Yu Huang

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Chinese painting of Yu Huang, the Jade Emperor and his retinue. Artist unknown.

Yu Huang, also known as Yu Di or The Jade Emperor, is the supreme ruler of the celestial court or realm of the gods in Taoism and Chinese folk culture. As the central deity in charge of the three realms -- heaven, earth, and the underworld -- he presides over the court of deities and others deemed spiritually worthy of holding a court position. He delegates responsibilities, such as command over health, wealth, scolarly endeavors, and love, to the members of his cabinet and he arbitrates disputes between the deities. He is rarely petitioned for direct intervention; instead, pleas are submitted through his respectively delegated deities. Due to his prominence in Chinese folk stories and practices, he is known by many names and has multiple origin stories. Three yearly holidays are associated the Jade Emperor. According to the Chinese lunar calendar his birthday falls on the 9th day of the first lunar month in late Winter, the anniversary of his ascension to the throne is celebrated on the 6th day of the eleventh lunar month in late Autumn, and his annual inspection of his domains takes place on the 25th day of the twelfth lunar month, in Winter.

In popular Taoist belief the Jade Emperor began his existence in a Chinese royal family after the elderly and childless king and queen prayed intensely for an heir. In the queen's dreams she was visited by Taishang Daojun, one of the Three Pure Ones, of whom Lao Tse is a manifestation, and he brought her a baby. Thus, Yu Huang started life as an ordinary immortal who dedicated himself to helping ease humanity's suffering. Unhappy with his limited abilities, however, he undertook an intense series of 3,200 kalpas, or trials, which lasted 327 million years, to cultivate his Tao -- a code of behavior that harmonizes with natural order -- in order to better the world for humanity and to become a Golden Immortal. Emerging from his meditative seclusion upon the completion of these trials, he witnessed an evil glow emanating from the heavens, created by a dark entity who was warring with the gods. Due to his training, Yu Huang was able to defeat this demon, who had conquered the entire combined pantheon of gods, and he was proclaimed the supreme sovereign, receiving the title of Jade Emperor. In the classic 16th century Chinese novel, "Xiyouji" ("The Journey to the West"), which contains elements of Taoist, Buddhist, and indigenous Chinese folk tales, The Jade Emperor commands a powerful spirit army able to destroy anything in its path. He is married to Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and rules heaven, but he delegates dominion of the underworld to Yama, the Buddhist King of Death.

Yu Huang is generally depicted as a bearded official seated on a throne, whose attendants and courtiers surround him. Before his chest he clasps a narrow jade tablet, on which may be engraved the stellar constellation Shen ("Three"), also known as the Belt of Orion. Feasts are customarily laid out on his birthday and his ascension by creating a three-layered altar at the front entrance to the courtyard or home and adorning it with lanterns or candles and incense. The top layer of the altar holds six vegetable offerings, noodles, cakes, and other foodstuffs, as well as paper lanterns and another offering of two whole sugar canes with leaves intact. The lower two layers of the altar hold five sacrifices and wines honoring the rest of the Taoist pantheon. Household members kneel three times and prostrate nine times before the altar to wish the Jade Emperor a long life. On the 25th day of the twelfth lunar month, in Winter, Yu Huang descends to the lower realms to inspect and pass judgement on his subjects, rewarding the good and punishing the evil according to the annual reports made by Zao Jun, the Stove or Kitchen God, who lives with each family throughout the year, watching their every activity. It is common practice on this day to set up incense tables and place offerings for Yu Huang's arrival. A second ritual associated with this day involves bribing the Kitchen god with sweets to keep his mouth shut.


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