Pilgrimage Times and Temple Fairs

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Pilgrimage Times and Temple Fairs

In large Daoist temples, or even famous Grotto Heavens ( 洞天 Dongtian ) and Blissful Realms ( 福地 Fudi ), every year there is usually a peak season when people burn incense, which is called the Incense Season ( 香期 Xiangqi ). Also, there are regular activities such as offering sacrifices and celebrations, which are called the Temple Fair ( 廟會 Miaohui ).

Both the Incense Season and the Temple Fair are centred on the temple and the spirits worshiped in it. In the development of Daoism, quite a number of temples and famous mountains that are very influential both within Daoism and among the people have emerged, some of which are even the seats of the ancestral altars of certain sects. Hence they are enormously appealing both inside and outside Daoism. The spirits worshiped in these famous mountains and temples attract believers and pilgrims from nearby and even from a thousand miles away to offer incense. Especially on significant festivals such as the birthdays of the spirits, large-scale activities of offering cults and celebrations are held with worshiping the spirits and patriarchs of the temples as major rituals. Therefore, Temple Fairs are usually named in different ways. Some are called Incense Temple Fairs so as to emphasize offering incense, while some others are called Processions ( 賽會 過會 出會 Saihui Guohui Chuhui ) so as to stress the characteristic of giving large-scale folk artistic performances to repay spirits' protection. Moreover, since Temple Fairs and Incense Seasons are times when the largest number of people are gathered, they stimulate and promote the business of food catering, hotels, renting carriages and horses, etc. Besides, they are good opportunities for the exchange of goods and materials between people in the countryside who seldom meet at ordinary times. Hence the Temple Fair is a synthetic folk fair, but it is based on the belief in and worship of spirits. For example, Mt. Mao is the seat of the ancestral altar of the Highest Clarity Sect ( 上清派 Shangqing Pai ), and the spirits worshiped there are mainly the Three Mao Perfect Sovereign Brothers ( 三茅真君 Sanmao Zhenjun ). According to the legend of the Han dynasty, the three brothers Mao Ying, Mao Gu and Mao Zhong once cultivated themselves at this place, and they became the Three Mao Perfect Sovereign Brothers after attaining Dao and ascending to Heaven. In the region of Jiangsu, there are a lot of believers, and the mountain's influence expands to Anhui, Shanghai, Zhejiang, etc. The Incense Season of Mt. Mao starts in the first lunar month, when the pilgrims form a continuous stream, and it reaches its climax in the third lunar month. According to the last chapter of the third volume of the China Folk Customs Gazeteer ( 中華全國風俗志 Zhonghua Quanguo Fengsu Zhi ) edited by Hu Pu'an in the period of the Republic of China, during that period, "Pilgrims, whether near or far, participate in it enthusiastically. Several villages in each prefecture form an association. They place the picture of Buddha (note: it should be a spirit or Immortal, but the people usually do not distinguish Immortals from Buddhas) in a small wooden shrine, which is one chi and five or six cun high, more than one chi wide, and shaped as a house. The wooden shrine is finely engraved and colourfully ornamented. In the middle sits a divine statue that is five or seven cun high, and small wooden sticks extend out from the shrine. One or two persons carry it on their shoulder, while an entourage advances behind them with gongs, drums and cymbals clanging. Occasionally some people, holding banners or umbrellas, show the statue in the street. Such activities are carried out several times every day before the fifteenth day of the third lunar month. Everyone carries a yellow cloth bag with the word ' pilgrimage' written on it." (This practise is not confined to Mt. Mao. Other places, such as Mt. Wudang (dedicated to the Highest Emperor of the Mysterious Northern Heaven ( 玄天上帝 Xuantian Shangdi )), Mt. Miaofeng (dedicated to the Primordial Lady of the Emerald Cloud ( 碧霞元君 Bixia Yuanjun ) -- who is also called the Mt. Tai Granny or the Summit Lady by folk believers, for she originally lived at the top of Mt. Tai, and so offering incense to her is also called the Pilgrimage to the Summit), Mt. Qionglong in the former Suzhou (dedicated to the Great Jade Emperor ( 玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi )), have their own Incense Seasons. Temple Fairs are usually concentrated in a shorter time than Incense Seasons. Usually they are fixed on the birthday of some spirit or several days before or after it, so they are even more jubilant.


