Spirited Away: A Peek into the World of China’s Door Gods
Every Lunar New Year, they are always outside the door: Portraits of two heavily armed and fierce warriors donned in colorful battle armor.
Known as menshen or “door gods,” they are venerated across the country as deities who protect homes from evil spirits — a tradition that dates back to ancient China. While belief in the supernatural isn’t as strong today, the time-honored custom of pasting their portraits on both sides of a door or gate still endures.
Their origins can be traced back to ancient China during the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D). Earliest available records show there were two such gods — Shenshu and Yulu. The pair lived on the mythical Dushuo Mountain in the middle of the sea, near a giant peach tree with branches that spread for thousands of miles.
Atop the peach tree’s canopy on its northeast corner was a gate through which the spirits of the world entered the mortal world. Shenshu and Yulu stood guard on either side of the gate. If they found evil spirits, the deities would tie them up with reed rope and feed them to tigers.
Later, the Yellow Emperor ordered people to paint images of the two gods on their doors, thus beginning the tradition of door gods.
During the Tang dynasty (618-907), door gods acquired new identities. Emperor Taizong of Tang, also known as Li Shimin, spent years fighting military campaigns and even killed his older brother in his bid to ascend the throne.
After becoming emperor, he often heard spirits haunting the palace at night. According to legend, he ordered two generals — Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde — to stand guard outside, so he could sleep undisturbed.
Eventually realizing that having two generals stay up all night was implausible, the emperor ordered that their portraits be painted on the palace gates to ward off evil spirits. The practice spread and soon the generals began to appear in Lunar New Year images that people pasted on their doors.
In them, Qin is portrayed with a white face and Yuchi’s is black, while the pair are presented as imposing figures dressed in full armor. This depiction of door gods is still among the most popular and is seen even today.
Door gods almost always come in pairs, primarily since the traditional design of doors in China has two panels and requires a deity on each side to form a symmetrical composition — two figures matched both in pose and status.
Besides the traditional pairing of Shenshu and Yulu, and the later variation of Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde, many other figures taken from history, novels, and elsewhere can be found outside doors.
Among those pictured as door gods are Li Yuanba and Yuwen Chengdu from “Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties,” Randeng Daoren and Zhao Gongming from “Creation of the Gods,” Yao Qi and Ma Wu from “Romance of the Eastern Han Dynasty,” and even Wu Song and Sun Erniang from “Water Margin.”
One pairing is particularly special — Meng Liang and Jiao Zan from “The Generals of the Yang Family.” During the Qing dynasty (1636-1911), they were depicted as door gods in Lunar New Year paintings from Wei County in the eastern Shandong province.
However, rather than being pasted on front doors, their images were put on the gates where livestock and poultry were kept, which is why they are also called “gate paintings.” It was believed that the pictures prevented diseases from reaching the animals.
The duo were inseparable, hence the adage “Jiao doesn’t leave Meng and Meng doesn’t leave Jiao.” Folk tales tell a story of the two men starting out as bandits who later reformed their ways. But their indelible past meant they could not enter people’s homes, and instead only kept watch of poultry and livestock.
The door god Guan Yu is the exception to the pairing tradition.
A general during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), he was immortalized in the classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Guan Yu is renowned for his strong beliefs and is regarded as an epitome of loyalty.
In Lunar New Year images from Wuqiang County in the northern Hebei province, dating from the Qing dynasty, Guan Yu stands guard alone. Instead, two symmetrical images of the general are affixed to double doors, while a single image is pasted on single-panel doors. His ability to appear either alone or as a pair is evidence of the high regard in which people hold him.
Historical figures from different periods also sometimes appear alongside one another as door gods. For example, images from Zhangzhou in the eastern Fujian province pair together Zheng Chenggong and Yue Fei despite living 500 years apart.
While Yue lived during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), Zheng was from the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but both are common door gods together since they are considered great patriots.
In some cases, generic warriors brandishing swords are used, expressing the hope for peace. Images of government officials as door gods can also be found, embodying the concept of following the standards of officialdom. Pictures of officials as door gods even appear in ordinary people’s homes, demonstrating their desire to obtain a promotion.
Chinese people tend to be pragmatic in their beliefs. Any positive elements can be incorporated, and the identities of door gods are often mixed. Some pictures include the concepts of having more children and attracting good blessings by incorporating images of young children.
Meanwhile, others focus on passing exams using images of door gods dressed in the robes and jade belt of top students in the old imperial exams. These elements can also be used together, as seen in images of an official surrounded by five young boys. If the God of Wealth appears, it symbolizes the desire to acquire wealth.
In short, there’s a lot to be learned from the posters people paste on their door.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Apurva and Ding Yining.
(In-text images: All the images are from the public domain, collected and provided by Sheng Wenqiang)
(Header image: Door gods Qin Shubao (right) and Yuchi Jingde, Pucheng, Shaanxi province, Qing dynasty (1636-1912). Courtesy of Sheng Wenqiang)