Hong Kong Reads: Understanding Chinese Rituals and Temples

Why are people burning paper money and incense by the roadside? Late every summer, shopowners and residents across Hong Kong bring out red metal canisters in which to burn offerings, leaving behind a little heap of ashes, with lit incense sticks in them, from which departs an arabesque of fragrant smoke.

This is the most obvious sign that Ghost Month has arrived. It takes place over the seventh month of the lunar year, when the days are muggy with humidity and heat, but the promise of cooler nights is not too far away. Legend has it that this is the time when the deceased who have nobody to take care of their tombs come back to earth to roam in search of food and offerings, until the day of the festival itself, Yu Lan (jyu4 laan4 zit3 盂蘭節), which is when, after a last hurrah and ritual offerings from temples and charitable people alike, the ghosts must all assemble and go back to the netherworld before its doors are closed for another year.


Understanding offerings

The legends linked to the Ghost Festival and many others can sometimes overlap, and it is impossible to combine them all into a tidy and coherent narrative. But there are ways to understand and appreciate better just what is under our eyes and start to perceive a common grammar to them all, thanks to works like Janet Lee Scott’s excellent For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings. It’s a book we often turn to when we need to understand the meaning of certain offerings or colours used inside temples or out in the streets. This is a full-length investigation into these topics, and some of the more general explanations it offers about what happens during the religious holidays of the lunar calendars stay with the reader for a long time, like a photographic imprint that makes readable what, from afar, seemed complicated.

Scott makes a neat distinction of what people do for each kind of spirit: “worship gods, appease ghosts, and commemorate ancestors.” She also explains how certain things in this realm are not static: an ancestor who suddenly finds himself or herself without descendants can turn into a ghost – and a hungry one at that, if nobody has taken the time to offer them what is needed in the other world, from food offerings to paper money, and any indispensable amenity. An ancestor may also become a god; most folk deities were once real human beings who were elevated to divine status because of their impressive deeds. 

This explains why many temples have a written biography of the god or goddess enshrined inside, in the neat bundle of printed papers that always sits near the entrance. These official biographies always specify where the deity was born, and what were the extraordinary events that led to their sanctification – from extreme ability in battle, like Kwan Tai, to the ability of saving seafarers, like in the case of Tin Hau, or helping mothers like the fertility goddess Gam Fa Fu Yen.

Scott’s book goes further than this, giving a very detailed analysis of good-luck items such as colourful and intricate pinwheels and Golden Flowers, with their accompanying silk red flags. A significant part of the volume is dedicated to the many paper items that are offered to the deceased through burning, which she explores by talking to the last artisans still making these paper offerings, and also their clients, in order to understand exactly what meaning they convey for those who use them. This is really one of those books that brings home how much the more closely you look at something and the more attention you pay to its details, the more further details you will notice and understand. 

For example, even the smallest shrine in a rural path will have a Golden Flower, and Scott explains that “the splendid Golden Flower is a pitched item whose primary purpose is to adorn the deities. Golden Flowers are always bought in pairs, and are accompanied by a red ribbon of varying thickness and length called the Spirit Red, itself centred with a rosette of the same material and a silver metal disc.” Then she details how they are positioned — behind the statues of the deities, if at a temple, or at the corners of altars if in the home — and points out that, whatever their setting, they are always tied to good luck. Deities are believed to be particularly fond of these joyous items, and in order to keep them happy, each one of them gets a brand new Golden Flower when the lunar new year arrives. 

But this is not a dictionary-like dry list of items, but nine very readable chapters that range from the practices linked to paper burning, to the individual ways in which worship is carried out, to detailed anthropological notes on how shops and customers interact, and very many detailed stories that show how to be grateful to the gods, charitable towards the wandering ghosts and how to keep the connection with the departed through the remembrance of the ancestors. 

Reading the book is akin to taking a walk into the temples, and learning to read their symbolism, while also learning about the production of items that, without these explanations, would be little more than eye-catching colourful pictures on our phones. What we see in temples, or performed at rituals and festivals, is a micro-cosmogony in which everything has a meaning and a reason that makes what surrounds them much more coherent.


A crash course on temples

A good accompanying text for getting closer to this more hidden side of Hong Kong is the booklet Hong Kong Temples by Ken Raby, a neat and handy list of 65 of the main temples in Hong Kong, with a good map and detailed directions on how to get there and a sketch of each one’s layout.

The mysteries and the stories of the parallel world of gods, ghosts and ancestors are obviously too many to fit neatly in two books, no matter how detailed, but they are among the best guides to start your research.. 


For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offering is published by Hong Kong University Press.
Hong Kong Temples is published by Ken Raby.

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