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    How China Found New Value in Its Oldest Gods

    Salt gods are at the center of some of China’s oldest — and most flexible— folk traditions.

    China’s folk pantheon is as large as it is chaotic. In addition to the host of overlapping gods that can extend favor and protection to all living things, there are scores of minor deities dedicated to particular fields or industries, one scholar putting the number of such beings at over 150. Even the artisans who make tofu and the peddlers who sell sour plum soup on the street have their own gods.

    Some of these gods are considered the pioneers of their respective industries. For instance, Lu Ban is regarded in China’s folk tradition as the original craftsman; now he’s the eponym of the Luban Prize, the country’s highest award for engineering quality. Others are guardians. Mazu, the goddess of fishermen worshipped along China’s southeastern coast, is believed to appear during rough seas to redirect typhoons and ensure safe passage.

    Although such cults have declined over the past century, many trade gods still boast large followings. Some of the most resilient are the country’s various gods of salt — not least because of their supposed power to bring wealth to their adherents.

    A near-necessity for life, salt has had holy connotations for millennia. Given the extreme difficulties ancient Chinese had sourcing it, anyone who discovered salt deposits or mastered salt production was liable to be regarded as a salt god. And unlike other industries, the highly localized and diverse nature of salt production — it can come from seas, lakes, mines, and wells — facilitated the emergence of a pantheon of salt deities, rather than a single patron god of salt.

    Some are mythological figures, like the ancient tribal leader Chi You — a peer of the Yellow Emperor. In some tellings, Chi You’s blood turned into a pool of salt after he died, leading to his deification. Then there’s Sushashi, the leader of an ancient tribe from the northern Chinese coast whose people refined salt for generations. For being the first to extract salt from seawater, he was likewise regarded as a god of salt.

    Other salt gods were historical. Guan Zhong (723–645 B.C.) was a wise minister who gave his state an official monopoly on salt operations. Finally, there were animals of all types, from crows to deer, which were credited with leading humans to salt and thus granted divinity.

    Interestingly, many of these salt gods are also worshipped as gods of wealth, or Caishen. This transition only works one way: A god of salt can be a god of wealth but never vice versa. This is largely because most salt god cults long predate Caishen worship in China, as society traditionally favored agriculture over commerce. It was only during the industrial and commercial flourishing of the Song dynasty (960–1279) that people began worshipping generalized gods of wealth in addition to other deities.

    Two of the most well-known gods of wealth — Zhao Gongming and Guan Yu — are also linked to salt in Chinese mythology. Zhao was linked to salt through Taoism, which made heavy use of salt in elixirs, and he was worshipped as a salt god by people across China.

    As for Guan Yu, he was likewise a god of salt before he became associated with wealth. A famous general known for his loyalty and righteousness, he hailed from the important salt-producing Xie County in Shanxi province. After his death, the locals worshipped him as the protector of their salt ponds. Later generations of Shanxi merchants would gradually begin to see him as a god of wealth and a guardian deity, a belief that spread nationwide.

    Fueling this phenomenon was the strong connection between salt and wealth in imperial China, a side effect of the essential role salt played in its sociopolitical and economic systems. Salt represented such a vital social resource that the loss of power over its control and production could destabilize an entire regime. Moreover, the salt tax was once a primary source of revenue for the imperial court, which meant that to many people — particularly those working in the industry itself, like salt workers, salt merchants, and salt officials — the god of salt really was the god of wealth.

    The duality of salt and wealth also reflects the pragmatism of Chinese folk beliefs. These deities were created out of human self-interest, and they could change as the needs of their adherents changed.

    This explains the varying images of the salt god. The deity’s identity is merely symbolic, and whether he was an actual historical figure, a fictional spirit, or a divine animal is of little interest to believers. Instead, what they value are divinity, superpowers, and the real benefits the god brings them.

    Translator: Katherine Tse.

    (Header image: An interior view of a Temple of Salt God in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 28, 2023. VCG)