Saturday, February 28, 2015

Celebrating The Jade Emperor's Birthday a.k.a. Pai Thnee Kong

When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, 
you don't just turn it off one day.
Chinua Achebe
Nigerian novelist, poet

"Pai Thnee Kong" to celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

Born into a mixed parentage with Chinese, Sinhalese and Thai blood, I am glad that I get to experience a diverse culture and tradition in my family. I spent my first seven years living at my paternal grandparents place, and I guess the exposure I got during the early years gave me deep interest on the Taoism culture and traditions. "Thnee Kong Seh" ("Seh" means "birthday" in Hokkien) is undoubtedly the main highlight every time we celebrate the Lunar New Year. It falls on the ninth day of the Lunar New Year (LNY) to celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor. 

To the Hokkiens like me, this day is the biggest and most important day; it even beats the first day of the lunar calendar, throughout the 15-day long LNY celebration. "Thnee Kong" is a Hokkien term which literally translates as "Heavenly God". It is known as "Tin Kong"  in Cantonese or "Tian Gong" in Mandarin. In English, it is more commonly called the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor is regarded as the supreme deity in the Taoist pantheon, reigning above all the other Taoist deities, and is in control of all things. He is the Supreme God of the Chinese folk religion, the ruler of all Heavens (over 30 in Chinese mythology), Creator of the Universe, Emperor of the Universe, and Lord of the Imperial Court. The birthday of the Jade Emperor is an important date for the Hokkien community.

People will throng the market to get fresh fruits and flowers to be offered.

Traditional cakes to be offered; the pink ones are called the "huat kueh", whereby the more cracks it has on the top of the cake, the better it is.
The orange ones are called "ang koo", "ang ee" and "ang than".

These are a few other cakes; the pink one resembles the shape of peach.

There are actually a lot other varieties of the cakes for offerings.

Readily-made joss papers which are folded into the shape of pineapples.

Roasted chicken. It is common to offer a whole chicken, symbolising prosperity, togetherness of the family and joy>/span> 
(note: chicken with its head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness).

Roasted pigs. The whole pig does not come cheap and people usually just get a portion of it.

Joss papers, which are to be folded.

There are many ways to fold the joss papers, or "kim chua" into various shapes, but I usually use the most simple one like this.

For the cakes, we usually buy home-made ones from this aunty who lives nearby our house.
She has been making these cakes using traditional method for the past 30 years or so.

For the sugar canes, we got it from this uncle who plants his own sugar canes. The good thing about getting it from him is that
we get to choose the sugar canes ourselves and he will help us to chop them off.

Legends has it that during the Ming Dynasty, the Hokkiens from the Fujian province were once attacked by General Tang Lu Lang of the Sung Dynasty on the first day of the Lunar New Year. They took refuge and hid in a sugar cane plantation in order to escape the attack. On the ninth day, which coincided with the Jade Emperor's birthday, they emerged unscathed and found their enemies gone. They believed they had been protected by the deity and saved by the protective cover of the sugar cane stalks. Ever since, the Hokkiens have regarded this date as symbolic to their survival and celebrate "Thnee Kong Seh" (birthday of the God of Heaven) as their 'real' new year.

Preparations for the "Thnee Kong Seh" is a labour of love and devotion, which usually starts a week earlier. Traditionally, most of the offerings are prepared from scratch but over the years, everyone is so busy and occupied that we would just buy them. However, I always make it a point to prepare the offerings by myself as much as I could.

Putting red decorative papers on the food offerings. In the past, we used to buy red colour papers and cut them into beautiful motifs but these days, only self-adhesive type kind of red papers are sold and personally I do not fancy these modern type ones as they do not stick properly on the food.

It is also an important point to wash the floor of the area where the prayers will be done, usually the front porch of every household.

As midnight approached, the altar will be brought out and the sugar canes will be tied to the both sides of the altar.

Dad helped out in making the sweetened glutinous rice, or "bee koh".

