Erlang Shen

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Erlang Shen, the Divine Immortal of Purity and Decency.
Erlang Shen
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese二郎神
Simplified Chinese二郎神
Literal meaningSecond-Lad God
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetNhị Lang Thần
Chữ Hán二郎神
Korean name

Erlang Shen (Chinese: 二郎神; pinyin: Èrláng Shén; Wade–Giles: Êrh-lang Shên; lit. 'Second-Lad God'), also known as Erlang of Guankou (灌口二郎; Guànkǒu Èrláng; Kuan-kʽou Êrh-lang) and the Lord of Sichuan (川主; Chuānzhǔ; Chʽuan-chu), is a Chinese god with a third truth-seeing eye in the middle of his forehead.

Erlang Shen may be a deified version of several semi-mythical folk heroes who helped regulate China's torrential floods dating variously from the Qin, Sui, and Jin dynasties. A later Buddhist source identifies him as the second son of the Northern Heavenly King Vaishravana.

In the Ming semi-mythical novels Creation of the Gods and Journey to the West, Erlang Shen is the nephew of the Jade Emperor. In the former, he assists the Zhou army in defeating the Shang. In the latter, he is the second son of a mortal and the Jade Emperor's sister Yaoji. In the legend, he is known as the greatest warrior god of heaven.

Origin and representations[edit]

Erlang Shen as depicted on the Ming dynasty hand-scroll Searching the Mountains for Demons (zh:搜山图)

Some common representations of Erlang Shen include Yang Jian, Li Erlang, and others. The representation of Erlang Shen as Yang Jian is most common in popular media.

Erlang Shen is mostly portrayed, whether in ancient legends, games, or television, as a noble and powerful warrior god who slays and vanquishes demons and monsters in the mortal realm and who embodies justice and righteousness.[1] He is shown to have vast, superhuman strength, being able to cleave an entire mountain with his axe to save his mother in just one stroke and being capable of 72 Transformations (sometimes said to be 73 Transformations), meaning he can transform into virtually anything he wants.

His main weapon of choice is his "three-pointed, double-edged lance" (三尖兩刃槍), a long three-pointed spear with two cutting edges of a saber. This spear is powerful enough to penetrate and cleave through steel and stone like wool. Erlang wields the Divine Spear with unmatched skill and superior mastery, being an unstoppable force of destruction in battle when wielding said spear, having slain countless evil gods, monstrous demonic beasts, and vast, massive armies of demons and ogres with it. He is almost always accompanied by his faithful "Howling Celestial Dog" (嘯天犬), which has the ability to viciously attack, maul, and subdue demons and evil spirits.

Erlang Shen has also been portrayed as possessing a unique skill known as the "Nine Turns Divine Skill" (九轉玄功). It grants him vast, physical durability of undefined limits and nigh-invulnerability to conventional weapons and various magic spells. In the novel "Creation of the Gods", Erlang was shown to be completely impervious to hits from various powerful mystical objects due to this skill; he has emerged completely unscathed from mystical weapons and artifacts that have proven capable of severely injuring or even killing other immortals.

The third-eye on his forehead does not have a fixed name, though its most popular name currently is "The Eye of Heaven" (天眼). It has the ability to differentiate truth from lies and see through deceptions and disguises. It may also be used as an offensive weapon, being able to fire continuous, highly destructive blasts of light energy and/or divine fire.

Li Erlang[edit]

Effigy of god Erlang inside the Erwang Temple in Dujiangyan, Sichuan.

Li Erlang was the second son of Li Bing from the Qin dynasty.[2]

According to the "Story about Li Bing and His Son in Harnessing the Rivers" in the Records of Guansian,[citation needed] Li Erlang assisted his father in the construction of the complex irrigation system that prevented the Min River from flooding and irrigated the Chengdu Plain. In thanks for the prosperity that this brought to them, the local people elevated the father and son to gods and dedicated the Two Kings Temple in their honor.

Legend states that Governor Li Bing sent his son out to discover the source of the flooding. He spent a year exploring the county without success. One day whilst sheltering in a cave, he encountered a tiger which he slew and seven hunters who had witnessed this bravery agreed to join him in his quest.

The group finally came to a cottage on the outskirts of Guan County (modern Dujiangyan City). From within they heard the sound of an old woman crying. The woman was Grandma Wang and she told them that her grandson was to be sacrificed to an evil dragon who was the local river god. Li Erlang reported this to his father who devised a plan to capture the dragon.

