Who Was the Jade Emperor in Chinese Folklore?
Many stories in Chinese folklore make reference to the Jade Emperor. Gods, men, and even animals act on his orders and receive boons from him.
As the supreme ruler of heaven and one of China’s first rulers, the Jade Emperor was the standard to which all kings and leaders aspired. He was wise, benevolent, charitable, and just.
His stories typically emphasize these virtues, as well as his power. Whether working on his own or commanding another immortal to do his will, the Jade Emperor uses his authority to improve life on earth and maintain order in heaven.
Many of his most well-known stories, however, are not centered around his leadership. As a central figure in folk religion, the Jade Emperor has been given a place in many stories that show a more mundane, even entertaining, view of life in heaven.
Chinese folklore provided many possible origin stories for the Jade Emperor.
Some of the most common stories said that he, like most other Taoist immortals, was born as a human.
In one such legend, even as a mortal his powers and lifespan were incomparable. He lived as the crown prince of a mythical land known as the kingdom of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments.
Although he was human, he emitted a light so bright that it shone throughout the entire kingdom. She showed himself to be both intelligent and kind, devoting his entire childhood to helping the needy.
When he became king, the Jade Emperor made his kingdom a place of peace and prosperity where everyone’s needs were fully met. After several million years, he reached the highest level of enlightenment and became a god.
In another version of the story, he was a soldier instead of a prince.
After dying in battle, he awoke in the afterlife to find his commander handing out positions in his celestial court to the men of the battalion. When the commander paused before naming himself in the highest position, as was the custom of courtly etiquette, the soon-to-be Jade Emperor feigned ignorance and claimed the title for himself.
In a more noble tradition, he was born to a virginal queen whose elderly husband could not produce an heir. After dreaming of Laozi, she gave birth to a son of exceptional beauty and intelligence.
The young prince was kind and generous to his subjects and ruled them well when he became king. He gave up his position after only a few years, however, seeing no need for such power when he would rather be studying and meditating.
A few legends, however, said that the Jade Emperor never lived a mortal life. Instead, he was created at the beginning of the world and was immortal from the start.
In these stories, he is often responsible for the creation of mankind. While Nuwa is typically credited with forming the first humans from clay, occasionally it is said that she did so under the Jade Emperor’s command or that he was the creator instead.
One aspect of his origins that most traditions agree on is that the Jade Emperor’s birthday occurs during the New Year’s celebrations. He features heavily in the festivities and is thought to judge and reward people for their actions through the previous year.
While the Jade Emperor was typically noted as being a kind and caring ruler, he occasionally showed the full extent of his power. One example of this is the story of how he became the ruler of the gods.
At the beginning of time, both heaven and the earth were under near-constant attack. Horrible monsters terrorized the first humans while demons attacked the immortals in heaven.
The Jade Emperor at that time was a typical immortal who had no powers beyond that of any other sage. He was frustrated that he could not do more to ease the suffering of the people around him.
He retreated into an isolated cave to meditate and perfect his knowledge of the Tao. He passed over three thousand trials, each of which lasted three million years.
In this time, a powerful demon had arisen that wished to bring both heaven and earth under his sway. After completing millions of years of trials itself, the demon was sure that no one had the power to slay him.
The immortals attempted to wage war against this terrible enemy, but were unable to fight back against him. He easily defeated them all and was well on his way to becoming the ruler of all creation.
Shortly after the failed campaign against the demon, the Jade Emperor emerged from his long isolation. Unaware of what had been happening, he set about repelling monsters and making the land more habitable for mortal humans.
He saw that something was terribly wrong, however, when he noticed an evil glow spreading from the heavens. Traveling there, he learned that the gods had been overpowered by a terrible source of evil.
Confident in his own powers, he challenged the demon to a one-on-one battle. It was a terrible fight that levelled mountains, emptied seas, and caused the earth to shake.
Because he was wiser and acted out of benevolence rather than greed, however, the Jade Emperor was finally able to vanquish the demon. The demon’s armies scattered and were easily defeated by the immortals and their human allies.
The Jade Emperor became the first ruler of both the immortals and humankind. He was revered as the king of both heaven and earth because he had saved both from the greatest evil they would ever face.
