Nine Emperor Gods Festival
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival (Nine Emperor Gods: Chinese: 九皇爺; pinyin: Jiǔhuángyé; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Káu-ông-iâ; Cantonese: Kow Wong Yeh) is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is observed in the town of Yishun in Singapore, and also primarily in other Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, Malaysia, Southern Vietnam, Thailand and also Indonesia.
Introduction to the Nine Emperor Gods
The Nine Emperor Gods Jiǔ Huáng Xīng Jūn / Jiǔ Huáng Da Di (九皇星君/九皇大帝) are the nine sons manifested by Father Emperor Zhou Yu Dou Fu Yuan Jun (斗父周御國王天尊) and Mother of the Big Dipper Dou Mu Yuan Jun (斗母元君) who holds the Registrar of Life and Death. The worship of Dou Fu Yuan Jun has declined strongly as proper teachings of Taoism degenerate since being exported out of China. Today, most Nine Emperor God temples do not acknowledge the existence of Dou Fu Yuan Jun. However, Dou Fu Yuan Jun is invoked alongside Dou Mu Yuan Jun in Great Dipper Honouring known as Li Dou (禮斗) ceremonies. According To Priest Long Hua, the 35th Generation Leader of Long Shan Men Taoist Sect (Singapore), honouring the Northern Dipper stars prolongs one's life, eliminate calamities, and absolves sins and past debts of oneself and his family.
The term Ye (爺) as in Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爺) loosely translates as "Grandfather", a title worshipers commonly use to bring a more intimate relationship between themselves and the Nine Emperors. The Nine Emperor Gods should not be mixed up with the Wang Ye or Princes of the Ming rebels. Popular folk culture has it that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually sea pirates of the Ming dynasty that plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. According to Priest Long Hua, this information is inaccurate and considered derogatory to the actual teachings of Taoism as the Nine Emperor Gods are actually high-ranking Star Lords who preside over the movement of planets and coordinate mortal Life and Death issues.
- Tan Lang Tai Xing Jun (貪狼太星君)1st Star (Visible) Bayer: α UMa
- Ju Men Yuan Xing Jun (巨門元星君) 2nd Star (Visible) Bayer: β UMa
- Lu Cun Zhen Xing Jun (祿存貞星君) 3rd Star (Visible) Bayer: γ UMa
- Wen Qu Niu Xing Jun (文曲紐星君) 4th Star (Visible) Bayer: δ UMa
- Lian Zhen Gang Xing Jun (玉廉貞綱星君) 5th Star(Visible) Bayer: ε UMa
- Wu Qu Ji Xing Jun (武曲紀星君) 6th Star(Visible) Bayer: ζ UMa
- Po Jun Guan Xing Jun (破軍關星君) 7th Star (Visible) Bayer: η UMa
- Zuo Fu Da Dao Xing Jun (左輔大道星君) 8th Star (Invisible)
- You Bi Da Dao Xing Jun (右弼大道星君) 9th Star (Invisible)
Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebration in popular folk culture
On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the nine emperors. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of their excellencies.
A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.
The ninth day of the festival is its climax. A procession which draws scores of devotees sends the deities back home.
Celebration in Thailand
In Thailand, this festival is called thetsakan kin che (Thai: เทศกาลกินเจ), the Vegetarian Festival. It is celebrated throughout the entire country, but the festivities are at their height in Phuket, where about 35% of the population is Thai Chinese. It attracts crowds of spectators because of many of the unusual religious rituals that are performed.
In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (with the consent of, context and understanding of all involved and the practice itself) while under a trance-like state, including but not limited to: impaling through cheeks, arms, face, legs, back etc., with everything from as small as syringes to as large as is agreed upon between all members; partial skinning (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); slashing of limbs, chest, stomach and especially tongue with swords, axes and knives; bloodletting; removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and intentionally wrapping or standing near fire crackers as they are lit.
This is done without anesthetic, always inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, petroleum jelly and surgical gloves as precautionary measures. Despite this scenario, many of the same people performing the rituals are also the people who will care for many of the people in their recovery. The actual impaling is done by doctors and physicians in the community, is planned out for weeks if not months in advance and medical teams are present in and around temple grounds for the entire time of the festival, with spectators frequently needing more help than the devotees, who remain in a trance during this process and are monitored through the entire event in case they should drop out of concentration, in which case they are immediately taken to medical professionals regardless of the circumstances to minimize post trance bleeding.
To this effect few people ever need to have prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks after the festival many people will be seen covered in bandages, scarring is uncommon, stitching, even on individual devotees who impale their cheeks, is rare, and return to daily activity for the devotees occurs shortly after the completion of the ritual, frequently before the festival ends unless performed on the last days, much sooner than before the bandages themselves are removed.
The purpose of this practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs and the trance itself, which although anecdotal in nature to what is experienced, has a profound impact upon demeanour for days or weeks after, frequently with devotees appearing exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.
During a period of nine days, those who are participating in the festival dress all in white and ghin jeh กินเจ, which has come to be translated as abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vendors and proprietors of restaurants indicate that jeh food is for sale at their establishments by putting a yellow flag out with the word เจ (jeh) written on it in red. However, technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is jeh, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name.
Masong ม้าทรง are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma ม้า is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become masong. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. The masong tradition doesn't exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.
The festivities in Phuket include a procession of masong wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the masong to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the masong will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually, and usually do not seem to "see" their surroundings. At the temple during the festival there is also firewalking and blade-ladder climbing. While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced mah song distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them yang ยังต์ for good luck.
Streets are filled with food stalls offering vegetarian Thai and Chinese food, e.g. buns and dim sums with mushrooms.
People gathering around an am from early morning to witness piercing ceremony and to participate in the parade afterwards
Masong are getting ready to participate in the morning parade starting from one of the am in Western Phuket
Masong pending to have his cheeks pierced
Piercing is supervised by medical staff and performed using special instruments
Parades usually start at 9 minutes past the hour, disrupting traffic during morning rush hours. The procession walks from an ahm to Phuket town.
- Cohen, Eric; The Chinese Vegetarian Festival in Phuket Bangkok; White Lotus, 2001, ISBN 974-7534-89-4