That's a pity, because the virtues Guan Gong personifies - honor, loyalty, integrity, justice, courage, and strength - are ideals that can really impact us in these modern times. Consider the following prized specimen from our "advanced" civilization: the criminal defense lawyers who take pride in getting heinous criminals off; the smooth-talking politicians who say one thing but mean another (and never inhaled, of course); the numerous "victims" in our society who feel the world owes them everything, or at the very least a comfortable living; and even small-time petty losers who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet to spew their most hateful prejudice against other groups of people. All of these contemporary knaves are antithetical to Guan Gong.
In the West, the few who know Guan Gong sometimes call him the God of War. This idea comes from the fact that Guan Gong is easily the most famous general from Chinese history. In battles he invariably dominated the field as the most powerful, most skillful and most courageous warrior, as well as an able leader and tactician. It is a bit of a misconception to name him the God of War, though. As we will demonstrate, war is not necessarily what Guan Gong is all about.
Guan Gong's appearance is distinctive. His red complexion and long beard stand out immediately, as does the unique weapon - a great blade mounted on a long handle - that never leaves his side.
Why is his face red? Some say it is a manifestation of his righteous anger. Others point to the story that says his complexion changed after he slew a bullying magistrate for molesting a girl. Legend has it that this change allowed him to get past the guards unrecognized, thus escaping the city and beginning his adventures. This legend depicts well his primary drive - to enact justice and to help the common people - and associates it with his face: an unambiguous, unmistakable physical emblem.
Although there are many legends attached to Guan Gong, it is worth noting that he is not a mythological figure, but an actual person from history. He lived in the period of the Three Kingdoms, a time of civil strife and chivalry seventeen hundred years ago. We know of Guan Gong's exploits primarily through the historical novel San Guo Yen Yi, known in the English-speaking world as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
(Translator's note: in this case, the connotation of "romance" is saga rather than love. It would have been better to translate San Guo Yen Yi as Epic of the Three Kingdoms to avoid unnecessary confusion. We go along with "romance" because it is an accepted convention, but we note that the world of translations is full of such interpretive glitches - the language barrier is sometimes too much for mere mortals.)
"Gong" means lord, an honorary title, while "Guan" is the surname. Therefore Guan Gong means "Lord Guan" - a title he earned through his deeds. His actual name was Guan Yu. This is the name with which he began his military career.
Guan Yu served with Zhang Fei, another great warrior, under Liu Bei, one of the foremost leaders in the Three Kingdoms period. The three of them had sworn an oath of unswerving loyalty and brotherhood prior to embarking on their campaigns. Thereafter they referred to each other as brothers, even though they weren't related by blood. To the Chinese, such an oath was not to be taken lightly, because it committed one to a lifelong bond, and this bond of honor was just as strong as blood ties.
Another pivotal figure from that historical epoch is Cao Cao, a ruthless schemer. Cao Cao admired Guan Yu's abilities and principles and wished to recruit him for his own cause, but Guan Yu remained steadfastly loyal to Liu Bei. For a while, when the tides of war separated Guan Yu from Liu Bei, Guan Yu agreed to serve in Cao Cao's army. He made it clear though, that it was but a temporary alliance and he would rejoin his brother at the earliest opportunity. Cao Cao agreed to his conditions.
(Translator's note: the pronunciation of Cao Cao is a bit tricky. It is supposed to sound like "tsou tsou." The name is actually composed of two different characters that sound different in Chinese but phonetically translate to the same sound in English. An unfortunate side effect of this is that you might think "Cao Cao" sounds like a panda's name, but as a historical figure, this man was far from cuddly... to say the least.)
While under Cao Cao's employ, Guan Yu was still relatively unknown. The war was in its early phases and he kept a low profile. One day, Cao Cao and his allied lords came across a difficult obstacle: Hua Xiong, a powerful enemy general who taunted them and challenged them to pit a champion against him in single combat.
Upon Hua Xiong's challenge, Cao Cao's allies sent forth their best warriors, but they were no match against him. Each suffered ignominious defeat after several rounds of one-on-one duel. And with each defeat, the morale of their soldiers sank lower and lower. Hua Xiong seemed unstoppable, and the lords were out of ideas. Suddenly, a voice rang out:
Isn't this awesome? Now you have an inkling why the Chinese consider Romance of the Three Kingdoms a classic. It's too bad this cool stuff isn't more generally available in the English-speaking world.
At a superficial level, Guan Gong's appeal seems to be his superb martial prowess. But if you look more closely, you can see what makes him different. He was not a show-off. He had no need to flaunt or draw attention to himself, preferring instead to let his actions speak for him.
With such a mindset, Guan Gong was content to remain in the background until the situation required his involvement. And when it did, he took the most effective action in the least amount of time with minimal fuss. Chest-beating, saber-rattling and humiliation of one's opponents are simply not part of the equation. Such are the ways of the ultimate Taoist warrior.
Luck is also not part of the equation for the true Taoist warrior. When Cao Cao wanted to drink with him for good luck, Guan Gong declined. He preferred to trust his own abilities over the quirks of fate. To drink before the battle was merely an unnecessary adornment that got in the way of dispatching the enemy in the most expeditious manner possible.
After this and other military victories, Cao Cao lavished Guan Gong with gifts and honorifics in an attempt to win him over. He held banquets and feasts in Guan Gong's honor regularly. Guan Gong was unmoved. When Cao Cao presented him with shiny new robes, Guan Gong chose to wear the new garment inside and his old frayed clothing outside. Why? Because the old attire was a gift from his brother Liu Bei and he could not allow the new present to eclipse the old.
Yet another aspect of Guan Gong that the Chinese admire is that he valued intangibles - sentiments, friendship, fidelity, brotherhood - far above tangible material things. As soon as he learned of Liu Bei's whereabouts, he made his departure, exactly as he originally stipulated. He left behind a room full of gold and treasures Cao Cao bestowed upon him because they meant nothing to him. For services rendered, he took with him only one gift: a magnificent steed by the name of Red Hare.
Ultimately, Guan Gong was a warrior for peace. He pledged his allegiance to Liu Bei because of their shared ideal: to restore peace for all and end strife for the common folk. His loyalty was ultimately rooted in protecting the people. His numerous wartime achievements made him a favorite patron saint for all military commanders and soldiers since his time, but he would be an odd choice as the God of War indeed, for he waged war for the sole purpose of ending it.
There are other famous warriors throughout Chinese history, but they do not receive the same veneration as Guan Gong. For instance, Yue Fei, the epitome of the patriotic warrior from Chinese history, was also supremely skilled in battle and loyal to the last. He is just as well known as Guan Gong, and there is no doubt that the Chinese have a great deal of respect and fondness for him. But Guan Gong is the one with hundreds of thousands of temples throughout China.
I think you can see why. The concepts embodied in Guan Gong - honor, loyalty, integrity, justice, courage, and strength - are more powerful than any weapon, any army, and any martial prowess. Wars come and go, but principles endure.
Now is a great time for us to introduce Guan Gong. At the dawn of the new millenium, facing the unknown challenges of a fast-changing world, we need the inspiration of Guan Gong's power and character more than ever.