A formidable warrior in real life but a hero, literally, of epic proportions in ancient Chinese novels, the Guan Yu of today is a lofty personage worshipped in many parts of Asia. To unravel his modern symbolism and what his image in a tattoo means, we must travel through many centuries, not to mention a couple of religions.
Born in the year 162, Guan Yu came of age in a period of political turmoil in China. Great dissatisfaction had been brewing in the already vast empire for some time. Famine, poverty, flooding, and disease had created a climate of massive discontent and serial uprisings. As the Han dynasty disintegrated, a period known as the Three Kingdoms, for its three warring regional factions, began.
Guan Yu began his career as a bodyguard for Liu Bei, the leader of the eastern Shu kingdom (modern day Sichuan), who claimed Han imperial descent. Eventually, he became Liu Bei’s sworn brother, fighting on his behalf. In the year 200, however, at the defeat of Liu Bei, he was captured by Cao Cao, the leader of the western kingdom of Wu. Cao Cao made Guan Yu a marquis and Guan Yu served him for several years until he discovered that Liu Bei was still alive. He left the service of Cao Cao, reunited with Liu Bei, and fought Wu troops until he and his sons were captured during a surprise attack in 220 and he was beheaded.
The earliest known temple dedication to Guan Di, as he was later known after his post-humous promotion to emperor in the afterlife, occurred in 713 in Hubei, at an existing Buddhist temple, located near Yuquan mountain, the reported site of his death. Although miracle stories of various types surround Guan Yu, one of his most widespread incarnations is that of protector, brandishing his famous halberd, a giant combination spear and battle axe. At Buddhist temples, he guards the door. Not surprisingly, Taoist temples followed suit, adopting him as their protector as well.
It wasn’t until he was featured in a popular novel, however, that his fame and folk deity status spread. The Sanguo Yanyi, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ca. 1394), is a grand and sprawling classic of Chinese literature with hundreds of characters and over one hundred chapters. It combined the oral history of the earlier three kingdoms period, popular views of imperial government, and Confucian ideals of its own era and recast that period in terms of heroic deeds and right living. One of its exemplars was Guan Yu. As a result he was adopted as a sort of patron saint, not only by Buddhists and Taoists, but by all sorts of groups from merchants to secret societies.
It was inevitable that the fabulous stories of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms would eventually find their way into Chinese opera. Many of the depictions of Guan Yu that are popular today arise from the costume and, most importantly, the mask created for his character. In literature, he was reportedly nine feet tall, with a two foot long beard. His height and prodigious facial hair are both visual cues that signal his manhood. His red face is a sign of loyalty and righteousness. His elaborate headdress signals the high degree of his importance, resembling the types of operatic headdresses worn by royalty, with the extensive use of pom poms and large pearls.
The Guan Yu tattoo, capitalizing primarily on his opera mask, stays true to his traditional depiction. With the ornate headgear, fierce expression, and flowing beard, he remains a symbol of the loyal, righteous, and brave warrior. Whether shown with his halberd or not, he is the consummate protective deity. Today, he is an amalgam of the Buddhist guardian, the practical Confucian epitome of right living, and the popular hero to everyman, especially those who prize steadfastness and courage in themselves and their friends.