Monday, May 9, 2016

The Two Generals Heng and Ha

Statues of Generals Heng and Ha
(Image: 上海彩雲工藝品有限公司; Edited by Harry Leong)

The Two Generals Heng and Ha (哼哈二將 Heng Ha Erjiang) are dvarapadas (守門天 Shoumen Tian; Entryway Guardian Deities) of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The dvarapada – from Indian Sanskrit – also sometimes translated as door god (門神 Men Shen), is a common architectural feature in both Chinese and Indian cultures. Their images are placed at the entryways and gates of monasteries and temples to avert negative forces and to protect the inner sanctity of the premises.

Images of Generals Heng and Ha at the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province, China
(Image: Original source unknown)

Heng and Ha are also known as Vajra (Adamantine) Warriors (金剛力士 Jingang Lishi), a type of Dharmapala (護法神 Hufa Shen; Buddhist Protector Deity). The most accurate translation of the Indian Sanskrit term vajra is adamantine which is defined as the quality of being unyielding, impenetrable, and invincible. Vajra warriors are usually portrayed as fierce and frightening looking warriors.

Heng and Ha are depicted as wrathful and standing in martial pose. They are barechested, barefoot, and wear only a waist skirted garment. Their muscles are well-developed and defined, and they are often shown carrying a vajra weapon – either a vajra scepter or vajra mallet.

Statues of Generals Heng and Ha
(Image: Original source unknown)

General Heng (哼將 Heng Jiang) is the common name in China for the Indian deity Narayana (那羅延金剛 Naluoyan Jingang; Vajra Warrior Narayana) from who he is originated from. He stands on the left of the main entry gate or temple hall (as one enters a monastery). He is characterized by a closed mouth indicating the vocalization of the Indian Sanskrit sound Hum. His Chinese name, Heng (pronounced hung), was a phonetic approximation of this sound.

General Ha (哈將 Ha Jiang) is the common name for the Indian deity Guhyapada (密跡金剛 Miji Jingang; Vajra Warrior of Secret Signs) from who he is originated from. He stands on the right of the main entry gate or temple hall (as one enters a monastery). He is characterized by an open mouth indicating the vocalization of the Indian Sanskrit sound A (pronounced ah). His Chinese name, Ha, was also a phonetic approximation of this sound.

The two sounds, A and Hum, represent the beginning and the end, the birth and death of all things. The contraction of the two sounds A and Hum becomes Om (Aum) – the mystical sound of the Absolute. 

Wooden statues of Generals Heng and Ha

Heng and Ha are also not ordinary vajra warriors. The both of them are actually manifestions of Bodhisattva Vajrapani (金剛手菩薩 Jingang Shou Pusa; Vajra Scepter Holding Bodhisattva) who represents the power of all the enlightened buddhas. Vajrapani, in turn, is the wrathful emanation of Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (大勢至菩薩 Dashizhi Pusa), one of the two principal bodhisattvas of Sukhavati, the western buddha realm of Amitabha (阿彌陀佛 Amituofo).

These two Buddhist guardian deity figures were subsequently borrowed and incorporated into the 16th-century Ming dynasty novel Investiture of the Gods (封神演義 Fengshen Yanyi) as the characters Zheng Lun (鄭倫) and Chen Qi (陳奇). In the novel, General Heng, as the character Zheng Lun, is able to suck in and capture the soul of his opponent with two jets of white breath energy from his nostrils. General Ha, as the character Chen Qi, has the ability to bind his opponent by exhaling a stream of yellow breath energy from his mouth. 

Generals Heng and Ha as Zheng Lun (left) and Chen Qi (right) in Investiture of the Gods

Text © 2016 Harry Leong

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dharmapala Weituo

Dharmapala Weituo
(Image: Original source unknown)

Weituo (韋馱) is a Dharmapala (護法神 Hufa Shen; guardian deity) in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. A Dharmapala can be either of two types: A heavenly deity, or a manifestation of an enlightened being (a buddha or bodhisattva) – that serves as a defender and protector of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) in general, and of Buddhist monasteries and practitioners in particular. In the case of Weituo, he is generally regarded as a great heavenly general who fights malevolent forces and protects the sanctity of Buddhist monasteries. He is at times referred to as General Weituo (韋馱將軍 Weituo Jiangjun), but more commonly and respectfully as Bodhisattva Weituo (韋馱菩薩 Weituo Pusa). His full title is Dharmapala Weituo the Honored Celestial Being and Bodhisattva (護法韋馱尊天菩薩 Hufa Weituo Zuntian Pusa). Even though Weituo is generally regarded as a heavenly being but not yet a fully enlightened one, the term bodhisattva is appended to his name and title as an honorific.

