Through their long evolution, most images of major gods of nature and gods of mainstream religions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) have eventually standardized in form and passed along generations, with only minor variations made by individual makers, but because of its close connection to people’s life, many gods of daily life continued the evolve with the changing lifestyle. Ironically, since the early 20th century, when life in China began to change dramatically, the Chinese elites condemned all the old folk beliefs as obstacles in their path toward a modern China. With government’s discouragement towards the folk practices, the presence of paper gods has faded away in most area in China by the mid-20th century.[1]

Fortunately, the practice of paper gods survived in some rural area, and the paper gods in the modern era reflect the changing needs of the people. The most notably example is the Vehicle God from Neiqiu.

The Vehicle God depicts the common vehicles of transportation. The locals usually paste the prints of Vehicle God in their courtyards and, as the name suggests, on their vehicles during major festivals. They make offering to the Vehicle God during Spring Festival and before leaving for a long trip or the temple fairs and praying for a safe trip. If an accident happened within the year, the family would stop worship the god in the next year as a punishment for failing to protect them.[2]

As a paper god directly responsible to protect the vehicles, the images of the Vehicle God changed with the type and appearance of the vehicles commonly used by the locals in Neiqiu.

The images from Qing dynasty shows a man wearing a straw-hat pushing a wheelbarrow with the sun motifs above him. A similar design can be found on the prints from the Republic era, with motifs of coin and gold ingot, both symbolizes wealth. In addition, a man driving a carriage is also a common image of the Vehicle God during this time, since both carriage and wheelbarrow were the most common vehicles for transporting people and goods.

In the meantime, as automobiles were introduced in China, new images appeared on the Vehicle God prints. In a print from the Republic era, the image of a truck is placed underneath a wheelbarrow, with the inscription “travel a thousand miles at day; travel eight hundred miles at night; (travel) safely with no accident.” Although it was unlikely for any local villagers then to own a truck, its appearance on paper gods indicates that the locals had identified automobiles as a major method of transportation.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, as the country further industrialized, the images of automobiles on Vehicle God prints became more common and diverse. A print from this period has the same inscription and similar composition as the one form the Republic era. However, in the place of the wheelbarrow, the maker put a tractor instead, since it has become a common transportation method and farming device in rural China.

Furthermore, as the people of Neiqiu were introduced to a variety of vehicles, they are no longer satisfied with one broad Vehicle God. New prints dedicated to individual type of vehicles were created, such as the Car God, the Motorcycle God, the Tricycle God. And the figures included in these prints also reflect the changing fashion in the region: they are no longer wearing straw hat and buttoned shirt, but wearing pullover, jacket, and helmet. An image of Motorcycle God even includes a woman in high heels, showing women traveling on motorcycle has become common in the rural area.

Even with so many social changes and innovations, the people of Neiqiu never abandoned their old images. The images of wheelbarrow and carriage were still produced (two images above), not as a representation of their daily life, but as the symbol of deity. Some print makers chose to combine the old and the new, creating images in traditional forms but with a touch of modern elements.

The image on the lower left is divided into two sections. A male figure dressing as government official from imperial China is depicted in the upper section, and the cloud motifs around him is an indication of his identity as a divine being, a representation of the Vehicle God. In contrast with the traditional image of the deity, the section below shows a detailed image of a modern tractor. Similarly, the image on the lower right shows overall traditional image with a man in traditional peasant clothing, a straw hat and a buttoned shirt, driving a horse carriage. However, the wheel of the carriage at the lower right corner clearly bears the thread pattern of rubber tire, which has replaced the old wooden tire in modern Chinese countryside. These hybrid images are the continuation of the traditional representations that passed down through generations with up-to-date images of modern vehicles used in local daily life.

[1] Geng, Han. Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices. Guangxi Normal University Press. 2016: 24.

[2] Geng, Han. Folk Apotheosis in China: Neiqiu Shenma and Folk Religion Practices: 290.