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Modern take on traditional deities now on display in Beijing

Updated: Mar 31, 2023 By AJ from CulturalKeys Print
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If you’ve been into the underpass at Beijing’s Guomao intersection (between the south-east corner under the bus station to exit C of the subway station) recently, you have probably noticed this massive mural on the wall at the western end. It’s entitled ‘The Gods go to Work’ and this explosion of colour is full of recognisable – and not so recognisable – homages to Chinese and specifically Beijing culture, both traditional and modern. But what does it all mean and why is it at Guomao?

Read on to find out!

Copy of one of the Baisha Frescos, Lijiang, Yunnan

‘The Gods go to Work’, by artist Wen Na, is a modern take on ancient Buddhist/Taoist temple frescoes depicting various immortals. Part of the first Beijing CBD Art Season, it’s a humorous look at modern life in Beijing, and also lays bare some of the priorities of Beijingers.

The sixty-odd deities pictured include such classics as the God of Binge-Watching and the celestial nymph of Yoga, among more traditional Gods such as the ‘Three Stars 三星’ (Gods of Longevity 寿, Prosperity 禄 and Fortune 福, which have been represented as wise old men since the Ming dynasty) and Beijing’s very own Rabbit Lord 兔儿爷, who saved Beijingers from a plague. At the centre, looking down on it all, is Nezha 哪吒, an 8-armed protective folk deity who, according to legend, inspired the layout of Beijing.

Looks like the God of Subway Security Checks is getting a protective screen cover on her phone!

True to the location of the art season, the setting is the CBD, between Dawanglu and Guomao. You can spot a stele reading ‘Jintaixizhao 金台夕照’, the China World Trade Center Tower 3 and the CITIC Tower (also known as the Zun because of its shape resembling an ancient Chinese vessel of the same name), which is being held up by Zun-Supporting Heavenly King 托尊天王 (which we can’t help thinking is a reference to the sinking of the CBD under all those massive buildings perhaps?). Heavenly Kings 四大天王 are found inside the first hall of Buddhist temples and are powerful protective deities, and one of them sometimes holds a pagoda in the same way as this one holds the Zun.

The Zun-Supporting Heavenly King in front of the God of Happiness

The city’s essential workers are paid tribute to, with the Sanitation Fairy 保洁仙子, God of Crossing the Road 包过神 (with an extra eye to spot jaywalkers), God of Subway Security Checks 安检神 and the God of Sweet Potatoes 地瓜神. The two imposing guardian deities found outside the first hall at most Buddhist temples, Heng 哼 and Ha 哈 (so called because of the sounds they make), are found here as God of Fitness and God of Swimming respectively – because everywhere you go in Beijing you find them bellowing “Youyong 游泳! Jianshen 健身!”.

Fitness Heng and Swimming Ha

We can also see such characters as Screen Protector God 贴膜神 (who wants to put that on themselves?), the God of Getting off Work Early 早点下班神, God of Getting Good Sleep 睡个好觉神, and God of Hogging the Microphone at Karaoke 麦霸神.

Gods take dragon bus 808 (perhaps a play on words as ‘celestial dragon’ 神龙 is the Chinese name of car company Peugeot)

Wen Na, the creator, graduated from the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. She is part of the ‘post 1980s generation’, and hopes that everyone will see something of themselves in the mural. She says “todays’ office workers are also the eight immortals who cross the sea and show their magic powers. I think everyone is their own god”.

The three-eyed Traffic God, the God of Efficiency running to work, and the God of Kuaidi

Some of these ‘gods’ could be seen as a harsh indictment of modern living, particularly for the ‘post 1980s generation’ – for example, most of us now worship at the altar of the Gods of Kuadi 快递神 (express delivery) and Waimai 外卖神 (take out) – but should we? Where is the ‘God of not Using Disposable Plastic’, the ‘God of Protecting Animals’ and the ‘God of Charitable Giving’? Perhaps these omissions are simply due to Wen Na’s personal priorities, but we sure wish these Gods were also going to work.

Nezha looks down on a group of gods enjoying hotpot.

What do you think of the mural? Which of these deities are most relevant to your modern life? Alternatively, what new deities could be included to better reflect your current lifestyle? Let us know in the comments below!

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