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Religions in China - Zhenwu dadi 真武大帝, the Martial or Black Emperor


Zhenwu dadi 真武大帝 "Great Emperor of the Perfect Martiality", also called Xuantian shangdi 玄天大帝 "High Emperor of the Mysterious Heaven", or shortly Xuanwu 玄武 "Mysterious or Black Warrior" is in popular religion the deity representing the cardinal direction north, and one of the highest deities in the Daoist pantheon.
The word xuanwu is a general term for the seven northern constellations (xiu 宿) of the 28 Starry Constellations known in Chinese astronomy. The term can already be found in writings from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) , for instance, in the rhapsody Yuanyou 遠遊 "The far-off journey" of the collection Chuci 楚辭 "Poetry of the South". The commentator Hong Xingzu 洪興祖 says that xuanwu means "snake and turtle" (gui she 龜蛇) that are living in the (dark) north, and that are therefore called xuan 玄 "mysterious" or "dark". The snake has a scaly body, and the turtle a carcass, both are therefore also called wu 武 "warriors". The four colours of the constellations (the Vermillion Bird 朱雀 for the south, the White Tiger 白虎 for the West, the Green Dragon 青龍 for the East, and the Black Turtle for the North) were also used in military formations, as a commentary to the chapter Quli 曲禮 "Summary of the Rules of Propriety" in the Confucian Classic Liji 禮記 "Rites of the Zhou" says. The colours were used to indicate the officers the direction of tactical movements. The book Huainanzi 淮南子 is the first text in which the cardinal directions are associated with deities. The Xuanwu "Black Warrior" in the north was believed to be an assistant deity of the deified emperor Zhuan Xu 顓頊, who was also sometimes called the "Black Emperor" (Xuan Di 玄帝 or Hei Di 黑帝). In correlative thinking, the north was related to the element Water, one of Five Processes (wuxing 五行), to Emperor Zhuan Xu, and his assistant deity Xuan Ming 玄冥 "Mysterious Darkness". The deity was thought to reside on the planet Mercury (chenxing 辰星), and its symbolic animals was the black turtle. According to an apocryphal text about the River Chart Hetu 河圖 the personal name of the deity "Black Emperor" was Yeguangji 葉光紀, and his essence (jing 精) was a black turtle. See also the Wulaojun 五老君 "Five Old Lords".
This position of a directional deity was for a long time the status of the Black Emperor. In the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) book Baopuzi 抱朴子 (chapter Zaying 雜應) it is said that the deified Daoist philosopher Laozi 老子 was (when being seated like an emperor, facing south) accompanied by 12 green dragons to his left, 26 white tigers to his right, 24 vermillion birds in front of him, and 72 black turtles in his back that all proteced him. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) the Black Emperor was still believed to have the shape of a turtle-snake, as told, for instance, in Duan Chengshi's 段成式 book Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎. In the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960) book Lingyinlu 靈應錄 by Yu Ti 于逖 there is tale of a man who accidentally killed a turtle and so evoked misfortune upon him.
The status of the Black Emperor rose considerably during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), when he was elevated tot he position of a protective deity against the enemies in the north, namely the Khitans 契丹 that had founded the Liao empire 遼 (907-1125). There were even phantastic stories circulating like in Yang Yi's 楊億 book Tanyuan 談苑 where it is said that during the Kaibao reign 開寶 (968-975) of the Song dynasty a deity descended on Mt. Zhongnan 終南山 who explained that he was the "Black Noxious General" Heisha jiangjun 黑煞將軍, one of the great celectial generals, like Zhenwu 真武 and Tianpeng 天蓬 (天蓬元帅). When Emperor Taizong 宋太宗 (r. 976-997) ascended to the throne he had built a shrine on the northern slope of Mt. Zhongnan, and in 981 the deity was bestowed the canonical title Yisheng jiangjun 翊聖將軍 "Assistant Sacred General" which was enlarged in 1014 to Yisheng baode zhenjun 翊聖保德真君 "Assistant sacred perfect lord protecting virtue". From then on the four celestial marshals (yuanshuai 元帥) Xuanwu 玄武, Yisheng 翊聖, Tianpeng 天蓬 and Tianyou 天猷 were called the "Four Saints" (sisheng 四聖). In order to avoid the tabooed personal name of late Emperor Shengzu 宋聖祖 (the posthumous title of the dynastic founder's ancestor) which was Zhao Xuanlang 趙玄朗, the deity Xuanwu "Black Warrior" was renamed in Zhenwu 真武 "Perfect warrior". In 1018 his canonical title was changed to Zhenwu lingying zhenjun 真武靈應真君 "Perfect warrior, perfect lord of the numinous fulfilment", and in 1108 to Yousheng zhenwu lingyin zhenjun 佑聖真武靈應真君 "Assistant saint, perfect warrior, perfect lord of the numinous fulfillment". During the reign of Emperor Qinzong 宋欽宗 (r. 1125-1126) this name was enlarged to Yousheng zhushun zhenwu lingyin zhenjun 佑聖助順真武靈應真君 "Assistant saint supporting success, perfect warrior, perfect lord of the numinous fulfillment".
