CAN GUAN GONG boost your business, get you through your exams, turn you into a success story? Hundreds of millions of people in East Asia think so.
Shopkeepers have his statue on their counters. Business people have him in their high-tech offices. Restaurateurs have him in their dining halls. Hong Kong police believe he can help them catch criminals. Criminals also have statues of him, believing he can help them escape.
You don’t have to just worship him: you can pretend to BE him. The picture at the top is from a computer game called Total War: Three Kingdoms.
But can Guan Gong really give people the power to succeed? Well, the popular belief may be right: This is the fastest growing region of the world, after all, and psychologists say confidence and self-belief are key elements that high-achievers display. Given the spread of Chinese culture throughout East Asia, Guan Gong may already be one of the most popular gods in the world.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Guan Gong’s birth falls on 24th day of sixth month of the Lunar calendar. According to the Hong Kong government lunar month calendar, that will fall on August 24 in 2023.
But in learning about him, we need to begin by sorting out his name—or rather names, as he has many. He was born in (what is now) Yuncheng city (運城) in Shanxi province, northern China, and upon reaching adulthood was given the “style name” Changsheng (長生). During his life, he was known as Guan Yu. After his death, he was given the official posthumous name Marquis Zhuàngmóu (壯繆侯).
For simplicity’s sake, the name we are using in this article is the popular one of Guan Gong (關公) which means “Lord Guan”, but here in Hong Kong you often see alternative names, such as Kwan Yu. He is also often known as Kwan Yee Gor, or second big brother—a reference to a historical story of three soldier “brothers”.
Buddhists use the name Sangharama Bodhisattva (伽藍菩薩), and there are half a dozen other names, but those will do for now.
THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
There are three really important things you need to know about Guan Gong.
First, he really lived, and was a warrior. Guan Yu was a famous general who lived about 1,800 years ago. He is portrayed as a large bearded man with a red face, a green robe over his armour, and an iconic weapon: the Green Dragon Crescent Blade.
He lived at time when the ruling Han dynasty was on the verge of collapse. His actions laid the foundation for what is known as the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), an age of great heroism in Chinese history.
Second, his story is told in one of the most popular novels of all time – The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century (late Yuan and early Ming dynasties).
It includes a famous scene in a peach garden where three men decide that they are brothers—not because they were born at the same time from the same mother, but because they will die for their country in the same battle. His “brothers” were Liu Bei (劉備) Zhang Fei (張飛).
Guan Yu won many battles and changed the course of Chinese history, but was eventually executed.
Emperors in subsequent dynasties bestowed on him the posthumous title of a deity. Guan Yu was deified as Guandi (關帝) or Kwan Ti – a god seen as a model of Confucian virtues in loyalty, righteousness, benevolence and valor.
The third thing you need to know is how popular he is today. Shrines and entire temples dedicated to him can be found in many locations in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other places in the region, including Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.
He also spans different groups of spiritual beliefs. He is revered in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and in the basic Chinese folk religion beliefs that underlie Chinese societies around the world.
In recent years, Hong Kong’s community groups have been dedicated to fostering Guan’s virtues as model for people today.
A forum has been jointly organized by Kwan Ti Culture Charity Foundation (弘揚關帝慈善基金會) and Hong Kong Shanxi Chamber of Commerce (香港山西商會).
At such forum, officials from his birthplace, Shanxi’s Yuncheng city, academics from Mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, along with representatives from religious groups and local disciplined forces, have celebrated Guan’s powerful presence in Chinese culture.
In 2017, the Hong Kong government and various community bodies, including Hong Kong Shanxi Chamber of Commerce, joined forces together to stage Hong Kong’s first-ever Guan Gong Festival. The highlight was the erection of a giant statue of Guan Yu.
EMBODIMENT OF LOYALTY
One speaker at the forum on Guan Gong was Professor Herman Hu Shao-ming, a Hong Kong Deputy to the National People’s Congress, Founding President of Hong Kong Shanxi Chamber of Commerce, and founder of Friday Culture, the group that presents this website.
Prof. Hu said that Guan’s integrity and ethics were legendary and touched the hearts of Chinese people everywhere. The warrior embodied loyalty, righteousness, benevolence and valour – and these virtues have been passed from generation to generation over the centuries.
As a cultural exchange hub between the East and West, Hong Kong can serve a pivotal role to foster Guan’s spirits overseas and younger generations can learn from him, he added.
MEANWHILE IN SHANXI
Over the years, authorities in Shanxi’s Yuncheng have transformed the Guandi Temple into a scenic spot for worshippers. Today, it is one of the largest and best-preserved temples in honour of Guan in Mainland China.
A grand statue of Guan can be found in his birth city, standing 61 meters tall atop a 19-meter-tall pedestal.
Wang Zhifeng, a Mainland official in charge of promotion works in Yuncheng, said at the forum in Hong Kong that Guan had exerted profound influence in Chinese culture.
In Hong Kong, shrines to Guan are commonly found in many trades and professions.
POLICE AND TRIADS
And what about the fact that police and triad workplaces both have his statue? There are key differences, as one might guess.
The police station statues have him holding his halberd (a combined spear and battle axe) in his right hand, while triads have him holding it in his left.
The triad statues normally have a harsher face, with a focus on fighting skill. The police statues have a gentler statue, and focus on virtues such as bravery and loyalty.
AROUND THE WORLD
But the fundamental message is this: Guan Gong, as the embodiment of a successful campaigner in the service of his community, is a model for everyone—and not just in Asia.
In 1854, just two Chinese junks out of a sailing party of seven vessels, made it across the Pacific Ocean to California. One of the first things the settlers did was to build a temple to Guan Gong, constructing it from Californian redwood.
Today, the Temple of Kwan Ti, also known as the Mendocino Joss House, is listed as a historical Californian landmark.
Guan Gong worship circles the world.
Image at the top from Total War Three Kingdoms by SEGA.