The Jade Emperor: Taoist Ruler of Heaven – and Celestial Bureaucrat

The Jade Emperor is not only a notable figure in Chinese mythology, but also one of the most important deities in Taoism and in Chinese folk religion. Today, the Jade Emperor is regarded as the supreme ruler of Heaven, guiding the affairs of mortals via a bureaucracy not unlike that which was once used in imperial China. Considering the Jade Emperor’s significance as the ruler of Heaven, the history of his worship is rather peculiar. In the early Taoist writings, he was either a minor deity, or not even mentioned at all. In fact, it was only later on, during the Tang Dynasty, that the Jade Emperor became an important deity. Apart from his religious significance, the Jade Emperor also appears in many Chinese myths.

Becoming the Jade Emperor: Popular Folk Take of Zhang Denglai

The Jade Emperor is known by a variety of names. In the Chinese language, he is known either as Yu Huang, or Yu Di. He is formally known as the Pure August Jade Emperor, or the August Personage of Jade, and informally as the Heavenly Grandfather. There are two stories regarding the Jade Emperor’s origin, which, interestingly, contradict each other. One of them is a popular folk tale, whilst the other is derived from Taoism. In the former, the Jade Emperor is depicted as attaining his position by pure chance, whereas in the latter, he is portrayed as earning it through his personal virtue, and the cultivation of Tao.

According to the popular folk tale, the Jade Emperor was originally a mortal by the name of Zhang Denglai. He is said to have been a minor functionary or common soldier who lived around the end of the Shang Dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty . Zhang Denglai was one of the many people who died during the civil war that resulted in the toppling of the Shang Dynasty. As he fought for the Zhou Dynasty, Zhang Denglai was posthumously rewarded. These rewards were being distributed by Jiang Ziya, a noble who was instrumental in overthrowing the Shang Dynasty. One by one, the highest positions in the heavenly hierarchy were filled, until only the office of the Jade Emperor was left.  

The story goes that Jiang Ziya was reserving the top position for himself. When he was offered the office of Jade Emperor, however, he paused with customary courtesy, and told the people “ deng lai ,” which means “wait a second,” so that he could consider the offer. Zhang Dengai, hearing his name mentioned by Jiang Ziya, seized the opportunity, came forward, prostrated himself before Jiang Ziya, and thanked him for the appointment as Jade Emperor. Realizing his mistake, Jiang Ziya was speechless, but at the same time, was unable to retract his words.

The Jade Emperor is known by many names. In the Chinese language, he is known either as Yu Huang, or Yu Di. (Public domain)

The Jade Emperor is known by many names. In the Chinese language, he is known either as Yu Huang, or Yu Di. (Public domain )

Another Take: The Taoist Origin Story

By contrast, the Taoist origin story of the Jade Emperor is quite different. In this version of events, the Jade Emperor was originally the crown prince of the Kingdom of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments (translated also as the Kingdom of the Miraculous Joy of the Garland of Brightness). According to this story, the Jade Emperor was born of a virgin. As the king was a sick and elderly man, his queen prayed for an heir to inherit the throne. One night, she had a vision of the Taoist philosopher Laozi, and thereafter became miraculously pregnant. Even as an infant, the Jade Emperor was different from all other children. He is said to have been able to walk and talk before his peers, and was incredibly compassionate, patient, and kind. As a child the Jade Emperor spent his time helping the needy, showing respect and benevolence to all creatures.

After his father’s death, the Jade Emperor became the new ruler of his kingdom, and made sure that all his subjects were able to attain happiness and prosperity. This task was accomplished in a few short years, after which the Jade Emperor abdicated. After giving up his throne, the Jade Emperor left for the Bright and Fragrant Cliff, where he cultivated Tao. After a long period of cultivation, study, and practice, the Jade Emperor attained immortality, and became a deity.

According to another Taoist story, perhaps a follow-up from the previous one, the Jade Emperor originally served as an assistant to Yuanshi Tianzun, whose name translates to mean “Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning” or “Primeval Lord of Heaven.” Yuanshi Tianzun is one of the Three Pure Ones, and is believed to have personally chosen the Jade Emperor to be his successor. It is also believed that the Jade Emperor will eventually be succeeded by the “Heavenly Master of the Dawn of Jade of the Golden Door.”

The Jade Emperor surrounded by attendants holding court to local god, as seen on a Chinese handscroll from the 1600s. ( The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public domain)

Rising Out of Obscurity to Become the Supreme Taoist Deity

Historically speaking, the Jade Emperor was either a minor or unknown deity prior to the Tang Dynasty . It was only during this period that the Jade Emperor’s status in the Taoist pantheon was raised. In time, the Jade Emperor was worshipped by believers as the supreme deity of Taoism, and writers and poets who wrote about him acknowledged him as such. In folk religion, the Jade Emperor was regarded as the celestial equivalent of the Chinese emperor, and came to replace older deities such as Tianweng (“Father Heaven”), and Zhang Tiandi (“Heavenly Emperor Zhang”), who were previously worshipped as “rulers of Heaven.”

During the Song Dynasty, which succeeded the Tang Dynasty, the Jade Emperor was included as one of the deities to whom sacrifices were offered by the state. Apart from that, the Jade Emperor was merged with the more impersonal Haotian Shangdi (“High Ancestor of Bright Heaven”). Moreover, during the reign of Emperor Huizong , in the early 12 th century, the Jade Emperor was given the title Haotian Yuhuang Shangdi (“High Ancestor of Bright Heaven, Jade Emperor”).

