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    The Many Faces of China’s Most Popular Deity

    Good fortune comes in many forms. It only makes sense that the God of Wealth would, too.

    The Lunar New Year is here, and with it, one of China’s most widely practiced traditional customs: the welcoming of Caishen, the God of Wealth, into one’s home. While typically associated with the fifth day of the first lunar month — which falls on Feb. 14 this year — many Chinese kick off the celebrations a day early, setting off firecrackers in the hopes of luring Caishen into their lives as quickly as possible.

    Strictly speaking, it might be more accurate to call Caishen the “gods of wealth.” In the colossal system of Chinese folk belief, there’s no agreement as to who or what Caishen is — or even how many there are. The term is a catch-all for a wide range of figures, from historical personages like Prince Bi Gan or Guan Yu of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” fame to the devilish, many-faced Wutong Shen, a collection of spirits just as likely to defile a woman as bring her family wealth.

    But if you asked a Chinese person to name the God of Wealth they welcome into their home each year, they would probably say Zhao Gongming. Also known as Lord Zhao the Marshal, Zhao was a legendary general who lived more than 2,000 years ago and is the most prominent of Caishen’s forms, at least on the Chinese mainland.

    Zhao wasn’t always associated with wealth. Although he had entered China’s pantheon by the Jin dynasty (266–420), he was originally associated with the spread of disease, not good fortune. For example, in Gan Bao’s “In Search of the Supernatural,” a compilation of legends and stories dating to the Eastern Jin period (317–420), Zhao and two other divine generals are tasked by the Heavenly Emperor with spreading plague among humankind.

    As late as the Yuan (1271–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, Zhao was still closely associated with the spread and prevention of plague. According to a contemporary compendium of folk religious beliefs, the “Sanjiao Yuanliu Soushen Daquan,” Zhao oversaw the spread of disease and pestilence each fall.

    But elsewhere in the compendium’s pages, readers could find a drastically different description of Zhao as a dark-skinned, bearded figure seated atop a tiger, holding an iron cudgel in his hand and wearing a crown atop his head. This version of Zhao — which remains the source of most popular depictions of the deity even today — is described as being responsible for dispelling, not spreading, the plague, saving people from disease, and blessing those who trade fairly.

    The gap in these two accounts of Zhao from the same book suggests that his image shifted in the Yuan-Ming period. This can also be seen in story collections like the early 16th century “Gengsi Bian,” in which a gambler and longtime supplicant of Zhao’s loses his family fortune betting on cricket fights. He prays to Zhao for help, and the god answers by transforming his tiger into a cricket, helping the man which back twice his original fortune in just 10 days.

    But Zhao would not complete his transition to Caishen until “The Investiture of the Gods” — a wildly popular 16th-century novel that reshaped the Chinese pantheon — bestowed upon Zhao and his four subordinates titles related to wealth, treasure, and business success. In the novel, the five also shared responsibility for pursuing fugitives, which, as the academic Luan Baoqun has shown, would include the work of collecting debts — a task that might have further associated them with money in the public mind.

    Although the popularity of “The Investiture of the Gods” crowded some traditional deities out of the pantheon, alternative forms of Caishen continued to be worshipped across China. It helps that the barriers to deification are low: Just about anyone associated with wealth can be worshipped as Caishen. That includes two legendary tycoons from Chinese history: Fan Li, a politician and strategist who lived during the Spring and Autumn period (770–481 B.C.), and Shen Wansan, a businessman who lived during the late Yuan and early Ming. Loyal officials and generals like Guan Yu and Prince Bi Gan are also popular candidates for worship as gods of wealth, perhaps because their character traits — intelligence, honesty, and loyalty — are also seen as key to commercial success.

    In some areas, animals, too, can be venerated as Caishen. In “Yong’an Biji,” the late-Qing-dynasty (1644–1911) author Xue Fucheng writes that Chinese from the north believed five animals — snakes, foxes, hedgehogs, rats, and weasels — are gods of wealth and dared not offend them. That fear did not always hold, however. In some stories, the animals are in fact flesh-and-blood incarnations of money: Strike a snake and it could lead you to a pot of gold.

    But of all the Caishen deities worshipped in China, the strangest — and most controversial — might be Wutong Shen. The origins and evolution of the Wutong Shen are something of a muddle, but generally speaking, the earliest beings worshipped as Wutong Shen were local protector gods, most often deceased members of the community.

    Around the time of the Song dynasty (960–1279), some inhuman spirits became associated with the “Wutong” moniker and began committing acts of evil, after which the name became notorious. Sometimes described as five beings, other times as one, the Wutong Shen are best known for their lust, and they might richly reward the families of any women they defiled, provided they kept their silence.

    That was apparently enough for Wutong Shen to become associated with Caishen, and many Chinese began paying homage to the deities, despite their malicious side. Hong Mai, a scholar who lived during the Song, recorded numerous stories about the Wutong in “Yijianzhi,” his collection of the miraculous, mysterious, and strange. One is about a man named Wu Er who believes that Wutong Shen could tell him if he would profit or fail in business. Another story recounts the tale of a merchant named Liu Wu who gains wealth beyond his wildest dreams by offering sacrifices, only to anger the deities with his arrogance and lose everything.

    Indeed, there are plenty of tales of the Wutong Shen bamboozling their money-chasing followers. In one, Shen Yi, a hotelier, receives a visit from five noblemen one night. As soon as Shen realizes who they are, he begins praying to them for good fortune and, in answer, is given a cloth bag filled with silver wine vessels. To make it easier to carry home, Shen stomps on the bag to flatten the items inside. Upon his return, Shen finds that the bag actually contains his own silver wine vessels, stolen from his home by the Wutong Shen and now shattered to pieces. In the end, Shen must pay an exorbitant price to a craftsman to restore his silverware to their original state.

    Unsurprisingly, many Chinese paid homage to Wutong Shen, not out of devotion but out of fear. An offering was a small price to pay to keep one’s home and family safe from supernatural depredations.

    Although once among the most worshipped deities in China, the Wutong cult has largely faded from popular memory, in part because of official crackdowns on its practice during the Qing. But demonic energy notwithstanding, they’re probably the most human of the Caishen deities: lustful, capricious, and fond of mischief. They bestow riches upon those who flatter them but also take back that wealth on a whim: Easy come, easy go.

    Translator: Katherine Tse.

    (Header image: A man dressed as Caishen passes out red packets in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Feb. 3, 2024. Chen Jimin/CNS/VCG)