Daoist Lent and the Nine Empe
ror God Festival
All photos by Kim Gooi
Procession through the streets of Phuket: The focus of veneration and holiness is the incense urn kept alight for 9 days and nights behind a screen where only the urn keeper and the assistant were allowed to enter and tender the flame. Here it is taken out in procession, ‘hug’ by the urn keeper with both arms and shield by the royal parasol, and escorted by spirit mediums with black and yellow holy flags which also act as powerful charms. Fire crackers thunder non stop as it passes. It is quite a touching sight to behold, which many people misses being distracted by the gory body piercing in the early part of the procession.
A spirit medium in procession through the streets of Phuket. They get into trance and personify ancient Chinese heroes and legendary figures who were deified as gods. Among the popular ones were Kuan Yu of the ‘Three Kingdom’, worshiped for his chivalry and righteousness; The Monkey King (Great Sage Equal to Heaven), worshiped for his courage and righteousness; and La Cha, the 3rd Prince, supposed to be 3 years old with a magic ring and spear.
Penang: Daoist Immortals and Saints come alive for the Send0ff
(L-R) Heavenly Marshals, 1st and 2nd Uncle, ‘who will come for you when your time is up’; the Royal Boat leaving the Temple, on the left is the alter to the Supreme God of Heaven which is always outside facing the sky; left bottom, devotees kneeling for the Holy Urn to be brought out to the flower float. In the olden days they have to lower their heads (forbidden to look) and the Urn shielded by Black Flags inscribed with the 8 trigrams of the Yijing.
Penang Hong Kong Street, the first and oldest ‘Tow Bow Keong’ shrine in the region: The only temple with no idols in it’s entire hall of worship. A yellow screen from ceiling to floor shield the “Incense Urn” from the public and marked the holy sanctuary where only the appointed and assistant can enter to tender the flame and incense. Instead of being hand -carried and walking the mile, the Urn is put on a flower float pulled along by devotees in a grand procession to seafront.
‘Deng Gao’- climbing high on double 9 day: Penang’s ‘Cheng Yee Chan’ (Thousand and Two Steps) in the Paya Terubong Hills is probably the only place in the region where this healthy tradition is still practiced. For 9 days devotees come as far as Kuala Lumpur to stay in the temple on the hill to observe the Daoist Lent.
Author’s note: The following article was published by the Nation Review on Oct 17, 1999. An earlier version first appeared in the Bangkok Post in 1984 and subsequently reprinted in Malaysia’s New Straits Times, (as ‘Island of the Gods’) and several magazines.
Double 9 means no double happiness for the Chinese
The Nation, Bangkok Oct 17, 1999
THE Chinese are fond of using the word “double”. Double happiness is the symbol of Chinese weddings, and double 10 or Oct 10 (the day the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in 1911) is celebrated as the national day of Taiwan. Less known but just as important is double nine or “chong yang?’, the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, which this year falls today.
Contrary to misconception, double nine is not a lucky day according to the Chinese. The name chong yang gives a hint of things to come – meaning double yang of the ying-yang balance. Surely this double male force will throw nature’s balance topsy turvy. This year’s earthquake and natural disasters, which occurred around September 1999, speak for itself.
In the Chinese almanac, there is mentioned the constellation of the stars and planets, and a time to avoid calamity. It recommends a time of fasting from the first to the ninth of the lunar month to atone oneself and avoid disaster.
Chinese today celebrate chong yang in a variety of ways, some seemingly unconnected to this ancient divination. But on closer view, one can see a trace of its origin. People in southern China, especially the Cantonese and Hakka, honour their elders and ancestors by visiting and cleaning their graves. (Chinese cemeteries are always on hill slopes.) Elsewhere in China, people spend the day hiking up mountains (deng gao) with herbal grass in their hair and drinking chrysanthemum wine.
In Beijing”s Forbidden City, there is an artificial hill – Dui Xiu Shan (Hill of Accumulated Elegance) – built in 1417 in the Ming dynasty. Every year on the Double Ninth, the emperors, empresses and imperial concubines climbed the hill without fail.
In Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand, the Fujian Chinese celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods, or Vegetarian Festival, for nine days in Taoist shrines and temples. Spirit mediums go into trance during ceremonies and processions through the town, walking on burning coals, as well as piercing their bodies with skewers, swords, chains and other gruesome instruments. Particularly in Thailand, the act is blood-chilling, with youngsters outdoing each other, sometimes with disastrous results such as dislocated jawbones and permanent disfigurement.
In Phuket, where the biggest and most spectacular celebrations take place, the temple says the festival’s origins go back about 100 years ago during the hey days of tin mining. A malaria epidemic broke out killing hundreds of tin miners. An opera troupe from China (from Fujian, or it could have been from Penang) happened to be performing there. The opera master advised the people to conduct the vegetarian and other purifying ceremonies to avoid the calamity. Sure enough, the malaria epidemic abated.
This is not surprising, as the opera master was a scholar of Chinese classics, learned in the i-ching,feng shui and the various arts. According to the text published by the Beijing Language Institute there is a chapter called “Hiking to high ground on double nine, its origin and reasons”.
A long long time ago, the story goes, in the region of Ru Nan, all villages were severely affected by an epidemic, killing thousands of people. So severe was the epidemic that the villagers could not bury all the dead. People said in Ru Nan River there lived a monster. Every year the monster would come out on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month and wherever it went, epidemic would follow. People were terrified of the monster.
There was a village lad called Huan Jing who was determined to save the villagers – kill the monster and get rid of the epidemic. But he lacked the skill and knowledge and was no match for the monster. He heard that in the South Mountain there lived an immortal master of superior skills and knowledge.
Huan Jing was determined to seek out the master and be his disciple. After crossing several high mountains, he came to a pine and cypress grove, and in an old Taoist temple he found the immortal master.
The master had already heard of the epidemic and was very happy to teach the lad. He gave Huan Jing a precious sword and from then on, Huan Jing diligently learned and practised all the skills under the master.
Two years later, the master told the lad: “It is fast approaching ninth day of the ninth month, you must hurry back and save the people from the monster.”
The master gave a bunch of zhuyu herbal leaves and a bottle of chrysanthemum wine telling the lad that these items could avoid disaster and cure disease.
Huan Jing hurried back and told the people what the immortal master had said. On the “9 of 9” he led the people out of the village and hiked up the nearby mountain. He gave each person a zhuyu herbal leaf to be stuck in their hair and a gulp of wine to drink. After that he returned alone to the village and waited for the monster with his sword.
When the monster arrived he saw no one at the village, raising his head he saw the villagers were at the mountain-top. It raced to the foot of the mountain, but the aroma of the wine assailed his nostrils and the strong smell of the leaves prevented him from getting near. The monster returned to the village and was met by Huan Jing who was waiting with his magic sword. With one swift stroke he slew the monster and got rid of the epidemic.
From then onwards, every double nine day the people would bring along chrysanthemum wine, stick zhuyu leaves in the hair and went about hiking in the mountains. Observing chong yang will be particularly meaningful for the people of Asia this year.