An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Hou Tu 后土, the Goddess of the Earth

Jun 30, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Hou Tu 后土 "Lord of the Earth" (or "Goddess of the Earth") was a natural deity venerated in the state offerings until the end of imperial China. This deity was also called Dizhi 地祗 and was the analogon of the Great Unity (taiyi 太一) representing Heaven. The offerings to the Earth took place in summer. During the later Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), the altar of the earth used to be erected in the environment of the capital, mostly in the south.

In Daoist thought, Hou Tu was an assistant deity to the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, god of the Celestial centre, and is one of the Four Guides 四御. As an assistant, Hou Tu was equipped with a rope used to survey the earth.

According to the Confucian Classic Liji 禮記 (chapter Jifa 祭法), Hou Tu was a son of Gong Gong 共工 who reigned over the nine provinces. Hou Tu's function was to equalize (ping 平) all regions of the empire. He was thus venerated as the deity of the soil. It is also said in the chapter Yueling 月令 that the centre of the world was governed by the Yellow Emperor as the "emperor" or "sovereign" (di 帝) and Hou Tu as its spirit (shen 神).

In a fragment of an apocryphal text, the Xiaojing wei 孝經緯, it is explained that the world is too vast to be venerated in one single deity, so that local shrines (she 社) were erected in which the soil or earth is offered sacrifices in each single community in the shape of deities of the local community (sheshen 社神).

The collection Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of the South” explains that Hou Tu governed the dark realm (youdu 幽都) below the surface of the earth.

In a wider sense, Hou Tu is sometimes used as a title for officials of the local government administering soil and estates (tu zheng 土正 "rectifier of the soil").

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