One of the roofs at the Qingyang Taoist Temple in Chengdu


By Elizabeth Doyle

Whispers of the Jade Emperor began during China’s Han Dynasty.

In Taoism, the gods may sometimes seem a little more like saints. They’re often historical figures who are thought to have become very powerful when they died. (I’m not sure whether all of them really lived or not. Some almost definitely did. Others may be legends.) It’s important in Taoism that the most powerful force in the universe, the Tao, is not anthropomorphic. It’s something that can’t be described. It’s what existed before, before, before – to infinity. So their anthropomorphic gods, to my understanding, are just great followers of the Tao who are thought to have become something spectacular when they passed.

The Jade Emperor would be at the top. (Although sometimes he’s placed below the Three Pure Ones.) He’s the distributor of justice. He rules over heaven, the underworld, and earth, distributing rewards and punishments via his elaborate court system, very much like court systems on earth. There’s something very culturally Chinese about the precision with which he operates. (In fact, he was a god in Chinese folklore even before he was embraced by the Taoists.) And on the surface, from an outsider’s perspective, there can seem to be something a little un-Taoist about him. Lao Tzu, Taoism’s founder, did not seem excited about superimposing iron-fisted rules onto the natural flow of life. His writings show him as a proponent of living softly and gently walking the path of the Tao.

Sign at the Hall of the Jade Emperor, Qingyang Temple

But upon closer inspection, there’s more Tao in the Jade Emperor than an outsider might think at first glance. He’s a vegetarian. (You can make offerings of meat to him – but only because he insists on being polite to guests – and he may have guests over sometimes who eat meat.) And in his real life, it’s thought that he was born to a great emperor and empress within China, and did himself inherit the throne. But soon, he left his throne in order to pursue the light of the Tao. He focused his life on good deeds toward all humans and animals. That’s why, after his death, he achieved immortality. Then, millions of years later, after his continuing good deeds as an Immortal, he became the Jade Emperor, who enforces the laws of the universe. All of our good and bad thoughts and actions are reported to him once a year.

Some believe that he’s in line to rise even higher someday – to become formlessness itself – that which cannot be described. And that the next god in line will then take his place.

The Jade Emperor is traditionally celebrated nine days after the Chinese New Year. That’s his birthday. Anyone who would like to make an offering might choose to do so on that day. Sugarcane and incense are both good, traditional offerings – though enormous temples in his honor are even better, and there are still some gorgeous ones in mainland China.