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Zhong Yuan: An ancient day of ancestral veneration

REN GUANHONG | 2018-08-31
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

On the day of Zhong Yuan, people honor their ancestors and release lanterns on the water to guide the deceased's way home. Photo: FILE


Far from being an equivalent of Halloween, Zhong Yuan is a traditional festival of ancestral veneration in some Asian countries, especially in China, where the tradition originated. It falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. As a combination of indigenous Chinese customs, Taoism and Buddhism, Zhong Yuan has evolved into a festival of filial piety—a traditional Chinese virtue embodying kindness, conscience and caring, both for the living and the dead.

Origin
The origin of the festival is uncertain. It is generally observed as a result of the combination of ancient folk customs, Taoism and Buddhism in China. Before the advent of Taoism and Buddhism, ancient Chinese held formal rituals and ceremonies on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. The earliest reference to the festival dates as far back as the ages before the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE), when ancestral veneration appeared in Chinese culture. This native ritual in ancient China greatly influenced many aspects of the present festivals celebrated across East Asia. According to the earliest record, ancient Chinese offered sacrifices to their forefathers from time to time, especially in autumn, the season of harvest. This custom was known as qiu chang (the taste of autumn, literally), a ceremonial ritual originally performed by kings and dukes. As times moved on, the date of qiu chang gradually fell on the first full-moon day after the Beginning of Autumn (Li Qiu, the 13th solar term) on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. During the day, people prepared ritualistic food offerings from their harvests for their ancestors and prayed for a year of riches and fulfillment.


The 15th day of the seventh lunar month was listed as the Zhong Yuan Festival due to Taoism, which was a part of tribal folk religion before the advent of Buddhism in China. According to Taoist theories, the san guan, or the Three Officials, refer to the Official of Heaven who blesses people, the Official of Earth who gives absolution and the Official of Water who wards off disasters. The birthdays of the Three Officials, falling respectively on January 15, July 15 and October 15 of the Chinese calendar, are known as Shang Yuan, Zhong Yuan and Xia Yuan. It is believed that the Official of Earth granted absolution to the spirits in the underworld on his birthday and allowed them to enjoy a free night in the living world. The ancient Chinese performed ceremonies or traditions on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to protect themselves from attacks or pranks by the wandering ghosts and to pray for departed souls, such as by lighting incense and offering food. Taoism made the day a festival in honor of all deceased.


Since the introduction of Buddhism into China during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220), people found that the date of the Zhong Yuan Festival coincided with that of the Ullambana Festival (also known as the Yulan Pen Festival) among Buddhists. Ullambana is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word meaning “deliverance from suffering,” and concentrates on the virtue of filial piety. It was derived from a Buddhist legend named “Mulian Saving His Mother” mentioned in the Ullambana Sutra. In this legend, the protagonist Mulian learned that his mother’s soul was tortured in the wretched realms after she departed. He begged Sakyamuni to show him a way to liberate his mother from suffering and was informed that a tray of food offered to the community of monks and nuns at the time of their return from the summer retreat (usually on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month) would prompt them to offer prayers that could benefit his mother as well as all seven generations of ancestors. Heeding Sakyamuni’s instructions, Mulian performed Buddhist rituals with other monks until finally he succeeded in releasing his mother from suffering. Inspired by the legend, Buddhist rituals were held and sutras were chanted on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to bring salvation to the anguished souls of deceased parents and relatives in the underworld. Monks often threw rice or some small food into the air to distribute them to the spirits.


The Ullambana Festival appeared earlier than the Zhong Yuan. Since filial piety is part of the core ethics of Confucianism, this Buddhist custom quickly spread among ancient Chinese. China has followed it since the Liang Dynasty (502-557). Eventually it was incorporated into the Zhong Yuan Festival. As the legend has passed down through the ages in China, holding ceremonies of charity for deceased family members and ancestors has become an important custom for the Zhong Yuan Festival with its essential focus on the virtues of filial piety.
On the day of the Zhong Yuan Festival, there are customs such as honoring ancestors, burning joss paper, releasing lanterns into water and gifting ceremonial sheep made out of flour.

Ancestral veneration
Because veneration of ancestors is at the core of the Zhong Yuan Festival, the honoring of deceased family members and ancestors is the most solemn ceremony of the day. In ancient China, it was believed that the spirit of the deceased would reunite with their families in the seventh lunar month. Hence, the family usually started the ritual on an evening during the seventh lunar month.


During the ritual, families made altars and placed offerings such as food, candles and incense. Memorial tablets of the deceased in the family were placed on the altar. People who took part in the ritual lit incense and said prayers to the deceased and their ancestors in accordance to the traditional family hierarchy. They also summarized what they had done that year and wished to be blessed with safety. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served three times a day for each of the deceased as if they were still living. The ritual lasted until the 30th day of the month, on which the deceased were supposed to return to the underworld.

Burning joss paper 
Inspired by the folklore that indicated departed ancestors would be released from the underworld during the seventh lunar month, a custom to welcome ancestors at the beginning of July and send them off on July 15 is often seen in some areas of China. When sending off their ancestors, people will burn a lot of joss paper to ensure that the spirit of the deceased has lots of good things in the afterlife.

Floating water lanterns
The water lantern, also known as the lotus lantern, is made of paper with the shape of a lotus flower. A lamp or candle is placed inside. On Zhong Yuan night, people gather along rivers or lakes, release lanterns into the water and pray. It is believed that the lotus-shaped lanterns afloat in rivers may help the deceased find their way back home or guide the lost souls to the afterlife. The prayers are not only for ancestors, but for all the souls from the underworld.

Giving sheep to relatives
Giving a pair of sheep to relatives is a festival custom that used to be popular in the north of China. It originally stipulated that a grandfather or uncle in the mother’s clan give a pair of live sheep to his grandson or nephew. The custom is derived from the legend, “Chen Xiang Saving His Mother from the Mountain.” In this folk tale, a goddess named San Shengmu was imprisoned beneath a mountain by her brother Erlang Shen because she married a mortal. Her son, Chen Xiang defeated Erlang Shen and finally freed his mother from the mountain. When Chen Xiang wanted to take revenge on his uncle, Erlang Shen proposed delivering him a pair of live sheep every year as an apology and a way to rebuild their relationship. It is said that the sheep (yang) has the same tone as the surname of Chen Xiang’s mother. Thus, it became a custom between grandfathers and grandsons, uncles and nephews, which is believed to make the family members closer. The custom gradually evolved into giving a pair of sheep made out of flour to grandsons or nephews for convenience.

 

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)