In the Golden Light Sutra (金光明經 Jinguang Ming Jing; Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra), Weituo is listed as one of the twenty-four heavenly deities that guard the Buddhist teachings (also discussed here).

Chinese Buddhist depiction of Weituo
(Image: Original source unknown)

Weituo also appears in two revelatory texts authored by the famous 7th century Vinaya (monastic discipline) master Daoxuan (道宣). One is the Record of Spiritually Miraculous Transmissions to Vinaya Master Daoxuan (道宣律師感通錄 Daoxuan Lushi Gantong Lu), and the other is the Narrative of Spiritually Miraculous Transmissions on Matters of Monastic Discipline (律相感通傳 Luxiang Gantong Zhuan). According to the revelations, Weituo is a heavenly general under the authority of Virudhaka (增長天王 Zengzhang Tianwang), the southern heavenly king in the group of Dharmapalas known collectively as the Four Heavenly Kings (四大天王 Sida Tianwang). In another place however, it is also indicated that Weituo is an eighth-level bodhisattva (Note: There are ten levels of bodhisattvahood until one reaches the complete enlightenment of a buddha).

In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, Weituo is depicted as a young man with martial valor attired in the uniform of a military general who holds a vajra sword that is used to subdue demonic forces.

Chinese Buddhist depiction of Weituo
(Image: Original source unknown)

In the traditional standard layout of a Chinese Buddhist monastery, the shrine of Weituo is always located right behind the shrine of Maitreya Buddha – the first shrine inside the Heavenly Kings Hall (天王殿 Tianwang Dian) that one encounters when first entering a monastery. The shrine of Weituo always faces inwards towards the main prayer hall – the Precious Hall of the Great Hero (大雄寶殿 Daxiong Baodian) which enshrines the central image of Shakyamuni Buddha.

A statue of Dharmapala Weituo
(Image: Original source unknown)

On some shrines dedicated to Shakyamuni Buddha, or any other buddhas or enlightened bodhisattvas, the statue of Weituo is also commonly seen in a pair with Guan Yu (關羽), also known in Chinese Buddhism as Dharmapala Sangharama Bodhisattva (護法伽藍聖眾菩薩 Hufa Qielan Shengzhong Pusa). In this type of layout, both Dharmapala figures flank the central image of worship as guardian warriors.

In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Holy Day of Weituo (韋馱聖誕 Weituo Shengdan) is observed on the 3rd day of the 6th Chinese lunar month.

Research on a pre-Buddhist antecedent for Weituo shows that he is associated with, and in all probability, derived from the Indian war god Skanda – the leader and commander of the mighty celestial armies. In the Indian Vedic tradition, Skanda is also known by his alternate names Kartikeya, KumaraMurugan, Subramanya, and many more others.

Traditional Indian depiction of Murugan, a deity associated with Skanda/Weituo
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Lord Murugan Statue at the Batu Caves in Selangor, Malaysia
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In some other sources, Weituo is also connected with Vajrapani (金剛手菩薩 Jingang Shou Pusa; Vajra Scepter Holding Bodhisattva), a deity that is further associated with many other different identities in various Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

Homage to Dharmapala Weituo Bodhisattva! May you always protect and defend the precious Buddhadharma.

Text © 2016 Harry Leong

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Twenty-four Solar Terms

Diagram showing the points along the earth’s orbital path that mark the 24 Solar Terms
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Twenty-four Solar Terms (二十四節氣 Ershisi Jieqi), also translated as the Twenty-four Seasonal Division Points or the Twenty-four Fortnightly Periods, is an important element of the traditional Chinese calendar.

The traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar (陰陽合歷 Yinyang He Li). In other words, it combines elements of both the lunar and solar calendars.

The Chinese solar calendar is based on the division of the entire year separated into 24 periods, with each period correlating to an important astronomical phenomenon, natural phenomenon, seasonal change, or climatic related change. These periods are the Twenty-four Solar Terms. Each one occupies 15 degrees of the ecliptic (the apparent path that the sun travels through in the sky from the perspective of the earth). Because China was traditionally an agrarian society, this type of calendar was very important and practical for agriculture and farming.

