Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in the first century A.D., the deity was never represented in human form in China. But the native Taoists were quick to assimilate this new form of worship into their own. A Triad of Gods was created, the most important being the Pure August Jade Emperor, Yü Huang Shang Ti, who became so popular that the Buddhists in time also adopted him. Also known as Tien Kung, he is the supreme deity of folk religion. His rule was traditionally conceived of as equal to that of the reigning emperor of China. His concern is meting out justice to men through his subordinate deities. He is ultimately responsible for the deification of other gods, or for their dismissal from the pantheon.
The Jade Emperor dwelt in the Jade Castle of Abstraction, high above the earth and the thirty-three heavens, according to some accounts; or according to others, on the Mountain of Jade in the K’un Lun range. Here, on the shore of the Jade Lake, grew a Jade Tree, which measured three hundred arm lengths across and whose red jade fruit conferred the boon of eternal life.
On the Jade Emperor’s birthday (the ninth day of the first lunar month), special sacrifices of pork, chicken, duck and occasionally goat are placed before his image. Although the emperor himself is considered a vegetarian, he is believed to feast with meat-eating friends. The emperor is usually depicted with two servants who hold fans above his head; in a few temples, he is flanked by civil and military aides. Images of the Jade Emperor normally show him seated in imperial robes, his flat-topped crown notable for the short strings of pearls that dangle from the front. He holds a short, flat tablet in both hands before his chest. Historically, he did not come into prominence until the ninth century, considered late by Chinese historical standards.