Happy Birthday Tin Hau! 1,053 years-old today…

A Qilin

A Qilin at rest © Jo James

Last weekend, Cheung Chau was roamed by lions and mythical beasts in honour of Tin Hau’s birthday.

The legend of Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, has built up surrounding the deeds of a girl born in a fishing village in Fujian around 960 AD – making this her 1,053rd birthday. During her lifetime, Lin Moniang (林默娘) – the girl who became Tin Hau, was said to have saved the lives of many fishermen and performed miracles reminiscent of Catholic saints – falling into trances and praying successfully sailors to be delivered safely home, etc.

The stories of Tin Hau really gained traction during the Ming dynasty – a period when China’s sea-power developed, and when people along the southern coast began to emigrate to South-East Asia in earnest. The cult of Tin Hau has historically been particularly strong in the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and is popular in Hong Kong today. I was in the remote Soko Islands just south of Lantau yesterday, and – despite the islands being uninhabited – there was still a flame burning in the little Tin Hau temple when we looked in.

Today or 23rd day of the 3rd month in the Lunar calendar, is Tin Hau’s official birthday. Sai Wan on Cheung Chau got a jump on the rest of Hong Kong and celebrated last weekend instead. The small Tin Hau temple was expanded by a temporary bamboo extension in order to create space for the people that visit the temple to burn offerings as well as those that come to listen to the busy program of Chinese opera (time to be glad you don’t live next door), and – finally – the parades began.

A Lion Dance

A Lion © Jo James

On the main day of the festival, each neighbourhood on the island sends out a group to visit the Sai Wan Tin Hau Temple and make offerings to the Goddess. Each group is accompanied by a lion, a qilin (麒麟 qílín) or a pixiu (貔貅píxiū), a group of musicians and enormous banners and flags. Lions are quite common, as are qilin here on Cheung Chau, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a pixiu in action. I’ve written about qilin before, but for those of you who don’t know what a pixiu is, it’s worth reading a little more (see below) because it has the weirdest characteristics of any mythological animal I know of…

The whole festival is very lively – so lively, in fact, that the police now have to be present just to make sure that no fights break out when different parades meet each other on the road, as happened in previous years. To give you a little taste, here’s something I put together – enjoy!

A Pixiu

A Pixiu Dance © Jo James

About the Pixiu

The mythical pixiu is the ninth son of the dragon, and resembles a chubby winged lion with either one or two horns. The pixiu is a popular symbol because it loves the smell of gold and silver, and likes to bring these to its master – who wouldn’t like a pet like that? In Chinese mythology, the poor old pixiu had its bottom sealed up by the Jade Emperor for breaking one of heaven’s rules, and no matter how much gold and silver it eats it can’t expel it, which has made it a symbol of accumulating and storing wealth, and very popular amongst feng shui practitioners.

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