Here are the names of the 24 Solar Terms in the Chinese calendar:

1. Li Chun (立春 Start of spring)
2. Yu Shui (雨水 Rain water)
3. Jing Zhe (驚蟄 Awakening of hibernating insects)
4. Chun Fen (春分 Spring equinox)
5. Qing Ming (清明 Clear and bright)
6. Gu Yu (穀雨 Grain rain)
7. Li Xia (立夏 Start of summer)
8. Xiao Man (小滿 Lesser full grains)
9. Mang Zhong (芒種 Grain in ear/beard)
10. Xia Zhi (夏至 Summer solstice)
11. Xiao Shu (小暑 Small heat)
12. Da Shu (大暑 Great heat)
13. Li Qiu (立秋 Start of autumn)
14. Chu Shu (處暑 End of heat)
15. Bai Lu (白露 White dew)
16. Qiu Fen (秋分 Autumn equinox)
17. Han Lu (寒露 Cold dew)
18. Shuang Jiang (霜降 Frost descends)
19. Li Dong (立冬 Start of winter)
20. Xiao Xue (小雪 Small snow)
21. Da Xue (大雪 Great snow)
22. Dong Zhi (冬至 Winter solstice)
23. Xiao Han (小寒 Small cold)
24. Da Han (大寒 Great cold)

From the above list, the following solar terms are related to astronomical phenomena: Spring equinox, Summer solstice, Autumn equinox, and Winter solstice.

The following are related to natural phenomena: Awakening of hibernating insects, Clear and bright, Lesser full grains, and Grain in ear/beard.

The following are related to seasonal changes: Start of spring, Start of summer, Start of autumn, and Start of winter.

The following are related to climactic changes that include temperature and precipitation level changes: Rain water, Grain rain, Small heat, Great heat, End of heat, White dew, Cold dew, Frost descends, Small snow, Great snow, Small cold, and Great cold.

These solar terms are used in conjunction with the lunar phases to make up the traditional Chinese calendar.

Text © 2016 Harry Leong

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Ritual of Beating Petty Persons

Preface: This article is written solely for the purposes of education and cultural interest. I do not necessarily condone nor encourage anyone to partake in these kinds of rituals.

Cartoon depiction of a Beating Petty Persons Ritual
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)

Beating Petty Persons (打小人 Mandarin: Da Xiaoren; Cantonese: Da Siu Yun) is a form of southern Chinese folk sorcery that is popular in Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Da () means to beat or to hit, and a xiaoren (小人) literally means a small or petty person which refers to someone who causes grief, trouble, or anger to others. It is also sometimes translated as vile person or villian. A xiaoren could be an ordinary person like a personal rival, a problematic neighbor, a nasty boss, a backstabbing coworker, or an irritating customer. Or it could be somebody famous like an unpopular politician or a Public Enemy Number One.

The basic idea of the ritual is to use a shoe or other implement to beat a paper effigy representing a targeted person (the “petty person”) to bring him or her harm, so that the petty person no longer brings trouble to the one who requests the ritual. To put it another way, it is a form of Asian voodoo magic.

People who perform this folk ritual as a professional career are traditionally elderly women, although in recent times, a small number of younger women have also taken up this profession.

To perform the ritual, the professional petty person beater goes through the following general steps (with some variations depending on the individual practitioner):

1. Make Offerings to the Deity (奉神 feng shen)

Incense and candles are first offered to the deity installed in the practitioner’s shrine. This introductory act is to request and enlist the deity’s help in order to make the ritual successful.

In the case of streetside practitioners who offer their services at a public area out-of-doors, the shrine is usually a make-shift shrine consisting of a cardboard box containing a porcelain statue of any popular deity from Chinese folk religion. 

Makeshift shrines for the Beating Petty Persons Ritual
(Image: Original source unknown)

2. Make a Report/Petition to the Deity (稟告神明 binggao shenming)

The petty person beater gets the name and birth information of the client and writes it on a ritual paper.

She then asks the client to identify the targeted person (petty person). If the client has a particular person in mind, then that petty person’s identity is noted on a paper effigy, along with some or all of the following – name, gender, address, birth information, photo, and a piece of the person’s clothing.

If the client does not have anyone specifically in mind, then he or she is only seeking the ritual as a general blessing to keep away potential petty persons.

