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Myths and Legends of China, by Edward T.C. Werner, [1922], at

Chapter IX

Myths of Epidemics, Medicine, Exorcism, Etc.

The Ministry of Epidemics

The gods of epidemics, etc., belong to the sixth, ninth, second, and third celestial Ministries. The composition of the Ministry of Epidemics is arranged differently in different works as Epidemics (regarded as epidemics on earth, but as demons in Heaven) of the Centre, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, or as the marshals clothed in yellow, green, red, white, and blue respectively, or as the Officers of the East, West, South, and North, with two additional members: a Taoist who quells the plague, and the Grand Master who exhorts people to do right.

With regard to the Ministry of Seasonal Epidemics, it is related that in the sixth moon of the eleventh year (A.D. 599) of the reign of Kao Tsu, founder of the Sui dynasty, five stalwart persons appeared in the air, clothed in robes of five colours, each carrying different objects in his hands: the first a spoon and earthenware vase, the second a leather bag and sword, the third a fan, the fourth a club, the fifth a jug of fire. The Emperor asked Chang Chü-jên, his Grand Historiographer, who these were and if they were benevolent or evil spirits. The official answered: “These are the five powers of the five directions. Their appearance indicates the imminence of epidemics, which will last throughout the four seasons of the year.” “What remedy is there, and how am I to protect the people?” inquired the Emperor. “There is no remedy,” replied the official, “for epidemics are sent by Heaven.” During that year the mortality was very great. The p. 241 Emperor built a temple to the five persons, and bestowed upon them the title of Marshals to the Five Spirits of the Plague. During that and the following dynasty sacrifices were offered to them on the fifth day of the fifth moon.

The President of the Ministry

The following particulars are given concerning the President of the Ministry, whose name was Lü Yüeh. He was an old Taoist hermit, living at Chiu-lung Tao, ‘Nine-dragon Island,’ who became an Immortal. The four members of the Ministry were his disciples. He wore a red garment, had a blue face, red hair, long teeth, and three eyes. His war-horse was named the Myopic Camel. He carried a magic sword, and was in the service of Chou Wang, whose armies were concentrated at Hsi Ch’i. In a duel with Mu-cha, brother of No-cha, he had his arm severed by a sword-cut. In another battle with Huang T’ien-hua, son of Huang Fei-hu, he appeared with three heads and six arms. In his many hands he held the celestial seal, plague microbes, the flag of plague, the plague sword, and two mysterious swords. His faces were green, and large teeth protruded from his mouths. Huang T’ien-hua threw his magic weapon, Huo-lung Piao, and hit him on the leg. Just at that moment Chiang Tzŭ-ya arrived with his goblin-dispelling whip and felled him with a blow. He was able, however, to rise again, and took to flight.

The Plague-disseminating Umbrellas

Resolved to avenge his defeat, he joined General Hsü Fang, who was commanding an army corps at Ch’uan-yün Kuan. Round the mountain he organized p. 242 a system of entrenchments and of infection against their enemies. Yang Chien released his celestial hound, which bit Lü Yüeh on the crown of his head. Then Yang Jên, armed with his magic fan, pursued Lü Yüeh and compelled him to retreat to his fortress. Lü Yüeh mounted the central raised part of the embattled wall and opened all his plague-disseminating umbrellas, with the object of infecting Yang Jên, but the latter, simply by waving his fan, reduced all the umbrellas to dust, and also burned the fort, and with it Lü Yüeh.

Similar wonderful achievements are related in short notices in the Fêng shên yen i of the four other officers of the Ministry.

Li P’ing, the sixth officer of the Ministry, met a like fate to that of Lü Yüeh after having failed to induce the latter to abandon the cause of the Shang dynasty for that of Chou.

