Monday, February 7, 2011

The Wealth God

Popular depiction of the Wealth God
(Image: Nipic)

The 5th day of the first Chinese lunar month, according to folklore, is the Birthday of the Wealth God (財神誕辰 Caishen Danchen). Another folklore says that it is the day that the Wealth God (財神 Caishen) descends to the human realm to make his inspection tour and distribute wealth. In either case, the day is considered an auspicious day for households and businesses to request his blessings by performing a rite called Welcoming the Wealth God (迎財神 Ying Caishen) or Receiving the Wealth God (接財神 Jie Caishen). Followers of the tradition offer food and incense to the Wealth God and pray for his favors. Worship activities can be done at home, work, or by visiting temples that venerate his image.

In the Taoist tradition, there is not just one wealth god, but many different wealth gods. There are several semi-historical and mythical figures that are considered to be wealth gods. They include Zhao Gongming (趙公明) of the 11th century BCE, a general under King Zhou of the Shang dynasty who died in battle while protecting the state; Bi Gan (比干) of the 11th century BCE, an uncle and imperial advisor to King Zhou of the Shang dynasty who had his heart cut out for courageously speaking the truth; Fan Li (范蠡) of the 5th century BCE, a statesman and strategist of the state of Yue during the Spring and Autumn period who later became wealthy in business and wrote a classic on successful business management; and Guan Yu (關羽) of the 3rd century CE, a powerful warrior and general of the late Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms era who was renown for his moral qualities of loyalty, righteousness, and honor.

There are also different classes of wealth gods like civil/literary wealth gods (財神 Wen Caishen), martial/military wealth gods (財神 Wu Caishen), and a group called the Wealth Gods of the Five Paths/Directions (五路財神 Wulu Caishen) which is actually Zhao Gongming as the leader of four other wealth deities. The most popular wealth god in Taoism is perhaps Zhao Gongming who is also known by his honorific titles of Marshal Zhao (趙公元帥 Zhaogong Yuanshuai) and Perfected Lord of the Mysterious Altar (玄壇真君 Xuantan Zhenjun). He is always depicted in military uniform with a black beard, riding on a tiger, and carrying a metal hard whip baton.

The popular figure of the wealth god seen in traditional Chinese culture (i.e. in pictures and posters like the one below) is probably based on Bi Gan. This wealth god is always depicted wearing a civil official’s robe and a minister’s cap. He has a long black beard and usually carries auspicious objects like the ruyi scepter, gold ingots and treasures, and scrolls with messages of good fortune. His warm smile always brings a festive mood to those who see him. 

A Nianhua (New Year Picture) of the Wealth God
(Image: Nipic)

Another fact of interest is that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition also has its own group of wealth deities. They are White Dzambhala, Yellow Dzambhala, Black Dzambhala, Red Dzambhala, and Green Dzambhala. These five Dzambhala deities are said to be the manifestations of enlightened Buddhas. However, they bestow wealth only on those that are properly motivated to practice the Buddhist teachings without worry due to lack of material necessities.

White Dzambhala from Tibetan Buddhism
(Image: Source unknown)

Regardless of the actual identity of the wealth god that has become popular today in folk culture, many traditionalists still observe his religious veneration, while many others are just happy to regard him as a secular holiday figure for Chinese new year (like Santa Claus for Christmas).

A modern cartoon depiction of the Wealth God
(Image: Nipic)

May the Wealth God bless everyone with prosperity and fortune!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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