Burning Joss Sticks and Worshipping Spirits

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Chinese people have a two-sided attitude toward spirits. On the one hand, they hold them in awe and respect, and fear offending them; on the other hand, their motivation is strongly utilitarian, and they pray to spirits chiefly for their own protection. Hence, communication between men and spirits is rich in human feelings and reciprocity. This characteristic is expressed in the common peoples' worship of spirits. Below are a few examples:

Burning Incense

Burning Incense ( 燒香 Shaoxiang ) is usually called Worship ( 拜拜 Baibai ) in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is the commonest way of worshiping spirits. Lighting incense and candles, people worship spirits by bowing down on their knees several times; the more pious kneel down and kowtow and pray silently at the same time.

Burning incense is a custom passed down from ancient worshiping rituals. When the ancient Chinese rendered cults to God and ancestors, they usually burned their sacrifices or simply certain plants to make heavy smoke, thinking that they could communicate with spirits through the smoke. Having evolved gradually and been popularized later, such a practice has become a way of showing respect for spirits by burning incense. But the incense of later ages was improved, and some fine incense produced specially for venerating spirits appeared, including some types of incense spread in from India and Iran, etc. The most common types at present include single incense and winded incense.

Incense is also commonly used in Daoist rituals. The earliest known record of Daoists' using incense is mentioned in the History of Wu in the Annals of the Three Kingdoms ( 三國志 Sanguozhi ), which states that the Daoist Yu Ji taught people to burn incense and read Daoist books in the eastern reaches of the Yangtze River. Incense Burners ( 香爐 Xianglu ) were set up in the Daoist temples of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, showing that it was quite popular to use incense at the time. However, Daoism has strict prescriptions as to how to use incense. The procedure of offering incense is clearly instituted. Furthermore, Daoism has its own interpretations of the religious functions of incense. But burning incense among the people is not so strictly prescribed. It is mainly a way to show piety. Common people's burning incense always goes along with giving offerings. This is called Offering. The offerings include fruits and even pig heads, whole cocks, and the like. In fact, it is forbidden in Daoism to give things such as pig heads as offerings. But as the people have long been doing so, Daoism has to let things take their own course.

There are many customs concerning the folk practice of burning incense. One of them is the so-called Burning the First Incense Stick ( 燒頭香 Shao Touxiang ). The First Incense Stick refers to the first stick burnt in the incense burner, especially in the New Year. Common folk think the first incense stick has the greatest merits and that they can receive the most good fortune from it, so they often try to burn the first incense stick. Though the first incense stick is burnt before dawn, believers begin to wait until midnight. If it is on New Year's Day (the first day of the first lunar month), pilgrims usually start waiting early before midnight of the New Year's Eve. Apart from burning the first incense stick, in some places there also exists the custom of Burning Incense at the Ten Temples ( 燒十廟香 Shao Shimiao Xiang ), i.e., carrying a basket of incense in hand, and going to the nearest ten or so temples to burn incense continuously on the morning of the first day of the first lunar month. The purpose of this custom is similar to that of burning the first incense stick.

Another practice in the folk custom of burning incense is to Offer Incenss in Prostration ( 燒拜香 Shao Baixiang ). It refers to the practice of giving one prostration at every step or every several steps while heading toward a temple. For example, in the region of Hengyang of Hunan, there is the custom of offering incense in prostration on the Southern Sacred Mountain. Usually the person carries a small stool with an incense table placed on it and makes prostrations every several steps as he climbs up the mountain. Offering incense in prostration costs time, effort and money as well, so it is not frequently practiced. It is conducted only in situations of great difficulty, such as parents' being seriously ill.

Redeeming Vows

To Redeem a Vow ( 還願 Huanyuan ) is also called "Yingdian" and "Jiannuo". When people pray for spirits' protection, they always make all kinds of promises, namely vows. The promises are always good deeds generally acknowledged by contemporaries or matters believed to please spirits, such as "Sculpting a New Deity ( 重塑金身 Chongsu Jinshen ) ", "Worshiping to Redeem a Vow ( 重禮祭祀 Chongli Jisi ) ", "Singing Operas ( 唱戲 Changxi ) ", "Vegetarianism ( 吃素 Chisi ) ", "Releasing a Captured Animal ( 放生 Fangsheng ) ", and "Offering Scriptures ( 送經 Songjing ) ", etc. Later, when their wishes are realized, which means that the spirits have protected and blessed them, they burn incense again to report to the spirits and keep their promises so as to give thanks. This is called "Rewarding a Deity" ( 酬神 Choushen ), but the folk prefer to call it "Redeeming a Vow". The usual ways of redeeming a vow are burning incense at temples and offering fruits and vegetarian meals. Since the people do not quite understand some of the Buddhist and Daoist rules and taboos, they sometimes give chicken, pig feet, and pig heads as offerings. For example, in the past the Bao'an Situ Temple (commonly called the Red Temple), a Daoist temple in Shanghai, enshrines Guanyin. At that time some people redeemed their vows with pig feet. It did not conform to religious rituals, but it was not considered odd, as it was the folk conduct. But in orthodox Daoist practice, offerings should essentially be incense, candles and vegetarian offerings. In large-scale activities of redeeming a vow, Performances to Please Deities ( 報賽 Baosai ) are often carried out.

Performances to Please Deities

In folk activities of redeeming a vow to spirits and celebration of spirits' birthdays, Performances to Please Deities are always practiced, and collective activities of rewarding deities in certain regions can develop into large-scale fairs. Performances to please deities include pleasing deities by beating drums, music, singing and dancing. This custom has a very ancient origin. In ancient times among the people, witches used to serve spirits by beating drums and dancing. This custom was carried on in later times. In the folk worship of both Buddhist and Daoist Buddhas and Immortals, singing, dancing and entertainment are often practised. Daoism and its temples have great influence among the people, so most of the folk performances to please deities are connected with Daoism. There are two types of performance in terms of their organization. One kind is a performance held for praying and redeeming vows by a family or an individual. It is small-scale and held irregularly. Another kind is organized by local leaders and funded by the people. It is held on some fixed dates, such as the birthdays of spirits at Temple Fairs ( 廟會 Miaohui ). These performances are large-scale and called Performance Fairs.  

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