The Five Graduates

In Père Henri Doré’s Recherches sur les Superstitions en Chine is given an interesting legend concerning five other gods of epidemics. These gods are called the Wu Yüeh, ‘Five Mountains,’ and are worshipped in the temple San-i Ko at Ju-kao, especially in outbreaks of contagious diseases and fevers. A sufferer goes to the temple and promises offerings to the gods in the event of recovery. The customary offering is five small wheaten loaves, called shao ping, and a pound of meat.

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The Magic Umbrellas

The Wu Yüeh are stellar devils whom Yü Huang sent to be reincarnated on earth. Their names were T’ien Po-hsüeh, Tung Hung-wên, Ts’ai Wên-chü, Chao Wu-chên, and Huang Ying-tu, and they were reincarnated at Nan-ch’ang Fu, Chien-ch’ang Fu, Yen-mên Kuan, Yang Chou, p. 243 and Nanking respectively. They were all noted for their brilliant intellects, and were clever scholars who passed their graduate’s examination with success.

When Li Shih-min ascended the throne, in A.D. 627, he called together all the literati of the Empire to take the Doctor’s Examination in the capital. Our five graduates started for the metropolis, but, losing their way, were robbed by brigands, and had to beg help in order to reach the end of their journey. By good luck they all met in the temple San-i Ko, and related to each other the various hardships they had undergone. But when they eventually reached the capital the examination was over, and they were out in the streets without resources. So they took an oath of brotherhood for life and death. They pawned some of the few clothes they possessed, and buying some musical instruments formed themselves into a band of strolling musicians.

The first bought a drum, the second a seven-stringed guitar, the third a mandolin, the fourth a clarinet, and the fifth and youngest composed songs.

Thus they went through the streets of the capital giving their concerts, and Fate decreed that Li Shih-min should hear their melodies. Charmed with the sweet sounds, he asked Hsü Mao-kung whence came this band of musicians, whose skill was certainly exceptional. Having made inquiries, the minister related their experiences to the Emperor. Li Shih-min ordered them to be brought into his presence, and after hearing them play and sing appointed them to his private suite, and henceforth they accompanied him wherever he went.

The Emperors Strategy

The Emperor bore malice toward Chang T’ien-shih, the Master of the Taoists, because he refused to pay the p. 244 taxes on his property, and conceived a plan to bring about his destruction. He caused a spacious subterranean chamber to be dug under the reception-hall of his palace. A wire passed through the ceiling to where the Emperor sat. He could thus at will give the signal for the music to begin or stop. Having stationed the five musicians in this subterranean chamber, he summoned the Master of the Taoists to his presence and invited him to a banquet. During the course of this he pulled the wire, and a subterranean babel began.

The Emperor pretended to be terrified, and allowed himself to fall to the ground. Then, addressing himself to the T’ien-shih, he said: “I know that you can at will catch the devilish hobgoblins which molest human beings. You can hear for yourself the infernal row they make in my palace. I order you under penalty of death to put a stop to their pranks and to exterminate them.”

The Musicians are Slain

Having spoken thus, the Emperor rose and left. The Master of the Taoists brought his projecting mirror, and began to seek for the evil spirits. In vain he inspected the palace and its precincts; he could discover nothing. Fearing that he was lost, he in despair threw his mirror on the floor of the reception-hall.

A minute later, sad and pensive, he stooped to pick it up; what was his joyful surprise when he saw reflected in it the subterranean room and the musicians! At once he drew five talismans on yellow paper, burned them, and ordered his celestial general, Chao Kung-ming, to take his sword and kill the five musicians. The order was promptly executed, and the T’ien-shih informed the Emperor, who received the news with ridicule, not p. 245 believing it to be true. He went to his seat and pulled the wire, but all remained silent. A second and third time he gave the signal, but without response. He then ordered his Grand Officer to ascertain what had happened. The officer found the five graduates bathed in their blood, and lifeless.

The Emperor, furious, reproached the Master of the Taoists. “But,” replied the T’ien-shih, “was it not your Majesty who ordered me under pain of death to exterminate the authors of this pandemonium?” Li Shih-min could not reply. He dismissed the Master of the Taoists and ordered the five victims to be buried.

