The Jade Emperor (玉皇 Pinyin: Yù Huáng or 玉帝 Yù Dì), known informally by children and commoners as Grandpa Heaven (天公 Tiān Gōng) and known formally as the Pure August Jade Emperor or August Personage of Jade (玉皇上帝 Yu Huang Shangdi or 玉皇大帝 Yu Huang Dadi), is the ruler of Heaven and among the most important gods of the Chinese Daoist pantheon.
From the ninth century, he was also the patron deity of the Chinese imperial family. The Jade Emperor rules over Heaven and Earth just as the earthly emperors once ruled over China. He and his court are at the center of a celestial bureaucracy (mirroring that of ancient China) ruling over every aspect of human and animal life.
There are many stories in Chinese mythology involving the Jade Emperor.
The Origin of the Jade Emperor
It was said that the Jade Emperor was originally the crown prince of the kingdom of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments. At birth he emitted a wonderous light that filled the entire kingdom. When he was young, he was kind, intelligent and wise. He devoted his entire childhood to helping the needy (the poor and suffering, the deserted and single, the hungry and disabled). Furthermore, he showed respect and benevolence to both men and creature. After his father died, he ascended the throne. He made sure that everyone in his kingdom found peace and content, after that he told his ministers that he wished to cultivate Dao on the Bright and Fragant Cliff. After 1750 trials, each trial lasting for 120976 years, he attained Golden Immortality. After another a hundred million years of cultivation, he finally became the Jade Emperor.
The Jade Emperor vanquishing evil
There is another myth which tells of how the Jade Emperor became the monarch of all the deities in heaven. This myth is not very commonly known, but nonetheless it is an interesting myth. It is one of the few myths in which the Jade Emperor really shows his might. In the beginning of time, the earth was a very hard and difficult place to live. Men were having tremendous difficulty coping with existence; not only did men have to deal with harsh conditions, but also with all kinds of monstrous beings. At this time, there were also not many gods or deities to protect men. Furthermore, a lot of powerful, evil demons were defying the immortals of heaven. The Jade Emperor was still an ordinary immortal who roamed earth to help as many people as he could. However, he felt sad because his powers were limited and could only ease the sufferings of men. He decided to retreat in a mountain cave and cultivate his Dao. He passed 3200 trials, each trial lasted for about 3 million years. Unfortunately, a powerful, evil entity which dwelt on earth had the ambition to conquer the immortals and gods in heaven and proclaim sovereignty over the entire universe. He went into retreat later than the Jade Emperor. This evil entity retreated himself too and went into meditation to expand his power. He passed through 3000 trials each trial lasting for about 3 million years too. After he passed his final trial, he felt confident that no one could defeat him anymore. He re-entered the world again, and recruited an army of demons with the purpose of attacking heaven. The immortals being aware of the threat gathered themselves and prepared for war. The gods were unable to stop the powerful demon and all were defeated by him. The Three Pure Ones were leading the celestial beings at that time. Fortunately, the Jade Emperor finished his cultivation in the midst of this war. He was changing the land to make it more liveable for men and repelling all kinds of monstrous beasts. Suddenly, he saw an evil glow emitting from heaven and knew something was amiss. He ascended and saw that a war was going on, he saw that the demon was too powerful to be stopped by any of the gods present. He went up and challenged the demon, and a battle ensued between them. Mountains shook and rivers and seas toppled; however, the Jade Emperor stood victorious due to his deeper and wiser cultivation, not for might but for benevolence. After totally annihilating the demon, all the other demons were scattered by the gods and immortals. Because of his noble and benevolent deeds, the gods, immortals and mankind proclaimed the Jade Emperor the supreme sovereign of all.
According to one creation myth, the Jade Emperor fashioned the first humans from clay, but as he left them to harden in the sun, it rained, misshaping some of the figures, thus explaining the origin of sickness and physical abnormalities. (The most common alternative Chinese creation myth states that human beings were once fleas on the body of Pangu.)
The princess and the cowherd
Main article: Cowherd and Weaver Girl
In another story which is popular throughout Asia and has many differing versions, the Jade Emperor has a daughter named Chih'nü (she is responsible for weaving colorful clouds in the heaven, hence her name Chih nu which literally means weaver girl),(in some versions, she is instead a seamstress who works for the Jade Emperor) who everyday descended to earth to bathe with the aid of a magical robe. One day a lowly cowherd named Niu Lang spotted Chih'nü as she bathed in a stream. Falling instantly in love with her, he stole her magic robe which she had left on the bank of the stream, leaving her unable to escape back to Heaven. When Chih'nü emerged from the water, Niu Lang grabbed her and carried her back to his home.
When the Jade Emperor heard of this matter, he was furious but unable to intercede, as in the meantime his daughter had fallen in love and married the cowherd. However, as time passed, she grew homesick and began to miss her father. One day, she came across a box in which she found the magic robe which her husband had hidden. She decided to visit her father back in Heaven, but once she returned, the Jade Emperor summoned a river to flow across the sky (the Milky Way), which Chih'nü was unable to cross to return to her husband. However, the Emperor took pity on the young lovers, and so once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, he allows them to meet on a bridge over the river.
The story refers to constellations in the night sky. Chih'nü is the star Vega in the constellation of Lyra east of the Milky Way, and Niu Lang is the star Altair in the constellation of Aquila west of the Milky Way. Under the first quarter moon (7th day) of the seventh lunar month (around August), the lighting condition in the sky causes the Milky Way to appear dimmer, hence the story that the two lovers are no longer separated in that one particular day each year. The seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar is a holiday in China called Chihsi or Qi Qiao Jie, which is a day for young lovers much like Valentine's Day in the West; in Japan, it is called Tanabata (star day). If it rains on that day, it is said to be Zhi'nü crying tears at being reunited with her husband.
There are several stories as to how the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac were chosen. In one, the Jade Emperor, although having ruled Heaven and Earth justly and wisely for many years, had never had the time to actually visit the Earth personally. He grew curious as to what the creatures of the earth looked like. To this end, he charged his chief advisor with selecting the twelve most interesting animals and bringing them to Heaven to satisfy his curiosity.
The Emperor's advisor sent invitations to the rat, the cat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the chicken, and the dog. The cat, the most handsome of all animals, asked his friend the rat to wake him on the day they were to go to Heaven so he wouldn't oversleep. The rat, however, was worried that he would seem ugly compared to the cat, so he didn't wake the cat. Consequently, the cat missed the meeting with the Jade Emperor and was replaced by the pig. The Jade Emperor was delighted with the animals and so decided to divide the years up amongst them. When the cat learned of what had happened, he was furious with the rat and that, according to the story, is why cats and rats are enemies to this day.
His predecessor and sucessor
The Jade Emperor was originally the assistant of the Divine Master of the Heavenly Origin, Yuan-shi tian-zong. He will be succeeded by the Heavenly Master of the Dawn of Jade of the Golden Door. The characters for both are stamped on the front of the arms of his throne.
Worship and festivals
The Jade Emperor's Birthday is said to be the ninth day of the first lunar month. On this day Daoist temples hold a Jade Emperor ritual (拜天公 bài tiān gōng, literally "heaven worship") at which priests and laymen prostrate themselves, burn incense, and make food offerings.
Chinese New Year's Eve is also a day of worship as it is said to be the day the Jade Emperor makes his annual inspection of the deeds of mortals and rewards or punishes them accordingly. On this day incense is burned in the home and offerings are made to the Jade Emperor and also to Zao Jun, the god of the home who reports to the Emperor on each family.