Chinese god of war whose immense popularity with the common people rests on the firm belief that his control over evil spirits is so great that even actors who play his part in dramas share his power over demons. Guandi is not only a natural favorite of soldiers but has been chosen patron of numerous trades and professions. This is because Guan Yu, the mortal who became Guandi after death, is said by tradition to have been a peddler of bean curd early in life.
The historical Guan Yu lived during the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century ce) and has been romanticized in popular lore, in drama, and especially in the Ming dynasty novel Sanguo Yanyi ("Romance of the Three Kingdoms"), as a sort of Chinese Robin Hood. When a magistrate was about to carry off a young girl, Guan Yu came to her rescue and killed the man. Guan Yu, fleeing for his life, came upon a guarded barrier. Suddenly his face changed to a reddish hue, and Guan Yu was able to pass unrecognized.
One of China's best-known stories tells how he became one of the Three Brothers of the Peach Orchard. Liu Bei, a maker of straw sandals, intervened in a fight that was brewing between Guan Yu and a prosperous butcher named Zhang Fei. The three became friends and swore oaths of undying loyalty that they faithfully observed until death.
Guan Yu was captured and executed in 219 ce, but his fame continued to grow as rulers conferred successively greater titles upon him. Finally, in 1594, a Ming dynasty emperor canonized him as god of war—protector of China and of all its citizens. Thousands upon thousands of temples were constructed, each bearing the title Wu Miao (Warrior Temple) or Wu Sheng Miao (Sacred Warrior Temple). Many were built at government expense so that prescribed sacrifices could be offered on the 15th day of the second moon and on the 13th day of the fifth moon.
For a time the sword of the public executioner was housed in Guandi's temple. After a criminal was put to death, the magistrate in charge of executions worshipped in the temple, certain that the spirit of the dead man would not dare to enter the temple or even follow the magistrate home.
In art Guandi usually wears a green robe and has a reddish face. Almost always he is accompanied by his squire and his son. Other representations show Guandi holding one of the Confucian classics, the Zuozhuan (“Commentary of Zuo”), which he reputedly memorized. This feat of memory led the literati to adopt him as the god of literature, a post he now shares with another deity, Wendi.
In the 17th century Guandi's cult spread to Korea, where it was popularly believed that he saved the country from invasion by the Japanese.