The petition is then presented to the deity in the petty person beater’s shrine.

A professional beater’s religious shrine
(Image: Ta Kung Pao News 大公报)
Important Sidenote: At this point, I feel that it is important to include a personal comment here. It is common to see an image of Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音菩薩 Guanyin Pusa; Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) in the shrines used by petty person beaters. Bodhisattva Guanyin is a much beloved religious figure in Chinese religion. She is equally venerated by Buddhists, Taoists, and followers of popular folk religion as well. But her origin is from Mahayana Buddhism where she is regarded as a fully enlightened buddha. The compassion and wisdom of Guanyin is all-encompassing, so according to an orthodox Buddhist perspective, the inclusion of a Guanyin image (or any other Buddhist figure for that matter) in a ritual for bringing harm to others is definitely inappropriate and a badly-conceived concept. I believe it’s also safe to say the same thing for any other orthodox Taoist deity that might also be used. But I digress…

3. Beat the Petty Person (打小人 da xiaoren)

A set of petty person ritual papers (小人紙 xiaoren zhi) is prepared which will serve as an effigy for the targeted person (or the general idea of a petty person if there is no particular person specified).

The common set of effigy papers generally consists of a male petty person ritual paper (男小人紙 nan xiaoren zhi) and/or a female petty person ritual paper (女小人紙 nu xiaoren zhi) wrapped in a five ghosts ritual paper (五鬼紙 wugui zhi). 

A woman shows a set of petty person ritual papers
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)

The petty person beater places the paper effigy on a brick, and then uses a shoe, slipper, or some other form of symbolic weapon to repeatedly strike the paper effigy while reciting Cantonese rhyming verses that are vile and intended to send harm to the petty person. The brick is a very hard object, so by association, it brings more pain to the petty person. It is also said that a shoe or slipper that has been previously worn brings more power to the ritual.

A woman beating a petty person effigy with a slipper
(Image: Guangzhou Daily 廣州日報)

A professional petty person beater
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)

4. Offer Sacrifice to the White Tiger (祭白虎 ji baihu)

Raw fatty pork, sometimes dipped in pig’s blood, is offered to a paper effigy representing the malevolent White Tiger. Sometimes, grease from the fatty pork is also smeared on the paper tiger’s mouth.

In the foreground, representations of the White Tiger are offered raw fatty pork
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)

A paper effigy of the White Tiger is offered raw fatty pork
(Image: Oriental Daily News 東方日報)

This step is sometimes omitted, but it is especially important if the day happens to be Jingzhe (驚蟄), the third term of the Twenty-four Solar Terms (二十四節氣 Ershisi Jieqi) in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. 

Jingzhe−Insects awaken, the third of the Twenty-four Solar Terms
(Image: Original source unknown, edited by Harry Leong)

Jingzhe means Awakening of Hibernating Insects, and indicates when the spring weather is warming up. This day is when the sun reaches a celestial longitude of 345°. It falls on March 5th or 6th of the Western Gregorian calendar. According to legend, the first thunderstorm of the year will awaken hibernating insects on this day, as well as stirring up certain negative forces that are represented by the White Tiger. In ancient times, it was customary for people to offer religious sacrifice to the White Tiger spirit on this day to keep its forces at bay. The custom of offering sacrifice to the White Tiger and the practice of Beating Petty Persons were somehow gradually merged, and thus, Jingzhe also became the most popular day for people to request the Beating Petty Persons ritual. It is also believed that the ritual is most effective on this particular day.

5. Dispel Negativities (化解 huajie)

The petty person beater may scatter rice, beans, sesame seeds, or a combination of these, to get rid of negativities. She may also use a Talisman for dispelling a hundred obstacles (白解符 baijie fu) and wave it over the client’s body and burn it for removing obstructions.

A woman scatters sesame seeds and beans to get rid of negativities
(Image: Hong Kong Memory 香港記憶

An example of a Talisman for dispelling a hundred obstacles

6. Pray for Blessings (祈福 qifu)

A red Talisman of noble persons (貴人符 guiren fu) is placed into the hands of the client and then it is burned to attract helpful people.

An example of a Talisman of noble persons
(Image: Collection of Harry Leong)

7. Offer Treasures to the Deity (進寶 jinbao)

Joss paper representing gold and silver (金銀衣紙 jinyin yizhi) are burned as gifts of appreciation for the deity’s help.