The celebration of the Temple Fair always focuses on the worship of spirits and develops into synthetic activities such as folk entertainment, typical local dish exhibitions and trade. The Temple Fair is usually focused on the temple and also expands to the area around the temple. During that period, grand rituals of celebration are held in temples, and the believers often come to watch and sometimes participate in them and raise money to accumulate merits. Such situations started a long time ago. For example, the sacred birthday of the Supreme Venerable Sovereign ( 太上老君 Taishang Laojun ) was already greatly valued in the Tang and Song dynasties. Indeed, in the Tang dynasty, he was regarded as the first patriarch, the Emperor of the Mysterious Origin ( 玄元皇帝 Xuanyuan Huangdi ). In Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song dynasty, "the birthday party of the Venerable Sovereign is held every year in the Tianqing Temple. Ten thousand lamps are lighted, the sage is worshiped, and fasts are carried out to pray for blessings for the people. The officials and common people offering incense and worshiping spirits are numerous" (Volume One of the Record of the Golden Millet Dream ( 夢粱錄 Mengliang Lu ) by Wu Zimu of the Song dynasty). On the ninth day of the first lunar month, the birthday of the Great Jade Emperor, Daoist temples hold routine Offering Rituals to worship him and many nearby believers come to offer incense. The Temple Fair of the Sacred Mountain of the East ( 東嶽會 Dongyue Hui ) held on the 28th day of the third lunar month, birthday of the Great Emperor of the Sacred Mountain of the East ( 東嶽大帝 Dongyue Dadi ), and the Temple Fair of Immortals ( 神仙會 Shenxian Hui ) held in Jiangsu on the 14th day of the fourth lunar month, Lu Dongbin's birthday, and so on, all centre on the Offering Rituals in the temples, together with plenty of other folk customs.


Most of the folk activities in Temple Fairs are mainly for elimination of disasters and for praying for good fortune. Wanshou Temple on Mt. Xiaoyao of Jiangxi is the Sacred Space ( 道場 Daochang ) of Perfect Sovereign Xu ( 真君 Zhenjun ). According to a local legend, after controlling the flood dragon in those days, Perfect Sovereign Xu planted a cypress in front of Wanshou Temple and predicted, "When the cypress branches reach the ground, I will revive." It implies that if the cypress branches touch the ground, the flood dragon will do harm again and Perfect Sovereign Xu will have to bring the demon under control once more. The people are afraid that the cypress branches' reaching the ground would tempt the flood dragon to cause floods and disasters, so in August every year, they hold a cypress cutting fair to crop the branches. During the Mt. Mao Incense Season, people climb up the mountain to offer incense. Usually the pilgrims Petition the Three Perfect Mao Brothers ( 三茅表 Sanmao Biao ) at the summit palace and affix the Nine Elders' Immortal Capital Sovereign Seal at the seal palace. It is said that by doing so, people can pray for good fortune and avoid evil. Moreover, they often bring home "One Incense Stick" and a "Golden Elixir Basket ( 黃丹籮 Huangdan Luo ) ". The incense stick implies "returning to the Xiang (a homophone for ' incense' and ' hometown') and obtaining good fortune". There are altogether 29 Golden Elixir Baskets, which are shaped like baskets and are similar to goose eggs in size. One of them represents the alchemical cauldron of the partriarch, and the others represent the Twenty-Eight Constellations. At the Temple Fair of the White Cloud Temple ( 白雲觀 Baiyun Guan ) held every year in Beijing, people enter the temple to touch the statues of three monkeys in order to get rid of bad luck. They also often Shoot into the Eye of the Big Coin ( 打金錢眼 Da Jinqian Yan ) beside the Wofeng Bridge (they toss a small coin into the eye of a large suspended coin; those who are able to toss the coin through the eye will be fortunate). Pilgrims to Mt. Miaofeng in the suburbs of Beijing often bring a small red flower home. This is called "Bringing Blessings Home" ( 帶福還家 Daifu Huanjia ). At the Temple Fair of the Shrine to the Duke of Chariots ( 車公廟 Chegong Miao ) in Hong Kong, people usually bring back a small paper pinwheel and let it turn round and round in the wind. This signifies "Changing One's Luck" ( 轉運 Zhuanyun ). Going below the Golden Summit, Pilgrims to Mt. Wudang often go through a narrow passage in a in a small temple, which is actually the summit temple of Mt. Wudang built in the Yuan dynasty, i.e., the Mysterious Emperor's Temple. While passing through the passage, the person is asked by another person standing nearby, "Have you turned round?" and he answers, "Yes." This signifies getting rid of bad fortune and changing it into good luck. Customs like these defy enumeration.


