I recently attended a presentation by some local officials from Qinzhou, a small and self-consciously humble city on China’s South coast.
Interestingly, the presenters mentioned in passing that since the statue was put up, locals report far less damage from typhoons. This follows the tradition in Chinese folk religion whereby people who were badasses in life often grow increasingly badass after death, and will provide favours for anyone who builds something nice in their honour. Never mind that Sun Yat-Sen was, in fact, a Christian: you’re in our pantheon now, buddy.
The traditional gesture involved putting up a 祠庙 (cimiao) or 祠堂 (cidang), something for which there is no really adquate translation in English. It can be rendered as mausoleum, ancestral shrine or memorial hall, depending upon the translator. (Embarrassingly, I’m not even entirely sure whether cimiao and cidang denote different types of edifice or are merely synonyms.)
The person in question is seldom if ever interred there, nor is his spirit supposed to use it as a home base, as is the case with the Japanese equivalent, of which the most famous example is the Yasukuni Shrine, in which no war criminals are burried but which exists to provide somewhere for their ghosts to hang out and not bother the rest of us (over time, it has come to serve much the same function for a variety of far right crazies).
Moreover, a cimiao is not the equivalent of a cenotaph – while occasional offerings are made to the dead person’s soul, the building also serves as a local function room for meals, celebrations and – more recently – elections. “Memorial hall” is probably the best translation, but if you say that it conjures up an image of a dismal, leaky prefab on the outskirts of some benighted county town, so translators tend to use a little poetic licence and prefer one of the other terms.
Moreover, Chinese folk religion does not go to any great lengths to distinguish between ancestors and gods. To take one famous example, Guan Yu was a historical person who died in 220 and for whose career there exists an abundance of literary evidence. He had a so-so military record – a few successes, a somewhat greater number of defeats – but was famous in literature for being loyal and very strong. Regarding what happened next, we turn to Wikipedia:
In general worship, Guan Yu is widely referred to as “Emperor Guan” (關帝), short for his Taoist title “Saintly Emperor Guan” (關聖帝君), and as “Guan Gong” (關公; literally: “Lord Guan”). Temples and shrines dedicated exclusively to Guan can be found in parts of mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other places with Chinese influence such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. Some of these temples, such as the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou (解州), Shanxi, were built exactly in the layout of a palace, befitting his status as an “emperor”.
The apotheosis of Guan Yu occurred in stages, as he was given ever higher posthumous titles. Liu Shan, the second emperor of Shu, gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of “Marquis Zhuangmou” (壯繆侯) four decades after his death. During the Song dynasty, Emperor Huizong bestowed upon Guan Yu the title of “Duke Zhonghui” (忠惠公), and later the title of a prince. In 1187, during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong, Guan Yu was established as “Prince Zhuangmou Yiyong Wu’an Yingji” (壯繆義勇武安英濟王). After the Song dynasty was annihilated by the Mongols, who established the Yuan dynasty in China, Guan Yu was renamed “Prince of Xianling Yiyong Wu’an Yingji” (顯靈義勇武安英濟王) by Emperor Wenzong.
The escalation of Guan Yu’s status to that of an emperor took place during the Ming dynasty. In 1614, the Wanli Emperor bestowed on Guan Yu the title of “Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven” (三界伏魔大神威遠震天尊關聖帝君). During the Qing dynasty, the Shunzhi Emperor gave Guan Yu the title of “Zhongyi Shenwu Great Saintly Emperor Guan” (忠義神武關聖大帝) in 1644. This title was expanded to “The Grand Emperor Zhongyi Shenwu Lingyou Renyong Weixian Huguo Baomin Jingcheng Suijing Yizan Xuande Guan Sheng Dadi” (仁勇威顯護國保民精誠綏靖翊贊宣德忠義神武關聖大帝), a total of 24 Chinese characters, by the mid-19th century. This name roughly translates to “The Holy and August Emperor Guan, the Loyal, Righteous, of Supernatural Prowess and Spiritual Protection, Whose Benevolence and Courage is Majestically Manifest”. It is often shortened to “Saint of War” (武聖), which is of the same rank as Confucius, who was known as the “Saint of Culture” (文聖) during the same period. The Qing advancement of Guan Yu served to strengthen the loyalty of Mongol tribes, as the Mongols revered Guan as second only to their lamas.
Throughout history, Guan Yu has also been credited with many military successes. During the Ming dynasty, his spirit was said to have aided Zhu Yuanzhang (the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty)’s fleet at the Battle of Lake Poyang. In 1402, Zhu Di launched a coup d’état and successfully deposed his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor. Zhu Di claimed that he was blessed by the spirit of Guan Yu. During the last decade of the 16th century, Guan Yu was also credited with the repulse of Japanese invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi(called the Seven-Year War of Korea). The ruling Manchu house of the Qing dynasty was also associated with Guan Yu’s martial qualities. During the 20th century, Guan Yu was worshipped by the warlord Yuan Shikai, president and later a short-lived emperor of China.
Today, Guan Yu is still widely worshipped by the Chinese, with many shrines to him are found in homes, businesses and fraternal organisations. In Hong Kong, a shrine for Guan is located in each police station. Though by no means mandatory, most Chinese policemen worship and pay respect to him. Although seemingly ironic, members of the triads and Heaven and Earth Society worship Guan as well. Statues used by triads tend to hold the halberd in the left hand, and statues in police stations tend to hold the halberd in the right hand. This signifies which side Guan Yu is worshipped, by the righteous people or vice versa. The appearance of Guan Yu’s face for the triads is usually more stern and threatening than the usual statue. This exemplifies the Chinese belief that a code of honour, epitomised by Guan Yu, exists even in the criminal underworld. In Hong Kong, Guan Yu is often referred to as “Yi Gor” (二哥; Cantonese for “second elder brother”) for he was second to Liu Bei in their fictional sworn brotherhood. Guan Yu is also worshipped by Chinese businessmen in Shanxi, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia as an alternative wealth god, since he is perceived to bless the upright and protect them from the wicked. Another reason being related to the release of Cao Cao during the Huarong Trail incident, in which he let Cao and his men pass through safely. For that, he was perceived to be able to extend the lifespan of people in need.
Among the Cantonese people who emigrated to California during the mid-19th century, the worship of Guan Yu was an important element. Statues and tapestry images of the god can be found in a number of historical California joss houses (a local term for Taoist temples), where his name may be given with various Anglicised spellings, including Kwan Dai, Kwan Tai, Kuan Ti, Kuan Kung, Wu Ti, Mo Dai, Guan Di, Kuan Yu, Kwan Yu, or Quan Yu. The Mendocino Joss House, a historical landmark also known as Mo Dai Miu, the Military God-King’s Temple, or Temple of Kwan Tai, built in 1852, is a typical example of the small shrines erected to Guan Yu in America.
It’s worth noting that there’s a large component of randomness in the elevation process. Of Guan Yu’s earthly bosses – who were both much more successful in life – Liu Bei became the patron diety of shoemakers in Chengdu, and Cao Cao got pretty much nothing (a rare incidence of history failing to favour the victorious).
We’ll be watching Sun Yat-Sen’s postumous career with interest.