Statues of this deity have long fascinated me because of their appearance. Many I know would cringe at Fa Zhu Gong’s coal-black face, bulbous forehead, and his bulging eyes, but there must be a reason for them.
I have yet to find any recorded research that touches on Fa Zhu Gong’s appearance, but one online seller of a statue of the deity attributes his black skin to a fight he had with a fireball-wielding demon.
In any case, when he was a mortal, Fa Zhu Gong was said to be a helpful individual who never hesitated to assist those in need. He healed the sick and defended the weak, and was eventually venerated for his good deeds.
The cobra that is often depicted coiled around his arm was a beast he subdued and made his pet. The deity was able to transform the snake into a whip, which he used to fight evil, particularly when treating the victims of demonic possession.
Before I became interested in the Daoist religion (and philosophy), I looked at its rituals, its pantheon of gods and its beliefs through the lens of Western culture. However, that misled my understanding of Daoism because Western ideas tend to be communicated using Christian metaphors and symbols, which, naturally, have nothing to do with Daoist ideas.
For example, I used to think that the red face of Lord Guan showed that he was in a permanent rage. This made sense, in a way, as Guan Gong is the God of War and it’s easy to imagine that the General rode out to battle huffing and puffing angrily. However, this idea does the deity and the historical figure a great disservice. Before his capture and execution, Guan Yu was the brave and valiant general who led Liu Bei’s armies during its campaigns during the Three Kingdoms era. He had a great sense of honour and loyalty, and these qualities are what his red face is conveying when he is depicted in art and on the Chinese opera stage.
Another colour that is misunderstood when used in the Chinese context, but interpreted through a Western Christian lens is black. Black in Christian culture is associated with evil and the devil, but in Chinese culture it often stands for honesty, knowledge and justice.
(N.B. I once met a young man who had apprenticed as a restorer of temple implements. He told me that the dark complexion of statues are sometimes the result of years of exposure to incense smoke. Thus, a black face may have nothing to do with the actual appearance of a deity, or their backstory. However, it is then becomes an accepted detail when they are subsequently portrayed. 7th October, 2020.)