During Temple Fairs, people often hold all kinds of folk artistic activities that entertain both spirits and men, and sometimes invite professional theatrical troupes to perform operas to Reward a Deity ( 酬神 Choushen ). For example, there exists the so-called Procession custom, i.e., giving a performance of all kinds of folk arts and sideshows in the period of the Temple Fairs. "The so-called Procession means that loafers in the capital play the roles of opening the way, holding streams, carrying boxes, holding Wuhu sticks, beating flower-drums, playing with stilts, doing the yangko dance, juggling with jars, and performing the lion dance, etc." (Records of the Yanjing Festivals by Fu Dunchong of the Qing dynasty). These are sideshows popular in the Beijing area. Since mass participation is the prominent characteristic of Temple Fairs, despite some professional entertainment, most activities come into being spontaneously in different regions or different professions. Furthermore, they take place in a single place at a single time and can be compared, so they are of strong competitive nature. This promotes the folk artists and ordinary participants to improve their artistic quality. Therefore, all the Temple Fairs having a certain influence always become a grand display of folk arts, sideshows and so on. At that time, the performances vie with each other for glamour and the spectators form a solid wall of humanity. It is a veritable grand entertainment gathering.


Incense Seasons and Temple Fairs have local features. Every place has its influential Temple Fair. Both Incense Seasons and Temple Fairs are concentrated in some region or some temple in the region, so the first participants are mostly local people. The fame and the spirits' influence may extend several hundred miles, but generally speaking, Incense Seasons and Temple Fairs have evident local cultural characteristics. This is because they are generally connected with the local inhabitants' activities of praying for good fortune and eliminating disasters, and while organizing and operating such activities according to their local traditions, people are liable to absorb the local cultural elements into them. As a matter of fact, the Chinese have the tradition of holding "Earth God Fairs ( 社會 Shehui ) ". That is, out of the need to worship the Earth God collectively, inhabitants of the same region organize some worship organizations. They raise funds and offer sacrifices together and perform all kinds of folk arts together as well, so as to entertain and please the spirits. It is an important occasion for the regular contact between people in various regions. Hence the Chinese word for' society' (shehui) is actually the word for ' Earth God Fair'. The Temple Fairs of later ages developed from the Earth God Fairs. People in different places all attach great importance to the Temple Fair and make good arrangements regularly in traditional ways. Daoist temples are spread all over China, so almost every place has its own Temple Fair, and some places even have frequent Temple Fairs. For example, in Fengxian County, Shanghai City, there used to be over 50 Temple Fairs. The spirits worshiped, such as Guanyin, Dizang, Patriarch Lü ( 呂祖 Lü Zu ), Lord Guan ( 關公 Guan Gong ), the Sea Dragon King ( 海龍王 Hailong Wang ), the City God ( 城隍 Chenghuang ), the Snake Spirit ( 蛇神 Sheshen ), Brave General Liu ( 劉猛將 Liu Mengjiang ), and Gentleman Shi ( 施相公 Shi Xianggong ), are mostly Daoist spirits and Immortals, as well as folk spirits which were included in the Daoist pantheon. The Temple Fairs of the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, the Saintly Earth God Mother Temple in Shanxi Province, the Mysterious Sublimity Temple ( 玄妙觀 Xuanmiao Guan ) in Suzhou, and the fairs dedicated to Lord Guan, the Heavenly Motherly Matriarch ( 天后媽祖 Tianhou Mazu ) in Taiwan and mainland China, the Medicine King in Yao County, Shanxi (hometown of Sun Simiao, the Medicine King), and so on, are all Temple Fairs that are influential regionally or even in the whole country.