The Red-Faced Guan Yu

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on July 6, 2015.)

Guan Yu (center) and his sworn friends at Guan Di Temple, Shenzhen

Even if you've never visited a temple, you may have encountered a red-faced military figure with a long, side-swept black beard. He's commonly seen in shops and restaurants, as well as in different kinds of temples--Buddhist, Taoist, and folk.

This is Guan Yu, called by some Taoists Guan Di, and by Buddhists Qielan (a tale for another day). He was a real person, born in the Han Dynasty in present-day Shanxi Province. As a young man, he learned to recite long passages of Chinese classics, despite working in a low occupation--some say as a seller of tofu.

One legend about his red face says that a girl had been forced by a local magistrate to become his concubine. When Guan Yu heard of this, he came to her aid, and ended up slaying the magistrate. He was forced to flee across the mountains where, seeing his reflection when he stopped to wash in a stream, he discovered his face had turned red--perhaps a sign of his passionate anger.

Later, as detailed in the Ming classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," he swore loyalty in a peach grove to two friends, Zhang Fei (usually shown with a black face), and Liu Bei (often seen with a white one). An image of the three, with their multi-colored faces, can be seen at the Guandi Temple in Xin'an Ancient City in Shenzhen, Guangdong.

In the end Guan Yu was captured and put to death. His head was sent as a gift to the warlord Cao Cao, who buried it with great honors. The burial site can still be visited at Guanlin Temple in Luoyang, Henan.

To this day, Guan Yu is considered a model of honor and loyalty. He is the patron of soldiers, police officers--and criminal gangs.

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