Not just a pretty red face
The man was no myth
Guan Yu (關羽), also known as Guan Gong (關公), also known as Guan Di (關帝), Guan Yunchang (關云長), and the Marquis Zhuangmou. He may go by many names, but up close and in person, ‘the one with the red face’ cannot be mistaken for anyone else.
As far as Chinese gods go, Guan Yu is pretty ubiquitous. In Hong Kong in particular you can see him in temples and in restaurants, in shops and businesses. There are statues of him in street shrines and portraits in the most unlikely of places. Even if a temple isn’t dedicated to his name you’ll most likely still find him there, so revered is he. He is the Chinese everygod; a symbol of everything from loyalty to wealth. And best of all, he existed.
Like many Chinese gods, Guan Yu isn’t a mythological figure. He’s not multi-limbed or elephant-faced. He isn’t a cloud-dwelling superbeing or a worker of miracles. He’s an actual historical figure who lived during the latter years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and died, it is said, in the year 219.
As a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei (劉備) during the establishment of China’s Three Kingdoms period, Guan Yu was a significant figure in the civil war that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty. With regional warlords fighting to fill the power vacuum left in its wake, he was part of a group still loyal to the Han and seeking to restore the Emperor to power. Thus, with his master Liu Bei and fellow general Zhang Fei (張飛), he swore an oath of brotherhood, according to the legend, vowing to protect the Han Dynasty and remain loyal to the cause.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
From then on Guan Yu became renowned for his loyalty to Liu Bei. After Liu Bei had been defeated by fellow warlord Cao Cao, for instance, and fled to northern China, Guan Yu, captured by Cao Cao’s forces and unaware of Liu Bei’s fate, agreed to join the former on the condition that he would rejoin his sworn brother and continue to their fight should Liu Bei’s whereabouts become known. “I’ve sworn to follow [Liu Bei] until I die,” Guan Yu is alleged to have said. “I cannot break my oath.” Despite Cao Cao’s gifts and promises of wealth, this is exactly what Guan Yu did.
As a general, he was known for his strength, bravery, and loyalty to his men. As an individual, he was respected for his honour and righteousness. Many of his exploits, along with those of his ‘brothers’ Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, were fictionalised in the 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and much of what we now know and attribute to Guan Yu can be found within its pages. But though the events of his life and times may have been subsequently romanticised, there is little doubt as to the historical basis of the story.
Guan Yu met his end in 219, one year before the Three Kingdoms period officially began. There are several accounts of his death, but the most reliable has it that after he had lost Jing Province to the forces of Sun Quan – the third warlord (along with Liu Bei and Cao Cai) fighting for control of the empire – he was ambushed and captured, along with his son, whilst attempting a retreat. The two were executed, with Guan Yu’s head being sent to Cao Cao who arranged a funeral with full rites for the defeated general.
Upholder of good, defender of integrity
Nowadays, Guan Yu is worshipped for many reasons and by many different strands of Chinese society. As a mighty warrior, he is a slayer of evil, protecting those he watches over from ill fortune. As the embodiment of honesty and integrity, he is often displayed by businesses as a sign of trustworthiness and as a defender of their good name. While as an upholder of the code of brotherhood and a symbol of fraternal loyalty, he is worshipped by everyone from Chinese immigrants in foreign lands, to the Hong Kong police force and even underground triad organisations.
After his death, he was given the name Guan Gong, meaning Lord Guan, and is often depicted with his brother Zhang Fei, particularly on the doors of homes or temples. When seen with Liu Bei, Liu Bei will be the seated one, with Guan Gong and Zhang Fei standing guard by his side.
Rarely seen without his trademark Guandao sword and usually pictured with his familiar red face, Guan Gong, was no horseback-mounted nutter in love with the romance of war. Though indeed a mighty warrior, he is more often worshipped as man of peace and guarantor of harmony than a simple God of War. He only became a soldier to try and prevent the country falling into chaos and to restore the land to peace. As such, it is his principles and the standards he stood for, rather than his wartime exploits, for which Guan Gong is remembered. In turn, it is his qualities as a man, rather than as a warrior, for which Guan Gong is worshipped.
Related Post: Guan Gong is perhaps most famously worshipped at Man Mo Temple in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong Island. Check out the photos and history of the temple at Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong.
Guan Yu in popular culture
Not content with being one of the most recognisable Chinese gods of them all with a place in almost every temple in Hong Kong, in recent decades, Guan Yu has been pretty successful at carving himself a career in the movies.
From his 14th century appearance in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, fictionalised accounts of Guan Yu’s life and times have played a major role in popular Chinese culture. Every Chinese knows Guan Yu and every Chinese loves him. There are classical operas as well as cartoons and comics. To give a western equivalent, maybe the story can be compared with that of the knights of the round table – of King Arthur, Sir Lancealot, Gawain and all that – though with a story probably more based in fact.
Either way, the filmmakers love a good story, and the Three Kingdoms era certainly fits the bill. Check out these three clips of Guan Yu in action.
First up, a scene from John Woo’s two part, 280 minute epic, Red Cliff, starring Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Watch the bad mutha go guandao crazy.
Next, everybody’s favourite Andy Lau, as Zhao Zilong in Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, gets in a spot of bother with Zhang Fei and Guan Yu.
And finally, it isn’t just in China that the Guan Yu legend is popular. Check out this bit of anime from Japan, in which Zhang Fei and Guang Yu get busy chopping heads in Sōten Kōro. Quelle badass!