Some stories contradict this display of power as the reason for his succession, however.
They claim that the Jade Emperor was once named Yu Huang. He was the assistant to Yuanshi Tianzun, the first supreme leader.
Yuanshi Tianzun gave up his position and selected the Jade Emperor to take his place because he recognized his assistant’s wisdom and kindness. The position was not earned in battle, but through service to the previous ruler.
The story goes on to say that the Jade Emperor will someday do the same and give his throne to a new Emperor. Many believe that Guan Yu, the god of war, will take his place with some even saying that he did so in the 19th century AD.
In addition to the legends of his power and exceptional virtue, more personal stories of the Jade Emperor’s life became popular as well. One of the most well-known of these is often called the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
According to the legend, one of the Jade Emperor’s many children was a young goddess who was an exceptionally skilled weaver. Named Zhinu in many retellings, she wove the colorful clouds that painted the heavens.
One day, Zhinu used a magical robe to fly down to earth. As she bathed in a stream, she was spotted by a poor young shepherd named Niu Lang.
Niu Lang fell instantly in love with Zhinu. He stole her robe so that she could not fly back up to heaven.
Rather than being upset with the young man, however, Zhinu was charmed by him. She quickly fell in love and they were married without her father’s knowledge.
When the Jade Emperor found out, he was furious. Some versions of the story claim that he was opposed to his daughter marrying someone who was so socially inferior, while others said that he accepted the match but grew angry when Zhinu was too distracted to continue her weaving.
He summoned a great river to flow across the sky the next time Zhinu visited him. She and her husband were trapped on opposite sides of the Milky Way and would never see each other again.
Seeing how much this separation pained his daughter, however, the Jade Emperor eventually took pity on the young couple. He allowed a bridge to appear over the water so they could meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.
This corresponds to the first quarter moon of the seventh lunar month, during which lighting conditions in the sky can make the Milky Way appear dimmer. The stars that represent Zhinu and Niu Lang appear to move closer together as a result.
Through the varying shapes of the delicate clouds,
the sad message of the shooting stars,
a silent journey across the Milky Way.
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew,
eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
The feelings soft as water,
the ecstatic moment unreal as a dream,
how can one have the heart to go back on the bridge made of magpies?
If the two hearts are united forever,
why do the two persons need to stay together—day after day, night after night?
-Qin Guan, “Meeting Across the Milky Way”
This event is celebrated in China as the Quxi Festival, a holiday dedicated to young lovers that has been compared to Valentine’s Day in the West. Other East Asian countries celebrate a similar holiday on the same day in recognition of the Jade Emperor’s daughter getting to see her lost love.
The Jade Emperor occupies the position of the supreme ruler of both heaven and earth. This is a role that is central to many religions throughout Asia.
His role in Chinese belief directly influenced the development of many other East Asian religions. It was, in turn, influenced in part by ideas from India.
The result is that most cultures in the region have some version of a supreme deity that occupies a similar position to the Jade Emperor. These counterparts include:
- Indra: The chief god of Indian Buddhism is similar in many ways to the Jade Emperor. As Buddhism was adopted into Chinese cultures, the Jade Emperor’s story sometimes changed to align more with beliefs from India as well.
- Sakra: Sometimes identified as an aspect of Indra, Sakra is the lord of heaven in some Buddhist schools. In China, his name is often used as an alternative to that of the Jade Emperor.
- Haneullim: The mythical founder of the Korean kingdom is often believed to be a local version of the Jade Emperor. While his mythology differs, he is given a similar position of authority over both heaven and earth.
- Tengri: While the chief god of the Turkic and Mongolic peoples is often thought to be more closely related to Indo-European sky gods, there is also evidence of significant influence from Chinese tradition.
- Amaterasu: Unusually, the chief deity of Japan is female. She is, however, also both the supreme ruler of heaven and the ancestor of all leaders on earth.
- Yuanshi Tianzun: The Taoist supreme god is often associated with the Jade Emperor. Some believe that he ruled before the Jade Emperor while others show them as different aspects of the same deity.
Another of the Jade Emperor’s famous stories shows the order and law that he values in heaven.
