Santaizi (Jung Tan Yuan Shuai), with his ability to attract youth, innovate and evolve, has been transformed from a traditionally worshipped god into a Taiwanese cultural icon who continues to grow in popularity. From Chio-tian’s acclaimed overseas Santaizi performances to scooter-riding Techno Santaizi in the opening performances of the World Games in Kaohsiung, Santaizi has also been noticed internationally.
Myths and legends surrounding Taiwanese gods are always interesting and fanciful, but the ‘Santaizi' creation myth － an impetuous child born of a fragrant flesh ball who commits seppuku and strips his bones of flesh to save his parents (all by the tender age of seven) - is definitely one of the more colorful. Worshipped as Zhong Tan Yuan Shuai, Commander in Chief of the Celestial Army; he proscribes evil, upholds justice and protects. Santaizi has become synonymous with creativity, vitality and the Taiwanese identity movement － Taike － and has captured Taiwanese youth’s imagination like no other god in Taiwan.
The faithful in Taiwan worship Nezha as a protector, notably of villages, children, drivers and culturally innovative trades. Furthermore, prayer to Santaizi is particularly efficacious for mothers wishing for pregnancy; successful mothers line up to give oily rice for thanks on his birthday.
Most Taiwanese gods have special preferences and, although Taiwanese gods are pragmatic and accept any offerings given in sincerity, should you want to curry special favor with them, it is best to know their druthers. Some of Nezha’s favorites are soda in bottles traditionally sealed with marbles, lollipops, and sesame chicken stewed in rice wine.
Today Santaizi is revered as both a Buddhist and a Taoist god. Although Santaizi’s origins are Buddhist, he evolved into a Taoist god in China. Nezha’s Taoist origins are in the stories of the 'Investiture of the Gods’, much of which was compiled from early Chinese prompt books and Buddhist texts. The book combines and blurs Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. It influenced popular religious practice in China and it is believed that simultaneous worship of Taoist and Buddhist gods began only after the publication of the novel.
As a Taoist god, he is the Jade Emperor’s leading martial and Commander in Chief of the Five Heavenly Armies. He is also third son of Li Ching (a Chinese general in charge of Chentang Pass during the Tang Dynasty), a brother to Jinzha and Muzha , a disciple of the Taoist master and immortal Taiyi Zhenren, and the mortal incarnation of Lingzhu (Spirit Pearl).
Nezha in ‘Creation of the Gods’
These legends endear the reader to Nezha’s mortal stubbornness, conceit and selfishness as it chronicles his trials and tribulations in becoming immortal. He murders, suffers, takes revenge and reaches reconcilation in his journey of enlightenment and loss of ego.
Following a three-year, six-month gestation, Liching’s wife has a dream of Taiyi Zhenren entering her bedchamber. That very night she gives birth to a red, light-radiating flesh ball with a strange odor that rolls about like a wheel. Li Ching, supposing it is a demon, slashes at it with his sword and a fully-clothed, fully-formed child leaps out.
From birth, the irreverent Santaizi is precocious and prodigious in size and ability, but lacks maturity. Taiyi Zhenren names him Nezha and promises to take him as a disciple when seven.
Slaying the Dragon King’s Son
In a well-known story which nicely illustrates his arrogant and cavalier attitude, Nezha goes for a stroll when aged seven. Tired and dirty, he washes his magic robes in a river, creating a temblor and alarming the East Sea Dragon in his underwater palace. The officer sent to investigate is quickly dispatched of when he tries to seize this haughty child. The East Sea Dragon next sends his third son, Aobing; a further dispute occurs and the Dragon King’s son attacks Nezha. In the ensuing battle, after famously threatening to skin and pull out Aobing’s sinews, Nezha overcomes him by throwing fireballs and striking him with his universe ring.
After learning of Li Ching’s errant son’s misdeeds, the furious East Sea Dragon confronts Nezha’s father. Li Ching, ignorant of his son’s transgression, brings the Dragon King to Nezha to prove his innocence. They find Nezha, not fully comprehending the damage he has caused, cheerfully skinning and tearing the tendons from the Dragon King’s son’s carcass. The understandably upset king sets out to inform the Jade Emperor.
Nezha seeks Taiyi Zhenren’s assistance and receives a spell granting invisibility. Utilizing this gift he is supposed to surmise the damage and report to his master, but, in his immaturity, gives the Dragon King a thrashing while invisible and only spares him on the condition of vindication for his crimes. The Dragon King reneges on his word, which was given under duress, and reports to the Jade Emperor who decrees that Nezha must be put to death. Nezha returns home to find his parents being dragged off in his place.
Returning his flesh and bone
In his first great act of responsibility, Nezha takes his own life so his parents may be spared. Nezha slices into his abdomen, gouges out his intestines and then fillets his flesh from the bone, separating his soul from his body and － obviously － precipitating his death.
On Taiyi’s advice; Nezha’s formless soul beseeches his mother (via a dream) to build him a temple so he may become whole again through virtue of worship. Afraid of her husband’s wrath, she only complies after her son resorts to threats. A temple is built without Li Ching’s knowledge. Alas, as the temple grows in fame, Li Ching hears of it and upon visiting the temple and seeing the statue － a spitting image of his dead son － flies into a rage. He smashes the idol, razes the temple to the ground and disperses the worshippers; such was his hatred for the son who ruined his family.
Although the three-year period needed for reincarnation is incomplete, his master is able to revivify Nezha using a lotus.
