The History of the Cult of the Heavenly Kings of West Hunan, 1715 – 1996
During the Qing Dynasty and the 20thcentury in Hunan, the cult of the Three Kings, or the White Emperor Heavenly Kings (Baidi tianwang), could not be ignored. No other divinities could match their popularity at the time; their shrines were erected throughout the region and were worshipped by many of the different ethnic groups there.
Indeed, this cult bridged the distance between the different ethnicities Villages and zhai (Miao hamlets) lacking their own shrines sought palanquin visits by the Kings’ images. The Maio would establish temporary shrines if they were far from home even signs were erected to riders and sedan passengers on the roads to alight and walk, out of respect for the Kings.
“In times of violent conflict, Miao and Han would bring the Kings’ images, banners, or vestments into battle against each other. In peaceful times, disputants from all groups settled quarrels with oaths sworn in the presence of the Kings; they would be less likely to violate such oaths, it was reported, than the magistrate’s judgments. So, to ease the burden of court cases in this remote area with its many in-migrants and conflicts over land, officialdom tolerated the shrines and their attendants, the paralegal ritualists who officiated over a sort of divine high court, it’s very this-worldly decisions sanctified by blood oaths before the Heavenly Kings”.
The cult of the Heavenly Kings is an interesting matter for scholars for its juridical functions and its ethnic mix of worshippers. This has lead to scholars asking some unusual questions – ‘Were its powers and political roles unusual? How could its gods attract such diverse groups? Did these gods possess the same mythic meanings for all believers? How did the myths develop and serve the believers?’
Religion has always been an important aspect of Chinese life – gods, both born immortal and born mortal, were prayed to and worshipped and despite being theological, they played important roles in politics, even in the 20thcentury. For example, during the Republic, “irrigation networks in parts of North China formed according to a hierarchy of cult relations”. In addition to this, the government has been emphasising these cults and gods in order to promote local heritage and ethnic cultures.
It is not entirely clear as to when the Cult of the Heavenly Kings actually appeared in Hunan, but it did emerge from the Miao before the Qing formally adopted it in the 18thcentury. “It facilitated relations among the five intermarrying Miao surname groups of the region – Wu, Long, Shi, Ma, and Liao – and distinguished them from other Miao further west in Guizhou Province”. The Miao depicted them at shrines as terrifying and enormous figures and were believed to organise the Miao region’s space and time.
They were also used to help settle matters of justice – before the Kings, arguments would be discussed and resolved, swearing to accept “nine deaths and nine extinctions” if they broke the divinely sanctioned settlement. Indeed, we can see from the beginning that the Miao had a form of unwritten law in a society that lacked other institutions.
In the 17thcentury, the Han soldiers who migrated and transferred to Hunan were highly attracted to this cult. Without protection or authorization, they found that while some Miao were hostile to their presence, others welcomed them. The Han intermarried with these agriculturists and adopted their cult.
“It was natural to believe that indigenous gods so reverently worshipped by the local Miao must govern this alien but not ill-favoured land and protect its residents, and they must have found the cult’s associated legal practices indispensable. The Heavenly Kings appear, therefore, to have been an important agent of assimilation into Miao society. By the mid-eighteenth century, those families surnamed Yang and Zhanga who lived among the Miao had acculturated so thoroughly that Qing sources referred to them as “false Miao,” and later sources commented on how fervently they worshipped the Heavenly Kings”.
Later on, the Qing government were still allowing the Miao to settle disagreements and feuds among themselves before the Heavenly Kings; even though the Han migrants were not allowed to such extra-official means, they used them regularly.
In the early 18thcentury, there were attempts to identify who the Kings were. One writer identified them with Yelang, a native satrap of the former Han dynasty, and renamed them “Bamboo Kings”. In 1751, another scholar stated that they were the Chinese generals who had once conquered the Miao who had then deified them; another account claims that they were “regional loyalists to the state and described them as defenders of the Han dynasty who had resisted the usurper Wang Mang (r. 9-23 CE)”.By the 19thcentury, scholars could still not agree but the Kings had gained a huge following and respectability.
The cult gained in prestige throughout the 19thcentury. In 1837 and 1847, they received further honours and in 1856 were “promoted with the title “king” (wang); their official honorific title now numbered eight characters”. With such a mixture of ethnic groups believing in the gods – Han, Miao, Tujia – he matter of their origin rose once more; a scholar suggested that they “were representations, in successive earthly forms, of the same spirit-an eminently Daoist solution. These elaborations of the Kings’ myth of origin reflect the contribution of many groups to its evolving forms”.
The question, ‘why was the cult of the Heavenly Kings so popular?’ has been asked repeatedly. According to one scholar, it was a matter of ethnic identity and communication. “Long before the region’s incorporation in the early eighteenth century, the Heavenly Kings cult was a source of identity and means of communication among local people, its origins obscured and consequently always open to reinterpretation. Ambiguity and mystery were key reasons for its adaptability, so well reflected in its mythic narratives”.
Even up to the 1990s, the cult of the Heavenly Kings was a big part of community life in modern Western Hunan Province; the origins and the history of the Kings narratives expressed everyone’s anxieties about life, death, hardship, and uncertainty.
Sutton, Donald S. (2000) Myth Making on an Ethnic Frontier: The Cult of the Heavenly Kings of West Hunan, 1715- 1996, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.