Xuanwu (god)

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Xuantian Shangdi
Statue of Zhenwu or Xuantian
by Zheng Yongtai (Penghu)
Chinese name
Literal meaningDark (or Mysterious) Heavenly Highest Deity
Alternative Chinese name
Literal meaningDark (or Mysterious) Warrior
Literal meaningMysterious Emperor
Literal meaningTrue Warrior / Truly Valiant
Zhenwu dadi
Literal meaningTrue Martial Great Emperor / Truly Valiant Great Emperor
Tua Lao Aie
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Literal meaningBig Deity
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTrấn Vũ
Chữ Hán
Thai name
RTGSChao Pho Suea
Korean name
Indonesian name
IndonesianXuan Tian Shang Di
A Ming painting of Xuanwu in his position as Xuantian Shangdi (Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven), seated on a rock throne in the clouds surrounded by attendants and divine marshals

Xuanwu (玄武) or Xuandi (Chinese: 玄帝; pinyin: Xuándì), also known as Zhenwu (真武, lit.'True Warrior' or 'Truly Valiant') or Zhenwudadi (真武大帝, lit.'True Martial Great Emperor' or 'Truly Valiant Great Emperor'), is a revered deity in Chinese religion, one of the higher-ranking deities in Taoism. He is revered as a powerful god, able to control the elements and capable of great magic. He is identified as the god of the north Heidi (黑帝 , lit.'Black Emperor' and is particularly revered by martial artists. He is the patron god of Hebei, Henan, Manchuria and Mongolia. As some Han Chinese (now the modern-day Cantonese and Fujianese peoples) migrated into the south from Hebei and Henan during the Tang-Song era, Xuanwu is also widely revered in the Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian provinces, as well as among the overseas diaspora.

Since the usurping Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty claimed to receive the divine assistance of Xuanwu during his successful Jingnan Campaign against his nephew, he had a number of Taoist monasteries constructed in the Wudang Mountains of Hubei, where Xuanwu allegedly attained immortality.

Black Tortoise[edit]

Xuanwu is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations, representing the north and the winter season. It is usually depicted as a turtle entwined together with a snake.


A painting of Xuanwu, Ming dynasty, housed in the Freer Gallery of Art

The original story[edit]

One story says that Xuanwu was originally a prince of Jing Le State in northern Hebei during the time of the Yellow Emperor. As he grew up, he felt the sorrow and pain of the life of ordinary people and wanted to retire to a remote mountain for cultivation of the Tao.[citation needed]

Qing Dynasty version[edit]

Another says that Xuanwu was originally a butcher who had killed many animals mercilessly. Yet as time passed, his conscience grew and he felt remorse for his actions. Upon repenting, he abandoned butchery and retired to a remote mountain for cultivation of the Tao.[citation needed]

One day, after assisting a woman in labor, as he cleaned her blood stained clothes in a river nearby, the words "Dark (or Mysterious) Heavenly Highest Deity" (玄天上帝 Xuántiān Shàngdì) appeared before him. The woman in labor was a manifestation of the goddess Guanyin. To redeem his sins, he dug out his own stomach and intestines and washed them in the river. The river then became dark and murky. After a while, the river flowed clear and pure once again.

Xuanwu lost his stomach and intestines while he was washing them in the river. The Jade Emperor was moved by his sincerity and determination to clear his sins, and made him an immortal with the title of Xuántiān Shàngdì.

After he became an immortal, his stomach and intestines absorbed the essence of the earth. His viscera transformed into a demonic turtle and a demonic snake, who started to hurt people. No one could subdue the demonic animals. Eventually, Xuanwu returned to earth to subdue them. After defeating them, he later used them as his subordinates.[citation needed]

Generals Wan Gong and Wan Ma[edit]

Zhenwu (Xuanwu) with the two generals, and the Snake and Tortoise figures at his feet, at the Wudang Temple of Yangzhou.

Xuanwu is sometimes portrayed with two generals standing besides him, General Wan Gong (萬公) and General Wan Ma (萬媽). The two generals are deities that handle many local issues from children's birth, medication, family matters as well as fengshui consultation.


Temple of the Dark Deity (玄帝殿) at the Wudang Mountains.
Statue of Xuanwu at Bangka Zhenwu Temple (艋舺真武殿) , Wanhua District, Taipei.


Xuanwu is portrayed as a warrior in dark-coloured imperial robes, his left hand holding the "three mountain seal", somewhat similar to Guan Yu's hand seal, while his right hand is holding a sword, which is said to have belonged to Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals.

Another legend says that he borrowed the sword from Lü Dongbin to subdue a strong demon, and after being successful, he refused to bring it back after witnessing the sword's power. The sword itself would magically return to its owner if Xuanwu released it, so it is said that he always holds his sword tightly and is unable to release it. However, not only does he outrank Lü in terms of divinity, Xuanwu also dates back longer in history than Lü Dongbin, putting this claim in suspect.

He is usually seated on a throne with the right foot stepping on the snake and left leg extended stepping on the turtle. His face is usually red with bulging eyes.

His birthday is celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month.[1]

Worship in Indonesia[edit]

In Indonesia, almost every Taoist temple provides an altar for Xuantian Shangdi. The story states that the first temple that worshiped him was a temple at Welahan Town, Jepara, Central Java. And the temples that were built in honor of him are the temples at Gerajen and Bugangan, Semarang City, Central Java. His festival is celebrated annually every the 25th day, 2nd month, of Chinese calendar. The worshipers of Chen Fu Zhen Ren, especially at Tik Liong Tian Temple, Rogojampi, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java, believe that Xuantian Shangdi is their patron deity. That's why they put his altar at the right side of Chen Fu Zhen Ren's altar, in the middle room of the temple which is always reserved for the main deity.[citation needed]

Worship in Thailand[edit]

Xuanwu is known among the Thai people as Chao Pho Suea (Tiger God) or Tua Lao Yah (大老爷 "Big Deity") according by Teochew dialect. There are many shrines that worship him in the country and the most famous shrine is Bangkok's San Chao Pho Suea near Giant Swing and Sam Phraeng neighbourhood.[2] This shrine has been highly worshipped with both Thais and Chinese, especially in Chinese New Year's Day.

Popular culture[edit]

  • In the classic novel Journey to the West, Xuanwu was a king of the north who had two generals serving under him, a "Tortoise General" and a "Snake General". This king had a temple at Wudang Mountains in Hubei, thus there is a Tortoise Mountain and a Snake Mountain on the opposite sides of a river in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
  • In recent times, Xuanwu is a central character in the popular urban fantasy series by Kylie Chan: The Dark Heavens Trilogy, the Journey to Wudang Trilogy, and the Celestial Battle Trilogy.
  • Xuanwu lives in Kansas City and is served by monks and shadow-shifting ninjas in Shayne Silver's book Black Sheep which is part of the Feathers and Fire series.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Stepanchuk, Carol (1991). Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals. p. 125. ISBN 0-8351-2481-9.
  2. ^ Dugu Qiubai (2011-06-20). ตั่วเหล่าเอี๊ย มีความเป็นมาอย่างไร [How is Xuanwu source]. Pantip.com (in Thai). Retrieved 2019-01-15.