 300,000 temples and shrines where Guan Yu was worshipped. Even the smallest village had a shrine. Well-off families and shops had a portrait or a statue. And in these modern times, Guan Yu is still revered. Case is point, the criminal gang Hong Kong Triads worship Guan Yu ... as do the police who try to catch them.

But why was Guan Yu so worshipped? Because he was believed to be endowed with special powers and was thought to serve as a god, bodhisattva or helper to commoners. Two historical cases of highly positioned people testifying to the great powers of Guan Yu escalated the belief in him as a warrior god.
  • In the Battle of Lake Poyang (1363), part of the Yuan dynasty fell and the rise of the Ming began. Zhu Yuanzhang led the Ming navy against the Han navy in one of the largest battles in naval history. Zhu won the battle and became Hongwu, first Ming emperor. He gave tribute to Guan Yu for his success by saying that the spirit of Guan Yu appeared and helped Zhu to victory. 
  • Also, Yongle emperor (1402-1424) said he had been guided and helped by Guan Yu when seizing power from his nephew, the Jianwen emperor in a coup d'etat. 

How did Guan Yu worship transfer to Korea?

During the Imjin Wars (1592-1598) when Hideyoshi invaded Korea, China sent armies and navies to help Chosun Korea fight the Japanese. These war years were when Guan Yu worship got its beginnings in Korea; however, there is some murkiness on how it all actually began.

Some accounts say that Guan Yu's spirit helped Ming China in general. Some Korean accounts refer to a General Jin of Jinin (in the Sillok) being wounded by a Japanese bullet at the Siege of Ulsan (1597-1598), retreating to Seoul for treatment, and healed by praying to Guan Yu. Both points are hard to "prove", yet the latter one seems sketchy, but in the Battle of Noryang (Dec 1598), there was a Chen Lin, a Ming general who fought alongside Yi Sun-shin, but no where is there mention of him being shot. In any regard, after the Imjin Wars when Ming China soldiers returned to China, Guan Yu remained behind in the spiritual minds of the soldiers, which soon transferred to the wider Korean population.

Korean Shrines to Guan Yu

The Ming soldiers fighting the Japanese had erected shrines to Guan Yu as a guardian spirit/deity: Seoul, Andong, Seongju, Gogeum-do, Namwon, Deongnae, and more, and these shrines became the first Gwanwangmyo "shrine to King Wang". After the Imjin Wars, Ming Emperor Shenzong and Chosun King Seonjo agreed to join forces and build a big and proper shrine in Hanyang. The first of these became Nam Gwanwangmyo (Nammyo).

West and North shrines were erected during King Gojong's reign, and Guan Yu worship became more prominent at this time: Guan Yu became more of a folklore hero. This probably was due to the oppression of the time and the desire for a hero to signify their rescue. Interestedly, the period of folk-hero worship took place 300 years after other shrines in Korea had been established, and when Korea no longer paid tribute or sent emissaries to China. In any regard, it is speculated that the increase of shrines by Kong Gojong was because King Gojong felt the nation was in a time of crisis, as during the Imjin Wars, and that more shrines to Guan Yu would help stabilize the nation. [Note that this last shrine was completed after Korea's Independence from Qing China.]

The downfall of Guan Yu shrines

In the late Chosun dynasty, Guan Yu worship took on the character of a folk religion, viewed as an element of shamanism and the respect and veneration given rapidly declined. As Guan Yu was god of war and wealth, he had been venerated by both soldiers and merchants. But the need for soldiers and shifting economies have threatened the traditional and formerly highly respected.

As respect for things spiritual declined, respect and worship likewise declined. Now, of the 7 shrines in Seoul dedicated to Guan Yu, only 3 are left in their original location. Under Japanese rule, North and West shrines were closed and their relics were moved into East (Dongmyo), the shrine at Bansa Market, which has lost most of its land over the years, as if it had been sliced off. Nammyo was also slated for destruction but was saved only by the sudden creation of a private foundation composed of Seoul citizens given over to protecting the local historical place. But neither Dongmyo nor Nammyo are places of respectful worship anymore.

The fate of Nammyo

  • 1598: first Guan Yu shrine in Seoul
  • 1899: main building burned down in the 36th year of King Gojong's reign; reconstructed the same year
  • 1907: aften taken over by the foundation, its role in performing ancestral ceremonies shrank
  • 1950-1953: burned down in Korean War; relics destroyed or lost
  • 1957: rebuilt on the same site, but not in its original form
  • 1978: main building removed from its site and moved to Sadang-dong, south of the Han River
  • Original site is now in or near Millennium Hilton Hotel car park, opposite Seoul Station
The fate of Dongmyo
  • Until the 1970s: maintained its original form; monthly ancestral rites held. A small house on the property was the home of a lady caretaker cum shaman. Local people came and venerated Guan Yu. Within the outside gate were housed Guan Yu's 2 horses made of paper and and bamboo (juksanma or jukanma)
  • During "restoration work" in the 1970s, Dongmyo loses its role as a living community and became a museum and storehouse of relics
  • 2008: destruction of Dongdaemun Stadium. A flea market formerly at the stadium relocates itself outside the walls of Dongmyo. People now just enter to use the public washroom. Instead of a caretaker/shaman, custodians/guards dispatched from Jongno-gu Office "watch" the place but they lack knowledge of either Guan Yu or the shrine. Ancestral rites are no longer held here (Jongno-gu Office cites "fire danger"). Paper and bamboo horses have disappeared and some accounts say that some objects ended up in local antique stores.
  • Tourist information sign at Dongmyo: "Worshipping Guan Yu as a god was a kind of "general religion", a form of shamanism worshipping dead generals due to their huge achievements or who died from unfairness." (!)
Veneration isn't totally gone at Dongmyo shrine as every year the stallholders of the Bangsan Market pool money to hold a ceremony for Guan Yu. The ceremony takes place on the anniversary of his death, the 19th day of the 10th month of the lunar calendar (basically, December 10th this year, just 6 days ago). In 2011, ritual costs amounted to about one million won. Most stallholders in the market contribute regardless of religion. The two mains reasons for their contributions and supporting the ceremony is by praying to Guan Yu, (1) Guan Yu will prevent their stalls from burning down, and (2) Guan Yu will bring them good customers, of course, because he is the god of wealth.

Why Guan Yu shrines are now denigrated?

Maybe it is because Guan Yu is a god that comes from China ... but haven't most figures worshipped as gods in Korea, and most religions, come from overseas? Guan Yu and the folk religion around him have come to be part of Korea's traditions too, not just China's.

Maybe it's the marketing of the shrines now. In 2014, the Seoul Metropolitan Government wrote about Dongmyo: "Today as China's campaign to revive Sino-centrism is growing, Dongmyo, enshrining the Chinese god Guan Yu, is also seen in an uncomfortable way. Seen from that perspective, Dongmyo and the relics held in it clearly have value as a "weighted heritage" carrying the significant message that history must not be repeated."


Jacco Zwetsloot has lived in Korea for 14 years. He has held a number of jobs in this country, and calls himself a Jacco-of-all-trades. Currently Jacco is studying for a Master's degree in Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has previously spoken to the RAS on Hollywood movies set and filmed in Korea, North Korean comic books, and Japanese-run POW camps in Korea during World War II.

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