Saturday, April 30, 2011

Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak

The Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak, aka Lord of Mount Tai
(Image: Source unknown)

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak (Mount Tai) (泰山東嶽大帝聖誕) is observed on the 28th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.  

The Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak (Mount Tai) (泰山東嶽大帝 Taishan Dongyue Dadi) is the great mountain god of Mount Tai located in Shandong province that is in charge of overseeing the life and death of mortal beings on earth. He is also known as the Lord of Mount Tai (泰山府君 Taishan Fujun). It is believed that the registers of life and death are administered by him and his divine assistants [One of his assistants, the General of the Five Paths, is discussed in another post found here]. According to the Taoist scheme of the Five Sacred Mountains (五嶽 Wuyue), there is a mountain corresponding to each of the five directions (east, south, west, north, center) and the five elements/energy phases (metal, wood, water, fire, earth) in Chinese metaphysics. Of the five, Mount Tai is considered the most important because it is located in the east. Because the eastern direction is where the sun rises, it is considered the place where all birth begins and where all things must return after death in the cycle of continual renewal. It is the boundary at where the forces of Yin and Yang (the negative and positive principles) converge and transform.

A colored ink painting of Mount Tai (Taishan)

When things are born, the Yang principle is strong and vibrant. As things age, the Yang is slowly depleted and the Yin becomes gradually more dominant. When things finally end in death, the Yang is totally exhausted and only the Yin abides. Things are then reborn and the cycle repeats again, just like the passing of the seasons. When Yin reaches it extreme, it transforms into Yang, and when Yang reaches its extreme, it transforms into Yin. This is a natural law that is true for all universal phenomena.

A contemporary tourist map of Mount Tai (Taishan) in Shandong province
(Image: Source unknown)

In the Chinese psyche, Mount Tai is considered the greatest of all mountains, and it is perceived as symbolically being the pathway to heaven. Emperors have made imperial pilgrimage to this mountain for centuries, and countless numbers of poets, politicians, and commoners have also scaled its height because it has always been a place of artistic inspiration and an important center of religious activity for both Buddhist and Taoist followers. The greatness of the mountain is reflected in the common Chinese saying “You have eyes, yet you do not recognize Mount Tai.” The Chinese idiom “Mount Tai and Big Dipper” refers to a person of high acclaim. And the famous Chinese historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) once said “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather.”

In the scheme of the Ten Kings of the Underworld Courts, the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak is also the supreme magistrate in charge of the seventh court where particular punishments are meted out to those that have committed certain sins (also mentioned in a previous post found here).

A scroll painting depicting the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak
as supreme magistrate of the 7th Court of the Underworld/Purgatory
(Image: Source unknown)

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Monday, April 25, 2011


Mazu, Protector Goddess of the Sea

The 23rd day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month is the Birthday of Mazu (媽祖聖誕). Mazu (媽祖), which means Maternal Ancestor, is the protector goddess of seafarers and fishermen. She is also popularly known as the Empress of Heaven (天后 Tianhou), or the Holy Mother Empress of Heaven (天后聖母 Tianhou Shengmu). Her other popular titles also include Holy Mother of the Heavens Above (天上聖母 Tianshang Shengmu) and Heavenly Imperial Concubine (天妃 Tianfei). She is also sometimes affectionately known by her informal names A-Ma (阿媽) and A-Po (阿婆), which mean Mother and Grandmother, respectively.

A statue of Mazu on Meizhou Island in Fujian, China

Mazu was born as Lin Moniang (林默娘) on this day in the year 960 on Meizhou Island in Fujian province. It is said that when she was born, a golden radiance appeared above her house and a strange pleasant fragrance filled her home and all the nearby houses in the neighborhood. The baby Mazu did not cry for even a month after her birth, so she was thereafter named Moniang which means silent young female. As she grew up, she had a very compassionate and spiritual disposition. She was extremely intelligent and was very filial to her parents. She had a mysterious ability to predict the weather, and she often warned others when not to make maritime journeys. She became a very good swimmer and possessed an affinity for the sea. She often rowed a boat during storms to save others who needed help. During one incident, she saved ten people from a merchant boat but she herself perished due to exhaustion. After her death, some people reported having visions of Lin Moniang in heavenly imperial garments. Soon afterwards, the people in her town established a temple in her honor. But her assistance to seafarers did not end with her death, because she continued to offer help by manifesting divine responses. Over many centuries, seafaring people continued to pray to her for safety, and they always called upon her when in distress. Stories abound that tell of her divine assistance. Many hundreds of temples have been established in her honor, and many emperors of several dynasties bestowed honorific titles upon her.

A statue of Mazu for religious veneration

The goddess Mazu is especially popular among followers of the Taoist and popular folk religious traditions in southeastern China like Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as neighboring countries like Taiwan and Vietnam. In the past, all of these areas had strong seafaring traditions and one finds many temples dedicated to Mazu along their former coastlines. She is also very popular amongst Chinese immigrant communities in Southeast Asia and abroad. The culture of Mazu veneration has become a great transnational phenomenon and from a socio-political perspective, the annual Mazu festivals and pilgrimages in China and Taiwan also function as a strong unifier amongst the different Chinese communities that take part in her worship.

