Paper Gods and Chinese Folk Religion
Chinese folk religion is a polytheistic belief system that deifies almost every aspect of life and nature. It also includes concepts and practices from the official religions, namely Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. As a result, the deities represented in paper god prints are great in number and variety. Chinese Woodblock New Year Picture Collection: Neiqiu Shenma put the paper gods into three main types: the gods of nature, the gods of daily life, and the gods from Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. In Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices, Geng Han categorizes the paper gods into the nature gods, the human gods, and the object gods. Geng defines the human gods as the deities based on real people, but origin stories of deities often vary in different regions and time period, and local people often create tales of object gods as well. As a result, it is hard to distinguish between the human gods and the object gods. For this reason, this project will follow the categorization from Chinese Woodblock New Year Picture Collection.
The gods of nature refer to the deities that derive from elements of nature, but over time, these deities usually incorporated other religious symbols and functions. For example, the Earth God (土神) from Neiqiu, which is usually represented as a figure with triangular head, two arms growing from the two sides of his nose, and an irregular around body decorated with lines and geometric shapes. According to ancient literatures, the Earth God is mostly likely to be “Houtu (后土)” from ancient Chinese mythology, the supreme deity of the earth. The earliest representation of the Earth God was the image of a mound, yet later developed into the humanoid figure. Geng Han argues in his book Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices that the triangular shape on the Earth God’s heads is a reference of the mound. And in The Songs of Chu (楚辞), the Earth God is described as a figure with sharp horn and controls the underworld. In this case, the Earth God not only reflects the worship of earth, but also represents people’s reverence of the life after death. Geng also believes that the hands on the god’s face came from Yang Ren, a character from The Investiture of the Gods (封神演义). In the story, Yang Ren was made a god called “Taisui (太岁),” which is a deity who monitors the crimes on earth. Taking the placement of the paper god during the ritual into consideration, Geng further argues that the Earth God is placed as a representation of the hungry ghost in Buddhist ritual, which strengthened his argument of the Earth God being a deity of the underworld.
Scholars further categorize the gods of daily life into the gods of household, the gods of auspiciousness, the gods of profession, and the guardian deities. In this category, the deities do not always have humanoid forms. For example, the paper god print for the bellow only represents a bellow with a burning stove by its side . This image, along with the text on the top: Dafeng changyou (Many there always be strong wind), provide a clear sense of the purpose of this paper god—to protect the bellow from malfunction. This marks a significant different between Chinese folk religion from the mainstream religions: it does not have concrete doctrines or organizations, and it even does not have an established set of deities. The images and the functions of the deities only came from folk people’s observation of their daily life.
The last type of paper god is the gods from Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. This type of paper gods reflects the inclusive nature of Chinese folk religion. However, although the folk people worship deities from various religions at the same time, they reinterpret those religious concepts based on their own understanding and needs. This can be seen in image of Tiandi (All the deities of heaven and earth), one of the most important paper god in the folk practice: three Buddhas, Jade Emperor (Daoist deity), and Guan Gong (Deified historical figure, a famous general from 2nd century) are represented in the same image, along with their attendants. The placement of the figures reflects the folk understanding of the hierarchy among different religions. The three Buddhas are on the very top, which shows that the folk people believe the power of Buddha is beyond the power of heaven, which is represented by the Daoist deity Jade Emperor. Beneath the Jade Emperor is Guan Gong, who is seen as the embodiment of human virtues. In a sense, this hierarchy of the deities reflect people’s need to create an order, which shows that Chinese folk people have internalized the Confucian concept of social order.
 Geng Han. Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices. Guangxi Normal University Press. 2016: 200-201.
 Feng, Jicai. Chinese Woodblock New Year Picture Collection: Neiqiu Shenma. Zhonghua Book Company. 2009: 101.
 Geng Han. Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices. Guangxi Normal University Press. 2016: 209.