Journal of Religion and Violence

Volume 9, Issue 2/3, 2021

Don J. Wyatt
Pages 171-193

Not by Valor or Victory Alone: Religious Agency in the Apotheosis of the Chinese Warrior Hero

In the civilizations of the classical West, as exemplified foremost by that of Greece, as well as in that of early imperial China, the idea that humans who excelled exceptionally in war could merit deification was an abiding operative assumption. Given this premise, unsurprising then is the fact that such individuals should be found to have exhibited certain defining traits in common, including exceptional bravery and skill in leadership as well as—at least up until the point of their own deaths—an outstanding record of battlefield success. In addition, whether in Greece or in China, we find that the elevation of the exemplary warrior to the status of a god occurred under religious auspices, or was abetted by a belief structure that at least exhibited many of the core customary functions of a conventional religion. However, if we must regard the normative Chinese paradigm of martial divinization as having consistently departed in conception from its counterpart in the West, then surely the determinative difference is the premium placed on the Chinese demonstration of loyalty. In China, inasmuch as there were credentials for deification, the individual warrior’s unfailing subscription to the virtue of loyalty seems to have superseded all else, and the pathway to immortality as a god was forever obstructed without it.