Hanging Up Zhongkui's Pictures and the Realgar Wine

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The Duanwu ( 端午 Duanwu ) festival is one of the most important of Chinese traditional festivals. Daoism heavily influences this festival.

The Duanwu festival is set on the 5th of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. The ancients arranged numbers according to the Five Agents and Five is the middle number. The 5th of the 5th month, containing a double five or a double middle number, is also called the Heavenly Middle Festival ( 天中節 Tianzhong jie ). In the Twelve Celestial Trunks indicating time, the Wu hour is the middle of day; and so Wu represents midday. Thus the festival is called Right Wu or Double Wu. In ancient conceptions, the 5th of the 5th month is an inauspicious day. Babies born on this day can't grow to adulthood; otherwise, they will be harmful to their parents. Therefore, people had to find ways to dispel their misfortunes, and thus formed the Duanwu festival with such activities as dragon boat competitions. Some think the dragon boat competition commemorates the great patriotic poet Qu Yuan. In fact, it is one of the Duanwu activities to dispel the vices of the time. Some scholars such as Wen Yiduo think it originated from the totemic cult of the ancient Yue people of the south. In the Han dynasty at the latest, the vice-dispelling custom on Duanwu had come into form. Daoism, after its formation, developed its special talent in dispelling evil and deeply penetrated Duanwu customs. The important items are as follows: Celestial Master Talismans ( 天師符 Tianshi Fu ), Realgar Wine ( 雄黃酒 Xionghuang Jiu ), and Hanging up Zhong Kui's portrait ( 掛鍾馗 Gua Zhong Kui ).

Hangging up Zhong Kui's portrait

This custom formed early with a development process. According to the Inner Chapters of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity by Ge Hong, an eminent Daoist of the Jin Dynasty, dressing numinous red Talismans can help avoid disasters from swords. Later people dressed Daoist Talismans for this reason. From dressing Talismans there evolved the custom of putting up Talismans. In the custom of the Ming and Qing dynasties, putting up the Celestial Master's Talisman became a custom of the Duanwu festival. In some places, people even put up Talismans from the beginning of the 5th month and put them down them as late as the 1st of the 6th month. So there is a poem saying, "Every year when new Talismans replace old ones, Daoists thus have business with their followers. Vital Breath is infused into their dragon-and-snake-like strokes when they draw Talismans with red brushes." The poet's own commentary to the poem says, "Talismans are put up between two pillars on Duanyang Festival to dispel evil and invite blessings. Several days earlier, Daoists draw Talismans in red and send them to all those families that often recite scriptures. These Daoist followers are like business customers." (Street Song of the Year in Hu City by Zhang Chunhua of the Qing Dynasty) Naturally, Celestial Master's Talismans are drawn not necessarily by but in the name of the Celestial Master. They are written with the two words "Celestial Master" to show their authority. In the custom of the Song dynasty, people knit a grass Celestial Master riding a tiger and hung it on their door to dispel vices.

Besides Celestial Master's Talismans, poor families put up small peach-wood-sealed color Talismans, or dress color cloth silk thread twined with silk threads as five-color Talismans. All these originated from Daoism.

Realgar Wine

As a Duanwu custom, people always mix realgar in wine and let adults and children drink to avoid vice, and spray the rest in the four corners of the house. The wine is said to be very powerful. In the Story of White Snake ( 白蛇傳 Baishe Zhuan ), Lady White drank this wine under Xu Xian's repeated cajoling, and thus changed during sleep into her original shape of a snake. Realgar is a commonly used medicine in alchemy and Chinese traditional medicine. Kou Zongshi of Song Dynasty ranked it "middle class in jade and stones" in vol. 3 of his Reprint of the Expanded Meaning of the Materia Medica, saying that it can kill spirits, malicious ghosts, and evil vital breath, and prevent all poisonous insects and five kinds of weapons. But it is poisonous. In Daoist nourishing food prescriptions, drinking its wine mixture is one of the many ways of taking realgar. This was mentioned in the Inner Chapters of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity by Ge Hong. The Daoist Canon contains the Immortal's Prescription of Refining Realgar with Wine ( 神仙酒煉雄黃方 Shenxian Jiu Lian Xionghuang Fang ) in the Immortal's Ways of Taking Nourishing Food, Elixir and Medicine ( 神仙服餌丹石行藥法 Shenxian Fu'er Danshi Xingyao Fa ) by Jing Li. In the prescription, realgar is the main medicine and wine the aid. The afterword of the prescription says that after taking this medicine, "the three insects in the belly die; the mind becomes clever and the eyes become bright. One will become so mighty that dragons avoid him in water, wolves and tigers escape him in mountains, and the five kinds of weapons can't harm him in battle." This affirmation of the effect of realgar is such that it reached the level of superstition. It influenced folk people to form the custom of drinking realgar wine.