8. Consult the Crescent Moon Divination Blocks (擲筊 zhi jiao / 打杯 da bei)

The petty person beater then uses the crescent moon divination blocks (筊杯 jiaobei) to ascertain if the ritual was successful or not. The crescent moon blocks are held and then dropped to the ground in front of the deity shrine. If the blocks land with one facing up and one facing down, then it is accepted as a positive response and the ritual is considered complete. But if the blocks land both facing up or both facing down, then it is a negative answer and the ritual procedure must be repeated again.

A set of crescent moon divination blocks
(Image: Original source unknown)

In Hong Kong, a well known hotspot where professional petty person beaters congregate and offer their services is underneath the Canal Road Flyover (堅拿道天橋 Mandarin: Jianna Dao Tianqiao; Cantonese: Gin Na Dou Tin Kiu) in Wanchai district. Locals call the flyover Goose Neck Bridge (鵝頸橋 Mandarin: E’jing Qiao; Cantonese: Ngor Geng Kiu). The area underneath the flyover is at the intersection of several roads, which feng shui deems the ideal place for dispersing negative energies.

Underneath the Goose Neck Bridge (Canal Road Flyover) in Wanchai, Hong Kong
(Image: Original source unknown)

A professional petty person beater underneath the Goose Neck Bridge
(Image: Oriental Daily News 東方日報)

There are two main views concerning the nature and efficacy of the ritual that are shared even by the professional beaters themselves. One view is that the ritual merely serves as a psychological outlet for people who feel anger towards their enemies. The performance of the beating ritual helps them release this anger and provides them with a renewed sense of confidence for dealing with difficult people. The other view, held by those that take the ritual seriously, is that it really does have the power to inflict harm and stop troublesome people in their tracks. 

A client watches on as a professional beater performs the ritual
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)

The Ritual of Beating Petty Persons has become so famous that according to Time magazine’s The Best of Asia 2009, the ritual was described as the “best way to get it off your chest.”   

In 2014, the Hong Kong Home Affairs Bureau officially released its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Hong Kong (香港非物質文化遺產 Xianggang Feiwuzhi Wenhua Yichan) which included the Beating Petty Persons Ritual because it is considered to be a part of Hong Kong’s ancient traditions and living culture.

Text © 2016 Harry Leong

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Li Chun–The Arrival of Spring

Li Chun marks the end of winter and the start of spring
(Image: Original source unknown, edited by Harry Leong)
Li Chun (立春 start of spring) is the first day of the Chinese solar new year and marks the end of winter and the official arrival of spring. The day is not necessarily characterized by warm spring weather, but refers to the beginning signs of spring when the winter snow and ice start to thaw and melt. This day usually falls on February 4th or 5th of the Western Gregorian calendar.

Many uninformed people might not know that there is a Chinese solar calendar. This is probably due to the fact that the first day of the lunar new year (lunar new year's day) is taken to officially celebrate the Chinese New Year. Because of this, many people mistakenly assume that the traditional Chinese calendar is solely a lunar based calendar.

In actuality, the traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar. In other words, it combines elements of both the lunar and solar calendars. While the lunar calendar is based on the changing phases of the moon, the solar calendar is based on the division of the entire year separated into 24 periods called the Twenty-four Solar Terms (二十四節氣 Ershisi Jieqi). These solar terms are used in conjunction with the lunar phases to make up the traditional Chinese calendar. Li Chun is the first day of the first solar term (for a more in-depth article about the Twenty-four solar terms, please click here).

In Chinese astrology, it is believed that if a lunar new year does not include the solar new year’s day (in other words, the lunar new year’s day does not come before Li Chun, the first day of the solar new year), it foretells an inauspicious year. This is called a “Year without spring” (無春年 wuchun nian) in northern China, or a “Blind year” (盲年 mangnian) in southern China. It is especially considered a bad year for marriages and is also known as a “Widow’s year” (寡婦年 guafu nian).

If the lunar new year does include the solar new year’s day (in other words, the lunar new year’s day arrives before Li Chun, the first day of the solar new year), then the year will be fine.

So for example, in the Year of the Monkey in 2016, the lunar new year arrived on Feb 8th, but the solar new year (Li Chun) arrived earlier on Feb 4th, so the lunar new year did not include the solar new year’s day. That means the year will perhaps be a year of obstacles, and is not recommended for marriages.