The Emperor Tormented

After the funeral ceremonies, apparitions appeared at night in the place where they had been killed, and the palace became a babel. The spirits threw bricks and broke the tiles on the roofs.

The Emperor ordered his uncomfortable visitors to go to the T’ien-shih who had murdered them. They obeyed, and, seizing the garments of the Master of the Taoists, swore not to allow him any rest if he would not restore them to life.

To appease them the Taoist said: “I am going to give each of you a wonderful object. You are then to return and spread epidemics among wicked people, beginning in the imperial palace and with the Emperor himself, with the object of forcing him to canonize you.”

One received a fan, another a gourd filled with fire, the third a metallic ring to encircle people’s heads, the fourth a stick made of wolves’ teeth, and the fifth a cup of lustral water.

The spirit-graduates left full of joy, and made their p. 246 first experiment on Li Shih-min. The first gave him feverish chills by waving his fan, the second burned him with the fire from his gourd, the third encircled his head with the ring, causing him violent headache, the fourth struck him with his stick, and the fifth poured out his cup of lustral water on his head.

The same night a similar tragedy took place in the palace of the Empress and the two chief imperial concubines.

T’ai-po Chin-hsing, however, informed Yü Huang what had happened, and, touched with compassion, he sent three Immortals with pills and talismans which cured the Empress and the ladies of the palace.

The Graduates Canonized

Li Shih-min, having also recovered his health, summoned the five deceased graduates and expressed his regret for the unfortunate issue of his design against the T’ien-shih. He proceeded: “To the south of the capital is the temple San-i Ko. I will change its name to Hsiang Shan Wu Yüeh Shên, ‘Fragrant Hill of the Five Mountain Spirits.’ On the twenty-eighth day of the ninth moon betake yourselves to that temple to receive the seals of your canonization.” He conferred upon them the title of Ti, ‘Emperor.’

The Ministry of Medicine

The celestial Ministry of Medicine is composed of three main divisions comprising: (1) the Ancestral Gods of the Chinese race; (2) the King of Remedies, Yao Wang; and (3) the Specialists. There is a separate Ministry of Smallpox. This latter controls and cures smallpox, and the establishment of a separate celestial Ministry is p. 247 significant of the prevalence and importance of the affliction. The ravages of smallpox in China, indeed, have been terrific: so much so, that, until recent years, it was considered as natural and inevitable for a child to have smallpox as for it to cut its teeth. One of the ceremonial questions addressed by a visitor to the parent of a child was always Ch’u la hua’rh mei yu? “Has he had the smallpox?” and a child who escaped the scourge was often, if not as a rule, regarded with disfavour and, curiously enough, as a weakling. Probably the train of thought in the Chinese mind was that, as it is the fittest who survive, those who have successfully passed through the process of “putting out the flowers” have proved their fitness in the struggle for existence. Nowadays vaccination is general, and the number of pockmarked faces seen is much smaller than it used to be—in fact, the pockmarked are now the exception. But, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the Ministry of Smallpox has not been abolished, and possibly its members, like those of some more mundane ministries, continue to draw large salaries for doing little or no work.

The Medicine-gods

The chief gods of medicine are the mythical kings P’an Ku, Fu Hsi, Shên Nung, and Huang Ti. The first two, being by different writers regarded as the first progenitor or creator of the Chinese people, are alternatives, so that Fu Hsi, Shên Nung, and Huang Ti may be said to be a sort of ancestral triad of medicine-gods, superior to the actual God or King of Medicine, Yao Wang. Of P’an Ku we have spoken sufficiently in Chapter III, and with regard to Fu Hsi, also called T’ien Huang Shih, ‘the Celestial Emperor,’ the mythical sovereign and p. 248 supposed inventor of cooking, musical instruments, the calendar, hunting, fishing, etc., the chief interest for our present purpose centres in his discovery of the pa kua, or Eight Trigrams. It is on the strength of these trigrams that Fu Hsi is regarded as the chief god of medicine, since it is by their mystical power that the Chinese physicians influence the minds and maladies of their patients. He is represented as holding in front of him a disk on which the signs are painted.

