Zhong Kui and the Lunar New Year

February 12, 2021 | Yue Shu

tall, thin ink drawing of a bearded figure holding a tiny horned demon
Shoki (Zhong Kui) Vanquishing a Demon, Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–1792), Japan, Edo period, early 1770s, woodblock print, ink and color on paper, The Anne van Biema Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2004.3.323.

Zhong Kui is a legendary figure in East Asian countries. In China, it is customary that by the end of the year, and in preparation for the new year, people hang Zhong Kui’s portrait on their doors, as he is the auspicious spirit who protects people from demons and cures incurable diseases.

Zhong Kui was first mentioned in Dream Pool Essays by Song dynasty author Shen Kuo (1031–1095). Shen Kuo recounts how Zhong Kui entered a military examination where he would be judged on his skills to possibly serve in the country’s military. Despite Zhong Kui’s outstanding performance in the examination, he was eliminated due to his unconventional appearance, which was considered grotesque. Zhong Kui was so upset with the injustice of his rejection that as a form of protest, he committed suicide.

Then one day, the ailing emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685–762) had a dream in which Zhong Kui killed the evil-spirited ghost who had made him ill. The next day, the emperor felt healthy and well. He ordered the great Tang dynasty painter Wu Daozi (680–760) to paint a portrait of Zhong Kui and issued an imperial edict to have his subjects hang Zhong Kui’s portrait at the new year. A tradition was born, and Zhong Kui became a legend.

The tradition of Zhong Kui is particularly important as we celebrate this year’s Lunar New Year, which falls on February 12. With the COVID-19 virus relentlessly sickening and killing people all over the world, we need Zhong Kui, the demon queller, now more than ever to protect us and provide hope that this pandemic will end soon.

If you are interested in seeing more images of Zhong Kui, please visit the National Museum of Asian Art website.