It is interesting to note that the former Portuguese colony of Macau, today a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, derives its name from its famous temple dedicated to Mazu. The temple is called Temple of A-Ma, or Ma Gok Temple (媽閣廟; Mandarin Pinyin: Ma Ge Miao; Cantonese: Ma Gok Miu). When the Portuguese landed at Macau near the location of the temple, they asked the locals what the name of the place was. The local people replied Ma Gok in Cantonese, so the Portuguese named it Macau.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Solar Stellar Lord

A painting of the Solar Stellar Lord, Deity of the Sun

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of the Solar Stellar Lord (太陽星君聖誕) is observed on the 19th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.

The Solar Stellar Lord (太陽星君 Taiyang Xingjun) is the Taoist god of the sun. He is also known as the God of Immense Brightness (大明之神 Daming Zhishen) and his common and popular names are God of the Sun (太陽神 Taiyang Shen) and Lord of the Sun (太陽公 Taiyang Gong). His formal Taoist religious title is Solar Imperial Lord of the Extreme Cinnabar, Blazing Light, and Abounding Brightness of the Palace of the Sun (日宮太丹炎光鬱明太陽帝君 Rigong Taidan Yanguang Yuming Taiyang Dijun).

The Solar Stellar Lord is in charge of the movements of the sun and the light and heat that it emits. Because the sun provides the earth with the warmth and light that is necessary for survival, the Solar Stellar Lord is also seen as an important provider of life and vitality.

An image showing the explosions in the sun’s magnetic field
(Image: NASA)

In ancient times, the sun and moon together with the five planets (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Saturn) were deified as seven stellar gods and venerated by the ancients who envisioned the sacred spirit in all things of nature and the universe. They are included in a group collectively known as the Stellar Lords of the Five Planets and Seven Luminaries (五星七曜星君 Wuxing Qiyao Xingjun) [this group was mentioned in another post that can be found here].

There are actually two different dates given as the birthday of the Solar Stellar Lord. One is the 19th day of the 3rd lunar month and the other is the 19th day of the 8th lunar month. The former date of 3/19 is actually the date that Chongzhen (崇禎) (1611-1644), the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, took his own life. According to modern research done by Zhao Shiyu (趙世瑜) and Du Zhengzhen (杜正貞), there were some names related to the lineage of the Ming dynasty that had suggestive connections to the religious veneration of the sun or the heavens. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, some of its loyalists secretly commemorated Chongzhen on his death anniversary. Later, the date was retained and transformed into a date of religious observance for the sun deity in popular religious culture.

A statue of the Solar Stellar Lord
His face and body are red and he holds a sphere with the character Sun/Day () on it.
(Image: Source unknown)

It is also interesting to note that the Solar Stellar Lord is also found in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in the group of the 24 heavenly deities that are Dharmapalas who protect and defend the Buddhist Law [mentioned in a previous post that can be found here]. The Taoist Solar Stellar Lord is called the Venerable Sun God of the Solar Palace (日宮太陽尊天 Rigong Taiyang Zuntian) in the Buddhist tradition and is probably derived from the Indian Vedic sun god Surya.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Thursday, April 14, 2011

General of the Five Paths

Paper print depicting the General of the Five Paths

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of the General of the Five Paths (五道將軍聖誕) is observed on the 12th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month. The General of the Five Paths (五道將軍 Wudao Jiangjun) is a general in the retinue of the Ten Kings of the Underworld Courts (十殿閻王 Shidian Yanwang) who assists in maintaining the records of life and death [the Ten Kings of the Underworld Courts are also mentioned here].

The General of the Five Paths is also an assistant to the Taoist god Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak (Mount Tai) (泰山東嶽大帝 Taishan Dongyue Dadi) who is a mountain god that is also in charge of overseeing the life and death of mortal beings on earth. In the scheme of the Ten Kings of the Underworld Courts, the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak also happens to be the king in charge of the seventh court where particular punishments are meted out to those that have committed certain sins.

A scroll depicting the 7th Court of the Underworld/Purgatory

Both of the roles of the general in the underworld courts and as an assistant to the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak are similar. He helps to monitor the register of life and death that records the good and bad deeds of all human beings and he is also in charge of maintaining law and order and preventing the spirits of the dead from causing havoc and chaos in the netherworld and in the world of the living.

