Update: Pak Tai’s next birthday celebrations take place on April 22, 2022.
A flow of people enter and exit the Jade Void Palace in Wan Chai. Passing an imposing black figure in the front of the temple, they place smouldering joss sticks before him after bowing three times. Entering the temple fully, the smoke fills the space making it all the more other-worldly. Worshippers lay offerings on a large table set before the main altar. Whole roast suckling pigs and bottles of rice wine are piled high alongside fruit, flowers and joss paper. All this is to please Pak Tai (Bak1 Dai3 北帝), the Northern Emperor.
The mysterious god has several temples around the territory, with major centres in Wan Chai and on Cheung Chau. The so-called Barefoot Emperor of the North is a complex character who seems to always be surrounded by an air of mystery. While he is northern in origin, southern Chinese seem to have taken to him more strongly than their cousins in the north. The Taoist mountain range, Wudang Shan, in central China is dedicated to this Perfected Warrior. But who is Pak Tai, and why is he so important in Hong Kong?
Pak Tai appears to have been born in the mists of time. His ancient name is Xuanwu (Jyun4 Mou5 玄武), meaning Dark Warrior. There is no clear origin story for him, but there are several legends that attempt to explain his beginnings. One thing is very apparent – he is ancient. While many gods in the Chinese folk pantheon are known historical figures from the last 2,000 years, Xuanwu could pre-date them by over a millennia. One myth has him as a prince that became a Taoist recluse during the reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor (Wong4 Dai3 黃帝) said to have ruled China between 2698 and 2598 BC. Another often-told version is set against the backdrop of the collapse of the Shang Dynasty in 1046 BC, a time of turmoil in ancient China. The war between King Zhou, the depraved last ruler of Shang and King Wu, founder of the subsequent Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), created many legends and gods.
After being summoned to a post in the celestial hierarchy, Xuanwu was ordered to subdue the north and rid the earth of wicked demons by Shangdi (Soeng6 Dai3 上帝), the Supreme Emperor. As the world had become more corrupt, demon kings from the demon capital of Fengdu had become more powerful. They manifested their power in the form of a giant tortoise and snake. Xuanwu defeated the demons and subjugated the tortoise and snake under his feet. He was given the title “Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven” (Jyun4 Tin1 Soeng6 Dai3 玄天上帝) in honour of his victory.
While this myth of Pak Tai’s origins is a later creation that unified various mysteries, the historical development of the deity is far more compelling. The worship of Xuanwu, started in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). He was originally represented by a snake and tortoise, the symbols of the northern part of the universe. The Chinese divide the night sky into four cardinal segments. The black snake-tortoise, known as Xuanwu, represents the north, the white tiger represents the west, the azure dragon is the east and the vermillion bird reigns over the south. All four creatures were worshipped, but the cult of Xuanwu took off during the early Tang dynasty (618-907). Taizong, the second Tang emperor named the northern gate of his palace Dark Warrior Gate (Jyun4 Mou5 Mun4 玄武門), so that the god would protect him.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279), the god received a human form. His name was changed to Zhenwu (Zan1 Mou5 真武), the Perfected Warrior. This was to avoid taboo on the name of a Song ancestor with a similar name. After the miraculous appearance of a snake and tortoise, followed by a spring bursting forth from the ground in 1017, Emperor Zhenzong commissioned the construction of the first temple to Zhenwu in the capital city of Kaifeng.
He also took on a healer-god mantle, as he was said to have cured Emperor Renzong of illness. The histories say that their descendant, Emperor Huizong had a powerful Taoist practitioner, Lin Lingsu, summon Zhenwu to his palace in 1118. First, a snake and tortoise filled the hall. They disappeared and a huge foot appeared in their place. After more incantations and requests, the huge full figure of the god was seen. He had long, unbound hair and a black cloak. His feet were bare, he wore golden armour and carried a sword. Flying scarves encircled him and a round halo floated above his head. The emperor drew a picture of the god and had the imperial artists make a painting from it to be enshrined. This imagery of the god has remained to this day. Pak Tai is easily recognisable in Hong Kong as a seated barefoot warrior, long hair worn loose, with a halo above his head. He is usually holding a sword with his feet resting on a tortoise and a snake, representing his earlier incarnation and his powers of exorcism.
The upward trajectory of Zhenwu continued to gather momentum throughout the Song era, and he was made one of the Four Saints (Sei3 Sing3 四聖), the spirit guardians of Taoism. The peak of Zhenwu’s power came during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, credited his own rise to power to the god’s influence. The third emperor, Yongle, believed that Zhenwu helped him usurp the throne from his nephew and became personally devoted to the god. He enthroned Zhenwu on Wudang Mountain in Hubei, building temples, creating a palace on the mountain that mimicked the Purple Forbidden City in Beijing and raising the status of the mountain to the most holy in Chinese cosmology. By the mid-15th century, Zhenwu became the most important god in the Taoist pantheon, with every Ming emperor offering sacrifices to him upon their ascension to the throne.
The Yongle Emperor gave Zhenwu the extended title North Pole, Heaven Subduing Perfected Warrior, Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven (Bak1 Gik6 Zan3 Tin1 Zan1 Mou5 Jyun4 Tin1 Soeng6 Dai3 北极镇天真武玄天上帝). As the god became accepted by everyday people and made a part of folk religion, this name was shortened to Pak Tai, the first and last characters. His popularity in Hong Kong and Southern China is due to his connection to water. North is associated with the colour black, hence his alternative name Black Emperor (Hak1 Dai3 黑帝), but also with the element of water. In Hong Kong water is inescapable. The fact that the god is seen as a water deity is also empowered by his link to the pole star, a point of navigation used by the seafaring southern Chinese for millennia. Sailors began to pray to the god for safety at sea and to make sure they were never lost on their voyages.
There are a number of Pak Tai temples in Hong Kong, all of which once stood by the waterfront. The Pak Tai temple in Wanchai has become an inland temple due to land reclamation, but is still one of the busiest. The Cheung Chau temple is the location of the annual Bun Festival, one of the most famous annual chiu ceremonies in Hong Kong. Both of these temples are called Palace of the Jade Void (Juk6 Heoi1 Gung1 玉虛宮), as the Dark Heaven is also known as the Jade Void. Jade is the stone of heaven to the Chinese. It is associated with the Jade Emperor (Juk6 Wong4 玉王) and in this case, Pak Tai. His devotees gather on his birthday to give offerings just as their ancestors did for generations before them. The north is also associated with winter, so as the third month sees warmer weather arriving in China, it is an appropriate time to give thanks to the powerful Barefoot Northern Emperor.
After laying down their offerings in the smoke-filled chambers of the Jade Void Palace, worshippers put a donation into a box and collect a folded paper talisman (fu4 符). They go to the smouldering joss sticks in front of the Ming Dynasty bronze statue at the front of the temple and circle their paper triangle through the smoke three times before placing the talisman upon themselves for safekeeping. Having paid obeisance to Pak Tai and collected a token of his protection, his followers hope to be safe from evil spirits and have good health for another year.
Update: Pak Tai’s next birthday celebrations take place on March 26, 2020.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.