Pomp and Ceremony

11 August 2011

Temple fair in Guangzhou

revives centuries-old tradition

By José Simões Morais

In March each year a large temple in Guangzhou hosts the largest traditional temple fair in the Pearl River Delta, attracting thousands of people and reviving a tradition that stretches back a thousand years.

Built in AD 594, the Temple of the Nanhai (South Seas) God is the only one of four major shrines dedicated to the sea gods left in China. It occupies an area of three hectares in Miaotou village in the Huangpu district, 40 kilometres from the centre of Guangzhou. It is just 100 steps up from the confluence of the East and Pearl rivers, where ships left in ancient times on the maritime Silk Road, en route to Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The sailors on every boat entering or leaving would stop to pay their respects to the God of the South Seas and pray for a safe journey.

Since 2005, the fair has been revived – a colourful and noisy three-day event in which people re-enact ceremonies held there for hundreds of years.

The god that reigns over South Seas

For generations, the people of the Pearl River Delta made their living from the sea; this gave them a sense of awe towards the god who watched over it. So, to appease him and receive his blessing, they sacrificed birds and performed a series of rituals and prayers on his birthday. In around AD 400, in the Western Han dynasty, a temple was built overlooking the confluence of the two rivers – the start of the maritime Silk Road. In the words of one history book on the period: “By the order of King Wu, officer Zhu Ying went to several countries in Southeast Asia, leaving from Panyu (in the south of Guangzhou). The first port of call was in front of the Nan Hai temple, in a place called Wang Mu Wan (Wang Mu Bay).”

The current temple was built in AD 594, in the 14th year of the reign of Kai Huang in the Sui dynasty. From then on, emperors of different dynasties sent high-ranking officials to the temple to attend the ceremony of sacrifice for the South Sea God; they left behind them many precious steles – hence the name ‘the stele forest of the South’. In the Sui dynasty, the emperor conferred the title of ‘marquis’ on the God; in the Tang dynasty, he was given the title of ‘King of Guang Li’ and, in the Qing dynasty, the title of ‘Dragon King of Zhao Ming’. Each title raised the fame and status of the temple even further.

It became a place of pilgrimage for everyone leaving by ship from the Pearl River, be they envoys or merchants.

Rebirth of the fair

The temple fair takes place each year from the 11th to the 13th day of the second month of the lunar calendar, because the god’s birthday falls on the 13th. This fair had previously been held for a thousand years. It is known as the Buluo festival, after an envoy from India, then known as Buluo, in the Tang dynasty, who stopped to pay his respects to the god on his way home. He planted two jackfruit trees from his homeland inside the temple yard. Entranced by the beauty of the temple, he forgot the time and missed his ship. Later he turned into a stone statue facing the sea in the direction of India. So it was that the place became known as the Buluo temple among ordinary people.

It was in 2005 that the Guangzhou government decided to revive the temple fair in the traditional way, after a gap of many years. It follows the customs used in ancient times, including the costumes, personal adornments and sacrificial offerings, including a cloth of white silk, pieces of cow, ram and pig, five kinds of cereal, different kinds of fruit and two large jugs of wine. In addition, musicians play drums and gongs and people worship on bended knees. The first day of the fair is a performance of these sacrificial rites to the god by people who live around the temple.

On the second day, the programme varies from year to year. In 2011, people brought three sea gods from different places in Guangdong province – from Foshan, Deqing and Nansha – to join the Nanhai sea god. People hoped that, by coming together, the four could bring peace to the world.

On the third day – the god’s birthday – his five sons pay homage to their father. Their statues are preserved in nearby villages. That day the people carry the statues to the temple, wearing their best clothes and carrying colourful banners, accompanied by drums and gongs.

The temple itself is an imposing structure, in the architecture of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It contains a memorial arch, a main gate, a ceremonial gate, a Worship Hall, a Grand Hall and the Zhaoling Hall. It has two ancient lions, designed to inspire awe among the visitors. The roof is covered with green glazed tiles with engravings of two flying phoenixes and a turtle. Above them are two dragons poised to fly. The phoenix is said to stand for beauty, the turtle for freedom and the dragon for power.

In 2010, the government designated the fair as a part of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage. This revival of an ancient custom has become an occasion for thanksgiving – as well as sightseeing and shopping.