Text © 2016 Harry Leong

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva

Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva
(Image: Original source unknown)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Holy Day of Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva (月光菩薩 Yueguang Pusa) is observed on the 15th day of the 8th Chinese lunar month. 

The name of this bodhisattva comes from the Indian Sanskrit name Chandraprabha which means moonlight or lunar radiance. The full name of this bodhisattva in Chinese is Universal Illumination of Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva (月光遍照菩薩 Yueguang Bianzhao Pusa), but the name is sometimes just abbreviated as Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva (also translated as Moonlight Bodhisattva).

In his right hand, the Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva holds a lotus
that supports a white sphere with the character Moon (月 yue)
(Image: Original source unknown)

The observance of Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva’s holy day is on the same date as the Mid-Autumn Festival, because, without a doubt, the lunar theme of the former matches the theme of the full moon and the practice of lunar deity veneration that is associated with the latter.

The Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva and the Solar Radiance Bodhisattva are the two great bodhisattvas in the buddha realm (pure land) of Bhaisagyaguru, the Master of Healing Buddha (also known as the Medicine Buddha) (藥師佛 Yaoshi Fo).

Bhaisagyaguru, the Master of Healing Buddha (center),
Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva (left), Solar Radiance Bodhisattva (right)
(Image: Original source unknown)

From the Sutra of the Merits of the Fundamental Vows of Bhaisagyaguru Tathagata of Lapis Lazuli Crystal Radiance (藥師琉璃光如來本願功德經 Yaoshi Liuli Guang Rulai Benyuan Gongde Jing) (Taisho Tripitaka, Vol. 14, No. 450), the buddha realm of Bhaisagyaguru is described as follows:

In this land, the ground is made of lapis lazuli, the boundaries are demarcated with golden cords, the towns, towers, palaces, pavilions, as well as the balconies, windows and draperies are all made of the Seven Treasures. The merits, virtues and adornments of this realm are identical to those of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land in the west.

In this land dwell two great bodhisattvas, Universal Solar Radiance and Universal Lunar Radiance. Among the countless bodhisattvas, they are the leaders. Each in turn will serve as successor to the Medicine Buddha and as the able guardian of His True Dharma treasury.

[Source: Sutra of the Medicine Buddha─Translated & Annotated under the Guidance of Dharma Master Hsuan Jung by Minh Thanh & P.D. Leigh]

Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva
(Image: Original source unknown)

From the Dharanis of Solar Radiance Bodhisattva and Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva (日光菩薩月光菩薩陀羅尼 Riguang Pusa Yueguang Pusa Tuoluoni) (Taisho Tripitaka, Vol. 20, No. 1160), the mantra of Lunar Radiance Bodhisattva is given as follows:


Shēn dī dì tú sū zhà
Ā ruò mì dì wū dū zhà
Shēn qí zhà
Bō lài dì zhà
Yē mí ruò zhà wū dū zhà
Jū luó dì zhà qí mó zhà
Suō pó hē
[Chinese Mandarin transliterated from Indian Sanskrit, romanized using Hanyu Pinyin]

Homage to Chandraprabha, the Bodhisattva of Lunar Radiance!

Text © 2015 Harry Leong

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Qixi Festival

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Qixi Festival (七夕節 Qixi Jie) is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th Chinese lunar month. Qixi (七夕) means The Night of Sevens. It is usually translated into English as the Double Seventh Festival.

This festival is also known by other alternate names including Festival to Plead for Skills (乞巧節 Qiqiao Jie), Anniversary of the Seventh Sister (七姐誕 Qijie Dan), Daughter’s Festival (女兒節 Nu’er Jie), and Magpie Festival (喜鵲節 Xique Jie).

The origin of this festival comes from the story of the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden (牛郎織女 Niulang Zhinu) and is connected with Chinese astronomy. This story is one of the Four Great Folk Legends of China (中國四大民間傳說 Zhongguo Sida Minjian Chuanshuo) and there are many versions of it, but the basic tale is about the star-crossed love between a celestial maiden and a mortal man who tended cows. The Weaver Maiden was a daughter of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝 Yuwang Dadi) and his wife, the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 Xiwang Mu), and the youngest of seven sisters (hence the alternate names, Anniversary of the Seventh Sister and Daughter’s Festival). As a heavenly being, her job was to weave beautiful colored clouds in the skies with her ethereal silk. 

