The Greater Tainan Government’s Cultural Affairs Bureau recently designated as a folk custom a centuries-old ritual of offering cakes in the shape of pigs and sheep to the Lord of the Sun on his birthday, in an effort to promote and preserve the tradition.
Greater Tainan is the only place known to still observe the ritual, the bureau said, adding that it plans to help perpetuate the custom by recording the entire process.
The Sun Lord’s birthday falls on the 19th day of the third month in the lunar calendar. To mark the occasion, some city residents set up tables laden with fruit, flowers and nine pig-shaped cakes and 16 sheep-shaped cakes. The tables are arranged to face the east, or the Sun Lord — known as the Tai Yang Xing Jun (太陽星君) among Taoists and as the Tai Yang Pu Sa (太陽菩薩) among Buddhists.
“About 50 years ago, nearly every resident in the city would make their offerings on the porches or in front of their homes, and our store was almost always inundated with orders for the animal-shaped cakes ahead of the Lord of the Sun’s birthday,” said Ho Hsi-ming (何錫銘), proprietor of a pastry shop that still offers the customized cakes.
However, as observance of the ritual faded, the store now only produces the cakes when there are enough orders, Ho said.
Ho said he hopes the official designation of the ritual would give people a better understanding of the history behind the custom and help pass down the tradition.
According to bureau officials, in the past, Tainan residents observed the ritual not only to worship the Lord of the Sun, but also to secretly commemorate the Ming Dynasty after it was overthrown.
Han Chinese first migrated to Taiwan from southern China during the Ming Dynasty.
Explaining the significance of the ritual, officials said: “The sun denotes light, or guangming (光明), to symbolize the Ming Dynasty.”
“The word pig (zhu, 豬), is homophonous with the surname zhu (朱), the last name of the Ming Dynasty emperors, while the number nine (jiu, 九) and the word jiu (久), meaning to live long, have the same pronunciation,” they said.
“The word sheep (yang, 羊) is homophonous with the sun (yang 陽), and since there were 16 emperors during the [Ming] dynasty, each sheep-shaped cake represents an emperor,” the officials said.
A female resident from the city’s Northern District, surnamed Chen (陳), said she had performed the ritual every year until her parents-in-law passed away several years ago.
The cakes, which can either be sweet or salty, were very popular among kids, she said.