The eight friends hid in the River God Temple and jumped out on the dragon when it arrived to claim its offering. The dragon fled to the river pursued by Li Erlang, who eventually captured it. Grandma Wang arrived with an iron chain and the dragon was secured in the pool below the Dragon-Taming Temple, freeing the region from floods.

Another legend tells of Li Erlang suppressing a fire dragon that lived in the mountains north of Dujiangyan by climbing to the top of Mount Yulei, turning into a giant and building a dam with 66 mountains then filling it with water from Dragon Pacifying Pool.[3]

In Bao Lian Deng[edit]

Erlang's mother, Princess Yaoji, was the goddess of the realm of desire in heaven. Her job was to limit the gods' mortal urges such as love, affection, greed, and ambition. When she pursued an evil dragon who broke free of its heavenly prison into the mortal realm and was injured by it, she fell in love with Yang Tianyou, a mortal scholar, who saved her life by giving her his own heart to replace the one the dragon damaged. They had three children: Yang Jiao, Yang Jian (Erlang Shen), and Yang Chan (Holy Mother of Hua Shan). When the Jade Emperor discovered her marriage, he sent his armies to kill her family and capture her. Only Erlang and his sister Yang Chan survived.

As Li Bing[edit]

As Li Bing, the first hydraulic engineer in the Shu area, was the hero who stopped the flooding of the Min River by constructing the Dujiangyan. This somehow led to Li Bing being turned into a folk hero who defeated a river god in order to save his prefecture from being flooded, where this story had then associated him as a new river god that protected the local people in the area from floods. However, a discrepancy comes up that even though Li Bing/Erlang was known as Guankou Shen, the river that he is associated with is in Qianwei and not Guankou. Another discrepancy is that Li Erlang had never appeared in any of the tales related to stopping the Min River. The first appearance of Li Erlang was in Zhishui ji 治水記 by Li Ying 李膺 of the Liang Dynasty.

Historically Li Bing was conferred an official title until the Five Dynasties period under the rule of the Shu kingdom. He rose to political power when the great flood that occurred on the twenty-sixth day of the eighth month in 920 AD was reported to the emperor by Daoist Du Guangting 杜光庭.

Yang Jian[edit]

Many legends and novels often describe Erlang as Yang Jian, a nephew of the Jade Emperor. According to an ancient text, Erlang Baojuan, Yang Jian's mother, was the Jade Emperor's sister, Princess Yaoji who was imprisoned under Mount Tao because she violated the Heavenly Rules by marrying a human named Yang Tianyou. Many years later, her son Yang Jian cleaved Mount Tao using his axe, hoping to set his mother free. He did successfully rescue his mother after he chased away the sun by carrying a mountain on his back.

In Fengshen Yanyi, it is mentioned that Princess Longji is the Jade Emperor's daughter, making her Yang Jian's cousin. The Golden Fleece Lads are his deciples.

Other identifications[edit]

Erlang Shen is also identified with Zhao Yu, a hermit who lived on Mount Qingcheng and was appointed by Emperor Yang of Sui as Governor of Jiazhou. Zhao Yu is said to have set forth with 1000 men to defeat a flood dragon that had been tormenting the area. Upon reaching the river, Zhao Yu dived into the water with his double-edged sword and emerged holding the dragon’s head. Following his death, according to the Chronicle of Changshu County, the region was once again plagued by flood and he was seen riding a white horse amidst the swirling currents. The locals built a temple enshrining Zhao Yu as the god Erlang and the floods were subdued.[2]

Deng Xia is said to have been a general under Erlang who surpassed his predecessors in valor and defeated a flood dragon, receiving the title "Erlang Shen" and a temple in his honor at Zhongqingli in Hangzhou.[2]

Zoroastrian influence theory[edit]

Top: Khotanese panel uncovered at Dandan Oilik. The triad has been identified by Markus Mode [de] as, from left to right, Ohrmazd, Nana, and Weshparkar.[4] Middle and bottom: representaions of the three deities found in Sogdian lands.

