Tu Di Gong, "the Earth God"

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on September 8, 2015.)

A Tu Di Gong platform under a tree in Nanshan, Shenzhen, Guangdong

One of the most ubiquitous--yet often unnoticed--of all deities is the so-called "Earth God," known in Chinese as Tu Di Gong (土地公).

The categories of supernatural beings can become confused when we cross between cultures. Tu Di Gong is sometimes pictured as the Earth God, like Gaia in Greek (from whom we get our word root geo-). But instead, he is more of a genius loci, the spirit of a place. He will have responsibility for a particular place (sometimes in concert with his wife) in a hierarchy that mirrors China's imperial system.

Thus there may be an Earth God for a home, temple, or other building; another for the village it is located in; yet another for the city (now usually called a cheng huang or city god) and so on.

At temples, the Earth God's shrine--often in the form of a platform, roofed or not--may be inside the front door, but more often is found outside, to the right of the door, and perhaps quite far from the building. The God and his wife may be depicted as an old couple, he with a flowing white beard; or, especially on village platforms, just two stones, sometimes adorned with color or even wrapped in cloths to simulate clothing.

The Tu Di Gong of a place protects the residents there. Being "on the ground," he may be the first deity approached when supernatural aid is required. He may be supplicated when buildings are built or destroyed in a particular place, and when one moves, it may be appropriate to make farewell offerings to the Earth God one is leaving, as well as greetings to the god of the new place.

An older, fancier Tu Di Gong platform in a Hong Kong village, again with the rocks
This Tu Di shrine is on the grounds of the large
Tianhou (Mazu) Temple in Chiwan, Shenzhen
An earlier iteration of "Mr. and Mrs. Tu Di" in the above shrine

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