Thursday, 14 May 2015

more door gods #2

The posting of [door gods] to guard against intruders is an ancient Chinese custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor. Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.
Cheaply printed posters of the generals in highly stylized poses are widely used in Hong Kong, especially around Chinese New Year, but the generals portrayed here have been rendered in meticulous detail (and are considerably larger than those seen on a typical poster). Note that the pair are shown facing slightly to one side. This means that Yuchi Jingde (the dark-skinned one) must always be posted on the left-hand door, and Qin Shubao on the right. If this is not done, both guards will be facing away from each other, which would allow an intruder to walk between them unseen, and for good luck to slip away unnoticed.

[I] assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors…. I assume too that what we see today is a constantly retouched and repainted version of the work of the anonymous artist who painted the original figures. The template would also prescribe the weaponry carried, a Chinese halberd or ji and a broadsword by Yuchi Jingde, and a pole sword and a longsword by Qin Shubao.
A few days ago, in my photographic highlights post, I mentioned a small temple that I’d stumbled upon when taking a roundabout route to the post office, and I noted that the door gods there were ‘outlandish’, although you would have to wait until I did another post about door gods to see what I meant. The reason for this procrastination on my part was that I had only one other example to show, from the recently renovated Tin Hau Temple in the village of Shui Mei, which we cycle past regularly on the journey to the west.

Guarding the Tin Hau Temple in Shui Mei.

However, the day after I posted those highlights, Paula and I were up ridiculously early, so we decided to go for early-morning tea at our favourite restaurant. Afterwards, Paula headed off to work, while I decided to look for the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall in Sheung Shui, my intention being to photograph the door gods that I expected to find there. I knew only the general area in which the hall was located, an area of village houses, densely packed, so it took quite a while to find. And when I did find it, I discovered that it was closed. This usually means that it is possible to photograph both guardians at once; unfortunately, the gates into the courtyard in front of the hall were locked, so I will have to return another day to get a better picture than the one here, which is a montage of two photos taken from the sides of the courtyard.

Guarding the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall.

Nevertheless, my excursion succeeded well beyond my expectations. I wasn’t about to walk from Fanling station to the ancestral hall, a distance of 3–4km, by following the main road, and I had barely left that road behind when I found myself at the rear of a building with the classic layout of two halls separated by an internal courtyard. This, I discovered later, is the Tsz Tak Study Hall.

Guarding the Tsz Tak Study Hall.

Continuing on my way, it wasn’t long before I came across a second traditional building, the Pang Ancestral Hall. A few days earlier, I’d come within 20 metres of this hall, but it had been hidden from view behind a nondescript village house, and my route then took me in a different direction.

Guarding the Pang Ancestral Hall.

The doors of both these buildings were closed, so I was able to obtain good pictures, and the first thing to note is the nonstandard weaponry. Both guards appear to be carrying iron cudgels, but I have no idea why Qin Shubao is holding two, while Yuchi Jingde is holding only one, unless it is because the latter looks the more ferocious, so one will suffice. The two pictures are strikingly similar, so I wonder whether they are the work of the same artist.

I eventually arrived in the general area of the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, and while looking for it I stumbled across two more traditional buildings, the first facing directly onto the back of the second. The doors of the first were open, making it necessary to photograph each of the door gods separately and montage them together. In such circumstances, the glare is unavoidable. The doors of the second building, which were closed, look as if they haven’t been painted for a long time, although the images of the two figures standing guard have been maintained in good condition. This building is the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall, but I haven’t had time to identify the first one. The guardians of both buildings are carrying the standard weapons.

Guarding a temple in Sheung Shui.

Guarding the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall.

Finally, here are the outlandish guardians of Sam Sheung Temple. They look more like footpads than generals in the imperial army. I wonder who was responsible, and what was going through their head when they painted them. Although these ruffians are facing the right way to be effective as guards, if they are intended to represent the two renowned Tang generals, they are the wrong way round.

Guarding Sam Sheung Temple.

See More Door Gods for more of these fascinating images.


  1. Your next assignment is to study the screens behind the door gods because, as you know, spirits can only travel in a straight line

    1. And as you know Peter, the screens behind the entrance often aren’t decorated, which would be the only point in photographing them. Mind you, I did include a photo of the painted decoration on such a screen in my photographic highlights post earlier this week.

  2. This is great. Thanks for that. I found it quite fascinating and very interesting. Of course, cultural history is most intriguing. And to be effective, it appears they had to have "serious face" and colorful which are quite intimidating.

    1. Hi Momma. Cheaply printed paper posters are used everywhere, especially around Chinese New Year, but these hand-painted figures are much more fun.


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