Besides realgar, in some areas, people also drink cinnabar wine. Cinnabar is the fundamental medicine of alchemy and is more important than realgar. Meanwhile, it is the common material for drawing talismans. The way of drinking cinnabar wine also comes from Daoism. In some areas, cut sweet flag was put into the wine. This is called "drinking sweet flag". Sweet flag, also a commonly used medicine in Daoist food, is thought to be able to protect against poisonous insects and dispel the Three Worms. So, drinking sweet flag also shows the influence of Daoism on Duanwu customs.

Hanging up Zhong Kui's portrait

A common custom in the Duanwu festival is putting up Zhong Kui's portrait. Zhong Kui was an expert in seizing ghosts. In portraits, he is a fierce man with wide-open eyes, a messy beard, and a sword at his waist, seizing ghosts with his bony hands and eating them. Zhong Kui's appearance was related a story about the Xuanzong Emperor of the Tang dynasty. According to the Complements to Written Talk by the famous Song Dynasty scientist Shen Kuo, in the Kaiyuan Era, the Xuanzong Emperor fell sick with malaria for over a month after seeing troops at Mt. Lishan. One night, he dreamed of two ghosts, a big one and a small one. The small one, blind in one eye and disabled in one foot, ran around the palace after stealing Noble Princess Yang's purple fragrance bag and the emperor's flute. The big one, with his arms bared and wearing a hat and boots, seized the small ghost and dug out its eye and swallowed it. The Emperor asked, "Who are you?" The big ghost answered, "My name is Zhong Kui. I failed in the general candidate examination and vowed to wipe out monsters in the world for Your Majesty." Waking from the dream, the emperor was well again. Then, the emperor ordered artist Wu Daozi to draw a portrait of Zhong Kui and printed many copies to give to his ministers. Thus the custom was born of avoiding ghosts with portraits of Zhong Kui. However, according to scholars' studies in the Ming and Qing dynasties, belief in Zhong Kui may have formed very early. At latest in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, some people were named after Zhong Kui. So Zhong Kui must have already been popular among the folk people for his heroism and bravery. Some say that Zhong Kui was originally the phonetic spelling for "Zhui", the ancient weapon for beating ghosts. Thus, in Emperor Xuanzong's time, Zhong Kui appeared in his dream and became popular under the emperor's order. Then he became deeply rooted in Chinese folklore.

Besides Wu Daozi, many other artists drew portraits of Zhong Kui and gave him various images. According to Vol. 6 of the Records of Knowledge of Painting by Guo Ruoxu of the Song dynasty, Zhong Kui, as portrayed by Wu Daozi, is dressed in blue and wears one boot, and is blind in one eye. With his messy hair under a scarf, he has a court tablet in his belt. Zhong Kui caught a ghost with his left hand and dug its eye with his right hand. The portrait, with very powerful strokes, is really first-class in paintings. Someone got the portrait and offered it to the emperor of Shu who treasured it very much and put it up in his bedroom. One day, the emperor invited Huang Quan to enjoy the painting. Huang, at seeing the picture, exclaimed his praise. The emperor said, "This Zhong Kui will look more powerful with his thumb digging out the ghost's eye. Please change it for me." Huan Quan brought the portrait home. He watched several days but it didn't suffice for him to change the portrait. He had to paint another Zhong Kui digging out the ghost's eye with his thumb on a piece of silk. The next day, when he offered the silk paint and the original portrait, the emperor asked, "I wanted you to change it for me. Why did you paint another?" Huang answered, "Wu Daozi's Zhong Kui focuses all his strength and his eyes on his second finger instead of on his thumb. So I dared not change it. The one I painted, though it can't satisfy Your Majesty, focuses all its strength on the thumb. So I dared to paint another one."

From this story we can know that many ancient artists were famous for painting Zhong Kui. They each had their own talents and thus their Zhong Kui were naturally different. However, with the model of Zhong Kui transmitted down from the Tang Dynasty and his duty of seizing and eating ghosts, his is characterized by a fierce and ugly look. Though ugly in look, he is a kind deity only fierce to evil ghosts. Folk portraits of Zhong Kui often stress this and add several bats descending from heaven symbolizing blessings from heaven. The portraits by Daoists were often sealed with the words "Treasures of Dao, Scripture, and Master" to add to their power. Daoists have absorbed Zhong Kui into their pantheon of Immortals and sometimes use him as the signer in drawing talismans.

Zhong Kui was originally the Door God. According to folklore, he came first in examinations but the emperor rejected him for his ugliness. Out of anger, Zhong Kui killed himself by beating his head on the back gate of the court. So he was invited to be the Back Gate God. However, in later times, people often hung up Zhong Kui's portrait on Duanwu and made it a Duanwu custom.

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