This is something that’s frequently piqued my interest, but I had nowhere to turn to solve this little mystery. In Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants here in the US, and certainly elsewhere, you’re likely to see an altar like this one:
For a long time, I could never figure out what this was. English websites on “Chinese altars in restaurants” reveal almost nothing. It’s assumed I guess that most Westerners either don’t care, or the cultural subtleties are too hard to explain. But a nerd like me doesn’t give up. I took a couple photos from my camera phone when no one was looking and spent an evening piecing things together.
Based on some Google searches, and translations from Chinese, the Chinese characters read vertically from right to left, or left to right here:
Which are read in modern Mandarin as:
wǔfāng wǔtǔ lóngshén
qiánhòu dìzhǔ cáishén
Which in English (very roughly) means:
The five dragons of the earth,
The Landowner God of Wealth from beginning to end [wealth?]
According to one Chinese website, these are always placed so that they face the door, and provide protection for shop-owners and such. I have noticed this frequently on the many Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in the area, so it seems similar to the Japanese maneki neko in bringing in luck, or the American tradition of hanging up the first dollar bill.
But who are the two fellows in the shrine? That I haven’t figured out, but just by appearance alone, they do bear a strong resemblance to a couple of the Seven Luck Gods or shichifukujin (七福神) in Japanese religion, which in turn are mostly imported figures from the mainland. A good illustration of what they look like can be seen here. The elderly fellow on the left looks like Fukurokuji, which as Wikipedia states is an imported figure from Chinese Taoist myth of the Three Star Gods. The fellow on the right looks vaguely like Daikokuten or maybe another one of the Three Star Gods. Either way, wealth and long-life seem to be the theme of this happy little shrine.
There’s nothing too surprising to see here, but I felt this post might be a useful reference others. You can see how East Asian popular religious beliefs are pretty syncretic in nature, and like popular religion everywhere, deal with ways to assist with practical issues in people’s lives. What I find interesting is the cultural expression of each.
Hi Doug, If you look at photo 5 on this page it suggests that they are the ‘Wealth’ deity and ‘Earth’ deity. I think you are right about Fukurokuji but the other one – the earth deity – could be Tu Di Gong.
The Earth God Ong Dia is apparently associated with dragons so that sounds right.
I also found this: “[Ong] Than Tai is a Taoist god who is known for protecting the wealth, while [Ong] Tho Dia is a Vietnamese practice as a “god” who overwatches their own land.”
I’m glad you were nerdy enough to post this. It’s just the sort of thing that interests me but I wouldn’t have been able to follow through on this to the extent that you have here (although I’ve got a basic working knowledge of Mandarin, I lack a lot of the cultural references since I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist household). I’ve always about of the American “framing the first dollar bill” as a celebration of past achievement – but after reading your post I can see how it has a totemic quality, something put up there to invite good luck and future prosperity.
Kyoshin is right, that is Tudi Gong.
Where can i buy a shrine box like that? My china town does not seem to have them.
Good question. I have no idea to be honest. Maybe they’re imported from the Old Country. :-/
Thank you for posting this Doug. I have a few Vietnamese friends and some of them are from the mainland. For the most part, they are pretty open when it comes to talking about food and the new year, but just about all talk about their religion has either been deliberately misleading or cautiously expressed with the utmost skepticism. I guess they have seen how people in general react to the idea of worshipping ancestors and gods, so they have developed this as a defense to protect themselves. Thanks again, this gives me a better appreciation and understanding.
Hi LOK and welcome to the JKLLR. I think you’re right: Asian immigrants may find it hard to express their religion here so it’s often safer to just keep quiet. I hope things will change over time with better understanding.