Our website is dedicated to documenting The Chinese Deities known as “XIAN” and “SHEN”, their biographies, colourful legends, and the folk lore culture that supports them. Chinese religion that begins with universal animist origins, developing over time to become the separate faiths known as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, inextricably intertwined into what we know today as Chinese Religion.
The term “Shenism” has gained some popularity to describe the worship of deities. It is this branch of the study that we focus mainly on. The deities themselves with the iconography and folklore legends that come with them is our main study mission. . The principal resource is the database of approaching 2000 individual deities, most with biographical notes and photographs. There are also a number of more general articles available on the site, along with links to external documents, videos and websites that are closely related.
You can access these resources through our resource centre, or through the Top Menu. Our objective is to become the principle English language site for anyone interested in our subject .
Our site is privately funded and all resources are available completely free.
We welcome your involvement, whether just enjoying all the details, or hopefully to become more involved in our project. We actively seek people to help us expand and improve the site. You can find more details about how you can help the Getting Involved section of the FAQ page or if you have already decided you want to help by contacting us through this Form.
We are an active Community, with a Blog site and Discussion Forum.
We have provided a number of different layouts, with differing levels of information, which we hope will meet the varying requirements of our website users.
So many people have been critical to this project but none more than Keith Stevens (1926-2015). It is his legacy in the form of notes and photographs that is honoured in this website. With enormous help from many quarters I have attempted to preserve, edit, and add to his vast body of knowledge.
We recently found a short piece written by Keith himself explaining his fascination with Chinese Deities and giving an explanation of their wider reverence. You can read this Document from the link in the Site Resources.
Keith Stevens started feeling interest and curiosity for things Chinese from his early teens when he lived in pre-WW2 (1939 - 1945) Liverpool, a large English port with ships, docks and slums - all displaying Chinese signboards. The Chinese characters fascinated him and so he joined the army, learnt Mandarin and worked with the intelligence services travelling all over South East Asia and eventually to China. He purchased his first Chinese god, a blue and white porcelain statue of Lu Dong Bin and over the course of his lifetime acquired over a thousand deity statues.
In 1953 he was sent to Singapore where he met his wife Nora , they produced three daughters [Carol, Gillian & Ruth] and Keith spent much of his free time, with a road directory in hand, exploring the city, sleuthing out temples and gods to record. He maintained a manual filing system worthy of an intelligence-gathering organisation.
In 1978 Keith heard about my own “templing” activities in Singapore, and arranged a meeting at the Negara Hotel in Orchard Road. He must have been disappointed, though he didn’t show it, that I was way behind him in my knowledge at that time. In fact I was only just beginning my own “journey of the gods”. We maintained some contact, he would write me letters, and occasionally send me on errands to take a photo of this god, or find a legend for that one.
When he published the long-awaited Chinese Gods: The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons, it was widely acclaimed. In characteristic fashion Keith dedicated the book to his family and helpers. The book was extremely useful for researchers and beginners in the field, but was missing many of the less popular and more rarely seen deities. Keith told me he had originally intended that the book would have included over 700 pages, but this was not economically feasible for his publisher to produce. So the published book had to be reduced to the 200 pages we know. This website attempts to fill and expand on this gap of knowledge.
Keith continued to work on his military intelligence style files on the Chinese deities after he retired and eventually stopped travelling. From his home in Mersham, Kent, he catalogued his deity statues and amassed 60 A4 size files of information on 1600 researched deities many with photographs. These were maintained in alphabetical order. We often discussed producing a larger version of his Chinese Gods book, which would include all his researches, but we were regrettably not able to do so before his death.
In the following year, 2016, an auction of his deities, books and notes, was arranged by his family at the Canterbury Auction Gallery. I was able to make the trip to UK and attend, successfully accomplishing my target of acquiring Keith Stevens notes and photographs on the Chinese deities. Supported by my wife Frances and her brother Austen Wilks we managed to ship over 55 cartons of statues, notes, photographs and papers to Penang, Malaysia.
