Seeking counsel from the god of war

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Seeking counsel from the god of war

These are troubled times, in Korea and the world: times of war and threats of war. Times like these call for a visit to the great god Guan. He can advise; he is the god of war.

An unlikely god, perhaps. But beloved. He began as a literary character, in the Chinese classic "The Story of the Three Kingdoms" although he was probably also a historical person. From humble, semifictitious beginnings, his popularity grew until officially named by the Chinese emperor, in 1594, to his present high position.

Though Chinese, he is loved in Korea, too. Indeed, he is everywhere. I've seen Guan's shrine in the headquarters of the Toronto Metropolitan Police. Barrel-chested, fierce, with long black beard and massive broadsword, he's part foot soldier and part Churchill -- brave, simple, honorable, honest -- everything a soldier should be. Virtues often forgotten in peacetime, desperately needed war.

He came to Seoul on the shoulders of Ming Dynasty Chinese, to help repulse the Hideyoshi Invasions in the 16th century. He stayed, his cult active as recently as 1941.

In 1602, he came to King Sonjo in dream and promised to protect Seoul. Sonjo had Guan's shrines built at Seoul's four main gates, and one in the city center. Two remain. Dongmyo, outside Dongdaemun, is the larger.

"Guan" means mountain pass. Guan is guardian of gates and passages. He has also become a god of commerce. Markets grow up near his temples at city gates. Here, Hwanghak-dong Market surrounds him, running into Dongdaemun market beyond. Guan's honest example inspires.

Dongmyo is locked like most Korean shrines. But the park is pleasant for a stroll or to review your purchases from a morning's shopping.

Guan guards other figurative gates as well. Near his inner shrine, on the right, the royal executioner's sword was kept. The executioner came here for the sword, prayed to Lord Guan, went off to lop a head past the West Gate, then returned with the sword to wash it here in front of Guan. No ghosts would follow -- if the deed was just. Otherwise, Guan himself would avenge.

Like Janus, his Roman cousin, Guan is two-faced. Poke your head in the grate enclosing the shrine proper. You may just see both. Look for grim guardians left and right. Beyond is a large statue of Guan, his face a placid gold, draped in gold and seated on an emperor's throne.

To the right, in the shadows, is a second image. This Guan bears a red face that's angry, fierce.

As a child, they say, Guan was fractious. His parents locked him in; he escaped through the window. Roaming the world, he found an old man and his daughter, crying.

"Why do you weep?" asked Guan, touched with tenderness, despite his size and strength.

"Because, although engaged, the local lord insists on making my daughter the concubine to his uncle."

Guan, furious, found and killed both the lord and the uncle, then fled through the Western pass. Pausing to wash his face, he found it had turned flaming red. He was unrecognizable.

Guan is red as he goes through a pass; he is gold when he ranges freely.

There is, behind this, a solar image. Guan is from Shandong, ancient China's eastern province, where the morning sun first appears. Like the sun, his face is golden in the zenith, redder as it rises or descends. It is red and fierce for beginnings and endings -- the violence of birth and death -- and golden and serene for duration. Like the invincible sun, Guan knows the secret of surviving change.

Guan is a natural adopted son, here at the eastern capital gate of what is, to China, the Eastern land, the land of morning.

To visit Dongmyo, go to Sinseol-dong Station on the dark blue subway line No. 1 or green subway line No. 2. Walk west, under the overpass and toward Dongdaemun. Within two or three blocks, stone walls will be to your left. Turn left at the alleyway and walk beyond to reach the shrine's entrance.


by Stephen K. Roney

Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, British Columbia.
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