Fujian, a province in Southeast China, boasts a rich tapestry of traditions distinct from those observed in other regions of the country, particularly during Chinese New Year celebrations. Among these unique customs is youshen 游神.

The youshen tradition traces its origins back to the Ming dynasty. During this event, a grand parade featuring various gods wends its way through the towns and villages of Fujian, accompanied by captivating lion and dragon dances, as well as other performances. The air is filled with the rhythmic beats of drums and highlighted by bursts of fireworks and firecrackers. In reverence, people gather to burn incense offerings, fervently praying for a prosperous new year. Symbolically, the event signifies the descent of gods from the heavens to commune with the common folk on earth. Elaborate ceremonies are meticulously organized to welcome these celestial visitors into the earthly realm. The towering effigies are carried atop the shoulders of participants, lending a majestic aura to the festivities.

The preparations leading up to the parade hold significant importance as well. Offerings are meticulously presented to the gods at temples, setting the spiritual tone for the event. A pivotal ritual known as toushengbei 投圣杯 unfolds, where devotees seek the gods’ permission to carry their effigies in the parade. This ritual involves the use of a shengbei 圣杯, which comprises two crescent-shaped blocks, each with one flat and one curved side. Each block is thrown three times for each deity. If both blocks land flat, it signifies a negative response. If both blocks land curved, it indicates uncertainty, prompting a reevaluation. If one block lands flat and the other lands curved, it signals the gods’ approval to participate; the gods who refuse would be left in the temples. Fujian boasts a rich pantheon of over a thousand gods, many of whom hold special significance for distinct local communities.

The youshen procession showcases deities like Mazu 妈祖, Zhang Shizi 张世子, Zhang Er Shizi 张二世子 , Zhao Shizi 赵世子 , Hua Guan Da Shizi 华光大世子, and more. Each esteemed deity is accompanied by a mafu 马夫 (coachman), responsible for clearing the path and leading the gods during the parades. This traditional event is a distinctive hallmark of Fujian’s cultural heritage, relatively unknown to those outside the province until recently. However, the 2024 youshen ceremony during the Year of the Dragon gained widespread attention, thanks in part to its extensive coverage on the Chinese TikTok app, Douyin 抖音. This digital platform allowed people from across China to witness and appreciate the grandeur of this age-old tradition. Additionally, the modern portrayal of certain deity figures, such as the four shizi 世子 mentioned, contributed to the recent surge in popularity. These representations aligned with contemporary beauty standards, further captivating audiences and drawing attention to Fujian’s rich cultural legacy.

The Fujian gods are especially remarkable, as many of them are inspired by real historical figures. One notable example is the revered goddess Mazu mentioned earlier. Mazu, known as the Chinese sea goddess, is based on a woman named Lin Mo 林默 who lived in Putian 莆田, Fujian during the early Song dynasty. Lin Mo tragically lost her life at a young age while attempting to rescue people from a shipwreck. In the aftermath of her courageous act, the local community immortalized her as a revered deity, bestowing upon her the role of a protective guardian who watches over and safeguards fishermen and sailors.

The Fujian youshen tradition has endured for over six centuries, serving as a testament to the steadfast belief in these distinctive deities. Through this vibrant parade, participants fervently pray for the well-being and prosperity of their nation and fellow citizens, as well as favorable weather conditions. Preserving this cherished folk tradition is paramount, as it not only honors Fujian’s rich cultural heritage but also underscores the region’s distinctiveness.