I immediately set to work putting this massive quantity of material into some order. I was dismayed to find out that five of the Deity folders had gone missing. Simply lost in the transfer. I made enquiries but to no avail. Later through the kind and helpful efforts of the Stevens family, in particular Mrs Carol Clarke, who agreed to let me obtain the information from her father’s computer hard drive. From this we could save the already digitally downloaded files. This meant that we presumably had in our possession the entire text of Keith’s work, albeit missing the images that were lost with the five missing folders. These we could access by our own efforts and from the expanding online content.
Little did I know how useful the collection of photographs I had been amassing over four decades of travelling over south East Asia, in particular those of Singapore and Malaysian temples, taking up over five terabytes of space on the computer hard drive, would one day be so serendipitously utilised to illustrate the current project. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Keith’s visits to so many temples in different towns and cities so well matched with my own schedules that took place ten to fifteen years later with the much-improved photographic technology now available.
Another problem was that in the 1990's Keith changed his computer from an IBM to an Apple Macintosh. Many of the fonts he had used did not survive the transfer to the new operating system . We soon realised there was no way to retrieve them. The lost fonts meant that the extensive Chinese text was now corrupted and illegible. Fortunately we had the hard copies of the files, minus the ones lost in transit. But for the purposes of digital display 80% of the Mandarin text, now corrupted, had to be removed.
An additional issue was that most of Keith’s text was produced in the Wade-Giles version of the Chinese text. Very few people use that currently, as the Pinyin format is normally used. One of the many tasks undertaken in the last three years has been to change the index and heading names to Pinyin, while still keeping the Wade-Giles form as a link to the original hard copy files. It was considered at this point to be a too massive job to convert all of the text. By use of a Wade-Giles convertor it might be possible to manage an accurate translation of Mandarin text. If researchers require a copy of the original hard copy text, it is possible to write to me for it, please contact me through this link.
At this point I must express my deep gratitude to Richard Brewer, my friend and website creator, for his immense assistance and encouragement for this project. Richard told me that this was the best time to reproduce Keith’s legacy in digital form. There would be no limitation to volume and content. We could offer anyone interested the entirety of Keith Stevens work. If not for Richard, this project would probably remain in dusty cardboard boxes. His dedicated efforts and creative ideas have resulted in bookofxianshen becoming the largest and most comprehensive resource available currently for studying the Chinese gods.
Also appreciation must given to Keith Stevens' daughters Carol Clark, Gillian Sutch, and Ruth Hall, who have graciously and generously encouraged me in this effort to showcase their father’s legacy.
Acknowledgement must be made to “PC” (known to his friends as “Sotong”) who was with me from the very beginning of the work and my long time field-trip comrade. He wishes to remain anonymous, and I will respect that. Through “PC” I met with Shanghai blogger, Mandarin teacher, and Taoist priest, Jingchun also known as Laozhouzhou. His deep knowledge of the subject and willingness to answer my daily research questions has been immense to the project. Master Jave Wu, a practising Taoist priest from Singapore, was my teacher in the early days of my interest in the topic, who I much relied on for information on local worship of the deities. The willingness of these sifus to share sacred knowledge with me, answer difficult questions, and spend precious time showing me temples and introducing me to new Deities and their legends, deserve my fullest gratitude. Whatever modest amount of knowledge I am able to retain is due to these masters and brothers. This is only topped by the wealth of information left here by Keith Stevens available now for all of us to relish and digest.
Shen Yu, my friend and computer doctor, has been vital to the bookofxianshen project, particularly at times when I could only pull my own hair out because of failing computer technology. Shen Yu always arrived to save not only the day but also my sanity. Furthermore he introduced me to Penang businessman Soon Kok Wei when I needed a translator and research assistant. Kok Wei’s passion for Chinese history with bi-lingual knowledge of both Mandarin and English, besides a few other tongues has been a virtual godsend. Between us so far we have created 50 new Deity titles for the project.
