Zhong Kui (鍾馗) is a legendary Daoist demon hunter. His legend began in the Tang Dynatry, and by the Song Dynasty he had been adopted into the Daoist pantheon. Knowing his story is an important part of understanding Chinese culture.
Zhong Kui was born in the Zhongnan Mountain area in the early Tang Dynasty. Although he was was intelligent and loyal, Zhong Kui wasn’t much to look at. He was a large man with a square face, saucer-like eyes, a huge mouth, and curly whiskers.
As a young man, Zhong Kui traveled to Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) with his friend Du Ping (杜平) to sit the imperial civil service exam. Zhong Kui received the highest score on the exam, earning him the rank of Zhuang Yuan, which guaranteed fame and fortune. However, the imperial ministers feared Zhang Kui’s hideous appearance would bring shame to the empire, so they stripped him of his title. Zhong Kui was devastated and committed suicide by bashing his head on the palace steps over and over. His friend Du Ping buried him.
At this point, there are different versions of what happened next:
In the first version of the legend, Zhong Kui went to the underworld where he came before King Yama, the king of hell. King Yama recognized Zhong Kui’s potential and named him “King of Ghosts”, charging him to hunt and capture evil spirits.
In the second version of the legend, when the emperor learned of Zhong Kui’s suicide, he was filled with shame. He ordered Zhong Kui to be buried in official’s robes and awarded him the Zhuang Yuan title posthumously. In gratitude, the ghost of Zhong Kui swore to protect the empire from evil spirits.
Both versions of the legend agree that Zhong Kui’s spirit then returned home to celebrate the New Year. Imagine how surprised his family and friends were! He even gave his sister in marriage to his friend Du Ping to thank him for his kindness.
Zhong Kui Appears Again
The story picks up again in the Song Dynasty text “Bu Mengqi Bitan” (補夢溪筆談) by Shen Kuo (沈括). Years later, another emperor, Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗) fell ill after archery practice. While lying in bed, he saw a ghost enter his room. The ghost stole a purse that belonged to the emperor’s favorite concubine and the emperor’s jade flute. Just as the ghost was about to escape, a larger ghost dressed as an official appeared. He captured the smaller ghost, ripped out its eyes, tore it to pieces, and ate it! The larger ghost introduced himself to the emperor as Zhong Kui. When the emperor recovered, he described the scene to the court painter, Wu Daozi (吳道子). Most images of Zhong Kui we see today are based on Wu Daozi’s depiction.
Modern Day Zhong Kui
Zhong Kui is a character in many Chinese operas, TV shows, movies, and video games. In Japanese culture, Zhong Kui is known as Shōki. The oldest known image of Shōki dates back to the reign of the Japanese Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192). In Kyoto city, some people still hang Zhong Kui’s image on the eaves and rooftops of their homes.
Another Possible Origin
Early Chinese texts suggest another possible origin to the Zhong Kui legend. In his book, Gaiyu Congkao (陔餘叢考) Zhao Yi (趙翼) says that the legend started because of the Zhong Kui flower (終葵). Another Han Dynasty author named Ma Rong (馬融) says that people would wave around the Zhong Kui flower as part of a ritual to protect from evil spirits. Perhaps over time, the flower was forgotten, and the legend of Zhong Kui, demon hunter began.