The Ministry of Exorcism

The Ministry of Exorcism is a Taoist invention and is composed of seven chief ministers, whose duty is to expel evil spirits from dwellings and generally to counteract the annoyances of infernal demons. The two gods usually referred to in the popular legends are P’an Kuan and Chung K’uei. The first is really the Guardian of the Living and the Dead in the Otherworld, Fêng-tu P’an Kuan (Fêng-tu or Fêng-tu Ch’êng being the region beyond the tomb). He was originally a scholar named Ts’ui Chio, who became Magistrate of Tz’ŭ Chou, and later Minister of Ceremonies. After his death he was appointed to the spiritual post above mentioned. His best-known achievement is his prolongation of the life of the Emperor T’ai Tsung of the T’ang dynasty by twenty years by changing i, ‘one,’ into san, ‘three,’ in the life-register kept by the gods. The term P’an Kuan is, however, more generally used as the designation of an officer or civil or military attendant upon a god than of any special individual, and the original P’an Kuan, ‘the Decider of Life in Hades,’ has been gradually supplanted in popular favour by Chung K’uei, ‘the Protector against Evil Spirits.’

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P’an Kuan

p. 249

The Exorcism of ‘Emptiness and Devastation’

The Emperor Ming Huang of the T’ang dynasty, also known as T’ang Hsüan Tsung, in the reign-period K’ai Yüan (A.D. 712–742), after an expedition to Mount Li in Shensi, was attacked by fever. During a nightmare he saw a small demon fantastically dressed in red trousers, with a shoe on one foot but none on the other, and a shoe hanging from his girdle. Having broken through a bamboo gate, he took possession of an embroidered box and a jade flute, and then began to make a tour of the palace, sporting and gambolling. The Emperor grew angry and questioned him. “Your humble servant,” replied the little demon, “is named Hsü Hao, ‘Emptiness and Devastation,’” “I have never heard of such a person,” said the Emperor. The demon rejoined, “Hsü means to desire Emptiness, because in Emptiness one can fly just as one wishes; Hao, ‘Devastation,’ changes people’s joy to sadness. “The Emperor, irritated by this flippancy, was about to call his guard, when suddenly a great devil appeared, wearing a tattered head-covering and a blue robe, a horn clasp on his belt, and official boots on his feet. He went up to the sprite, tore out one of his eyes, crushed it up, and ate it. The Emperor asked the newcomer who he was. “Your humble servant,” he replied, “is Chung K’uei, Physician of Tung-nan Shan in Shensi. In the reign-period Wu Tê (A.D. 618–627) of the Emperor Kao Tsu of the T’ang dynasty I was ignominiously rejected and unjustly defrauded of a first class in the public examinations. Overwhelmed with shame, I committed suicide on the steps of the imperial palace. The Emperor ordered me to be buried in a green robe [reserved for members of the imperial clan], and out of gratitude for p. 250 that favour I swore to protect the sovereign in any part of the Empire against the evil machinations of the demon Hsü Hao.” At these words the Emperor awoke and found that the fever had left him. His Majesty called for Wu Tao-tzŭ (one of the most celebrated Chinese artists) to paint the portrait of the person he had seen in his dream. The work was so well done that the Emperor recognized it as the actual demon he had seen in his sleep, and rewarded the artist with a hundred taels of gold. The portrait is said to have been still in the imperial palace during the Sung dynasty.

Another version of the legend says that Chung K’uefs essay was recognized by the examiners as equal to the work of the best authors of antiquity, but that the Emperor rejected him on account of his extremely ugly features, whereupon he committed suicide in his presence, was honoured by the Emperor and accorded a funeral as if he had been the successful first candidate, and canonized with the title of Great Spiritual Chaser of Demons for the Whole Empire. p. 251

Next: Chapter X. The Goddess of Mercy