K is for Kuan Yu

Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting ...
Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. This painting is usually hung in the offices of businessmen to show that they are trustworthy, just as these brothers were to each other. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I figure everybody’s going to be doing Kuan Yin today, so I decided to pick a different Chinese god! I’m such a fucking hipster.

A stellar example of the Chinese belief that anyone could rise to the highest ranks on talent alone, Kuan Yu began life as a simple young man named Zhang who studied, memorized his Confucius, and sold bean curd to support his family. He was a real person and lived from 162 to 220 CE. He was a bit of a troublemaker, however, and his family tried to control him by locking him in his room.

Like any good troublemaker, Zhang broke out and ran away. While he was leaving, he heard wailing and crying and went to investigate. As it turned out, a young lady and her father were being harassed by a government official who was trying to press the lady into marrying someone she didn’t like. He killed the official (shouldn’t everyone who has to deal with corrupt government bureaucracy be so lucky?) and fled prosecution. While he was being pursued, he stopped and looked in a stream. His face had been colored bright red! This caused the pursuers to let him go, since obviously this red-faced guy wasn’t the one who had killed their official.

It was about this time that he changed his name to Kuan or Guan and that’s when the real fun started. Seeing the corruption in the government, Kuan went to join an army defending the true government from the false influences. (This would be the story related in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.) There he met two men he would forever be linked to, and the three of them swore an oath to be as brothers.

Lots of fighting followed, as you’d probably expect from someone who went to join the army and later became the god of war. Eventually Kuan was captured by the false (but winning) emperor’s forces and given the chance to recant and join the winning side. Knowing that was a path without honor, Kuan declined with a string of insults. Soon after, he was put to death, and then people started building temples and shrines to him.

Some thirteen hundred years later, he was sufficiently popular and respected to be named the God of War and Great Just Emperor Who Assists Heaven and Protects the State during the Ming Dynasty. He’s revered by both Buddhists and Taoists in China and was regularly worshiped by government officials up to the end of Imperial China.

As you might imagine, my interest in Kuan Yu goes back to my Buddhist period, and he’s one of the deities that’s stuck around (along with Kuan Yin, and Matsu, and… okay, so I didn’t really stop working with any of the deities I worked with regularly…) despite my distinct lack of being Buddhistic lately.

The thing I like about him is that he makes doing the right thing look soeasy. I mean, aside from the war part, and the getting killed part. But he’s the one I turn to when I feel like there should be a right answer to a situation, and I just can’t figure out what it is.

He’s also the being that I ask for help when I’m trying to do the right thing, but the right thing is fucking hard. (I suspect this is why I never formed any kind of relationship with Tyr – I already have that kind of right-thinking father figure in my life, and I didn’t need another one, and Tyr’s not pushy like some of his friends.) It’s not that he makes doing the right thing easier – I suspect that he’s a strong proponent of the “if it’s easy, it’s not worth doing” school of thought – but talking to him helps me find the strength to keep going, and get my head straight when I’m in danger of losing sight of what’s important.

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