Saturday, January 28, 2006

Guan Yin - Goddess of Mercy - 观 丗音

Patriach's Dream
The patriach related his dream to us when he was still around in the mortal world. One night he dreamed of a lady dressed in white. Initially he thought that it was the Virgin Mary who appeared in his dream because the back was facing him. Later he realized that she was carrying a whip like structure with strand of strings. As the patriach was working in a timber company he was adept in carpentry work. He was requested by the lady in white to help make a bench for worshippers in a temple housing the goddess. The temple was located along Upper Dickson Road in one of the pre-war houses. The bench was to help worshippers to put joss-stick on an urn hung from the ceiling. The patriach fullfilled the bidding and his life according to him was better of than before.

Tragic End
Believe or not? This episode is real. The caretaker cum medium of the Southern Sea Goddess of Mercy temple in Upper Dickson Road was a distance relative of the patriach. I surmised the relationship was one of migrants coming from the same village in China. The lady caretaker adopted a daughter with the hope that the Goddess would guide and lead her to be the medium of the temple and eventually to take care of the temple. After the passing of the caretaker cum medium the adopted daughter took over the care of the temple without any sign of being bestowed as a medium. The temple was now without any medium who would go into a trance as the Goddess of Mercy. The patriach was a faithful follower of the temple. On every festivities, example the goddess enlightenments he would offer the Goddess a big tray of fruits. The adopted daughter got married to a lorry driver. The latter was a gambler and drinker, with the wife's consent, sold the pre-war house in Upper Dickson Road (see picture on left) to an Indian textile businessman. The Goddess of Mercy appeared in the dream of the businessman to return the temple. The businessman approached the temple caretaker to sell back the temple at half the value originally bargained for. The caretaker’s husband refused, as he had squandered the money. The temple then moved to a flat in Aljunied. The patriach being loyal and faithful to the Goddess still worshipped in the temple despite his disappointment. According to the patriach the new location did not have the ambience of a temple. One day the lorry driver went fishing and was drowned. Ever since then the patriach stopped going to the temple. The existence of the temple till this day is unknown.

Goddess of Mercy

Let thousands of people
Receive the light of mercy
Let thousands of people
Bathe in the great grace of heaven
Let thousands of people
Transcend from the sea of sufferings

Do not compare with others
Do not compete with others
Establish a right objective
Do not hesitate and do not hinder yourself
Accept the sufferings and live with the sufferings
Feel the tragedies of mankind
Give joyousness whenever required
Show mercy, in return you shall receive mercy.

Quan Yin is depicted in most cases as a gentle female. Kwan Yin is sometimes depicted as a male. He was an Indian Prince and was one of the ten Bodhisattvas, taking the name of Avalokitesvara, Lord of Compassion. Quan Yin is one of the most universally beloved of deities in the Buddhist tradition. Known as Kuan Yin, Quan’Am (Vietnam), Kannon (Japan), and Kanin(Bali). As the Bodhisattva of Compassion, She hears the cries of all beings.

Quan Yin was seen in China as appearing as a gentle lady in white during Her enlightenments on the 19th day of the 2nd Lunar Month, 19th day of the 6th Lunar Month and the 19th day of the 9th Lunar Month. On these days faithful worshippers would throng the Goddess temples to make offerings and prayed for their well being. On these Chinese Lunar Days the temple in Waterloo Street in Singapore is always crowded with worshippers to request the Goddess for blessing. In most home the Goddess is revered with statue taking a strategic place on the altar table in the ancestral hall.

Quan Yin is depicted in many images, carrying the pearls of illumination. She is often shown pouring a stream of healing water, the “Water of Life,” from a small vase. With this water devotees and all living things are blessed with physical and spiritual peace. She holds a sheaf of ripe rice or a bowl of rice seed as a metaphor for fertility and sustenance. The dragon, an ancient symbol for high spirituality, wisdom, strength, and divine powers of transformation, is a common motif found in combination with the Goddess of Mercy.

The Goddess is sometimes represented as a many armed figure, with each hand either containing a different cosmic symbol or expressing a specific ritual position. This characterizes the Goddess as the source of sustenance of all living things. Her cupped hands, symbolizes the door for entry to this world.

Quan Yin, as a Bodhisattva, vowed to remain in the earthly realms and not enter the heavenly worlds until all other living things have completed their enlightenment and thus become liberated from the pain-filled cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. There are numerous legends that recount the miracles which Quan Yin performs to help those who call on Her.

She is a virgin Goddess who protects women, offers them a religious life as an alternative to marriage, and grants children to those who desire them.The Goddess of Mercy is unique among the heavenly hierarchy in that She is so utterly free from pride or vengefulness that She remains reluctant to punish even those to whom a severe lesson might be appropriate. Individuals who could be sentenced to dreadful penance in other systems can attain rebirth and renewal by simply calling upon Her graces with utter and absolute sincerity. It is said that, even for one kneeling beneath the executioner's sword already raised to strike, a single heartfelt cry to Bodhisattva Quan Yin will cause the blade to fall shattered to the ground.The many stories and anecdotes featuring this Goddess serve to convey the idea of an enlightened being who embodies the attributes of an all pervasive, all consuming, unwavering loving compassion and who is accessible to everyone.

