The Nine Emperor Gods （九皇爷), as patrons of prosperity, wealth and good health on their own right, are worshipped especially in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in southern China, a region also known for its ancient sacred rites of spirit mediums.
Southern China was once the land of the Min and Yue tribal kingdoms, whose inhabitants were experts in magic, spells, and the art of communication with the dead, spirits and Gods. Fujian and Guangdong were incorporated into the Chinese Empire during the Qin and Han dynasties 2000 years ago, and in the following millennia, its indigenous culture combined with that of the Taoist Han Chinese settlers from the North. The result is a hybrid, exuberant mix with a rich spiritual as well as architectural and gastronomical heritage that is evident in southern China today. With the emigration of the Fujian (or Hokkien) and Guangdong (also known as Cantonese) peoples to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world during the last three hundred years, these mystical manifestation of communication between the man and the mysterious divine spread with the Diaspora to other parts of the world.
When the Southern Chinese migrated to South East Asia, this event became popular in countries like Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and also the Riau Islands.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival (九皇诞) is a nine days Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is observed primarily in Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and also the Riau Islands.
The festival begins on the last day of the eighth lunar month with the raising of the Jiu Qu Deng (九曲灯), which refers to the “nine wicks in oil lamp”. The lamp is raised to invite divinities to the temple grounds in celebration of the festival. It has to stay lighted throughout the nine days as it is a sign of continuous divine presence. The vegetarian ritual starts on the same day, in which Jiu Huang Ye followers are expected to abstain from meat in order to purify their bodies. This is believed to relieve them of sins they have committed.
The welcome ritual is typically held the following day, which is also the first day of the ninth lunar month. A street procession starts from the temple and proceeds to a nearby river or sea where the gods are to be invited. The procession consists of lion and dragon dance troupes and devotees following behind sedan chairs carrying statues of accompanying gods and the sacred urn. The bearers of the sedan chairs are dressed in white and cause the chairs to sway violently to symbolise the presence of divine forces. A spirit medium may accompany the procession, and points out places where evil spirits lurk. The Taoist priest will then purify the indicated spots.
At the river, the priest invokes the spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods and invites them to descend into the urn. When the sacred ashes in the urn burn vigorously, it is a sign that the gods have arrived. The urn is then carried back to the temple and kept from public view.
During the nine days, worshippers visit the temple with offerings to ask for the blessing of the Jiu Huang Ye. One of the activities during this period is the bridge-crossing purification ritual, in which participants receive charms, yellow threads or a Jiu Huang Ye seal stamped on their clothing to ward off the evils of the past year.
Spirit medium possessions and the fire-walking purification ritual are associated with the celebration of this festival as well. However, fire-walking is no longer commonly seen in Singapore, although they can still be found in Ampang in Penang, Malaysia. The fire-walking ceremony was discontinued in Singapore before 1978 for safety reasons.
The procession aspect is practised in both Chinese Folk Religion and Pure Taoism; only the folk religion practitioners believe that the Nine Emperors can manifest through spirit mediums. In other words, folk religion and Taoism occasionally overlap, and worship the same gods; however, Chinese Folks worship them in different, unique ways.
Sending Off Ritual
The ninth day of the festival is its climax. A procession which draws scores of devotees sends the deities back home.
The ritual to send off the gods starts on the ninth day with the transfer of the sacred urn to the sedan chair, and a procession to a River. The procession is accompanied by lion dancers, stilt walkers and musicians playing drums, cymbals and gongs. Devotees follow in trucks, buses, cars and taxis. At the river, the Taoist priest conducts the ceremony to send off the gods. Selected temple committee members climb into a wooden boat with the flaming urn and travel towards the river centre to symbolise the departure of the gods. The festival officially ends with the lowering of the Jiu Qu Den (九曲灯) on the tenth day. This is followed by the ending of the vegetarian ritual when meat dishes are laid out to thank the heaven guards. These dishes are later shared among worshippers to signify the ending of the fast.
The legend of the 9 rebellious righteous heroes in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand:
The legend goes that during the Qing dynasty, nine righteous persons were in rebellion against the Qing government (another verson has it that they were 9 sea bandits who robbed the rich and helped the poor). Unfortunately, they were caught by the Qing army and later got beheaded by the river side on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. After death, their spirits lingered around the vicinity and caused havoc. The Imperial Court thereafter conferred the spirits with the title of the "9-Emperor Gods" and sent the spirits off to sea in royal boat and out of China. Where-ever the boat sailed by in the South-East region, the country folks set up shrines to venerates the spirits. Therefore, in mainland China there is no faith venerating the 9-Emperor Gods in the way they do in South-East Asia.
The legend continues by saying that the heads of the 9 beheaded heroes were hung on a coconut tree. The 9 oil lamps that are lighted at the festival on top of bamboo pole were originated from there. Ushering and sending off the 9-Emperor Gods by the sea or riverside was the location where they were beheaded. The walking over the burning coals is to commemorate the burning of the "Dou Mu Gong"- the residence of the 9-Emperor Gods on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. Not enshrining the image of the 9-Emperor Gods is because there is no image to adapt. The wearing of the mourning clothes signifies the mourning for them.
Major Nine Emperor Gods Temples in Singapore:
- Bukit Batok Doumu Gong Jiuhuang Wudi (Blk 503 Bukit Batok East Avenue 2)
- Choa Chu Kang Doumu Gong (No. 2 Teck Whye Lane)
- Cong Mao Yuan Jiuhuang Gong (28 Arumugam Road)
- Fengshan Gong (49 Defu Lane 12)
- Hong Shui Gang Doumu Gong Fengshan Shi (Yishun Ring Road, opposite Blk 123)
- Hougang Doumu Gong (779A Upper Serangoon Road)
- Jin Shan Shi (25 Jalan Ulu Singlap)
- Longnan Shi (Blk 283 Bukit Batok Avenue 3)
- Longnan Dian (Sims Avenue, opposite Malay Village)
- Nan Shan Hai Miao (Blk 701 Bedok Reservoir Road)
- Shen Xian Gong (Blk 39A Margaret Drive)
- Xuan Wu Shan Han Lin Yuan (Blk 236 Jurong East Street 21)
Celebration in Thailand
In Thailand, this festival is called Tesagan Gin Je เทศกาลกินเจ, the Vegetarian Festival. It is celebrated throughout the entire country, but the festivities are at their height in Phuket.
In 1825, when a traveling Chinese opera company visited Phuket, the largest of the islands in Thailand, to entertain the Chinese who were working in the tin mines there, a terrible epidemic of malaria broke out, and many people lost their lives.
They decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and pray to the Nine Emperor Gods to ensure purification of the mind and body. To everyone's amazement the opera group made a complete recovery. The people celebrated by holding a festival that was meant to honour the gods as well as express the people's happiness at surviving what was, in the 19th century, a fatal illness. Subsequently the festival has grown and developed into a spectacular yearly event that is attended by thousands with participants flying in from China and other Asian destinations.
Mah song ม้าทรง are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Mah ม้า is the word for horse in Thai, and the name mah song 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 mah song. 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 festivities in Phuket include a procession of mah song 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. While they are possessed the mah song will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually. 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.
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