“Ye Zhong and You Guang are evil spirits who appear in the dead of night and strike fear in other devils. Fighting evil with evil, men came to evoke their names to ward off war and plague, calling them the Gods of Night.”
This is the description that opens the photo series Historical Photographs of the Gods of Night Vanquishing Demons, by Chinese digital artist Zhao Guodong. The series was inspired by folktales that date back to the Han dynasty—in the tales, Ye Zhong and You Guang were menacing deities believed to be powerful and evil enough to fend off wounds and plague.
“The night deities are beings whose unparalleled malevolence is believed to counteract lesser evils,” Zhao explains. “I think the main reason people put their belief in these wicked deities as opposed to good spirits wasn’t that they wanted evil beings to destroy one another but that they considered the compassionate deities unreliable. Even today, the world is paralyzed with similar fears: for the common people, law and justice aren’t enough to shake off the uncertainty and fear of falling prey to evil-doers. People cheer on vigilantes who operate outside of the law. This observation, combined with my interpretation of the demons and gods of ancient lore, is what inspired this series.”
While undeniably nightmarish, the demons and beasts of Zhao’s work are a marked departure from the over-the-top character designs of Hollywood blockbusters. He explains he didn’t want to overdo their features, and against the ramshackle, overgrown backdrops, they look even more realistic. The spirits he’s conjured—from a chimerical beast with a lion’s head and a dragon’s body to a humanoid creature with jagged horns—are all culled from Chinese mythology. “I love animals, especially the legendary creatures depicted in traditional Chinese sculptures,” he notes. “It was from studying their forms that I learned about how art can be powerful and humorous at the same time.”
Zhou, leveraging Chinese mythology and modern fears, has managed to restore one of China’s oldest folktales in spine-chilling fashion. Don’t stare too long at these images after dark, or you just might find yourself inside one of these haunting dreamscapes the next time you close your eyes.