Assemblies to Entice Spirits

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Assemblies to Entice Spirits
Pilgrimage Times and Temple Fairs

In ancient China, there used to be a custom whereby the habitants of a place collectively offered cults to the local spirits, or welcomed spirits to make a procession through a certain region, thus praying to him for eliminating disasters and receiving good fortune. Concurrently, large-scale recreational activities and rites for praying for the spirits' protection were held among the people. The organization in charge of such activities was called the " Fair" ( 會 Hui ). For example, in order to worship the Village Grandpa Spirit ( 社神 Sheshen ) (i.e., the Earth Spirit ( 土地神 Tudi Shen ) in later ages), inhabitants of the same region needed to have a head who took the lead and formed a common organization, namely the Earth God Fair This tradition was also absorbed into Daoism. Activities to welcome spirits for a procession were often held for Daoist spirits as well.

The Origin

Welcoming Spirits for a Procession is usually organized to celebrate spirits' birthdays. Sometimes people welcome spirits to make a procession in order to pray for blessings or pray for spirits' protection, owing to the severe calamities or epidemic situation of the place at that time. During the Procession ( 出會 Chuhui )., the sculpture of the spirit in the temple is lifted out and taken on a tour of the whole region. The spirit is made to inspect local places and dispel evil spirits and various ghosts. Which specific deity is carried depends on the exact belief of the local people. For example, in the past, the procession of the Lang Spirit in the Two Kings' Temple in Guankou, Sichuan was called the procession of the Erlang Spirit. The Perfect Sovereign ( 真君 Zhenjun ) Xu in the Wanshou Temple on Mt. Xiaoyao near Nanchang, Jiangxi paid audience to his teacher regularly every year. This was called the Southern Audience. His sculpture was lifted along a fixed route to visit his daughter and son-in-law. As it traveled to the west, it was called the Western Consolation. Whenever an epidemic occured in the area of Nantong, Jiangsu, or when it was the birthday of the Heavenly Governor Spirit, the Heavenly Governor Fair was held to invite the Heavenly Governor to go on a tour of the local places and dispel pestilence. There were different views about who was the Heavenly Governor Spirit, but a popular view was that he was Zhang Xun of the Tang dynasty, who was killed for condemning An Lushan. This person was simultaneously called the Hairy Numinous Duke in Longyou County, Zhejiang--perhaps because his statue wore a heavy beard and appeared very mighty. The sculpture was taken through the whole county to bring safety. In a word, any spirit having influence in one region is likely to be taken on a circuit of the whole region, and according to the procession activity, there is a related "Fair". Sometimes all the spirits of the whole region are welcomed for a procession together. They converge in a certain place and gather together. Among the activities of welcoming spirits for a procession usually held in different regions, a relatively popular one is the procession of the City God ( 城隍 Chenghuang ). Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty prescribed that the City God inspect local places three times a year, once during Qingming Festival, once during the Zhongyuan Festival, and once on the first day of the tenth lunar month. The main responsibility of the City God was to control fierce ghosts and protect the region and pacify the people. The City God's procession became a custom in every place, and was conducted on schedule every year. In some places, this custom was maintained till the modern times, or even until the contemporary age.

The Organization

To welcome spirits for a procession is usually well organized. The activities are usually named in the name of the spirit worshiped, or according to the guidelines of the organization, or the profession or region of the organization. For example, in Shanghai there used to be a Three Mao Temple that worshiped The Three Mao Perfect Sovereign Brothers ( 三茅真君Sanmao Zhenjun ). The believers carried the sculptures of them on to Mt. Mao, advancing by beating gongs and drums. This was popularly called the Three Mao Fair ( 三茅會 San Mao Hui ).

The Procession

The procession is always accompanied with exuberant entertainment, a grand manifestation of popular arts. The Procession is an important event in local places. The Chinese people have always had the tradition of entertaining spirits by singing and dancing, and in large processions, a well-organized display of performances and a variety of recreational activities take place. At the same time various kinds of operas are performed all night till dawn. The popular ones among them include Stilts ( 高蹺 Gaoqiao ), the Land Boat ( 旱船 Hanchuan ), Streamers ( 中幡 Zhongfan ) (playing with streamers over one zhang high), and Open-Air Opera ( 扮台閣 Ban Taige ) (displaying a scene in an opera and carried by people or on carts, proceeding in streets), etc. These performances are always given in public in the streets, and the people can watch freely. As the performers come from the common people and many are local natives, mass participation is an outstanding feature of this kind of performance. In fact, it is the carnival of the Chinese people.


In Western countries, because the religions are basically unified or a certain religion is predominant, their religious festivals are almost identical within a country or even in many countries. In comparison, Chinese Processions, due to the great variety of Immortals, Buddhas, and popular spirits, the time for the Procession varies in different places, so that people can participate in the Procession in neighbouring places and thus take part in such carnivals several times. Many popular entertainment performances are especially prepared for the Procession. After assiduous training and competitions, learning and exchanges with many other performers in the Processions, the folk artists improve their level continuously. After some Procession activities died out this century, these performances became independent and turned into very influential folk artistic performances, quite a number of which are still lively on the present artistic stage. In the past twenty years, with the great development of tourism in the mainland of China, all kinds of folk arts are well utilized, and many of them originate from different sorts of Procession performances. Therefore, this kind of folk art, which is organized and exists for the divine Processions, has become an important cultural as well as economic resource.