Chinese Folktales

14. The God of War

KUAN Tl, the God of War, was really called Kuan Yü. When the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans swept through the empire he concluded an alliance of friendship with two other men whom he encountered on the road and who, like himself, were fired by patriotism. One of them was the later emperor Liu Bei, the other was called Chang Fei. The three met in a peach orchard and pledged themselves to be brothers to each other even though they came from different families. They slaughtered a white horse and swore loyalty unto death.

Kuan Yü was honest, loyal, just and courageous beyond all measure. He was fond of reading Confucius’s book On the Rise and Fall of Empires (Ch’un Ch’iu). He helped his friend Liu Bei to suppress the Yellow Turbans and conquer the Four-River Land. The horse he rode was called Red Hare and could cover a thousand miles a day. He had a crescent-shaped knife Which was called the Green Dragon. His eyebrows were beautiful like those of silken butterflies and his eyes were slender long slits like those of the phoenix. His face was scarlet and his beard was so long that it reached down to his waist. One day, when he presented himself to the emperor, the emperor called him Duke Fine-Beard and presented him with a silk pouch to keep his beard in. He wore a robe of green brocade. Whenever he went into battle he displayed irresistible courage. No matter whether a thousand armies or ten thousand horsemen were facing him—he regarded them as though they were mere air. Once the wicked Ts’au Ts’au tempted him to betray his friend and master Liu Bei. Having got Liu Bei’s two wives into his power he commanded that Kuan Yü was to be locked up with them in the same room for the night. But Kuan Yü kept his senses and spent the whole night until dawn keeping a vigil on the threshold of the room, a light in his hand.

Another time the wicked Ts’au Ts’au had encouraged the enemies of Kuan Yü’s master to take his city by treachery. As soon as Kuan heard about it he hastened with an army to it. But he ran into an ambush and, together with his son, was taken prisoner and brought to the enemy capital. The ruler of that country would have liked Kuan Yü to join his side, but Kuan Yü swore that he would die rather than yield. Thereupon father and son were executed. After his death his horse, Red Hare, refused all fodder and died. Now Kuan Yü had a loyal captain by name of Chou Tsang, who was black of face and carried a long knife. He had just captured a fortress When he heard of the Duke’s tragic end. He drew his sword and killed himself. Another of his faithful followers, upon hearing the news of Kuan Yü’s death, threw himself into the City moat and was drowned.

About that time there lived a monk on the Mountain of the Jade Spring, who came from the same part of the country as the Duke and was an old friend of his. He was taking a walk at night, in the moonlight, when suddenly from the air he heard a loud voice crying: ‘I want my head back!’ The monk glanced up and saw Duke Kuan mounted on horseback, a sword in his hand, just as he had been in his life. To the right and left of him were his son Kuan Ping and his General Chou Tsang, like shadows in the clouds.

The monk folded his hands and said: ‘You were a just man and a loyal one while alive, and now that you are dead you are wise god—and yet you do not understand destiny? If insist on having your head back, to whom are those thousands of your enemies to address themselves who met their deaths through you and who likewise want their lives back? ‘

Upon hearing these words, the Duke bowed and vanished.

Since then he has constantly been active as a spirit. Whenever a new dynasty is founded his holy figure appears. For that reason, temples have been set up to him and sacrifices made, and he has been included in the number of gods of the empire. Like Confucius he receives great sacrifices of oxen, sheep and pigs. He has risen in rank through the centuries. First he was venerated as the prince Kuan, later as king Kuan, then as a great god who vanquishes the devils, and the last dynasty eventually revered him as a great divine helper of the heavens. He is also known as the war saint and is a powerful saviour in all emergencies, whenever humans are plagued by devils and foxes. He is venerated the Master of War, together with Confucius, the Master of peace.

The manifestations of his spiritual powers are beyond number. The following illustration could be multiplied a great many times. There was a man in Jou Chou Who Was a drunkard and a gambler and ceaselessly beat and berated his mother. He had a young son who was just a year old. One day the child’s grandmother was carrying him in her arms when he made an awkward movement and fell to the ground. The shock he suffered made him ill. The old woman, fearing her son’s wrath, ran away from home.

When the son came home and saw that his child was ill he asked his wife how this had come about. At once he rushed out in anger to search for his mother. He caught sight of her Outside the temple of the War God, just as she was about to enter it. He snatched her by her hair and dragged her out.

At that the clay statue of the war god in the temple suddenly rose from its seat, snatched the knife from Chou Tsang who was standing behind him, strode out through the door and cut off the man’s head. Seeing this, the priest of the temple hurriedly beat the bell and the gong and read from the sacred scrolls. Out in the streets and in the market-place people heard about the event and came crowding to the temple in amazement. There they saw the War God, the knife in his right hand and in his left the man’s head, one foot outside the door and the other inside—thus the statue stood, motionless as a rock. Ever since, the statue of the war god in Jou Chou has been standing there, legs apart, on the threshold of his temple, as evidence of his power.