Who Is Nezha in Chinese Mythology?
Like many deities in Chinese mythology, Nezha was born into a mortal life.
While the circumstances of his birth were unusual, he lived as a young boy with his human family. He was tutored by an immortal Taoist, but also annoyed his father with his mischief and disobedience.
Nezha was holy enough, however, to become a natural enemy of a predatory dragon. After killing two of the Dragon King’s divine messengers, including one of his sons, Nezha’s father was commanded to sacrifice himself to atone for his son’s actions.
Instead, Nezha killed himself to save his father and community. This act of filial piety gave him the change to fight the dragon in Heaven, although his father never forgave the trouble he caused.
Nezha and his father became eternal enemies, nearly destroying one another before his father was given the power to contain his son. Despite this, however, Nezha was seen as a protective deity who ensured children respected their parents.
The story of Nezha is told in the Fengshen Yanyi, or The Investiture of the Gods. This 16th century novel is set during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC) and tells legends of how the gods and other supernatural creatures affected the world of men in the distant past.
According to the Fengshen Yanyi, Nezha was the third son of Li Jing and Lady Yin. His father was a military commander at the time, but later became a Taoist superhuman as well.
Lady Yin was pregnant for three years before having a dream in which a Taoist gifted her with a child. The next day she gave birth to a shapeless ball of flesh.
Li Jing attacked the mass with his sword, believing that his wife had given birth to a demon instead of a child.
When he struck the ball, however, it split open to reveal Nezha. He was born as a boy instead of an infant and could walk and speak from the moment he emerged.
The boy was taken on as a student of Taiyi Zhenren, the immortal who the Fengshen Yanyi names as the first emperor of the Shang Dynasty. Under the immortal’s tutelage, Nezha grew to be both a great scholar and a skilled fighter.
He was also a mischievous child, however. Li Jing was constantly frustrated by his son’s tricks and disobedience.
Chentang Pass, where Nezha’s father was stationed, was within the territories of Ao Guang, the Sea Dragon King of the East. The dragon brought many disasters, so the people were so afraid of him that they never went to the Jade Emperor for protection.
One day, Nezha bathed in a stream near the East Sea. This caused Ao Guang’s palace to shake.
In his anger, the Dragon King sent a drought to the region. The people of Chentang Pass sacrificed much of their food to appease Ao Guang, but he was not satisfied with the gifts.
Instead, he wanted to eat two children. He sent one of his servants, Li Gen, to bring back a girl and a boy from the fortress.
Nezha was playing with two other children when Li Gen appeared. The young boy beat him back, injuring him badly enough that he begged Ao Guang to send someone else to capture the boy.
Ao Guang sent one of his own sons, Ao Bing. Nezha killed the Dragon Prince.
This time, Ao Guang himself appeared before Nezha’s father. He threatened to destroy Chentang Pass with a flood if Li Jing did not atone for his son’s actions.
Li Jing refused, so Ao Guang vowed to destroy him and his community to avenge his son’s death. Nezha, however, stepped in to save his father.
Nezha offered himself as a sacrifice to the dragon, committing suicide to save his family and town from destruction.
When he did so, he was taken up to Heaven where Ao Guang was about to petition the Jade Emperor.
Nezha beat the Sea Dragon violently. He did enough damage that some of Ao Guang’s scales were removed and he was forced to transform into a small snake to escape.
The Dragon Kings celebrated Nezha’s death, but Ao Guang was forced to reconcile with the new young god, as least partially, to make peace.
After his death, Nezha’s bones were returned to his family. He appeared to his mother in a dream and asked her to build a temple in his honor so that his soul could rest.
She did and the temple became a pilgrimage site. Nezha’s spirit cured illness and injury, winning the temple great acclaim.
As a Taoist, he was given the titles Marshal of the Central Altar and Third Lotus Prince.
His father, however, was still angry at the trouble Nezha had caused for his family. He burned the temple down, cementing the enmity between the father and son.
With his spirit now homeless, Nezha was given a new body by his teacher, Taiyi Zhenren. He was also given powerful weapons.
Nezha and his father fought many battles, but Li Jing’s human body was no match for his son’s power. He asked his other son, Muzha, to fight on his behalf, so Nezha killed his own brother in battle.
After his older son’s death, Li Jing tried to commit suicide. He was stopped, however, by Randeng Daoren, who was able to use his own powers to contain Nezha.
Randen Daoren taught Li Jing to use a burning golden tower to contain Nezha if he ever attempted to rekindle their fight. Li Jing became the Burning Pagoda Taoist.
In Chinese folk religion, Nezha is still revered as a protective deity.
One of his great gifts from Taiyi Zhenren was the Wind-Fire Wheels. He is often depicted with the wheels on his feet, enabling him to fly as swiftly as the wind.
These wheels have given him a protective duty in the modern world. Many Chinese taxi, bus, and truck drivers place a small statue of Nezha in their vehicles to ensure safe and speedy travel.
Although Nezha and his father fought one another, he also sacrificed himself to protect Li Jing and later relented to him. This made him a patron of filial piety as well.
In some parts of China, it is traditional for parents to give offerings to Nezha on behalf of their children. This is to ensure that their children grow to be both strong and respectful of their parents.
While Nezha still has a place in modern Chinese customs, his origins are not Chinese at all. Instead, he is thought to have been based on two figures from Hindu mythology, brought into China as part of Buddhism.
One of these was the Hindu god Krishna. As a child, Krishna won a battle against a serpent in a manner very similar to that of Nezha.
The other origin for the character was a yaksha, or nature spirit, called Nalakubara. His name was adapted into Chinese as Nazhajuwalo and later shortened to Nazha, which with only a slight change became Nezha.
Nalakubara was also one of three brothers who was cursed while bathing in a stream. According to Hindu texts, a sage turned Nalakubara and one of his brothers into trees for focusing too much on wine and women instead of spiritual matters.
Nalakubara was eventually released from this curse by the infant Krishna. He and his brother devoted themselves to Krishna’s service in thanks.
Nalakubara was a lustful trickster, but he was also called a general. The mythology of Nezha retained the trickster god elements in the stories of his youth while also making him a militant figure.
There is some evidence that a child referenced in a later Buddhist text, Nana, may be an amalgamation of Nalakubara and Krishna. This indicated that Chinese culture was not alone in combining aspects of the two gods’ stories.
Nalakubara’s father, Vaisravana, is also linked to a Tang-dynasty era general named Li Jing. Although his general was said to have lived at a different time, the name and military background were given to Nezha’s father because of this link.
The story of Nezha was set in the ancient Shang dynasty. He was the son of Li Jing, a general.
Nezha was an exceptionally strong and intelligent child, but he also frustrated his parents with his tricks and disobedience.
Nezha became the enemy of the Dragon King Ao Guang. The dragon sent two messengers, including his son, to capture him but Nezha defeated them both.
To avenge this, Ao Guang demanded that Li Jing sacrifice himself for his son’s offenses. The general refused, so Nezha killed himself in his father’s place to save him and their home.
Despite this, Li Jing never forgave his son for constantly causing trouble. When Nezha was given a new body, the two started a constant fight in which Nezha killed one of his brothers.
The fighting only ended when Li Jing was given the power to contain his son.
Despite their battles, Nezha became a protective deity who ensured filial piety and children’s obedience to their parents. Although he was combative and disobedient, his sacrifice to save his father epitomized the ideals of respect for one’s father.