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Elders receive blessing on Chong Yang Festival

REN GUANHONG | 2018-10-25
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details of “Hiking on the day of Chong Yang” by Zhang Daqian (1899–1983)

Chong Yang Festival, or Double Ninth Festival, falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. It is one of the Four Festivals of Ancestral Veneration in China. The ancient Chinese classic I Ching declared nine as a yang—or positive—number. Therefore, the ninth day of the ninth lunar month means “double nine” or “double yang.” Since the Chinese character chong means double, the day is called “Chong Yang.” In Chinese folk customs, double nine (jiu jiu) is pronounced the same as the word signifying “eternal” or “forever.” Hence, Chong Yang is considered an auspicious day for wishing longevity and health upon the elderly. On this day, people usually visit or send greetings to senior family members, pay homage to their ancestors and go hiking with their families.


Origins and history
The Chong Yang Festival includes many customs that come from the lives and religious activities of ancient ancestors. They constitute the basic content of the festival and constantly take on new cultural implications. The earliest reference to the customs of Chong Yang dates back to the pre-Qin times (before 221 BCE). The Spring and Autumn Annals of Lü Buwei, an encyclopedic Chinese classic compiled around 239 BCE, recorded that people offered sacrifices to ancestors, gods and heaven to express their gratitude for the harvest during the ninth lunar month. Some believed those rituals were the origins of the Chong Yang Festival.

Another guess attributes the festival to the ancient worship of the Lao Ren Xing (star of the elderly), or Canopus. In Chinese astronomy, this star is believed to control the life spans of mortals. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, between Sirius and the horizon is a big star named Nanji Laoren, or the “old person of the South Pole” (another name of the Lao Ren Xing). In this book, Nanji Laoren was usually witnessed during the autumn equinox. Seeing this star was a good sign, indicating a lasting peace for the country. When it disappeared from sight, it was believed that wars and disasters would come soon.

Written documents show that caring for old people during autumn has been a tradition since the pre-Qin times. An ancient Chinese philosophical text named Guanzi suggests that in autumn, people should take care of the elderly and the weak, and not abandon them. It became a prevailing tradition during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). According to the Book of the Later Han, regional governments should conduct a census and register all of the old people in the kingdom during zhong qiu (the eighth lunar month). The elderly over the age of 70 would be served with porridge and given a crutch from the emperor. This crutch was decorated with a turtledove, symbolizing health and longevity, because turtledoves were believed to be able to eat without getting choked.

Through relevant records, notes and historical literature, it can be observed that the ninth day of the ninth lunar month had been celebrated as a folk festival, probably before the Han Dynasty. The Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital, a collection of short semi-historiographical stories from the Han Dynasty, gave a brief introduction of the customs on that day, including drinking chrysanthemum wine and wearing cornel twigs. It was in the Three Kingdoms period that “Chong Yang” appeared as the name of the festival. Emperor Wen of Wei (187–226) wrote that the ninth day of the ninth lunar month was the day of double yang, so he named the day “Chong Yang” in the hope of an eternal reign. He also held a grand feast in the palace to celebrate the day. Chong Yang was officially declared a festival during the Tang Dynasty. Since then, it has become widely celebrated as a national festival in China.


Mountain hiking 
The Chong Yang Festival is also called Deng Gao Jie, or the Hiking Festival, because mountain hiking is the most important custom among its festival activities. Since the character gao has a sense of promotion or long life, ascending mountains or reaching a higher place is believed to help one avoid misfortune and acheive good luck or better health. The earliest reference to this custom dates back to the Southern Dynasties (420–589). In the Xu Qi Xie Ji, an ancient compilation of legends and hearsay about supernatural phenomena, a man named Huan Jing is learning the magic arts from a fortuneteller named Fei Zhangfang. One day, Fei tells Huan that a disaster is coming to his hometown on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. The way to avoid the disaster is to fill red sachets with cornel leaves and fruits, tie them to their arms, climb to the top of a mountain and drink wine. Following Fei’s instructions, Huan brings his family to the highest point in the village and does not return until the evening. When they return, they find all their animals dead. Since that book, people have associated hiking up mountains with avoiding  some perceived oncoming doom on the day of Chong Yang. Moreover, standing on high ground and looking far into the distance on a pleasant autumn day can help alleviate some of the seasonal depression and anxiety.


Chong Yang cake
Special food is usually an indispensable part of festivals. For the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, Chong Yang gao, or Chong Yang cake, is a traditional festival food. It is said that the cake was originally prepared after autumn harvests for farmers to have a taste of what was just in season. It gradually became the festival cake during the Six Dynasties (222–589) and prevailed during the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279). The Northern Song writer Meng Yuanlao mentioned the Chong Yang cake in his book, The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor (Dongjing Menghua Lu). He described it as a type of steamed cake mixed with pomegranate seeds, chestnuts, ginkgo fruits and pine nuts, and decorated with mini colored flags. Furthermore, cake (gao) is also a homophone for “high” or “tall,” making people feel like eating cake is a sign of making progress or getting a promotion. During the Song Dynasty, it was a tradition to put a piece of Chong Yang cake on a child’s head and to wish a promising future upon them.


Chrysanthemum flowers and wine
The chrysanthemum flower is a crucial symbol of the Chong Yang Festival. Since it starts blooming in autumn when the weather turns cold and many other plants wither, it is regarded as a symbol of vitality and longevity. It has also been used for hundreds of years in Chinese medicine, treating high blood pressure, fevers, colds, headaches or swelling. Under the influence of Taoism, the ancient Chinese believed chrysanthemum flowers could prolong their lives or even make them immortal. Therefore, chrysanthemum flowers were considered auspicious for the elderly, finally becoming the festival plant of Chong Yang. Another tradition during the festival is drinking chrysanthemum wine, which is made from flowers and leaves of chrysanthemum and broomcorn millet. It is said that chrysanthemum wine, infused with cornel fruit, has wholesome effects on the regulation of the flow of vital energy in the human body.


The cornel is a heavy-scented plant. Its fruit is edible and is used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine for several minor ailments. Since cornel is believed to be toxic to insects and is used as a repellent, the ancient Chinese kept its leaves and fruits with clothes to protect them from insects and mildew, especially during summer when the weather in southern China was extremely hot and damp. Wearing cornel twigs during the Chong Yang Festival is an important custom, and the cornel means more than an insect repellent or medical herb. It is believed to have the power to prevent diseases and avoid disasters. On the day of Chong Yang, people usually wear cornel twigs on their arms, heads or carry sachets filled with cornel leaves and fruits.


(edited by REN GUANHONG)

(Chinese Social Sciences Today)