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Guan Yu was a real general who lived almost 2000 years ago, but was deified as early as the Sui dynasty (circa 7th century). He is still an important figure of Chinese folklore today, worshipped by many as a god of war, righteousness, and protection.

Although he was a respectable figure during his life, you'd expect a gradual process between being revered and becoming a god. This process even extended after his deification, where for example he became Emperor Guan (關帝) during the Ming dynasty (17th century). So how exactly did this process unfold? Was there a cult of Guan Yu that spread? Did he replace some earlier god(s) of war? Did some ruler elevate his status along the way for political purposes?

  • I'm under the impression that ancestor worship came easily for the ancient Chinese. Perhaps all it really took was his death. – user93 May 2 '15 at 8:32
  • @fredsbend that's no doubt an important factor, but as I've hinted at, it took almost 400 years after his death, so his death alone was insufficient. – congusbongus May 4 '15 at 2:29
  • He gradually climbed in popularity until his following became so widespread, he worship became officially promoted by the Imperial Court. Because of the ancestor worship tradition its not really a big leap at any point. – Semaphore May 4 '15 at 9:57
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It actually was a gradual process. It was primarily driven by his personal popularity in a society where ancestor worship has long been an integral element. Moreso than his fame as a general, his personality traits (loyalty, bravery, honesty) appealed to traditional Chinese sensibilities.

Among the general population, Liu Bei and Guan Yu have set a more significant moral standard than Confucius or Mencius.

- Yong, Jin, and Daisaku Ikeda. Compassionate Light in Asia: A Dialogue. IB Tauris, 2013.

These factors led to his popularity steadily increasing, before he really became a deity per se (as opposed to a folk hero venerated in the tradition of ancestor worship). So that by the Song Dynasty, the bureaucrat-author Hao Jing wrote that:

其英靈義烈遍天下,故所在廟祀,福善禍惡,神威赫然,人咸畏而敬之,而燕、趙、荊、楚爲尤篤。郡國州縣、鄉邑間井皆有廟。

(rough translation) His righteousness and strength of character is known throughout the world. Hence his temple brings fortune and wards off disaster, and people respect his might. The provinces of Yan, Zhao, Jin and Chu are particularly pious. Every county, province, city and village has his temples.

Between the Song and Yuan dynasties, a tradition of historical fiction flourished in China. The Three Kingdoms era from which Guan Yu hailed were one of the most popular topics, and this greatly aided the spread of his fame.

It is well known that the spread of the worship of Guan Yu as a folk deity beyond the confines of sectarian religion was communicated in the vernacular novels and plays of the Song-Yuan transition.

- Duara, Prasenjit. The Global and Regional in China’s Nation-Formation. Routledge, 2008.

Therefore, when he received his imperial (divine) title during the Ming Dynasty, it was already after centuries of popularity.


For references on the deification process described previously, see: 关羽崇拜硏究 by 蔡东洲 & 文廷海

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