One of the main thing for "Pai Thnee Kong" is the sugar canes. A pair of sugar cane is a must-item when celebrating Thnee Kong Seh. It is normally tied on both sides of the altar. Some prop up or lean them against the gate or door of their houses. The sugar canes play a significant role in this celebration because the Hokkien ancestors were saved by Thnee Kong's help when they were attacked by the bandits during the olden days. Also, sugar cane ("kam chia"), which in Hokkien is homophonous to thank you ("kam siah"), is also offered as a form of thanksgiving, to their supreme deity, the Jade Emperor. Today, they are seen as a symbol of peace and prosperity. The leafy part of the sugar cane head is taken and burnt along when we burn the gold paper at the end of the prayers and offerings.

Next would be the "kim chua" or joss papers (literally gold paper in Hokkien). They are very much like origami folding, folded into gold ingots and many many interesting shapes, which promotes a better burning. The worship of the Jade Emperor entails specific items, among them Imperial Gold, or "Thnee Kong Kim", the only paper money of legal tender in the Jade Emperor's heavenly realm. This is often folded up to take on auspicious shapes, such as that of the pineapple. They have to be fully burnt in order from Thnee Kong to fully receive everything. Some people put in firecrackers when they burn these gold papers, but my grandma never allows us to do it, because according to her, the loud noise from the firecrackers will scare away the Thnee Kong when he is here to collect the gold papers hahaha!

Joss papers which have been folded into pineapple shapes to be offered to the Thnee Kong.

This is the "leng hiao" or giant joss stick with dragon motif. It is among the praying paraphernalia used for the Thnee Kong Seh. The story was that after buying this joss stick, I suggested to Mom that we give a name to our dragon. In less than 1.45 seconds, she replied me, "Dragon Ball!!!" So, meet our leng hiao and his name is Dragon Ball hahahaha!!

Various food items offered to the Jade Emperor carries specific meaning, often based on homophone. For example, the pineapple is offered because its name in Hokkien, "ong lai" is homophonous to "heralding auspiciousness".  The food offerings are normally arranged in a certain order on the altar facing the main gate, which will be wide open to allow smooth flow of all the good things.

The altar table is usually draped in red tablecloth or red paper and then elevated with benches or tables. This is to signify the highest ranking of the Jade Emperor, as there are different status and tiers in Heaven. Pure vegetarian offerings will be placed on the higher or upper tier as those are for the Jade Emperor, who is believed to be a vegetarian. For those who offer roasted pig, duck, chicken and liquor, the offerings will be placed on a lower tier table as those offerings are meant for the heavenly generals and guardian soldiers. Another custom is to place a stack of "kim" beneath the altar table, to signify the separation of Heaven and Earth/ground as the Jade Emperor is considered the Pure Ones.

The dried vegan series. From clockwise from top left, starting with black fungus, glass vermicelli ("tang hoon"), dried bean curd sheet, black moss ("fat choy"), dried lily buds :"kim chiam"), red dates ("ang zho"), longan, shiitake mushrooms. Nowadays, there are readily packed ones, where these dried vegetables are packed into one big packets. However, I still prefer to stick to the traditional way and buy them individually.

Next would be five types of fresh fruits. The common ones are pineapple, banana, mandarin orange, lime, pomelo, watermelon, pear, peach, grapes, etc. All offerings are usually washed, arranged on the plates and finished off with beautiful red papers to give it the auspicious look and for colour contrast. One important point to note is that all offerings must be placed in bowls that are not chipped or cracked. All offerings have their own bowl and vegan series especially are strictly used to hold vegan stuff only. 

Traditional Thnee Kong cakes. The orange ones are red tortoise buns ("ang koo" and "ang ee"). The skin of the ang koo is made of glutinous rice flour which is coloured red with edible colouring. The filling is made of peanuts, green beans or mung beans. The ang koo are moulded into the shape of a tortoise to signify longevity and its red colour symbolises luck. The pink round one is Chinese steamed cake ("huat kuih") and the pink oval buns are "mee koo kuih". The offerings are usually placed in multiples of six such as 12, 24 or 36 because the number 6 is considered an auspicious number in Chinese culture, in the hope that he will bless the people with good fortune and prosperity. 