Multi-colored clouds
(Image: Original source unknown)

Once, on a trip to the mortal world, she fell in love and married a cowherd with whom she had two children. When the Queen Mother of the West learned that her daughter had married a lowly mortal man, she became angry and ordered that her daughter be brought back to the heavenly regions. As the Weaver Maiden was forcibly taken into custody by heavenly guards, the Cowherd used a magical oxhide to fly up to the skies with his two children to pursue his wife.

Heavenly guards take the Weaver Maiden into custody as the Cowherd gives chase
(Image: Original source unknown)

As the Cowherd nearly caught up with the Waiver Maiden, the Queen Mother of the West separated them by creating a huge river between them. They helplessly cried out for each other as they were divided to opposite sides of the great expanse.

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden become separated by the Silver River (Milky Way)
(Image: Original source unknown)

But after time, the Queen Mother of the West became more sympathetic, and finally decided to allow them to meet once per year. So each year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, countless magpies of the world would form a bridge over the river (hence the alternate name, Magpie Festival) so that the Cowherd, Weaver Maiden, and their two children could be reunited.

A bridge is formed by magpies over the Milky Way to reunite the star-crossed lovers
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Cowherd and Weaver Maiden are reunited for just one night
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Cowherd, Weaver Maiden, and their two children are joyfully reunited
(Image: Hillfox Art Series)

In some versions of the story, it is the Jade Emperor instead of the Queen Mother of the West that forbids their liaison.

The earliest known reference to this mythical tale is found in the Classic of Poetry (詩經 Shi Jing), also known as the Book of Songs, which is a collection of poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. The festival itself has been celebrated as early as the 2nd century BCE during the Han dynasty. The numerical significance of the lunar date 7/7 is based on the family position of the Weaver Girl as being the seventh daughter/sister. Because of the sincere love expressed in this tale, the festival is also informally known in modern times as Chinese Valentine’s Day (中國愛情節 Zhongguo Aiqing Jie).

If we study the night sky, the Cowherd is represented by the star Altair which is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila and the twelfth brightest star in the night sky. Its name in Chinese astronomy is Hegu Er (河鼓二) which means Second Star of the River Drum. It is also popularly called the Cowherd Star (牛郎星 Niulang Xing).

The Weaver Maiden is represented by the star Vega which is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra and the fifth brightest star in the night sky. Its name in Chinese astronomy is Zhinu Yi (織女一) which means First Star of the Weaver Maiden.

Altair (Cowherd) and Vega (Weaver Maiden)
(Image: Original source unknown, modified by Harry Leong)

Their two children are represented by the stars Alshain (Beta Aquilae) and Tarazed (Gamma Aquilae). Alshain is a star in the constellation Aquila and its name in Chinese astronomy is Hegu Yi (河鼓一) which means First Star of the River Drum. Tarazed is also located in the constellation Aquila and its Chinese astronomical name is Hegu San (河鼓三) which means Third Star of the River Drum. These two stars flank Altair, the Cowherd Star, like children standing by their father.

Alshain and Tarazed are children who stand on both sides of their father, Altair (Cowherd)
(Image: Original source unknown, modified by Harry Leong)

The river that separates the Cowherd and the Weaver Maiden is represented by the Milky Way galaxy that appears as a glowing band arching across the night sky. In Chinese astronomy, the Milky Way is called the Silver River (銀河 Yin He) or the Heavenly River (天河 Tian He).

The Silver River is represented by the Milky Way, a wide band of stars and dust clouds
(Image: Original source unknown)

In ancient China, there are many traditional activities on the day of the Qixi Festival. These activities mainly involve single young women and vary by region. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but includes many of the more well-known customs:

• Needlework competitions – Young women engage in competitions of threading needles, especially under the moon in low light conditions. The theme of weaving and needlework is based on several aspects of the festival: the Weaver Maiden’s celestial weaving skills; the festival takes place during the early autumn when women start to make warmer clothes for the coming winter; the festival celebrates romance and marriage, so single women looking for a good spouse must show off their talents in needlework which was an important domestic skill for women in pre-modern times.

• Handicrafts and paper-cutting activities – Young woman partake in creating handicrafts and paper-cutting games to show dexterity and skill because dexterous and nimble hands were an important traditional asset of women in pre-modern times.