When the Song Dynasty ended, however, the Jade Emperor lost his position as a state deity. Nevertheless, offerings could still be made to the Jade Emperor, though only on a personal basis. Although the Jade Emperor lost his status as an “official” deity, he was still worshipped as the supreme deity by the Chinese people. At some point, he was even given the Buddhist title Qingjing Ziran Juewang Rulai (“Pure King of the Natural Enlightenment, Tathagata”). This is an example of the fluidity of Taoism and Buddhism in China, and how deities from one pantheon may be assimilated within another.

The Jade Emperor is included in the 16th century Chinese literary masterpiece Journey to the West, where he crosses paths with Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, seen here. (Public domain)

The Jade Emperor is included in the 16 th century Chinese literary masterpiece Journey to the West, where he crosses paths with Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, seen here. ( Public domain )

The Jade Emperor in Chinese Mythology, Folk Tales and Literature

Apart from religion, the Jade Emperor is also a significant figure in Chinese mythology, folk tales, and literature. A popular folk tale involving the Jade Emperor pertains the creation of the Chinese zodiac. There are several variations to the story, though most of them revolve around a race to the Jade Emperor’s palace. In order to select the two zodiacs, the Jade Emperor sent letters to all the animals in the world, informing them that the first twelve animals who arrived at his palace would be included in the zodiac.

The story is perhaps most notable for explaining the reason behind the animosity between cats and rats. In the story, the rat and the cat were originally friends. The cat had a habit of oversleeping, so the rat offered to wake him up on the day of the race. When the day of the race arrived, however, the rat was so excited that he forgot to wake the cat up. Another version of the story states that the rat deliberately let the cat oversleep, so that he could have a shot at being included in the zodiac.

This deity is a character in one of the best-known works of Chinese Literature, Journey to the West , written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16 th century, during the Ming Dynasty. In the novel, the Jade Emperor had the rather unfortunate experience of having to deal with Sun Wukong, known also as the Monkey King, one of the story’s main characters. Sun Wukong was a powerful troublemaker who wanted to attain immortality. Prior to his encounter with the Jade Emperor, Sun Wukong had already caused trouble in the underwater palace of Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, and in the Underworld. These actions brought Sun Wukong to the attention of the Jade Emperor, who, in order to keep an eye on the Monkey King, and to avoid further conflict, decided to give him the position of Keeper of the Heavenly Horses, an insignificant office in the celestial bureaucracy.

Although Sun Wukong was initially delighted with his post, his joy turned to anger when he found out that this was in fact a lowly office of little importance. Therefore, he left Heaven, and returned home to the Flower Fruit Mountain, where he declared himself Great Sage Equal to Heaven. In other words, Sun Wukong was rebelling against the Jade Emperor, who in turn assembled a celestial army to crush the Monkey King and his followers. The Jade Emperor’s army, however, failed to defeat Sun Wukong. In order to avoid further conflict, the Jade Emperor allowed Sun Wukong to use his title, which, by the way, was an empty title, and granted him the position of Guardian of the Heavenly Peach Garden.

Sun Wukong abused his position, however, and ended up eating most of the peaches in the garden. Moreover, the Monkey King crashed the immortal peach banquet before the arrival of the guests, as he learnt that he was not invited due to his roughness. Having caused such trouble, Sun Wukong fled to his mountain once again, to await the arrival of the celestial troops. Sun Wukong was finally captured after a long battle and brought to Heaven to be executed. The Monkey King’s body, however, had become indestructible, and in the end, it was decided to put him in Laozi’s eight trigrams furnace for 49 days.

The gods expected Sun Wukong to be turned to ashes, but on the contrary, he emerged completely unharmed. The enraged Monkey King wreaked havoc in Heaven, and the Jade Emperor, powerless to do anything, appeals to the Buddha in the Western Paradise for his aid. The Buddha overcomes Sun Wukong, and the Monkey King is imprisoned under the Five Elements Mountain for the next few centuries, until his released by the Chinese monk Tang Sanzang.

Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. ( sergiswand / Adobe Stock)

Jade Emperor as Head of the Celestial Bureaucracy

The character of the Jade Emperor in Journey to the West may be interpreted in two contrasting ways. On the one hand, Sun Wukong’s negative qualities, i.e. his jealousy, bitterness, and impatience, is contrasted with the Jade Emperor’s positive ones, i.e. his kindness, compassion, and patience. On the other hand, the Jade Emperor may be seen as an incompetent ruler who is only capable of issuing bureaucratic orders. When a powerful outsider, like Sun Wukong, arrives to challenge the established order, the Jade Emperor’s authority quickly crumbles away.

Indeed, in folk religion, the Jade Emperor is normally perceived as the head of the celestial bureaucracy. The heavenly administration is divided into various bureaus, each headed by a bureaucrat-deity, and is in charge of a specific domain. This bureaucracy extends even to the local and familial levels. Each locality is said to have its own city god, whereas each family has its own kitchen god. According to Chinese folk religion, the kitchens gods would return to Heaven during the New Year. These gods would report to the Jade Emperor everything they had seen happening in the household in the previous year. The Jade Emperor would then decide whether the family should be rewarded or punished in the coming year. This has led to the tradition of offering sweets to the kitchen god during the New Year, as a means of sweetening him up, or to make his mouth so sticky that he would not be able to convey his report to the Jade Emperor.

To conclude, the Jade Emperor, as the supreme ruler of Heaven, is no doubt one of the most important deities in Taoism and in Chinese folk religion. Apart from that, he is also a significant figure in Chinese culture, as he appears in Chinese mythology , folk tales, and literature. Interestingly, the various sources tend to portray the Jade Emperor differently, and these portrayals may sometimes even contradict one another. Nevertheless, the Jade Emperor is still a highly-revered deity amongst those who practice Taoism and Chinese folk religion.

Top image: While origin stories of the Jade Emperor vary, he remains one of the most important deities in Taosim and Chinese folk religion. Source: Public domain

By Wu Mingren

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