Dean Wang, a Singapore researcher, has recently come aboard to assist with deity identification and the always important “second opinion”. Jennifer Welch, one time friend and co-author of several articles with Keith Stevens, has kindly assisted with my questions on her travels with Keith and information on Penang deities she documented for Keith during a visit in 1997, in particular Chang E and her rabbit and “The overseer of the lake of blood” with his crimson red beard and hair. Also my thanks to Andy Yeoh for contributing photos and important information about San Zhong Wang, “The Three Loyal Dukes”.
Many others deserve acknowledgement for their assistance personally to me over the last four decades and to the project. Temple Chairmen, Tangkis, and “Templing” companions such as my “brothers” Ah Loon and Ah Lau from Penang. I thank you all for sharing this wonderful journey.
I wish to acknowledge Hannibal Taubes for including me on an informal field trip to Yu County in Hebei/Shanxi which helped widen my knowledge of North China religious iconography and personally experience for myself the wonderful old temple murals from Ming and early Qing Dynasty times. I recommend visiting Hannibal’s website “twosmallblocks”to see for yourself.
I would also like to John Soo for personally showing me the Henghua and other temples in his home town Kuching.
I have attempted to acknowledge parties where we have used text and imagery from third party sources. In most cases we have left the citation links. In the event that this was not possible, and I have used your photo without due acknowledgment, please do let us know and I will immediately correct this. Also if you wish for a particular photo to be removed for whatever reason please contact me. To fill gaps we have “borrowed” a small proportion of images from other blogs and websites. Where appropriate acknowledgment is missing, we apologise for it and will correct as soon as we are informed.
So the website bookofxiansheng consists of Keith Stevens’s original unpublished research augmented with my own studies and information from other sources. In many ways online publication is the best format for a study such as this as new material is constantly emerging. It is also more collaborative and we invite other scholars to participate, correct and add to the work. It is our hope that this resource will provide a better understanding of Xian, Shen, and Gui to all researchers and interested parties.
Without the help, assistance, encouragement of all the persons named above this project could not have proceeded. During this time my wife Frances has been my main support and provided constant inspiration, and I am very grateful to her.
I have felt all along that Keith Stevens from his elevated official position in the Department of Celestial Matters smiles benignly on our efforts and guides our decision making with the same compassion, skill, and humour as he showed in his own eventful life.
Ronni is too modest to write about himself, so as website creator, I have the privilege of telling you a little about about him.
I first met Ronni just over 3 years ago in 2017, being introduced by his wife Frances to help with his "project". I was immediately captivated by his enthusiasm for this subject and his willingness to adopt new systems and agreement to make the project a legacy to both Keith Stevens and Ronni himself.
He is a true academic and immediately accepted my suggestion to significantly expand the scope of the "project"and make it into the premier source of information on Chinese Xian Shen Deities that would be freely available to all, through the wonders of the world wide web.In addition that it would be a living and growing faculty that would welcome input and additions from everyone interested in this fascinating subject.
I am proud to count Ronni as one of my friends. His dedication to Gods & "Templing" are truly astounding. Like Keith he has put literally years of work into this project.
Ronni is a gifted photographer and has had many of his images included with the Singapore National Archives.
He was awarded as a “Supporter of Heritage” at the Singapore National Heritage Board’s prestigious Patron of Heritage Awards, held on 23rd April 2010 for his donation of 16.000 photographic slides and several reels of film material to The National Archives of Singapore.
Ronni was honoured by the Singapore Heritage Society with a showing of the Film "Entertaining the Gods” which he produced with a German TV crew in 1979.
The film premiere was held at the Singapore National Library pod to a full house in November 2017. Earlier in the same day, Ronni was presented with a special photographic award by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his photographic work covering The Singapore River
His interview with "ExpatGo" provides interesting reading. You can also read more about Ronni here.
web address :- www.bookofxianshen.com
Website Designed & Built by Richard JN Brewer
We are a collection of individuals committed to documenting information on Chinese Deities, Culture & Folk Law. We are a non-profit organisation, privately funded.