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Religions in China - Menshen 門神, the Door Gods


The Door-Gods (menshen 門神) are deities in popular religion that were included into the Daoist pantheon. The oldest reference to the door-gods can be seen in the Classic Liji 禮記 "Book of Rites", chapter Jifa 祭法, where it is said that the king of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) brought seven offerings (si 祀) on behalf of the people. The offerings were delivered in shrines all of which were positioned at palace gates. The regional rulers founded a smaller number of shrines.
The term menshen is first mentioned in Zheng Xuan's 鄭玄 Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) commentary to the chapter Sang da ji 喪大記 in the Liji. The direct veneration of door-gods can be attested in the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) book Lunheng 論衡 that quotes from the pseudo-geography Shanhaijing 山海經 (the passage is not to be found in the received version of the Shanhaijing). It is decribed in this text that a kind of shrine that was erected ontop of Mt. Taodu 桃都. Its gates served to repell evil ghosts that are bound with the help of certain rituals that were invented by the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. Therefore the figures of the gods Shentu 神荼 and Yulei 郁垒 were painted upon the doors, together with a tiger. The names of the two door-gods are also called Yu 郁 and Lei 垒 in the apocryphal text Hetu kuodi xiang 河圖括地象. They were equipped with reed ropes (weisuo 葦索), to feed and kill evil spirits. The Han period encyclopedia Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義 calls the two brother gods Tu 荼 and Yulei 郁垒. In this text, the rope served to bound evil ghosts that were then fed to tigers. The short political compendium Duduan 獨斷 also narrates the story of the giant peach tree on Mt. Dushuo 度朔, the northern branches of which serve as a gate to impede ghosts from entering. There was an exorcist ceremony at the end of the twelfth month.
The Qing period scholar Yu Zhengxie 俞正燮 doubted that there were two door-gods in the beginning. He was of the opinion that the original deity was only one figure made of peach wood called Yulei 郁垒, Yulei 郁儡 or Tulei 荼垒, which can be attested in Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin period 晉 (265-420) texts. Yet other texts definitely speak of two persons. It seems that early Daoist scholars preferred acknowledging only one deity that was seen as the "Ghost Emperor of the East" (Dongfang guidi 東方鬼帝). The people preferred to use two wooden figures or wooden planks (xianmu 仙木 "supernatural wood") to protect the doors. Alternatively, two figures were attached to the two wings of the main gate. The left deity was called, according to the book Jing-Chu suishi ji 荆楚歲時記 (as a quotation in the collection Leishuo 類說.), Shentu, the right one Yulei. The Sui period 隋 (581-618) book Yuzhu baodian 玉燭寶典 by Du Taiqing 杜臺卿 also mentions this custom. Chen Yuanjing's 陳元靚 Suishi guangji 歲時廣記 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279) mentions a "peach sign" (taofu 桃符) that is painted on the doors. According to this text, the Door-Gods were equipped with cuirasses and holding halberds. Alternatively or additionally, the doors could be inscribed with ominous slogans and wishes for the new year. The Song period encyclopedia Shiwu jiyuan 事物紀原 by Gao Cheng 高承 quotes from older texts says that this custom had its origins in the times of the Yellow Emperor.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) the story of the ghost-fighter Zhong Kui 鍾馗 became very popular. He was therefore also occasionally used as a guard of house entrances. This is attested in the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) encyclopedia Tianzhongji 天中記 by Chen Yaowen 陳耀文 where the book Tangyishi 唐逸史 is quoted. In this story the emperor dreamt of a large ghost (Zhong Kui) that defeated and fettered a small ghost. A painting of Zhong Kui was therefore created that was to protect the imperial chamber against evil spirits. The existence of Zhong Kui paintings (Zhong Kui hua 鍾馗畫) or calendar images (Zhong Kui liri 鍾馗曆日) is attested in other Tang period writings. The use of such painting as talismans at door wings is proved in quotations from Yang Shen's collected writings Yang Shen waiji 楊慎外集 (in Gu Lu's 顧禄 book Qingjialu 清嘉錄), in Shi Xuan's 史玄 book Jiujing yishi 舊京遺事 from the Ming period, and also in Gu Yanwu's 顧炎武 Rizhilu 日知錄.
During the Yuan period the names of the door-gods were also said to be Qin Shubao 秦叔寶 and He Jingde 胡敬德 (or Yuchi Jingde 尉遲敬德). These names are mentioned in the Zhengtong daozang 正統道藏 version of the Soushenji 搜神記, and in the book Sanjiao soushen daquan 三教搜神大全. These two persons are said to have been Tang period generals. The two generals appeased ghosts that were hounting the imperial palace under Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649). The historical authenticity of the two generals can not be ascertained. The story was only circulating as late as the end of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126). Doors might therefore also be inscribed with the words Qin Jun 秦軍 "General Qin" and Hu Shuai 胡帥 "Marshal Hu".
The use of door-gods during the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) is mentioned in the anonymous book Fengchuang xiaodu 楓窗小牘 and in Zhao Yushi's 趙與時 Bintuilu 賓退錄, yet both books only say that the door-gods were wearing cuirasses. The name of the two generals only appears during the late Ming period. It is also said that the two wings of the front door were protected by Shentu and Yulei, while the rear gate was protected by Zhong Kui, or the words Zhong Kui jinshi 鍾馗進士 "Metropolitan Graduate Zhong Kui".
In Suzhou, Jiangsu, the two door-gods were called General Wen 温將軍 and Marshal Yue 岳元帥. Their paintings were coloured in five different colours. General Wen might be identical to the Jin period general Wen Jiao 溫嶠, or with General Wen Qiong 溫瓊, one of the military leaders of the deity Dongyue dadi 東嶽大帝. Marshal Yue is nobody else than the hero Yue Fei 岳飛. In other places, the two door-gods are called the civilian door-god (wen menshen 文門神) and the military door-god (wu menshen 武門神), reflecting the administrative dualty of the Chinese empire, as well as the "door-god praying for fortune" (qishen menshen 祈福門神). The latter is a unification of the Three Star deities 福禄壽星三神. In other communities, the door-gods are identified with Zhao Yun 趙雲 (a general of the early Three Empires period 三國, 220-280), Zhao Gongming 趙公明, Sun Bin 孫臏, or Pang Juan 龐涓 (the last three were generals during the Warring States period 戰國, 5th cent.-221 BCE).
Daoist shrines and monasteries had their own specialized door-gods. Yao Fuyun's 姚福均 book Zhuding yuwen 鑄鼎餘聞 quotes from the Song period books Yueyang fengtu ji 岳陽風土記 in which it is said that the shrine of Laozi was protected by a Green Dragon 青龍 and a White Tiger 白虎. The Ming period scholar Yao Zongyi 姚宗儀, who wrote the book Changshu sizhi 常熟私志, says that the Green Dragon was also called Meng Zhang shenjun 孟章神君 "Divine Lord Meng Zhang", and the White Tiger was called Jianbing shenjun 監兵神君 "Divine Lord Supervising the Army".
These various forms and names of door-gods were used side by side, often locally, or restricted to certain social contexts. The Qing period scholar Li Diaoyuan 李調元 therefore writes in his Xin soushen ji 新搜神記 that the custom of the civilian and the military god was used by some persons, while other preferred Shentu and Yulei, or believed in the story of the generals Yuchi Gong 尉遲恭 and Qin Qiong 秦瓊 who protected the imperial palace.

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.

August 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail