If you have read any of Kylie Chan’s fast-paced demon-chasing novels, you might have come across the Jade Emperor as a rather mysterious, omnipotent god who doesn’t listen all that much to his underlings and has a habit of ordering people he is not satisfied with to the various hells in Chinese tradition.
Kylie is in good company – the “Monkey King” or Sun Wu Kong, first made his appearance in the Chinese 16th Century Ming Dynasty novel “Journey to the West” . Although the Jade Emperor is an omnipresent, benevolent God in this book, the Monkey King is a larrikin who creates havoc in heaven.
One thing about the Chinese is they are able to laugh and make fun of the most things, including the highest of beings. The Jade Emperor, in fact, is a Daoist deity who is worshipped across China and is one of the Three Purities, the Daoist trinity.
The Jade Emperor resides in the highest echelon of Daoist religious deities. Many religions have trinities, and Daoism is no exception.
The Jade Emperor is the highest of the三清 Sānqīng – the Three Purities, who include
玉皇大帝Yù Huáng Dadi – the Jade Emperor
太清 TàiQīng. The Great Clear One
太上老君, Tàishàng Lǎojū or 老子 Laozi, author of the 道德 经 Dao De Jing.
Although the San Qing, the Three Purities, have human figures, they are understood to be pure, celestial beings with limitless form. They also represent the formation of the material world though the principles of yin and yang.
Laozi in the Daodejing said
“Dao begets one, one begets the two, the two beget three and the three beget the myriad things.”
In this way, the Taiqing god, one of the Three Purities, separates ‘pre-heaven’ celestial spirit into yin and yang, so the manifest world may emerge.
The Jade Emperor’s “birthday” or ritual celebration, occurs on the 9th day of the first month of the lunar new year – ie 9 days after the Chinese New Year. Temples across China – and Daoist temples across the world – hold rituals for the Jade Emperor on this day.
Ordinary people traditionally welcome the Jade Emperor into their homes on New Years eve, by lighting incense and making food offerings to the Jade Emperor, much the same as Christians might go to church on Christmas Day.
Most Daoist temples have an altar to worship the Three Purities.
A linguistic note:
老子 Laozi used to be rendered as Lao Tsu or Lao Tzu. ( Wade Giles). That’s a bit of a mouthful, right? Wondering how to pronounce it? Laozi will do, just as it is spelt.
经 jing meaning Classic Text, is a modern character. The old character of jing was 經.
Note on the photos: most of the photographs in this site are mine. The photographs on this post are of sacred altars or deities. Please respect these images.