Nezha, livid at his fathers attempt to thwart his reanimation (even after returning his flesh and bone to them), seeks his father for vengeance and bests him in the ensuing battle. His father takes refuge with a Taoist master (actually sent by Taiyi to teach Nezha a lesson) who subdues Nezha and gives Li Ching a talisman with which to protect himself － a golden pagoda.
The story weaves back into the main scheme of things; Nezha and his father reconcile their differences, Li Ching is granted immortality to fight on the side of the Chou Dynasty, and Nezha fights alongside his father － finally fulfilling his destiny to fight against the Shang Dynasty.
Nezha in ‘Journey to the West’
Nezha first appears in ‘Journey to the West’ when he and his father are ordered by the Jade Emperor on a punitive expedition to subjugate the incorrigible Monkey King. The two heroes battle evenly for thirty rounds before Monkey triumphs in a sneak attack; forcing Nezha to flee. The Jade Emperor sends them back into battle with an army of a hundred-thousand heavenly warriors who again fail to triumph. Later in the story, Nezha and Monkey fight side by side.
Santaizi is also revered by Buddhists as his origins lie in Indian Buddhism. It is now accepted that Li Ching and Nezha were borrowed from the Buddhist gods Vaisravana (one of the Maharaja Devas) and his third son Nata.
Lu Xixing, the author of ‘Creation of the Gods’, was well versed in Confucianism, a Taoist priest of note, and in his later years showed interest in Tantric Buddhism.
Santaizi has many forms, but worshipped as Jung Tan Yuan Shuai he is easily recognized by his childish appearance, He sports wheels underfoot and bears a ring on his left hand and a spear in his right, and s red sash streams behind him. When necessary Nezha can transform himself into a three-headed, six-armed creature.
Nezha was born with a Yin-Yang Ring on his right hand, a Heavenly Red Sash around his shoulders, a du dou on his belly, his hair tied into pigtails, and a lick of hair above the forehead.
Upon his resurrection, Taiyi Zhenren gave Nezha three more items: a fire-tipped spear, a golden brick (a weapon) and his Wind and Fire Wheels (used as transportation, the left blows wind and the right spits fire). His du dou was replaced by the Heavenly Nine Dragon Robe which once belonged to the Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning and houses nine dragons.
Jung Tan Yuan Shuai is often worshipped as an area’s protector in the form of Wuying Gong. According to the ‘Five Phases’ precept, five camps in the five cardinal directions are set up in the form of small altars housing five gods inside, usually represented by sticks of bamboo, flags or little heads on sticks. These give advance warnings of approaching evil. The central Wuying Gong, or commander, is always Jung Tan Yuan Shuai; the other four are usually Zhang, Xiao, Liu and Lian.
Great God Generals
The Great God Generals, which are large god effigies worn like puppets and commonly seen in Taiwan’s religious parades, have their origins and most recent evolution in Nezha.
In late 19th century Taiwan, Beiguan troupes (traditional musical groups) split into rival schools － Xipi and Fulu. In a classic tale of temple one-upmanship, Xipi came out with the dragon dance and, not willing to be outdone, Fulu introduced Nezha Santaizi Great God Generals. Nezha was an intentional insult to the Xipi’s dragons, alluding to the story ‘Nezha Rips out Dragon’s Tendons’. Not ceding a bit, the Xipis came out with Liching the Pagoda Bearing Great God General, who has the power to defeat his son. The myriad Great God Generals seen today evolved from these two originators.
Santaizi zhentou (a traditional Taiwanese folk performance group) traditionally consists of the three Great God Generals Nezha, Jinzha and Muzha. Five-member troupes are also common, often according to Nezha’s Buddhist origins － Vaisravana had five children.
A recent phenomenon sweeping Taiwan is Techno Santaizi. Techno Santaizi are traditional Santaizi Great God Generals with minor transformations － lighter, cuter and cooler － that dance to techno music. This new Taiwanese folk act hip-hopped onto the world stage in the opening performance of the 2009 Kaohsiung World Games. Thirty two scooter-riding Nezhas rode onto the stage, viewed by an estimated 100 million people worldwide. More recently, ‘BOBEE’ Techno Santaizi, promoting Taiwanese star Wang Tsai-hua, entertained the crowds at the National Day celebrations in October 2010.
Taiwan’s founding and oldest Santaizi temple, Hsinying’s Taitz Temple, known for its popular birthday celebrations on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, held the first annual Techno Santaizi dance competition in 2010. This active and progressive temple realized they had a vested interest in Techno Santaizi’s reputation, and the successful competition helped to mold a positive public perception of Techno Santaizi.
Zhong Tan Yuan Shuai’s (中壇元帥) most common appellation – Santaizi (三太子) － can rather confusingly refer sometimes to Nezha (哪吒) － the Third Prince, or the three princes － Jinzha, Muzha, and Nezha. He is also called Lord Taizi (太子爺), Tailuoxian (太羅仙), Third Lotus Prince (蓮花三太子), General of the Central Camp (中營神將), Nacha, Nata, and many more names.
In contrast to the traditional image of solemn gods who attempt to frighten people into morality, Santaizi is an accessible god who easily wins affection. He has burgeoned from status as a traditional idol of worship and entered popular culture, and some even liken Nezha’s filleting to Taiwan’s separation from China, and Nezha’s complex love/hate, Oedipal-like father/son relationship to an analogy for Taiwan’s relationship with China.
Santaizi is worshipped by both Taoists and Buddhists, old and young, traditional and modern, conservative and progressive, in Taiwan and overseas, and is appreciated by believers and non-believers alike － a quintessential Taiwanese icon.