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City Weekend

Hill fires and a mythical swordsman: Chung Yeung Festival in Hong Kong explained

Often confused with Ching Ming Festival, event also known as Double Ninth Festival involves grave-sweeping practices but centres on longevity and the celebration of a legend

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 12:00pm

Ask anyone in Hong Kong what Chung Yeung Festival is, and chances are you may hear the question: “Isn’t it like Ching Ming Festival?” Yes – and no. Like Ching Ming, Chung Yeung, also known as the Double Ninth Festival, is indeed time for ancestor worship. But it is also when people head for higher ground to ward off negative energy and wish for longevity.

In Hong Kong, it can mean a busy day for firefighters, as irresponsible incense burning during tomb sweeping, coupled with the dry, autumn weather often lead to hill fires across the city.

This year, Chung Yeung Festival will be celebrated on October 17, a public holiday.

The Post explores this often misunderstood Chinese tradition.

What does “Chung Yeung” mean?

The festival is known as the Double Ninth Festival on mainland China as it falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. “Chung Yeung” literally means “double masculinity”. This is because the number nine is traditionally regarded as a yeung – or masculine – integer.

Because the Cantonese word gau represents a long period of time, and is a homonym for “nine”, the festival carries the auspicious meaning of longevity. On the mainland, the government in 1989 declared the festival “Seniors’ Day” to promote love and respect for the elderly.

Hong Kong’s Chung Yeung festival comes with cleaner air after furnace changes

What is the legend behind it?

During the eastern Han dynasty, Runan county was believed to be under threat from a demonic presence that brought illness and death to villagers. A man named Heng Jing, who was one of the sick, eventually lost his parents to the disease.

According to legend, after recovering, Heng Jing vowed to slay the demon. Bidding his wife and hometown farewell, he went in search of a supernatural master of martial arts to take him as a disciple. Heng eventually found the powerful Fei Changfang, who, moved by the man’s dedication, took him under his wing.

Fei gifted Heng with a demon-vanquishing sword and taught him how to use the weapon. The diligent disciple eventually became a skilled swordsman.

One day, Fei warned Heng of impending danger on the ninth day of the ninth month – when the demon was expected to return. He advised his student to return to his hometown to lead people to safety. Heng was said to have flown on the back of a Manchurian crane, armed with cornelian cherries and chrysanthemum wine.

Chung Yeung Festival: has the celebration lost its true meaning?

Upon his return, Heng led his people up a mountain and gave them the wine and each the leaf of a cornelian cherry, which they tied to their arms.

When the clock struck noon, the demon returned but stopped at the foot of the mountain, distracted by the scent of the cherries and wine. At this moment, Heng came charging down and killed the demon with his sword.

The festival commemorates the date of this event and Heng’s exploits.

What are some customs associated with the festival?

Chung Yeung Festival is celebrated in the middle of autumn, when chrysanthemums are in full bloom. In fact, the ninth lunar month is also known as the “month of chrysanthemums”. The flower has thus become a ubiquitous part of Chung Yeung traditions.

In addition to practices accompanying grave-sweeping such as presenting roast pork, rice, vegetables, fruit and paper offerings to ancestors, chrysanthemum wine is one of the items on the list. Rice wine is often used as an alternative.

Apart from the tribute to Heng Jing, chrysanthemum appreciation is also a seasonal pastime said to have been popularised by famous poet Tao Yuanming. The floral liquor is known as the “wine of longevity” as it is believed to slow the ageing process.

Worshippers may head to higher ground, as this symbolises climbing to a higher position in life and living longer.

Chung Yeung cake is an auspicious festival food, and symbolises getting far in life or achieving greater heights, as gou, Cantonese for “cake”, also sounds like the character for “height”. Made from rice flour and sugar, this steamed delicacy is decorated with Chinese dates, chestnuts, almonds and dried chrysanthemums. It is often gifted to elders as a gesture of respect, and brought along to hillside picnics.

Hill fires reported during Ching Ming festival three times last year’s number

What usually happens in Hong Kong during the festival?

While some Chung Yeung traditions appear to have been lost on younger generations, Hong Kong seems to have given the festival several new meanings over the years.

The unfortunate combination of dry weather and careless incense burning during ancestor worship has made hill fires a common Chung Yeung problem. In spite of government efforts to promote fire safety during this time of the year, from official statistics in the past decade, it appears every festival has at least one incident of a hill fire.

The worst period was in 2012, when the Fire Services Department received a total of 76 reports. Last year, the department received at least 56 reports of hill fires during the festival.

Chung Yeung often coincides with the start of hiking season, when the stifling summer heat gives way to milder weather and a welcoming autumn breeze. In a nod to tradition, many Hongkongers head up the trails with family and friends on this auspicious day.

Meanwhile, the government holds an annual official ceremony to commemorate those who died defending Hong Kong in the second world war. The ceremony is held at Hong Kong City Hall Memorial Garden, and led by the chief executive and attended by senior officials, representatives from the judiciary, members of the Legislative Council and the Executive Council, as well as others from mainland government groups and the local community.