In the Spring and Autumn Annals of the Ten Kingdoms, it is recorded that the Emperor Wang Zongyan of Former Shu was present in a ceremonial procession wearing golden armor, pearl-decorated hat and holding a bow and an arrow. His appearance was compared to that of the Xian (, Chinese term for "Zoroastrian") god of Guankou by the crowd. According to the tradition, Erlang Shen was originally a river god in the Guankou district. Professor Li Guotao argued that this "Xian god" has his origins in Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, he also suggested that Emperor Wang Zongyan, as well as the rest of the royal family of the Former and Later Shu were Zoroastrians. He believed that there is great similarity between the appearance of Erlang Shen and that of the Sogdian-Zoroastrian deity Weshparkar, which is able to conclude that Erlang Shen is a localized deity originated in Persia or Zoroastrian Central Asia.[5]

After a detailed comparison of Erlang Shen and the Zoroastrian rain deity Tishtrya in his article for Religious Studies, Professor Hou Hui suggested that Tishtrya is the archetype of the former: "This folk tradition originated in the Sichuan region with a Zoroastrian cultural background, Erlang Shen shares many common features and characteristics with Tishtrya. Therefore, it is speculated that the cult of Erlang Shen should be derived from the worship of the Zoroastrian rain deity."[6][7]

Representation in Chinese culture as Yang Jian (楊戩)[edit]

Fengshen Yanyi[edit]

In Investiture of the Gods, Yang Jian (Yang Bliss) is a disciple of Yuding Zhenren, and he learned fighting and magical skills including the 72 earthly transformations. He first appeared during the time of the Diablo Brothers' attack on the Western Foothills. After hearing of the situation, Yang personally took the offensive against the brothers. During his duel against all four brothers, Yang deliberately allowed himself to be consumed by Diablo Long Life's flying mink (some sources say an elephant[8]). Following the battle, Yang Jian suddenly reappeared before Jiang Ziya after killing the mink inside its stomach with his many transformations. To trick the Diablo Brothers, Yang Jian later transformed himself into Long Life's flying mink and stole Diablo Red's Havoc-Umbrella. Thus, Yang was renowned as the true reason for Jiang Ziya's victory over the Diablo Brothers at an overall point.[1]

Journey to the West[edit]

Erlang makes an appearance near the start of the classic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en. Erlang, who is titled as being either True Lord or Illustrious Sage, is the nephew of the Jade Emperor. Erlang made his first appearance when he had been ordered by the Jade Emperor (in which Erlang was also with his seven elite sages whom he called his brothers) to subdue Sun Wukong, who was to be punished for his havoc in heaven.

His bearing was refined, his visage noble, His ears hung down to his shoulders, and his eyes shone. The hat on his head had three peaks and phoenixes flying, And his robe was of a pale goose−yellow. His boots were lined with cloth of gold; dragons coiled round his socks; His jade belt was decorated with the eight jewels, At his waist was a bow, curved like the moon, In his hand a Three-Pointed Double-Edged Spear. His axe had split open Peach Mountain when he rescued his mother, His bow had killed the twin phoenixes of Zongluo. Widespread was his fame for killing the Eight Demons, And he had become one of Plum Hill's seven sages. His heart was too lofty to acknowledge his relatives in Heaven; In his pride he went back to be a god at Guanjiang. He was the Merciful and Miraculous Sage of the red city, Erlang, whose transformations were numberless.

— Description from Journey to the West, Wu Cheng'en

Throughout the course of Erlang's duel between Sun Wukong, Erlang had been the stronger adversary, though Sun Wukong always managed to escape and at times get the better of Erlang thanks to his quick wits. After many transformations that were performed in their duel (Sun Wukong fleeing as a fish; Erlang and Sun Wukong becoming larger birds, and so forth), near the conclusion of the battle, he managed to see through Sun Wukong's disguise (as a temple) using his third eye. He eventually captured Wukong through teamwork with several other gods; Laozi personally had dropped his refined golden ring that had hit Sun Wukong on the head, giving Erlang a chance to bring him down, and Erlang's dog bit him in the leg. After Sun Wukong had been captured (to which Sun Wukong retorts that they are cowards for attacking from behind), he and his heavenly soldiers would burn areas of Mount Huaguo. Erlang is seen again far later in the novel when he assists Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie through chance by fighting against an ancient Dragon King and his villainous son-in-law, a nine-headed bird demon.[1]

Bao Lian Deng[edit]

In the tale Lotus Lantern (Bao Lian Deng), Erlang had a sister known as the Holy Mother of Mount Hua (Hua Shan). She married a mortal man, Liu Yanchang, who was a scholar. Together, they had a son by the name of Chen Xiang. She was admonished by Erlang for this unlawful human-deity union and imprisoned under Mount Hua. When Chen Xiang came of age, he split the mountain with an axe to free his mother, but not before facing people who repeatedly tried to undermine his mission, most notably his own uncle Erlang.[1]