The 16th century novel Journey to the West has become one of the most well-known sources of Chinese mythology. While many of the stories and characters were changed from their earlier forms, the novel was so well-received that it influenced how they were seen afterward.
A large portion of the story centers on Sun Wukong, known in English as the Monkey King. Born from a magical egg, the Monkey King grew to great power on earth before attracting the attention of the Jade Emperor.
The Dragon Kings complained to the Emperor about Sun Wukong after he tricked them into giving up many of their greatest treasures. The rulers of the Underworld also complained when the Monkey King stole the Book of Life and Death to erase his name so he could never die.
Believing that a place in the heavenly court would help to tame him, the Jade Emperor invited Sun Wukong to heaven. He gave the Monkey King the lowest job among the gods as the keeper of horses.
Realizing that he had been made little more than a lowly stableboy, Sun Wukong rebelled and set the horses loose. He took the meaningless title of The Great Sage, Heaven’s Equal.
The Jade Emperor accepted the title, being told that it was a meaningless way to soothe the Monkey King’s ego. After wreaking more havoc in heaven, however, he was eventually imprisoned.
When he broke free, Sun Wukong demanded to be made the new Jade Emperor. The true ruler, however, conspired with the Buddha to trap the Monkey King for five hundred years, during which time they hoped he would learn humility.
Five centuries later, the Monkey King joined the Tang Sanzang on his journey to earn his freedom. The book tells the story of their trip and how Sun Wukong learned empathy, charity, patience, and other virtues along the way.
The story showed that the Jade Emperor would not tolerate chaos either on earth or in heaven, but it also showed his sense of justice and mercy. At the end of the westward journey, the reformed Monkey King was given a second chance and welcomed back into heaven.
The Jade Emperor was such a central figure in Chinese folklore that he was even involved in some of its less dramatic legends.
The story of how the Chinese zodiac was formed is similar to fables and moralistic tales from other cultures. Although it is not a dramatic story of the fight against evil or the power of the Tao, however, it still centers around the Jade Emperor.
According to the story, the Jade Emperor invited the animals to his palace. Any that attended would be given a place within the zodiac he had just invented.
The Cat was a handsome and intelligent animal, so he felt sure that he would be granted a spot of honor. He was lazy, however, and knew there was a risk that he would sleep in and miss the meeting time.
He asked the Rat to wake him when it was time to leave so that he could sleep in peace. The Rat, however, saw a better opportunity.
Knowing he was despised by most people, the Rat was certain that he would never even be allowed in the Jade Emperor’s fine home. The only way he would be honored by the Emperor was if there were not enough animals present to complete the zodiac.
Instead of waking the Cat, the Rat let him sleep and traveled to the palace in his place. With only eleven of the invited animals in attendance, the Jade Emperor gave the rat a place in the zodiac.
When the Cat awoke, he rushed to find the Rat and ask why he had been allowed to oversleep. When he saw the Rat’s happiness, however, he realized that he had been duped. He began to chase the Rat, seeking vengeance.
The story of the zodiac serves as both a moralistic and explanatory story. While it practically gives an explanation fr the inclusion of the Rat in the zodiac and why cats always chase rodents, it also gives a lesson against laziness.
In Chinese folklore, the Jade Emperor is the supreme ruler of heaven and one of China’s first kings. He epitomizes the traits of an ideal king, such as mercy, benevolence, wisdom, and patience.
While there is not a consensus on his origin story, with many different versions being given, most emphasize these virtues and years, sometimes hundreds of millions, spent studying the Tao. The Jade Emperor’s power is usually portrayed not as an innate gift, but as a product of intense study and dedication.
In addition to legends showing his power and leadership, the Jade Emperor is also a popular character in stories that provide explanations for the natural world.
The story of his daughter’s marriage to a cowherd is one of the most popular romantic tales in ancient Chinese literature. It explained the creation of the Milky Way and why it seemed to dim on certain nights of the year.
Another story told how the zodiac was created and how the Rat tricked the Cat to earn a place in it. In addition to explaining both the zodiac and the behavior of those animals, this playful story also served a moralistic purpose.
The Jade Emperor is such a central figure that he has been adopted in some way by many East Asian cultures. Even when he does not directly feature in a myth, the Jade Emperor is often present in the influence he exerts over both the gods and mankind.