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Religions in China - Leishen 雷神, the God of Thunder


The God of Thunder (leishen 雷神) is a popular deity that is also included in the Daoist pantheon. He is adored as a deity caring for sufficient rains. Sometimes he is thought to be assisted by several functionaries.
The phantastic geographical book Shanhaijing 山海經 from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) says that in Lake Leize 雷澤 (Zhenze 震澤, modern Taihu 太湖) there were dragon gods. They had the body of a dragon and the head of a human. Using to drum upon their belly, their produced the sound of thunder. In another text of the same book it is said that the God of Thunder is a green or gray oxen, but he has no horns, and only one foot. In this case, the sound of thunder corresponds to his voice. When the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 fought against Chi You 蚩尤 he was able to obtain a drum whose skin was made of the skin of a dragon-like beast called kuiniu 夔牛 that had lived on a mountain in the Eastern Sea. This drum was beaten with the bone of a "thunder beast" (leishou 雷獸) that was able to produce a sound that could be heard in a distance of five hundred miles. Guo Pu 郭普, a Jin period 晉 (265-420) commentator to the Shanhaijing, explained that the thunder beast was nothing else than a thunder god. The Song period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽 quotes from an apocryphal text to the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", Shiwei hanshen wu 詩緯含神霧, where it is said that the Thunder God gave birth to Fu Xi 伏羲, the mythological creator of the universe.
Southern traditions also know the person of Lei Gong 雷公 "Master of Thunder", who is mentioned in the poem Yuanyou 遠遊 of the collection Chuci 楚辭 “Southern Poetry”, and described in Wang Chong’s 王充 Lunheng 論衡. He says that the Master of Thunder holds "joint drums" (liangu 連鼓) in his left, and a hammer in his right hand, so produces the sound of thunder, and from time to time also kills persons. The text says nothing about the appearance of the god himself, but more recent pictures show him in the shape of a man-bird, with wings and claws. Gan Bao's 干寶 Soushenji 搜神記 from the Jin period says that he had the shape of a monkey, while Fang Qianli's 房千里 Touhuang zalu 投荒雜錄 from the Tang period describes him as a creature with the head of a pig and the body of a unicorn. Another Tang period text, Li Zhao's 李肇 Tang guoshi bu 唐國史補, likewise says that the Master of Thunder had the appearance of a pig, with protruding lips, as it is still shown in more modern illustrations like the Sanjiao soushen daquan 三教搜神大全. In this book, dating from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), it is said that there was once a man who prepared a chicken as a meal for his mother, yet he was slain by a thunderstroke whereupon he transformed into a divine cock that was no one else than the Master of Thunder. The God of Heaven (i. e. the Yellow Emperor) gave him the title of Leimen Gou yuanshuai 雷門茍元帥 "Marshal Gou of the Thunder Gate". The encyclopedia Taiping guangyi 太平廣記 quotes from the Diwang shiji 帝王世紀 where it is said that a minister of the Yellow Emperor with the family name Xiong 熊 was the master of thunder. Another minister was Qi Bo 歧伯 (or 岐伯) who was a famous physician who discussed the nature of human veins and testes herbs and materia medica for the compilation of the books Bencao 本草 (see Shen Nong bencao 神農本草) and Suwen 素問 (see Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經). He was subordinated to the Master of Thunder and was entrusted with the collection of herbs. He was called Zhuo Mu 斫木 (also written Zhuo Mu 啄木) and also had the shape of a bird, as a fragment of the book Guyizhuan 古異傳 says that is to be found in the collection Gu xiaoshuo gouchen 古小說鉤沈.
Stories from the Tang and Song period use the motif of a God of Thunder who punished persons of improper and unfilial conduct. There are also stories of the wives of the God of Thunder. Shen Jiji's 沈既濟 collection Leimin zhuan 雷民傳 from the Tang period, for instance, narrates the story of a village in the prefecture of Leizhou 雷州 where a large egg appeared in the house of the family Chen 陳 during days of heavy rain. After a few months, a baby came out of the egg that was bred out by the heat of a lightning stroke. The story of Chen Wenyu 陳文玉, the baby, can be found in enlarged and somewhat altered versions in the book Soushenji (Daozang version 道藏本), and Sanjiao soushen daquan. According to the Soushenji, Master Chen obtained the egg during a hunt. The baby, crawling out of the egg, bore an inscription inside his hand, reading "Prefecture of Thunder (Leizhou)". He later became regional inspector (cishi 刺史), but died prematurely, and was locally venerated in a shrine. In bad wheather flashed spring out the the shrine. During the Song period Chen Wenyu was posthumously bestowed the title of a prince (wang 王) and was given the epithet Xianzhen 顯震 "Glaring Thunder". From 1275 on the shrine bore the name of Weihua 威化 "Culturing authority". In 1197 the God of Thunder from Leizhou was named Prince Guangyou 廣佑王 "Broadly Assisting", in 1076 Prince Weide 威德王 "Authoritative Virtue", in 1167 the designation Zhaoxian 昭顯 "Apparent Clarity" was added, and in 1251 the name Puji 普濟 "Widely Rescuing", in 1275 the cognomen Yingling 英靈 "Blooming Spirit".
Du Guangting's 杜光庭 revised version of the Daomen kefan daquan ji 道門科範大全集 some deities are mentioned that are invoked to bring rain and snow, namely the "Earl of the Wind" (Feng Bo 風伯) and the "General of the Rain" (Yu Shi 雨師), as well as the "Master of Thunder" (Lei Gong) and the "Mother of Lightnings" (Dian Mu 電母). Du Guangting's Shenxian ganyu zhuan 神仙感遇傳 includes a story in which the God of Thunder was once jammed by the branch of a tree. With the help of leaves he uttered sounds to call for help. He gave a black talisman to his rescuer that allowed him to produce thunder and rain, to heal illness, and to support people in distress.
Invoking thunder and rain was a ritual ceremony especially used by the adherents of the Shenxiao 神霄派 and Qingwei 清微派 schools of Daoism. In their pantheon, the highest God of Thunder has the title of Jiutian yingyuan leisheng puhua tianzun 九天應元雷聲普化天尊 "Celestial Venerated of Spreading the Sound of Thunder of the Nine Heavens corresponding to the Primordial Origin". The General of Thunder and the Master of Thunder are subordinated to this deity. There is even a scripture dedicated to the thunder deity, the Jiutian yingyuan leisheng puhua tianzun yushu baojing 九天應元雷聲普化天尊玉樞寶經. In this book it is said that people who are not loyal towards their rulers, and not filial towards their parents, or not obedient to their disciplinarians, will be killed by the five thunders.
There were many shrines of the God of Thunder throught the empire. The late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) writer Huang Feiran 黄斐然 says in his book Jishuo quanzhen 集說詮真 that goes about popular customs, that the God of Thunder was mostly depicted as a man with a bare and strong upper part of the body, wings on his back, and three eyes on is front. His face is red as that of a monkey, and his lower jaws are protruding like a blade. His feet are like the sharp claws of a hawks. His left hand holds a wedge, his right hand a hammer, with which he beats his five drums.

Lei Zu 雷祖 "Ancestress of Thunder" is another name for Lei Zu 嫘祖, spouse of the Yellow Emperor.

Sources: Yuan Ke 袁珂 (ed. 1985), Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), pp. 402-403. ● Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

December 22, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail