Friday, 27 February 2015

Bai Tian Gong - Hokkiens’ New Year (拜天宫 - 福建人的新年)

The 9th Day of Chinese New Year Festival
A pair of sugarcane plants are used by the Hokkiens usually placed one on each side of the offering table or  the front door of the house

On the 9th day of the first month of the Lunar Calendar, it would be the celebration known to the Hokkiens as ‘Bai Tian Gong’, which literally means ‘praying the Heaven God’.

During a Chinese New year of the Ming Dynasty, there was a bandit raid in the province of Hokkien. These intruders however robbed and burned down villages, attacked and killed the villagers. The people of the villages were in fear and escaped from their burnt villages during the night.

Some of the villagers then hid themselves among the sugarcane fields. Needless to say, those villagers prayed to Heaven God (Tian Gong)  for salvation during their hideout. The pursuing intruders spent many days trying to locate and hunt them but to no avail. On the ninth day of that Chinese New Year, they finally gave up and returned to their region.

The Hokkiens then happily emerged from the sugar cane fields, and praising the blessings of the celestial deities and owing gratitude to the sugarcane plants for saving them from destruction. Thus, in all Hokkien celebrations, the sugarcane plant is given prominence.

Realizing that it was also the 9th Day of the Chinese New Year and coincidentally the birthday of Heaven God, they decided to make votive offerings and prayers to the Jade Emperor for their salvation. There are many version of the Hokkiens’ Bai Tian Gong stories. Whichever it is, the Hokkiens believe that our life and prosperity are granted by the Heaven God.


On the eve of the 9th day, a pair of sugarcane plants are used by the Hokkiens usually placed one on each side of the offering table or  the front door of the house. The pair of the sugarcane symbolises unity, cooperation and strength. The sugarcane itself is a symbol of harmony and a token which can bring good and ‘sweet’ results. The very straightness of the sugarcane stem also ensures that the Hokkiens can become a clan of honest and sincere people.

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9th Day of Chinese New Year - Hokkien's Birthday

On the 9th day of the first month of Lunar calendar, it would be the special celebration known to Hokkien people as the “Phai Thien Kong” which literally means “praying the Heaven God”. This day is especially important to Hokkiens because they believe it is the birthday of the Jade Emperor (Thien Kong) who protected the ancestors of Hokkien people from ruthless army in ancient China.

During the massacre, all of the Hokkien people hid in a sugarcane plantation on the 8th - 9th days of Lunar New Year, coinciding with the Thien Kong or Jade Emperor's birthday. This is why the Hokkien people offer thanksgiving prayers to him on this day. Although these prayers are traditionally performed only by Hokkiens but more and more non-Hokkien people have begun to join in to pray for a good year ahead.

In Lunar calendar, the day starts at 11pm. And therefore all the Hokkiens start their prayers at 11pm on the 8th day of Chinese New Year but preparations start well in advance. On this night, the Hokkiens set up a table (draped in a red tablecloth) full of food which are to serve to the Jade Emperor. Some of the most popular items they must have are sweet cakes (thni kueh), red tortoise buns (ang koo), red-colored buns (mee koo), prosperity cakes (huat kueh) and bright pink miniature pagodas.

The Hokkiens made piles of kim cua (folded pieces of gold paper), these papers are hung from the sugarcanes before being burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Thien Kong. After these gold papers are set ablaze, the family members then took the stalks of sugarcane from the altars (a pair of sugarcanes are usually used) and threw them into the flames. There will be fireworks and firecrackers that mark the beginning of the ninth day as well as the survival of the Hokkien people.

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Hokkien New Year
“Gold” paper (kim chua) is hung from the sugarcanes, and this is later burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor. A pair of sugarcanes are usually used, and traditionally these are tied to the sides of the altar

There is a saying that states you have not truly experienced Chinese New Year until you have celebrated it in Penang. The reason behind this is because Penangites celebrate Hokkien New Year in addition to Chinese New Year. You must be thinking – whatt? Hokkien New Year? How is this different from Chinese New Year?

Basically, Hokkien New Year is celebrated on the 9th day of Chinese New Year. (If you remember, I previously mentioned that Chinese New Year is a fifteen day celebration). For us Hokkiens, it is celebrated with more grandeur compared to the 1st day. According to mum, this is because the Hokkiens were in hiding for the first eight days of Chinese New Year, and only had the chance to celebrate the New Year on the 9th day. The belief is that the Jade Emperor (Thee kong – translated as “king of the heavens”) protected our Hokkien ancestors from being caught, which is why we offer thanksgiving prayers to him.

Although these prayers are traditionally only performed by Hokkiens, more and more non-Hokkien people have started to join in to pray for a good year ahead.

The prayers start at 11pm on the 8th day of Chinese New Year (in the Lunar calendar, the day starts at 11pm instead of at midnight), but preparations start well in advance. I went round with my mum to buy the fruits and flowers earlier in the day, and brought my camera along in the hope of capturing the festive air of it all. I must say I got quite a few strange glances from people, they must have thought I was completely crazy. Oh well.

Sugarcanes are an integral part of the thanksgiving prayers. This is because the Hokkiens hid out in sugarcane plantations, which managed to prevent them from harm. This is the only time of year when you will see this sugarcanes being sold all over town, and as you can imagine, it takes a bit of maneuvering to get the long stems into your car!

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Bai Tian Gong - An Unignorable Tradition of The Hokkiens
Sugar cane, roasted pork, red turtle cake, ritual money, the house of Jade Emperor, fruits

Mr. Gooi and his family members were busy preparing for Bai Tian Gong on the eve of celebration, which was the 8th day of the first month in Chinese lunar calendar.

Bai Tian Gong is a meaningful celebration for the Hokkiens since their ancestors emigrated from China long time ago. No matter which state they are staying now, they still inherit this tradition to their descendant. This cultural continuity can be seen on Mr. Gooi’s family.

Mrs. Gooi and her daughter woke up 6 am on the eve of Bai Tian Gong. It was because they were going to the market to buy the offerings which were needed for the celebration. The necessities of Bai Tian Gong including a pair of sugar cane, red turtle cake, huat kueh, pineapple and several fruits.  Fortunately, the seller of sugar cane provided home delivery service, so that they could get rid of the burden of carrying the long sugar cane to next destination.

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The 9th Day of Chinese New Year Festival - The Birthday of the Jade Emperor 天日
The Jade Emperor ritual (bài tiān gōng) at Yuzun Temple in Sanxing, Ilan, Taiwan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Do you know the Jade Emperor? He is the Zeus of Chinese mythology. As the head of all deities, he is the ruler of Heaven, Earth and Hell. It is said that the ninth day of the Chinese New Year is his birthday – one of the largest celebrations in Heaven to which all of the gods will be invited. Thus, today is also called 天日 (tiān rì, the Day of Heaven.)

The Jade Emperor is a busy guy during the Chinese New Year. As early as December 25th of the lunar calendar, he disguises himself as an out-of-town visitor and travels down to earth to make sure his rulings have been just and wise. If he sees something unfair, the local gods who are supposed to protect the neighborhood from harm and danger, will be put “under fire”. When the Jade Emperor returns to Heaven, waves of worships and rituals start (especially among people believing in Taoism) in the hope that the Emperor will protect their families in the coming year.

There are many stories regarding the Emperor’s birthday, and one of them talks about his youngest daughter 七仙女 (Qī xiān nǚ, the seventh fairy.) She was not only the youngest, but also the Jade Emperor’s favorite little girl. She fell in love with a layman called Dong Yong who only offers her the best in the world. Therefore, in ancient China, people would gather under osmanthus trees on this day, singing the most beautiful songs to lure her down to earth. If the songs have made her happy, it would be the best present to the Emperor, who in return, would promise a prosperous year.

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The Birthday of Jade Emperor, King of Heaven

According to Taoism (Daoism), the Jade Emperor lives in the 33rd heaven and governs 33 heavens; so he is the king of heavens. Jade Emperor is a vegetarian. To celebrate his birthday, Chinese prepare three bundles of long noodle, three tea cup with green tea, five different kinds of fruit and six different kinds of dry vegetables to worship Jade Emperor. But people also prepare five animal sacrifices, different sweet cakes and turtle cake (turtle is a symbol of longevity) on a different table for Jade Emperor's guardian soldiers.

To show the sincerity, many people take bath on the 8th lunar night, then wait for the first minute of 8th lunar day to begin the ceremony with their clean body. After the ceremony, Chinese explode the firecrackers. That's why we can hear the scattered sound of fire crackers from midnight to sunrise.

The temple of  Jade Emperor will be crowded as the Chinese New Year day since the night of 8th lunar day for those people unable to hold the worship event at home. For the same purpose, Chinese always pray for better luck, safety, health, love or money, when they visit the temple.

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Jade Emperor 玉皇

The Jade Emperor (Chinese: 玉皇; pinyin: Yù Huáng or 玉帝, Yù Dì) in Chinese culture, traditional religions and myth is one of the representations of the first god (太帝 tài dì). In Taoist theology he is Yuanshi Tianzun, one of the Three Pure Ones, the three primordial emanations of the Tao. He is also the Cao Đài ("Highest Power") of Caodaism.

The Jade Emperor is known by many names, including Heavenly Grandfather (天公, Tiān Gōng), which originally meant "Heavenly Duke", which is used by commoners; the Jade Lord the Highest Emperor, Great Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝, Yu Huang Shangdi or 玉皇大帝, Yu Huang Dadi). In Korean religious traditions the same name is rendered as Okhwangsangje.

It was said that the Jade Emperor was originally the crown prince of the kingdom of Pure Felicity and Majestic Heavenly Lights and Ornaments. At birth, he emitted a wondrous light that filled the entire kingdom. When he was young, he was kind, intelligent and wise. He devoted his entire childhood to helping the needy (the poor and suffering, the deserted and single, the hungry and disabled). Furthermore, he showed respect and benevolence to both men and creatures. After his father died, he ascended the throne. He made sure that everyone in his kingdom found peace and contentment. After that, he told his ministers that he wished to cultivate Tao on the Bright and Fragrant Cliff.

After 1,750 kalpas, each kalpa lasting for 129,600 years, he attained Golden Immortality. After another one hundred million years of cultivation, he finally became the Jade Emperor (using the given figures, this period before his becoming the Jade Emperor lasted for a total of about 226,800,000 years.)

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