• Fruit carving activities – Young women engage in fruit carving activities to show dexterous and skillful hands, an important traditional trait of women in pre-modern times. Fruit can be carved into the shapes of animals or flowers, or relief patterns carved into the fruit skins.

• Placing a needle in a water bowl – Girls play a game where they put a needle on the surface of a bowl of water, and if the needle does not sink due to water surface tension, the girl is said to be mature enough to find a spouse. They also observe the shadow of the needle appearing at the bottom of the bowl. If the shadow moves like floating clouds, it means that the girl is gaining skill and dexterity.

• Making prayers to the Weaver Maiden – At makeshift shrines under the evening sky, young women make offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, and feminine vanity items like combs, mirrors, and cosmetics to pray for beauty, intelligence, a good spouse, and acquiring the traditional skills of a good wife (hence the alternate name, Festival to Plead for Skills). An auspicious sign was a spider weaving its web on anything on the shrine which was taken to mean that the Weaver Maiden is responding to the prayers. 

• Keeping a spider in a box – Spiders, who are natural weavers, are caught and placed into boxes and kept overnight. The box is opened the next morning, and if the spider had weaved a cobweb inside the box, it means that the Weaver Maiden will bless the young woman with intelligence and skills. Also, the denser the cobweb, the more skill the woman will have.

• Hair Washing – Girls wash their hair with water from springs or rivers on the day of the Qixi Festival because it was believed that the water had special qualities on this day to bestow beauty and intelligence.

• Collecting dew water in basins – Girls collect dew water in a basin on the day of the festival because dew water represented the joyful tears of the reunited Cowherd and Weaver Maiden. Applying the dew water to one’s eyes and hands bestowed intelligence and skill.

• Planting seedlings using rice or beans

• Celebrating the life of oxen – Children hang flowers on oxen horns to honor the ox whose hide was used by the Cowherd to fly to heaven.

• Standing under a fruit vine – It was said that if one stood under a fruit vine on the night of the Qixi Festival, one could hear the whispering of conversation between the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden in the heavens above.  

• Stargazing under the night sky to look at the Altair and Vega stars

A girl threads a row of seven needles in a needlework competition

A girl threads a needle under the evening sky
(Image: Original source unknown)

Cartoon illustration of a young woman praying to the Weaver Maiden Star
(Image: Feng Yincheng/Xinhua News Agency 馮印澄/新華社發)

Evening prayer ritual to the Weaver Maiden being performed at a temple

Qixi Festival games such as keeping a spider in a box, and placing a needle in a water bowl
(Image: Original source unknown)

Stargazing on the evening of the Qixi Festival
(Image: Kagaya/

Some, or most of these traditional activities are no longer practiced in contemporary China, but the festival is still widely celebrated by couples in a manner very similar to the Valentine’s Day of Western culture. For example, young people nowadays celebrate the festival with a romantic dinner, flowers, and chocolates.  

In Hong Kong, on the day of the festival, young women and couples visit Lovers’ Rock (姻緣石 Yinyuan Shi) on Bowen Road in Wanchai to burn incense and lay offerings at the rock to ask for romance and/or a happy marriage.

A couple prays at the Lovers’ Rock in Hong Kong

Traditional foods during the Qixi Festival include:

• Dexterity snacks (巧果 Qiaoguo, literally skillful fruit) - fried thin pastries made from flour, oil, sugar, and honey

Chinese chestnuts (蘋婆Pingpo Guo), also called Phoenix Eye Fruit (鳳眼果 Fengyan Guo) or Seventh Sister’s Fruit (七姐果 Qijie Guo)

• Noodles, dumplings, wontons

Fried snacks called Qiaoguo (巧果)
Chinese Chestnuts, also known as Phoenix Eye Fruit and Seventh Sister’s Fruit
(Image: Original source unknown)

The cultural significance of the Qixi Festival is important due to several principles that are also relevant to modern times:

• The eternal love between the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden reminds us about the importance of devotion and responsibility in marriage and romantic relationships

Pleading for skills should be seen as encouragement for females to continuously learn and develop intellect and skills (not just domestic skills)

• The role and importance of women in society should be respected

A Chinese ink painting of the Cowherd and Weaver Maiden with poetic verses
(Image: Original source unknown)

The Qixi Festival is the forerunner to the Japanese Tanabata Festival (Star Festival) and the Korean Chilseok Festival that are based on a similar myth and background.

Text © 2015 Harry Leong