This article was first published on July 26, 2016, and has been updated with Kwan Tai’s 2020 birthday date.
You’ve seen him before. Red-faced, gold-crowned, with a long, dark beard blowing assertively in the wind, the very embodiment of masculine yang energy. This is Kwan Tai, Emperor Kwan – a force to be reckoned with. A common sight in Chinese homes and businesses, this god, known in Cantonese as Gwaan1 Dai3 (關帝), is celebrated this year by his many followers on August 13. But he did not always have such a high heavenly rank. Born to a lowly family, he attained glory on the battlefield in his lifetime and, after his death, rose to become the Saintly Emperor Kwan. Much like the goddess Kwun Yum, Kwan Tai is revered in folk religion, Taoism and Buddhism. Similarly to the goddess Tin Hau, he was steadily promoted in the heavenly hierarchy until he attained his regal rank.
The origins of Kwan Tai lie in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280). Most people know about this period of history through a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the latter part of the 15th century. Kwan Tai has a major role in the book under his given name, Guān Yǔ.
It was a turbulent time in Chinese history. Legends could be made and names could be forever committed to posterity. Three warring kingdoms vied for power in China in a short, but bloody period of history. The northern Kingdom of Wei, eastern Wu and western Shu were in a constant state of war. Men rose to prominence through their bellicose determination and sharp wits. One of these was Guān Yǔ, a man who would eventually become a general of the armies of Shu.
Guān Yǔ started as a soldier of fortune before meeting two of his most important friends, his sworn blood brothers, Zhāng Fēi and Liú Bèi. After the three of them became warlords, Liú Bèi decided to found the State of Shu. Guān Yǔ followed him and led the armies of the new kingdom. With great exploits on the battlefield and a fierce loyalty to his friends and allies, Guān Yǔ became a wanted man by the rival kingdoms. Eventually, he was captured and Sūn Quán, the Emperor of Wu, had him beheaded. His head was sent to Cáo Cāo, ruler of the Kingdom of Wei, in order to frame him for the killing and force Shu to attack Wei.
Cáo Cāo held Guān Yǔ in great esteem, despite being his enemy, so he had a body carved for the head and a full state burial arranged. The tomb of Guān Yǔ’s head is still found in Luoyang in Henan province. It is surrounded by Guānlín Miào, a temple built in 1595 by Emperor Wànlì of the Ming dynasty to honour the great hero.
Eventually, Shu fell to Wei, Wei fell to Wu and Wu collapsed to be replaced by the Jin dynasty (265-420), putting to end the entire era. And then started his raise as hero, then a legend, then a god. Within 40 years of his death, Liú Chán, the second emperor of Shu, gave him the posthumous title of Marquis Zhuangmou. In the 10th century, his cult began to grow, as it was once again a time of war and upheaval. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Taoist Celestial Master Sect began to incorporate Guān Yǔ into their pantheon of immortals and deities. As he was so widely revered, the Taoists sought to increase their political influence by giving him the title of Saintly Emperor Guan (Gwaan1 Sing3 Dai3 Gwan1 關聖帝君), a powerful subduer of demons. It is due to the Taoists that he gained his red face — symbolising potent yang energy — and his crescent sword.
It was probably during this time of rivalry between Taoism and Buddhism that the Buddhists in the imperial court also claimed him. The story they gave was that Guān appeared before the Zen master Zhìyǐ in 592 and was taught the Dharma by the monk. Guān then vowed to become the guardian of all Buddhist temples and is known as Sangharama Bodhisattva (Gaa1 Laam4 Pou4 Saat3 伽藍菩薩). During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Guān Yǔ was raised to the highest level when Emperor Wànlì gave him the lengthy title of Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven. This title was amended again during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) when he also became known as Wǔ Shèng (Mou5 Sing3 武聖), or Saint of War by Confucian scholars who were gaining power in the Qing courts.
In Hong Kong, he has a number of names. Known by some as Lord Kwan (Gwaan1 Gung1 關公) or Second Elder Brother (Ji6 Go1 二哥), he is commonly called Kwan Tai or Mo Tai (Mou5 Dai3 武帝). While Mo Tai translates as Military Emperor, he is not actually the god of war in a Western sense. Rather, he represents fraternal brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness. This is how he became the patron god of two opposing groups in Hong Kong: the police and the triads. At first glance, this seems very strange, but both are fraternities with a code of brotherhood who uphold the ideal of honour. Shrines to the god are also found in everyday people’s homes, restaurants and businesses. He is seen by many as a wealth god who protects honourable businessmen and is also thought to give a longer life to those who need his help. In Hong Kong, an altar dedicated to Kwan Tai can be found in almost every temple, regardless of who the main deity is.
Under the name Mo Tai, he shares a few temples in Hong Kong with another god, Man Cheong (Man4 Coeng1 文昌), the god of culture and literature. These jointly dedicated Man Mo temples (Man4 Mou5 miu6 文武廟), or civil and military god temples are where students go to pray for academic success. This is because these two gods were seen to preside over success in the Confucianism based Imperial Examinations. The most well-known of these temples is on Hollywood Road.
In Tai O, the Kwan Tai Ancient Temple (Daai6 Ou3 Gwaan1 Dai3 Gu2 Miu6 大澳關帝古廟), built in 1741 is the oldest temple in Hong Kong dedicated to Kwan Tai alone. This atmospheric temple is particularly special as it contains an ancient statue of Kwan Tai made by local artisans. The largest Kwan Tai temple in Hong Kong is in Sham Shui Po. Built in 1891, it is an impressive piece of Hong Kong temple architecture. When the temple was renovated in the 2000s, the original statue of the god was replaced with a more modern, standardised image.
Regardless of which temple you visit on Kwan Tai’s festival, you will find crowds of his faithful making offerings of roast meats, wine and incense in the hope of good fortune. Regular people, police and triad members might all be standing side by side in front of the god. All are equal in his eyes. So long as the rules of fraternity and honour are observed, Kwan Tai bestows his blessings.
Although hundreds of temples worship Kwan Tai in Hong Kong, these are insightful places to discover him:
Tai O Kwan Tai Ancient Temple, Kat Hing Back Street, Tai O, Lantau, in the small former fisher village
Man Mo Temple, 126 Hollywood road, Sheung Wan, Hong kong
Long Mu Temple,(aka Yuet Lung Sing Yuen), 15 Chi Yan Street, Peng Chau. Kwan Tai sits near the Dragon Mother, the goddess Lung Mu in the outlaying island of Peng Chau
Sham Shui Po Kwan Tai Temple, 158 Hai Tan Street, Sham Shui Po, the largest temple dedicated to the god