Family keeps traditional ‘kansheng’ custom alive

ENTERTAINING THE DEAD::One story explaining the Ghost Festival figurines’ origins has it that they were substitutes for the actors the rich used in rites

By Hsieh Chia-chun and Jake Chung  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Wed, Aug 21, 2013 - Page 5

While it is increasingly rare, the odd temple still features a few life-like figurines or busts of mythical figures, deities or animals called kansheng (看生) during the Chungyuan Festival (中元節), also known as the Ghost Festival.

The Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (today), when people prepare food to honor the dead with the traditional pudu (普渡) ceremonies.

The artisans who craft the figurines worry that the technique may soon be lost.

The Wu (吳) family, who live in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Banciao District (板橋), said the demand for kansheng has waned year after year, adding that demand only spikes during the Ghost Festival.

The Wu family’s eldest son, Wu Hsiang-hui (吳祥輝), said there were many stories as to the origins of kansheng, but he felt one was more believable than others.

The word sheng is a homonym for sheng (牲), meaning cattle or livestock, and represents sacrifice.

In ancient times, some of the richer people would hire troupes of actors to perform plays for the spirits during the Ghost Festival, but common people were unable to afford such expenses, he said.

Instead, they made figurines to appease the spirits who might have become used to watching plays. People traditionally made figurines in the likeness of characters from classic novels, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) and The Journey to the West (西遊記), and the habit became a tradition, Wu said.

Due to the time-consuming process of making kansheng, Wu said that many in the business had turned to materials such as paper clay and ready-made paper clothes for the figurines to cut down the manufacturing time.

Wu said his family still adhered to the traditional methods of making kansheng, using flour, glutinous rice and salt, adding that it usually takes three days to complete one figurine.

After lumping all the ingredients together, mixing them and kneading them into a ball, the ball is sliced into pieces and boiled, Wu said. After the rice and flour have cooled, the family begins to sculpt it into shape.

“After we’ve molded the rice and flour into the figure we have in our mind, we paint it,” Wu said.

Wu added that this was only the process used in making the head and the limbs of the figurine if it is humanoid.

“We then need to craft the body of the figurine with straw, and cover it with colored paper, before dressing it in hand-made, hand-painted clothes,” Wu said.

Wu said the family needs an average of between 100kg and 200kg of flour to craft enough figurines for the Ghost Festival, and the process begins two or three months before the festival.

Declining demand has also lowered interest in learning the traditional art, Wu said, adding that although he and his brother had taken over the family business and continued to make kansheng, the third generation in the Wu family to do so, if there is no new blood in the sector, the art may well be lost.