Kwan Tai, the personification of loyalty and integrity, is worshipped in Hong Kong by police and gangsters alike. The historic Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan hosts an annual lion dance in his honour.
Unswerving Loyalty: Kwan Tai, Hong Kong’s God of Brotherhood
Tom Billinge writes: You’ve seen him before. Red-faced, gold-crowned, with a long, dark beard blowing assertively in the wind, the very embodiment of masculine yang energy. This is Kwan Tai, Emperor Kwan – a force to be reckoned with. A common sight in Chinese homes and businesses, this god, known in Cantonese as Gwaan1 Dai3 (關帝), is celebrated this year by his many followers on July 27. But he did not always have such a high heavenly rank. Born to a lowly family, he attained glory on the battlefield in his lifetime and, after his death, rose to become the Saintly Emperor Kwan. Much like the goddess Kwun Yum, Kwan Tai is revered in folk religion, Taoism and Buddhism. Similarly to the goddess Tin Hau, he was steadily promoted in the heavenly hierarchy until he attained his regal rank.
The origins of Kwan Tai lie in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280). Most people know about this period of history through a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the latter part of the 15th century. Kwan Tai has a major role in the book under his given name, Guān Yǔ.
It was a turbulent time in Chinese history. Legends could be made and names could be forever committed to posterity. Three warring kingdoms vied for power in China in a short, but bloody period of history. The northern Kingdom of Wei, eastern Wu and western Shu were in a constant state of war. Men rose to prominence through their bellicose determination and sharp wits. One of these was Guān Yǔ, a man who would eventually become a general of the armies of Shu.
Guān Yǔ started as a soldier of fortune before meeting two of his most important friends, his sworn blood brothers, Zhāng Fēi and Liú Bèi. After the three of them became warlords, Liú Bèi decided to found the State of Shu. Guān Yǔ followed him and led the armies of the new kingdom. With great exploits on the battlefield and a fierce loyalty to his friends and allies, Guān Yǔ became a wanted man by the rival kingdoms. Eventually, he was captured and Sūn Quán, the Emperor of Wu, had him beheaded. His head was sent to Cáo Cāo, ruler of the Kingdom of Wei, in order to frame him for the killing and force Shu to attack Wei.
Cáo Cāo held Guān Yǔ in great esteem, despite being his enemy, so he had a body carved for the head and a full state burial arranged. The tomb of Guān Yǔ’s head is still found in Luoyang in Henan province. It is surrounded by Guānlín Miào, a temple built in 1595 by Emperor Wànlì of the Ming dynasty to honour the great hero.
Eventually, Shu fell to Wei, Wei fell to Wu and Wu collapsed to be replaced by the Jin dynasty (265-420), putting to end the entire era. And then started his raise as hero, then a legend, then a god. Within 40 years of his death, Liú Chán, the second emperor of Shu, gave him the posthumous title of Marquis Zhuangmou. In the 10th century, his cult began to grow, as it was once again a time of war and upheaval. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Taoist Celestial Master Sect began to incorporate Guān Yǔ into their pantheon of immortals and deities. As he was so widely revered, the Taoists sought to increase their political influence by giving him the title of Saintly Emperor Guan (Gwaan1 Sing3 Dai3 Gwan1 關聖帝君), a powerful subduer of demons. It is due to the Taoists that he gained his red face — symbolising potent yang energy — and his crescent sword … (read more)
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