The Pantheon of Yunnan Divinities

The Pantheon of Yunnan Divinities

The Pantheon of the deities of Yunnan through the example of the Temple of Shaxi.

To facilitate the understanding of the pantheon of divinities present in the various temples of Yunnan, it is advisable to provide travelers with some additional information on their origins and their representativeness. The Shaxi temple is a model in this area as much for the beauty of its statues as for its exceptional location.

It contains the main venerated deities and the clear imprint of their Tibetan origins.

Songzi Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, is the one who helps the woman to pregnant


Above the main courtyard is the Hall of the Goddess of Compassion (Guan Yin). In this shrine, the Mother Goddess is depicted carrying a baby about her full name “Songzi Guanyin” (the Guan Yin who brings children to the world). The name Guan Yin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “who perceives the lamentations of the World”. It is also the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit name Avalokitesvara, the Indian bodhisattva of wisdom and compassion, steadfast savior of all living beings.

Guanyin is revered by most of the Chinese population because of his unconditional love, compassion, and mercy. In Chinese Buddhism, she is the mother of the goddesses, the great protector of the weak, the sick, and especially of children and babies. In Taoism, she is revered as Songzi Niang Niang, the virgin who brings children. An ancient Chinese belief is that a woman wishing to have a child donates a shoe to a temple in Guanyin. Sometimes a borrowed shoe is used as an offering. Once the child is born, it is returned to its owner accompanied as a thank you for a new pair.

Buddha Sakyamuni


The main shrine of the upper temple celebrates the contemplation of the Buddha’s ascension to the Land of Purity. His hand gesture or mudra calls on earth to contemplate the illumination of Sakyamuni in Bodh Gaya. Here, the Buddha seated on a lotus throne is represented in Bhumisparsha Mudra, his right-hand reaches towards the ground, palm inward. He is accompanied by two wise disciples. Similar representations can be seen at the caves of the Fahua Temple of An Ning near Kunming, the Baoshan Temple as well as the Shibaoshan Grottoes in Shaxi.

Laozi and Confucius


To the left of the Buddha is Lao Zi (老子), the founder of the Taoist school. He holds in his hand the dust of impermanence, symbolizing the cycle of life and death. Sitting to Laozi’s right, astride a spotted hippopotamus, is Confucius (孔子). He is honored for bringing cultural literacy to the Chinese people, humanism, and a system of social analects establishing an ethical paradigm upon which Chinese society still rests.

The Jade Emperor


According to an interpretation of Taoist mythology, Yù Huáng or Yù Dì in Chinese popular culture is the ruler of Heaven and all areas of existence below including that of Man and Hell. It is in China in the pantheon of the gods one of the most important. In modern Taoism, the Jade Emperor rules the entire mortal realm but is nonetheless below the “Three Pure”. The cult of the Jade Emperor dates back to the 4th century, but it was in the 9th century that it took on all its importance when it was adopted as the guardian deity and protector of the imperial family. The Jade Emperor’s birthday is considered to be on the ninth day of the first lunar month. Taoist temples then hold a ritual for the Jade Emperor (Bai Tian Kong, literally “the cult of heaven”) in which priests and laity bow down, burn incense and make food offerings.

Here, the Jade Emperor resides atop the Sakyamuni building in a small separate shrine and is only accessible via a narrow wooden staircase. The elders do not allow young people and women to climb these stairs. The history of this Jade Emperor building is told in detail in an engraved historical monument present in the temple.

The God of Prosperity


Cai Shen which literally means “God of Wealth” is the Chinese god of prosperity in religious Taoism and in popular religion. Originally Cai Shen was considered a hero of Chinese folklore who was later deified and revered by his local followers and admirers. Later Taoism and Pure Land Buddhism also came to regard and revere him as an immortal. He is reputed to be endowed with various magical powers, such as the conjuring of thunder and lightning or the assurance of profit in commercial transactions.

As a historical figure, he is identified as Zhao Xuan Tan, “General Zhao of the Dark Terrace”, of the Qin dynasty. He is said to have attained enlightenment on top of a mountain. He is also said to have helped Zhang Ling Dao in his search for the elixir of longevity. Cai-Shen is shown riding a black tiger. His head is adorned with an iron helmet, and he holds a weapon capable of turning stone and iron into gold. He carries in his other hand a gold ingot, symbolizing wealth.

Cai Shen’s name is often invoked during Chinese New Year celebrations and temple festivals.

The God of Grain


The seed god is highly revered among the peasant populations. It protects not only the grain but also all the vegetables and in general all the non-animal food sources, fruits included, as well as the water plants and the terrestrial plants. The god of grain not only protects all these varieties of resources against disease, pests, and natural disasters but also ensures that the peasants benefit from bountiful harvests with enough surplus to feed stocks in winter.

The God of the Great Black Sky (Mahakala in Sanskrit)


Mahakala is a protective deity widely present in Tibetan Buddhism. It is a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva, the god of medicine and wealth. Representations of Mahakala often have two notable characteristics: First, this deity is typically presented with a colored and very dark skin sometimes tending towards black, symbolizing the absorption and dissolution into the absolute reality of the names and forms of the ‘existing. Mahakala is often depicted with many arms. A second identifying feature is the crown of five skulls, which represents the five negative afflictions that are transformed into five visions of wisdom. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is considered the main protector of the teaching of Buddhism, as a god of medicine, prosperity, and finally as a manifestation of death. Mahakala is one of the most popular protective gods among the villagers of Northwestern Yunnan (He is often known there as Benzhu).

The 18 Arhats


These are the first original disciples and followers of the Buddha who attained Nirvana and freed themselves from the material desires of the earthly world. They are responsible for protecting the faith and awaiting the coming to earth of the “Maitreya” (the future Buddha). Their statues, costumes, and expressions are different, which also reflect their legendary achievements and magical spells.

You would like…

Recommended Tours in Yunnan

Rice Terraces Yuanyang

Sky Mirror: Yuanyang Rice Terraces Tour

4 days | Kunming, Shilin, Jianshui and Yuanyang
A short trip including the most beautiful and majestic rice terraces of China and lively ethnic markets.

Three Pagodas Dali

Wonders of Yunnan

16 days | Best seller
A travel plan for travelers who want to explore the most attractive landscapes of Yunnan in one trip.

Jinghong Mekong River Market

Tropical China in Xishuangbanna

6 days | Jinghong, and Jingmai
As a locality of the Dai minority, the rice terraces, tea gardens, primitive forests, and valleys compose the marvelous landscapes of Xishuangbanna.