Every year in the first nine days of the ninth lunar month, overseas Chinese in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore celebrate the births of the Nine Great Emperors. It's a busy time of solemn ceremonies, when the believers wear traditional Chinese clothes of mourning, eat no meat and pray.
The Nine Great Emperors are represented by the nine stars in an extended version of the Big Dipper. They were worshipped in China as long as 1000 years ago. Taiwan Tongshi (a history of Taiwan) notes: "From the first day of the ninth month, worshippers, most of whom trace their roots to Quanzhou, adopt a vegetarian diet, which they call 'the Nine Emperors Fast.' "
Whereas worship of the Nine Emperors gradually disappeared in China, the tradition has survived in Southeast Asia. In about 1828, a Fujianese worker brought statues of the Nine Emperors south from Jiangxi Province to the Thai island of Phuket. From there, worship of them spread to Malaysia and Singapore. On the Malaysian Peninsula alone, there are more than 40 temples where the Nine Emperors are primary or secondary deities.
Besides the traditional worship and fasting, the celebrations in Southeast Asia have also been influenced by both Southern Fujianese customs and the Hongmen Association, a secret society which aimed at overthrowing the Manchus and reviving the Ming dynasty. For instance, wearing clothes of mourning, with white cloth bands around the head and yellow bands around the wrists, is clearly connected to the society's mourning of the last Ming emperor Sizong. And going to the shores of rivers or the sea to greet the Nine Emperors is said to be connected to the Hongmen's legendary stone incense burner that floated down a river. Southern Fujianese traditions are seen in the jitongs (Taoist shamans), walks over fire and knives, parades around villages, the sending off the emperors' boats, and so on.
These special ceremonies celebrating the Nine Emperors have become part of the local folk heritage. Every year many turn vegetarian during this period, including a small number of Hindus and Sikhs. In the parades around villages, the locally created big flags and their drums attract the most attention. The walks over fire and knives are also splendid photo opportunities favored by foreign tourists.
There's still more local color: Everywhere one sees yellow cloth hung by sellers of local vegetarian delicacies. People light yellow incense and candles, and make yellow turtles, longevity peaches and other traditional flour-based offerings. And there are ceremonies for rewarding the generals of the center and the four directions and for bringing the Nine Emperors back to their temples.
Every year at this time crowds gather at the temples, offering incense and refraining from eating meat. Outside the temples, the stands selling incense and candles and those selling vegetarian food do a brisk business. Southern Fujianese opera is put on as an offering to the gods, and divination blocks are used to decide who will act as host for next year's celebration. Needless to say, the century-old Taoist temples are full of the offerings of worshippers.
When the Nine Great Emperors come out on parade, they bring the people peace and prosperity.
The big flags in a parade for the Nine Emperors.
A palanquin for the Nine Emperors carried by worshippers in mourning clothes.