Wed, Aug 22, 2012 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Kinmen residents hang lanterns to guide lost spirits

By Wu Cheng-ting and Jake Chung  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

A man hangs a lantern and incense sticks by his doorway on a shopping street in the island county of Kinmen on Friday, marking the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Photo: Wu Cheng-ting, Taipei Times

As the lunar calendar entered the seventh month on Friday, residents of Kinmen hung lanterns on their doors — one of the six traditions that the Kinmen County Government registered last year as part of the island’s cultural heritage.

According to the county government, it is an island-wide tradition to hang lanterns on doorsteps for the seventh lunar month, also known as “Ghost Month,” and to give offerings to spirits, which have been released from the underworld.

Traditionally, Chinese people believe that in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, spirits from the underworld are released back into the mortal realm to receive the offerings of their descendants or families.

The lanterns are intended to light the way for those spirits who have no family or descendants providing offerings. The lanterns will lead them in the direction of offerings of others, so they will not disrupt everyday life, according to locals.

Historically, lanterns included a bowl-like seat in to which lantern oil was poured. All residents had to do was to light the wick at night. With the advent of electricity and environmental concerns, most modern lanterns now employ lightbulbs instead of oil, the country government said, adding that although the method was different, the meaning of the lanterns remains unchanged.

The lanterns also bear phrases from the Book of Songs (詩經), an ancient text that was written in the Zhou Dynasty, with the contents dating back to 1046 to 771 BC, locals said. The most frequently appearing quote is: “Shifting flames of the seventh month” (七月流火), which researchers interpret as relating to the slant of Antares as it moves west.

Antares, the brightest star in the Scorpius constellation, is seen at its apex and in the most southerly direction of the night sky in the fifth month of the lunar calendar. However, in the evenings of the seventh month, it is seen to gradually wheel toward the west, symbolizing the waning of summer and the onset of autumn.

Hanging lanterns is only one of Kinmen’s six major cultural practices. The others are: The ancestral worshiping ceremony of the Tsai (蔡) family located in Chiunglin (瓊林); the procession of the Chenghuang (城隍) in the Kincheng (金城) area; the gambling game for the Chuangyuan cake (狀元餅); the ceremony held to thank the gods of the sea in the Houhu (后湖) area; and the custom of worshiping lion-like figures called fungshihyeh (風獅爺).

The ancestral worship ceremony is unique in that it does not follow the traditional dates for worshiping ancestors in Chingming (清明) earlier in the year, but rather the date of death for a fifth-generation ancestor and his wife.

The procession of the Chenghuang deity is one of the most important religious activities on the island, with two smaller processions held every year and one large procession held every three years.

The gambling game for the chuanyuan cake is allegedly a game invented by someone under Cheng Chen-kung (鄭成功, better known as Koxinga), one of the last generals of the Ming Dynasty. While defending the dynasty’s claim to the throne in face of the Manchus, the game was created to raise troop morale.

The games were to be held on the nights of the 13th to the 18th days of the eighth month on the lunar calendar.

The ceremony at Houhu — held once every 12 years — has its origins in 1914 when the boats of six fishermen capsized at sea, resulting in the death of three.

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