His title of General of the Five Paths can be explained in the context of his role as an assistant monitor and enforcer of the karmic destinies of the spirits of the deceased after they have been judged in the courts of the underworld. The five paths refer to the following:

1) Path to rebirth in the heaven realms
[as reward for living a very virtuous life]
2) Path to rebirth in the human realm in a fortunate position
[as a consequence of living a somewhat virtuous life]
3) Path to rebirth in the human realm in an ordinary position
[as a consequence of living a neutral life]
4) Path to rebirth in the human realm in an unfortunate position
[as a consequence of living a somewhat non-virtuous life]
5) Path to rebirth in the nether realms or hell realms
[as retribution for living a very non-virtuous life]

It is interesting to note that the General of the Five Paths also exists in Buddhist literature about the hell realms. From an anthropological point of view, this is due to the result of inter-religious exchange between the Taoist and Buddhist traditions in China. From a metaphysical point of view, there is also no contradiction because the two traditions are perhaps just recognizing the same realities about the underworld/purgatory/hell realms.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Qingming Festival

A cartoon depicting ancestor veneration rites at a gravesite
(Image: Source unknown)

The Qingming Festival (清明節 Qingming Jie) is observed on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox and is the first day of the 5th Chinese solar term [the Twenty-four Solar Terms are discussed here]. The day usually falls on April 4th or 5th of the western Gregorian calender.

Qingming means Clear and Bright and refers to the clear and sunny spring weather that comes around this time. It is traditionally a time for family descendents to tend to the graves of their departed ancestors and to make offerings of food, incense, and paper offerings such as spirit money and paper replicas of material goods. Temples, both Buddhist and Taoist, also perform ceremonies at this time to dedicate spiritual merit to the deceased ancestors of sponsors. Families take this opportunity to clean and inspect the gravesite by removing any weeds or trash, pruning and replacing any nearby trees and plants if necessary, and looking to see if any damage to the tombstone needs repair. The upkeep and maintenance of the gravesite is considered an important responsibility of family descendents and reflects the deep cultural values of ancestor veneration and filial piety of the Chinese people. Thus, this day is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day (掃墓日 Saomu Ri), and some people in the West describe it as “Ancestors Day,” “Chinese Memorial Day,” or “Spring Remembrance Day.”

A cartoon depicting a family pruning the grass surrounding the grave of their ancestor
(Image: Source unknown)

In ancient times, the Qingming Festival appears frequently in classical literature. The most famous one is the poem called Qingming (清明) written by Du Mu (杜牧):

A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day.
The mourner's heart is breaking on his way.
Where can a winehouse be found to drown his sadness?
A cowherd points to Almond Flower Village in the distance.


A painting depicting the cowherd pointing to Almond Flower Village in Du Mu’s poem Qingming

Because cemeteries are usually located on hills or in the countryside, Chinese families usually also take advantage of the spring weather to have a picnic and family outing or reunion after observing veneration rites for their departed ancestors.

Qingming is also called the Cold Foods Festival (寒食節 Hanshi Jie) because in the past, people abstained from eating cooked foods for three days starting on the day preceding the Qingming Festival. One popular explanation for the origin of this practice comes from the story of Chong'er (重耳) and Jie Zhitui (介之推). Chong'er was a prince of the Jin state during the 7th century BCE. When he fled the Warring States (戰國 Zhanguo) and went into exile, he suffered hardship and hunger. His personal friend and political advisor, Jie Zhitui, cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh to make meat soup for him. Feeling revitalized after having the soup, Chong’er wondered where his friend obtained meat to make the soup. After discovering what Jie Zhitui had done for him, he became overwhelmed and moved with gratitude and promised to reward him. After Chong’er became Duke Wen of Jin (晉文公 Jin Wengong), his friend Jie Zhitui resigned from service and retired to the mountains in seclusion at Mianshan (綿山) in Shanxi province. Chong’er attempted to get Jie Zhitui to return by setting fire to the mountain in the hopes that he would come out. The plan failed because the fire killed Jie Zhitui and his mother who were living on the mountain. Filled with remorse, Chong’er ordered that setting fire (and therefore cooking food) be prohibited for three days during this time every year to commemorate his loyal friend. 

Image of Jie Zhitui in the Lord Jie Temple (介公廟) on Mianshan (Mian Mountain) in Shanxi province

Another explanation for the Cold Foods Festival is that in the past, different types of fire wood had to be use for different seasons and periods. At the start of a new season or period, a new fire was always officially started. Before the new fire was lighted, nobody was permitted to light a new fire before the official fire. So therefore people had to eat uncooked foods for about three days before the lighting of the official fire near the time of Qingming.
Lighting fire was prohibited before the official lighting of a new fire for a new seasonal period

Later eventually, the two festivals of Cold Foods and Qingming were combined to be one single festival. Today however, the Cold Foods Festival is no longer observed anymore.

Qingming also signifies rebirth and renewal because of the return of spring, and marks the start of the planting and farming season. Because of the return of good weather, outdoor activities such as kite flying, hiking, sports, and other games are also popular during this time.

Chinese painting: Kite flying during the Qingming Festival
(Image: Source unknown)

Thus, Qingming is an expression of respect and veneration for the departed as well as for nature. The Qingming Festival is observed as a national holiday in Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, and Taiwan. And while not an official holiday in countries abroad, it is still observed faithfully by many overseas Chinese who take a convenient weekend day near the time of the Qingming Festival to honor their departed family members.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong