Lessons in immortality

Art August 09, 2012 00:00


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Guan Yu's 1,852nd birthday on Saturday is a chance to reflect on honesty

Chinese people around the world, including in Bangkok’s Yaowarat district, will this Saturday be celebrating the birthday of Guan Yu, a man who became a god. Their devotion endures, in part, thanks to a lasting belief in the merits of honesty.

 The Taoist deity is believed to have lived his mortal life from 160 to 219 AD, begining the Han Dynasty, making him 1,852 years old this year. His birthday is traditionally marked on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month on the Chinese calendar.

Worshipped as the God of War, Honesty and Literature, Guan Yu offers virtues that appeal to everyone, particularly to businessmen – and to both policemen and criminal gangs, with their respective codes of honour.

The best known of the deities in the epic saga of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu in real life filled a chapter of his own in the ancient Chronicles, says China scholar Viroj Tangvarnich.

“There are about 600 gods in Taoism, in four categories,” he says. “There were the three-star angels, the self-arising gods like the Jade Emperor, the ascetics and historical personages of exceptional heroism and righteousness, such as Guan Yu and Mazu.”

Viroj notes that Confucius’ ancient influence remained dominant in the Han Dynasty – respect of son for father, the bond of brotherhood, honesty among friends, loyalty to one’s employer, mercy for one’s employees.

“Guan Yu embodies honesty, bravery, loyalty and strength with integrity, righteousness and honour. Generally he’s arrogant and speaks little, but he always does what he says he will.”

Viroj describes him as a robust man with a red face, a fierce expression and a beautiful two-foot-long beard, wearing a green military uniform and armour engraved with dragons, and carrying a spear with a huge blade. His is often seen with his war-horse Sek Tao.

“Sek Tao is also honoured for his honesty. When Guan Yu died the horse was so despondent that he died too.”

So images of Sek Tao appear alongside those of his master in tens of thousands of Taoist temples around the world, as well as in countless homes, businesses and even police stations.

Guan Yu often finds his way into Buddhist wats too, having sought spiritual guidance from a Buddhist master after he died, according to one legend, and reaching enlightenment. “He devoted the rest of his immortality to defending the faith,” says Viroj.

Paiboon Ponsuwanna, chairman of the Thai National Shippers' Council, says he learned the merits of honesty from his father and has passed them on to his sons.

“Chinese people who came to Thailand in the past usually had nothing to start with, and getting a loan from a bank to start a business was unthinkable. But they organised their own savings schemes, where their earnings could gain interest and loans were available.

“It was all about trust and honesty,” Paiboon says. “People in the scheme had a duty to continue repaying their debt, a little every month. They became friends and business partners, helping each other when needed. As businessmen, they knew they mustn’t cheat. If they had a cash-flow problem and couldn’t pay, they just needed to say so – no cheating.”

The practice endures today, albeit in more casual arrangements, as does the tradition that debts must be settled before the Lunar New Year. “Before the New Year, without being asked, the borrower must return the money plus some interest, which could be anything.

“This system requires honesty and trust. You don’t see anything like it in modern business, where everything involves contracts and threats. There are no heart-to-heart or personal relationships.”

“My father had four rules,” Paiboon says. “First, don’t even thinking of cheating. Second, if you’ve been cheated, don’t get cheated twice because that means you’re stupid. Third, if you cheat, expect misfortune – maybe not to you, but to your offspring.

“And finally, the fourth rule: Be content with what you have. If you have less than others, it just means you have to work harder.”



Here are a few of the Guan Yu shrines where worshippers will be commemorating the deity’s birthday this weekend:

- In Bangkok’s Chinatown on Soi Yaowarat 11.

- At Talad Plu on Soi Terdtai 22.

- In Khlong San district on Soi Somdejchaophraya Soi 3.

- The Samui Shrine, also called Na Khai Hua Thanon, at 190/1 Moo 1, Taled sub-district, Koh Samui.