[April A-Z Blogging] [C] the Celestial Bureaucracy

The Celestial bureaucracy is the pantheon of Chinese mythology. As with many other elements of Chinese thought and religion, the idea of a Celestial Bureaucracy modelled on the Imperial Bureaucracy stems from Confucianism. Despite its scholarly roots, the Celestial Bureaucracy has been readily adopted by Daoism and Chinese Folk religion; it is also at least acknowledged by Chinese Buddhism, in particular in terms of what the afterlife looks like.
Its basic structure and some of its divine members are described on p37 of The Celestial Empire. However, just as the Imperial Bureaucracy is a vast body with innumerable members reaching down to the remotest provinces of the Empire, the Celestial Bureaucracy has many more members than the ones listed on p37 of the rule book. Actually, per Confucianism and Chinese Folk religion, the Celestial Bureaucracy oversees all gods, deities, and apotheosised heroes, and even the Daoist Immortals of Chinese mythology.

This post presents a few variations/additions to the elements provided in the rule book.

Originally, the supreme ruler wasn't called the Jade Emperor, but the Yellow Emperor (黃帝). The change occurred under the Táng.

Whatever his name, this supreme ruler is not really worshipped: he's revered throughout China's Confucian and Daoist temples, and joss houses. Once a year, on the ninth day of the first month, Daoist temples hold a Jade Emperor ritual (拜天公 bàitiāngōng, literally heaven worship) at which priests and laymen prostrate themselves, burn incense, and make food offerings.
The Jade Emperor's four assistant emperors are detailed below:

➀ Yándì (炎帝), the Flame Emperor, is much more of an historical figure than a mythological one, even though he is supposed to rule the southern cardinal direction.
➁ Shǎohào 少昊 is sometimes counted as an apotheosised emperor, sometimes as a mythologica figure. He rules the western direction.
➂ As written in the rule book, from the Míng onwards the nameless Northern Emperor (Běidì 北帝) becomes extremely popular, both in Daoism and in Chinese Folk religion. He is revered as a powerful god, able to control the elements (worshipped by those wishing to avoid fires), and capable of great magic. He is particularly revered by martial artists, and is the patron saint of Héběi, Manchuria and Mongolia ("the North").
➃ Tàihào 太昊 oversees the eastern cardinal direction. He is particularly worshipped on the sacred peaks.

A fifth assistant emperor can be added to the list: the Yellow Emperor (黃帝), who oversees the central cardinal direction. After his abdication, Zhuānxū 顓頊 becomes the fifth assistant.

In Daoism, the Jade Emperor governs all of the mortals' realm and below, but still ranks below the Three Pure Pellucid Ones (Sānqīng 三清, of which more will be revealed in another post). In Confucianism, the Jade Emperor is considered as a kind of abstract principle. In Chinese Folk Religion, on the contrary, he is really seen as the heavenly equivalent of the earthly ruler; this also explains the changes in his name— a ruler simply cannot be eternal, even if he is heavenly!

Similarly, the Celestial Bureaucracy is seen in Chinese Folk Religion as just another sprawling bureaucracy, much as a mirror of the earthly one. Each assistant had its ministries and specialised bureaucrats, with official lists being published by the government — since the Emperor of China was the only person supposed to be able to communicate with the Celestial Bureaucracy. This sprawling bureaucracy was made up of gods, goddesses, bodhisattvas, deceased emperors and empresses of the past, heavenly beings, and immortals. Each disease was also believed to be the result of the works of a particular member of the Celestial Bureaucracy. The idea was that no single activity, good or bad, was outside of the jurisdiction of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Sometimes, the Chinese government would co-opt local deities, apotheosised heroes, or even demons, lest their worship should create local, uncontrollable cults. This was actually one of the very official duties of Chinese magistrates.

Buddhism also found its way into the arcana of the Celestial Bureaucracy, which was supposed to keep rack of one's past lives and deeds. Especially virtuous deceased people would eventually join the ranks of the Celestial Bureaucracy.

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