Other prerequisites worship offerings would be raw "mee sua" bundled in red thread, and red hard-boiled eggs as both are traditionally served during birthday. Mee sua signifies longevity and red eggs symbolizes prosperity and is auspicious looking. The number of the red eggs offered changes every year, depending whether it is a leap year or not, which happens 7 times in a span of 19 years. My grandma will know if it is a leap year by looking at the traditional lunar calendar. However, as we are not staying with her anymore now, we usually offer 6 red eggs, to signify the 6 members in our family. By the way, 2014 is not a leap year and the next one would be in 2017.

The sweet glutinous rice or "bee koh" is also another must-have item for this occasion. It is usually decorated with red dates and longan around the bee koh. These ritual offerings are made in the hope that the sweetness from these cakes will leave a sweet taste in the mouths of the deities and they will bless the people with a prosperous year ahead. We also made a butter and chocolate layer cake since it is the Thnee Kong's birthday.

The setup for the prayers is completed.

A closer look at the arrangements of the food offerings and prayers paraphernalia. As you notice, a delicate hand-sewn table banner dedicated to the Supreme is hung at the front of the red table. 

Ariel shot of the altar. 

Took some time for photos while waiting for the midnight to come. 

Lunar Calendar is a little different from the daily calendar we based on. According to Hokkien tradition, time is marked by two-hour blocks. So, midnight encompasses the time block from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.. Technically, the worshipers may start the rites at 11:00 p.m. as it signifies the border between the eighth day and the ninth day of Lunar New Year. Therefore, most people would offer praying paraphernalia to Thnee Kong at 11 p.m. on the eight day of Lunar CNY; but my family would wait until 12 a.m. sharp.

As midnight approaches, things start to get burning. You will hear fireworks and firecrackers being lit to welcome the New Year and to mark the beginning to the 9th day of the LNY. As the Thnee Kong Seh is considered a more grand occasion than the first day of the LNY, you will hear more fireworks and firecrackers on this day compared to the eve of LNY and any other day within the 15 days of LNY. Bright sparks and loud booms filled up the dark night and it continuously goes on all night long till approximately 4 a.m.. It is literally fire everywhere and a first-timer may think that he is in a war zone hahaha!

Mom kicked of the prayers.

Meanwhile I lighted up the Dragon Ball, who was ready for take off lol! 

Joss sticks and candles are all up.

With Dad and Mom.

Parents with my two younger sisters. One more sister was away, hence not in the picture.

Mom is learning fast in taking good photos for us *hehehe*

Sisters caught red-handed taking selfies.  

Pai Thnee Kong, from the smartphone perspective. 

The head of the family will take the lead in the prayers followed by the rest of the family members. The candles and small and big joss sticks with the dragon motif ("leng hiao") are lit. Each family members burn incense and say only good words and ask for Thnee Kong's blessing for good health, better luck, safety, money, love and generally a smooth sailing for the year ahead.

After about half an hour, we will perform a ceremony called "puak puei". We use two coins and put it onto our palms, pray and request for the Thnee Kong's approval to burn the joss papers. When the two coins show two different sides, the green light is given. However, when they show the same sides on both coins, it means the Thnee Kong is "laughing and still feasting and enjoying his time" and we should wait a little while more until we puak puei again.

The joss papers are all ready to be brought outside to burn after seeking blessings from the Thnee Kong.

Breaking the head of the sugar canes to be burned together with the joss papers.

 Burning the joss papers as offerings to the Thnee Kong.
Once we get the "okay" we will start arranging the joss paper and burn them, followed by the sugar cane head and finally the tea offered will be poured around the area. As the burning end, the tribute to Thnee Kong is completed. However, the night does not stop there as it is our turn to celebrate. We would feast on the food offerings as it is believed that eating this offerings will give us blessings from the Thnee Kong. A common dish is to cook "pat thin" herbal soup and add the red eggs and mee sua into them. "Ang choe teh", made of longan and red dates will also be prepared as desserts.

Nowadays, people tend to keep the celebration as simple as possible. In fact, not many from the younger generations have much interest in this occasion, yet alone knowing the significance of each do's and don'ts adhered during the prayers. However, I believe this is a very beautiful occasions which forms part of the Chinese culture that should be preserved for the future generations.

  Lots of beautiful and colourful fireworks to celebrate this special occasion.

With that, it sums up the "Thnee Kong Seh" celebration, which is considered bigger than the first day of Lunar New Year among the Hokkien community. Thank you for reading.

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