A Close Look at Hong Kong’s Rare, Extravagant Spiritual Purification Festivals

This year, Shek O and Big Wave Bay are holding the decennial Tai Ping Ching Chiu – a mysterious festival that has confounded outsiders ever since the first Europeans came to Hong Kong. Parts of it remain enigmatic even for local people who have attended several editions. So what’s the story behind it?

The festival’s name refers to a chiu (ziu3 醮), a kind of sacrifice. There are countless small chiu throughout Hong Kong, but the Tai Ping Ching Chiu is a major one celebrated by a village or “spiritual area” every few years. The name Tai Ping Ching Chiu is particular to Hong Kong, meaning the Pure Offering for Supreme Peace (Taai3 Ping4 Cing1 Ziu3 太平清醮); in the rest of China, it is known as a Dǎ Jiào (Daa1 Ziu3 打醮).

The Tai Ping Ching Chiu is celebrated in rural communities throughout Hong Kong, particularly in the New Territories. The most famous one is the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, held annually on the island of Cheung Chau. Some communities hold the festival every ten years, some every sixty. There is no unifying festival date that fits into the spiritual calendar; rather, each community holds their Tai Ping Ching Chiu when they want.

1400_933-theatre-2The Dǎ Jiào has a long history that is rooted in ancient Taoist rituals that were once exclusively the domain of the royal court and ministers of the state. These rituals are known as the Great Ritual Offerings to the All-Embracing Heaven (Lo4 Tin1 Daai6 Ziu3 羅天大醮). Entrenched in the Taoist canon, their origins are unclear, but a form of the rituals was in existence during the Jin Dynasty (265-420) and these were crystallised into formal rites through the growth of Taoism in the royal courts of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The rituals involve praying to the stars, offering sacrifices to deities and worshipping the Tàiyǐ, or Great Oneness (Taai3 Jyut3 太乙), a god concept that is identified as the ladle of the Plough (Big Dipper) constellation. The Plough is a very important constellation in Taoism and is known as the Gate of Heaven (Tin1 Mun4 天門). The ritual has mostly disappeared in China, but its rituals and purpose have become the basis of the Tai Ping Ching Chiu that is now held almost exclusively in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The Tai Ping Ching Chiu emerged in Hong Kong at some point during the rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). At the invitation of rural village communities, Taoist priests came and held ceremonies to exorcise evil and restore peace to the area. Despite its lofty beginnings in imperial China, the chiu became a community-centred rural folk festival that, while filled with ritual and symbolic religious meaning, also consolidated and reconfirmed community alliances.

At the festival, Taoist priests perform complex rituals, while social activities and entertainments cultivate community bonds. In Hong Kong, there are 46 Tai Ping Ching Chiu, 19 of which are held every ten years. But there are no fixed rules and communities stick to their own timeframes. Some are annual, like the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, while the Leung Shuen Wan chiu is held every two years, the Tung Chung chiu every three years and so on. The main anomaly is the Sheung Shui chiu, which has a 60-year cycle. This is the only one that operates on the full cosmic cycle of 60 years, allowing for the 12 year zodiac to have gone through the five elemental cycles.

To this day, the main elements of the Tai Ping Ching Chiu are unchanged. The organising committee starts to plan the event at least a year in advance, choosing an auspicious day for the chiu. The celebration can last for one, three or five days and involves rituals and offerings being made by Taoist priests on each of the days. The festival normally centres around one temple in the area. In Cheung Chau’s annual chiu, the Pak Tai temple is the focal point. I

In Shek O and Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay), the Tin Hau temple is the nucleus of festivities. Temporary god sheds (san1 paang4 神棚) are built to house the statues of gods from the temple for the duration of the festival. The reason for this is twofold. First, it ensures that the gods are able to witness the public spectacle of the festival, allowing them to be worshipped and to take in the various social activities. Secondly, it clears all of the gods out of the temple so the Taoists can set it up for their own secret rituals.

The community activities are based around a main temporary shed (ziu3 paang4 醮棚), which is built for public rites, puppet shows and feasting on poon choi (pun4 coi3 盆菜), big communal bowls of food. A bamboo theatre (fu1 paang4 戲棚) is also built for the traditional Cantonese opera performances that will entertain the crowds. Large colourful announcement boards (faa1 paai4 花牌) decorate the sheds. These not only announce the chiu, but also name the big sponsors of the event. During one of the rituals of the festivals, the names of contributors’ families are displayed on a large list. Normally, only natives of the village and their ancestors are named on these lists, but in the Shek O and Tai Long Wan chiu, newcomers can have their names displayed as well. The contributions don’t just come from current residents, but also from overseas family members, who will often come back for the festival.

There are two sets of rituals performed at the Tai Ping Ching Chiu: those that are public and those that occur behind closed doors in the temple. The public rites include offerings made to the village’s earth gods (tou2 dei6 gung1 土地公), the inviting of the deities of all directions and levels, the cleansing of the festival area, daily offerings to the gods and opening the name list.

1400_933-guardiansThe night-time parade of the chiu is also a ritual event, as the lanterns that are carried by the participants call forth the spirits of the un-worshipped dead to the chiu. These sadly forgotten ghosts lurk around the village causing trouble. Rituals are performed to relieve them of their suffering, thereby protecting the community from their influence. This function of the jiu is highlighted by the presence of two giant papier mâché gods: the Unpredictable Ghost (Mou4 Soeng4 Gwai2 無常鬼), a white-robed money god for the dead, and Tai Si Wong, the Ghost King (Daai6 Si6 Wong4 大士王). Tai Si Wong acts as a protective force throughout the jiu and at the end of the celebration, his image is ritually burnt, to send him back to hell.

The other main public ritual is the receiving of amnesty from the Jade Emperor (Juk6 Wong4 玉皇), the highest god of the popular pantheon. A whole pig is offered to him in exchange for forgiveness of the sins of the villagers. The Jade Emperor is not the supreme deity of the Taoist pantheon, so this is part of the public ceremony, rather than the mysterious set of rituals that happen in the temple.

The Taoist rituals in the temple vary a little depending on which of the two main sects of Taoism are conducting them. Both the northern Quanzhen sect (Cyun4 Zan1 全眞) and the southern Zhengyi sect (Zeng3 Jat1 正一) are present in Hong Kong and different communities decide which group they will invite. The gods of the temple are replaced by scrolls representing the higher gods of the Taoist Pantheon such as the Three Pure Ones (Saam1 Cing1 三清). These inner rituals are the most important in determining what is to be achieved for the village and surrounds. It is a ritual of cosmic renewal that involves prolonged reading of texts, hand gestures, dances and meditations intended to make the disparate natural forces of yin and yang achieve union with the Tao (Dou3 道), thereby renewing the power and purity of the temple.

Once the festival is over and the bad energy has been exorcised from the area, peace begins to return – not only in a spiritual sense, but also in a physical way as the temporary structures are taken down and normality returns. The 2016 Shek O and Tai Long Wan festival is the 19th in its history, making it 190 years old. Many of the Tai Ping Ching Chiu have disappeared as villages stop holding their own chiu and combined their celebrations with those of neighbouring villages. Shek O’s chiu is particularly inclusive. Not only it has grown bigger with each edition, it has always welcomed non-indigenous villagers, even foreigners, to take part in its festivities. This more open ideology is what makes the Tai Ping Ching Chiu a major part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.

The Tai Ping Ching Chiu Festival runs from November 9 to November 13, 2016 in Shek O and Tai Long Wan. The Ghost King Parade takes place on November 12. The next Tai Peng Ching Festival will be celebrated in 2026.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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