As a filial deity[edit]

In Chinese belief, he was a filial son that entered the Chinese underworld to save his deceased mother from torment and will punish unfilial children by striking them with thunder as a punishment, hence the Chinese parent saying "Being smitten by lightning for being unfilial and ungrateful" towards unruly children. A warrior deity, he wields a Sān Jiān Liǎng Rèn Dāo (三尖兩刃刀 - "three-pointed, double-edged blade") and always has his faithful Xiàotiān quǎn (嘯天犬 - "Howling Celestial Dog") by his side. This dog also helps him subdue evil spirits.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

Erlang is also introduced as a resplendent, powerful god in Kevin Hearne's Scourged, book 9 of The Iron Druid Chronicles.[9]

Yang Jian/Erlang Shen in film and television
Year Country Title Type Yang Jian/Erlang

Sheng actor

1964 China Uproar In Heaven


Animated Film Yu Ding
1986 China Journey to the West


Television series Lin Zhiqian
1996 Hong Kong Journey to the West


Television series Joe Ma
1998 Singapore Legend of the Eight Immortals


Television series Wang Yanbin
1999 China Lotus Lantern


Animated film Jiang Wen
2005 China Lotus Lantern


Television series Vincent Chiao
2006 China The Legend and the Hero


Television series Han Dong
2009 China Prelude of Lotus Lantern


Television series Vincent Chiao
2009 China The Legend and the Hero 2 Television series Han Dong
2010 China Journey to the West


Television series Yin Xiaotian
2011 China Journey to the West


Television series Feng Shaofeng
2014 Hong Kong


The Monkey King


Film Peter Ho
2016 Hong Kong


League of Gods


Film Huang Xiaoming
2017 China A Chinese Odyssey: Love of Eternity


Television series Hu Yunhao
2018 China The Taoism Grandmaster


Television series Han Dong
2019 China The Gods


Television series Luo Jin
2020 China Heroic Journey of Nezha


Television series Gao Ziqi
2022 China New Gods: Yang Jian


Animated Film Wang Kai
2023 China Fengshen: Kingdom of Storms Film Ci Sha

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Burham, Harold (2015). The Esoteric Codex: Deities of Knowledge. LULU Press. p. 310. ISBN 9781312998575.
  2. ^ a b c Cheng Manchao (1995). The Origin of Chinese Deities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. pp. 170–180. ISBN 7-119-00030-6.
  3. ^ "Zhulong". God Erlang Suppressed Fire Dragon. Legend goes, on one of the northern mountains of Dujiang Dam lived a fire dragon which was raging the common people. Libing asked his son-God Erlang to subdue it. God Erlang climbed onto Yulei Mountain and became a giant. He was as tall as the sky. He wrapped clouds on his waist and cut a tree to make a carrying pole. Then he carried two mountains at a time to build the dam. After he brought 66 mountains the dam was built. God Erlang got water from Pacifying Dragon Pool to put into the dam. At length the fire dragon was subdued.
  4. ^ Mode, Markus (1991–92). "Sogdian Gods in Exile – Some iconographic evidence from Khotan in the light of recently excavated material from Sogdiana". Silk Road Art and Archaeology. 2: 182–183. ISSN 0917-1614. Retrieved March 23, 2023.
  5. ^ Li, Guotao (2004). "二郎神之祆教来源——兼论二郎神何以成为戏神" [The Zoroastrian Origin of Erlang Shen: How Erlang Shen became the Patron-God of Dramas]. Religious Studies (in Simplified Chinese) (2): 78–83. doi:10.3969/j.issn.1006-1312.2004.02.013. Retrieved March 23, 2023.
  6. ^ Hou, Hui (2011). "二郎神源自祆教雨神考" [Research on Erlang Shen Originating from the Zoroastrian Rain Deity]. Religious Studies (in Simplified Chinese) (3): 195–203. ISSN 1006-1312. Retrieved March 23, 2023.
  7. ^ Liu, Zongdi (April 15, 2019). "二郎骑白马,远自波斯来" [Persian Origin of the Horse Riding Erlang Shen]. (in Simplified Chinese). Retrieved March 23, 2023.
  8. ^ Xu, Zhongli. Investiture Of The Gods. p. 104.
  9. ^ Hearne, Kevin. "Scourged". Kevin Hearne. Retrieved 17 October 2023.