From oldest times Daoist masters venerated starry constellations, and among these especially the Northern Dipper (beidou 北斗, approximately the Ursa maior). There was a common saying that the Southern Dipper "poured out life", the Northern Dipper "poured out death" (Nandou zhu sheng, Beidou zhu si 南斗注生,北斗注死). The promotion of the Black Emperor as a martial deity was shared by many Daoist schools who were on the one hand interested in being patronized by the court, and on the other side were interested in the astrological powers of the Northern Dipper anyway. Some new stories were therefore created that explained the mythical and spiritual character of the Black Emperor. The scripture Taishang shuo xuantian dasheng zhenwu benzhuan shenchou miaojing 太上說玄天大聖真武本傳神咒妙經 (shortly called Xuantian dasheng benzhuan 玄天大聖本傳 "Biography of the Great Saint of the Mysterious Heaven") narrates how Empress Shansheng 善勝, wife of the ruler of the country of Jingle 淨樂 in the Highest Palace of Desirelessness 上無欲天宮 in the land of Daluo 大羅, dreamt that she swallowed a sun and became pregnant. During her pregnancy she daily cultivated the Dao and gave birth to 14 months and then to more than 400 stars. In 581 she was born in the royal palace. Grown up, she left father and mother, retired to Mt. Wudang 武當山 where she cultivated the Dao and after 42 years ascended to Heaven. The Jade Emperor 玉皇 received her and gave he the title of Taixuan 太玄 "Greatest mystery", with the task to supervise the northern region.
The same story is also found in Chen Yuanjing's 陳元靚 almanach Suishi guangji 歲時廣記. The Black Emperor was in this text also seen as the 82nd transformation of Laozi, the grand master himself being the 81st transformation (bian 變) of Xuanyuan shengzu 玄元聖祖. The Black Emperor had so climbed the ladder of career from a protective deity to one of the highest deities in the Daoist pantheon. The two animals turtle and snake became representants of evil spirits (mo 魔). In temples the Black Emperor is usually shown with covered hair, black clothes, holding a sword and treading on a snake and a tortoise. His officers hold a black banner.
The status of the Black Emperor increased, when the Jurchens invaded northern China and later the Mongols, founders of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), took over the Song empire. For these northern peoples, the Black Emperor was a protective deity for themselves. The Mongols founded a temple of the Black Emperor 真武廟 in Beijing, as well as a 昭應宮. The term zhenjun 真君 "perfect lord" was accordingly changed to di 帝 "emperor", and his canonical name was changed to 元聖仁威元天上帝 "High Emperor of the Originary Heaven with the Authority of Kindheartedness of the Originary Saintness". When the Mongols withdrew to the steppe and the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) took over, the Black Emperor retained his status. The main reason was that the third emperor of the Ming, Emperor Chengzu 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424, the Yongle Emperor 永樂), had been Prince of Yan 燕 (modern Beijing), and also shifted the capital from Nanjing 南京 in the south to Beijing 北京 in the north. In his campaign to usurp the throne from his nephew, he also made use of the Black Emperor as the protective deity for his troops. He was confirmed in this decision by an advisor called Yao Guangxiao 姚廣孝. After his victory Emperor Chengzu had built a temple for the Black Emperor on Mt. Wudang. During the Ming period therefore, a lot of new scriptures appeared in which the Black Emperor was ever more highly venerated. The Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 alone includes five texts about this deity, namely the Xuantian shangdi shuobao fumu enzhong jing 玄天上帝說報父母恩重經, Xuantian shangdi qisheng lu 玄天上帝啟聖錄, Xuantian shangdi qisheng lingyi lu 玄天上帝啟聖靈異錄, Da-Ming xuantian shangdi ruiying tulu 大明玄天上帝瑞應圖錄, Xuantian shangdi baize shenghao 玄天上帝百字聖號 and Taishang xuantian zhenwu wushang jiangjun lu 太上玄天真武無上將軍籙. In these books the Black Emperor was seen as a transformation of the "Golden Tower" Jinjue 金闕, the primordial breath of the Former Heaven (xiantian shiqi 先天始氣) and certain embodiment of the Highest Extreme (taiji bieti 太極别體). During the age of the Superior Three Emperors (shang sandi 上三皇) the Black Warrior descended, according to these writings, from Heaven as perfect man of the great origin (taishi zhenren 太始真人), during that of the Middle Three Emperors (zhong sanhuang 中三皇) as perfect man of the great beginning (taichu zhenren 太初真人), and during the age of the Inferior Three Emperors (xia sanhuang 下三皇) as perfect man of the great plainness (taisu zhenren 太素真人). During the reign of the Yellow Emperor 黄帝 he transformed in to the sperm of the talisman of the Highest Yang (fu taiyang zhi jing 符太陽之精) that became an embryo in the womb of Empress Shansheng "Victory of Goodness" 善勝皇后 in the Country of Jingle "Pure Joy" 淨樂國. Her pregnancy endured 14 months, and when he was born, it was his eighty-second transformation. His status was so almost equal to the "Three Pures" Sanqing 三清, the highest deities in the Daoist Heaven. In the short scripture Xuantian shangdi baizi shenghao 玄天上帝百字聖號 that is included in the Xu Daozang 續道藏 his honorific name is as long as one hundred characters.

Source: Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

August 10, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail