Appearance: Shōki (also known by the Chinese rendering of his name, Zhong Kui) is a legendary hero and deity from ancient China. He is ugly, with a large, hulking body, a long, flowing beard, and fearsome, piercing eyes. He is usually shown carrying a sword and wearing a court official’s cap. Shōki is known as “the demon queller” for his ability to vanquish, exorcise, and even control oni and other demons. He is so feared by oni that even his image is said to scare them away. The demons he defeats sometimes become his servants. It is said that he commands 80,000 demons.
Origin: Shōki originated in ancient China during the 700’s. His story reached Japan by the late Heian period, and his popularity reached its height during the Edo period. Paintings and statues of him are still used as a good luck charms. His image appears on flags, folding screens, and hanging scrolls. Small statues of him can sometimes be seen on the roofs of older houses in Kyoto as well. Shōki is strongly associated with Boys’ Day, a holiday in May. He is revered as a god of protection from demons and sickness (particularly smallpox, which was believed to be spread by evil spirits), and also as a god of scholarship.
Legends: Shōki lived in Shanxi Province in China during the Tang dynasty. His life’s goal was to become a physician in the court of Emperor Xuanzong. Shōki was a smart and diligent student. He trained hard and passed all of the exams to become a physician. He placed first out of all of the applicants and should have easily received the position. However, Shōki was a very ugly man. When the emperor saw his face, he immediately rejected Shōki’s application even though he was the most qualified for the job.
Shōki was devastated. His dreams shattered, he committed suicide on the steps of the imperial palace. The emperor was moved by Shōki’s dedication. He felt great regret for denying the application of such a talented and brilliant man on account of his looks. The emperor ordered that Shōki should receive a state burial of the highest rank—usually only reserved for royalty—and posthumously awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.”
Years later, the emperor became gravely ill. Delirious with fever, he dreamed that he saw two oni. The larger one was wearing the clothing of a court official. It grabbed the smaller oni, killed it, and ate it. Then, it turned to the emperor and introduced itself as Shōki. He vowed to protect the emperor from evil. When the emperor woke up, his fever was gone.
Xuanzong commissioned the court painter to make an painting of Shōki based on his dream. Shōki became a popular deity across China (and later, Japan). He was revered as a god of scholarship for his great devotion to his studies, and as a protector against disease and evil spirits.