Quan Yin counsels us by Her actions to cultivate within ourselves those particular refined qualities that all beings are said to naturally possess in some vestigial form. Contemplating the Goddess of Mercy involves little dogma or ritual. The simplicity of this gentle being and Her standards tends to lead Her devotees towards becoming more compassionate and loving themselves. A deep sense of service to all fellow beings naturally follows any devotion to the Goddess.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Spring Couplet aka Chunlian

Permanent Couplet or Duilian

The traditional Chinese homes are permanently decorated with couplet. The couplet is either permanently written in black or gold paint on a red painted background on the entrance of the house or calligraphic characters written on red paper either in black or golden ink and pasted. The permanent couplet is called “Duilian” or literally translated paired slogans. Called permanent because the couplet are not removed unless the house is renovated or repainted. The calligraphic characters are written on vertical strips of red papper or on slender painted vertical rectangles on the door entrance. The couplet are well meaning messages wishing for peacefulness, achievement, health, success, wealth, happiness and longetivity.

The first pair or first (upper) line is posted on the right side of the front door.

The second pair or second (lower) line is posted on the left side of the front door.

In addition a third horizontal piece may be posted across and on top of the doorway.

Duilian is not a norm in the present modern Singapore. People are now staying in flats, with limited wall space along the entrance of the doorway, hence putting up Duilian is not the trend with the younger generation which are also influenced by western culture.

Spring Couplet or Chunlian

Spring couplet or “Chunlian” is a special type of Duilian. It is common only during the Chinese New Year as part of the Spring Festival celebration. Chunlian unlike Duilian is a temporary decoration placed on the entrance of the house. The style of the Chunlian is similar to the Duilian. In Chunlian, the messages characterize connotations such as health, happiness, hope, success, wealth accumulation, job progress and peace for a better New Year to come. In Singapore of yester year writing Duilian or Chunlian could eke a living. Found rampant along the five-foot way of old shophouses in Chinatown, stalls were set up to ply the trade. The couplet were either pre-written and hung along the wall of the shophouses waiting for ready buyers or messages could be written, tailored on request to suit different occasions. The trade of writing couplet is now historical. With the passing of the couplet writers, original migrants from China, the trade is now dead or rarely found. With many enterprising businessmen trying to make good money, chunlian are available commercially in many forms on wood carvings, paper scrolls or embroidered on cloth. The couplet are mass produced in factories. The fine personal touch, that is good calligraphic work by the skills are gone. The style and form changes with time. For this reason it is acceptable to the younger and modern generation to keep up with tradition. These Spring Festival couplet are neater to put up during Chinese Lunar New Year and they are also easy to be dismantled after the celebration. The everchanging form and style of the couplet matches well with the home décor, hence they are still in good demand by the youngs and olds. With progress the chunlian also transforms with time, with more and more innovations.

Examples of modern Chunlian in different shapes and style.
Translated in English
1a. : Wishing for a Prosperous New Year.
lb. : Success in all endeavours.
2a.: Everything goes on smoothly.
2b.: Abundance all year round.
3a.: Good Fortune everyday.
3b.: Peace All Seasons.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nian = Year = Man-devouring New Year Monster

Nian is the chinese character for year, and is represented by the strokes below. Observing the Chinese New Year, people would say "quo nian" and New Year," xin nian", etc. Year is the modern definition of Nian. According to legend passed down, Nian was actually a man-devouring monster which appeared on the 1st to the 15th day of the 1st month of the Chinese Lunar Calender. As the Chinese Lunar Calendar was invented some time in the 2600 B.C by Huang Ti the legend of the man-eating predator, Nian existed much earlier.

Originally Chinese New Year was known as Spring Festival and people would decorate their houses in red amid the bursting of red fire-crackers. The legend of how fire crackers and the colour red theme was significance during the Spring Festival had its origin thus:

The man-eating predator would make its presence on the 1st day to the 15th day of the Spring Festival. People were frightened by the terror created by the monster who had a big mouth and could devour many human beings. Many lives were lost as claimed by the legend. One day an old man appeared and challenged the monster to devour all the other monsters on earth. The predator took the challenge and destroyed all the monsters.
The old man finally rode on the monster and disappeared. Before his disappearance, he advised the people that during the 1st day to the 15th day of the first lunar month to decorate the house with red cloth and to explode fire-crackers to make noise to frighten any Nian that might be still around. After the old man disappearance, the people realised that he was an immortal old man.

Till this day when the Chinese Communities celebrate the Spring Festival, red colour is the theme and fire-crackers are bursted to frighten and chase away evils.

This is one legend of the Nian, and of course there are many other versions.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Gong Xi, Gong Xi Fa Cai!


The Chinese New Year story is based on my life experience as a child, as an adulthood and as a senior. The events during the Chinese New Year including the preparation were taken in a perspective practiced by Taoist families with root in Southern China in a Singapore context.

Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the 1st day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later based on the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The 15th day is called “Yuan Xiao Jie” or in Singapore context “Chap Goh Meh”.

The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. The lunar cycle is approximately 29.5 days. An extra month is inserted once every few years (7 years out of a 19 year cycle) to synchronize with the observation of the “black moon” and the solar longitude of less than 30 degrees. This is an “equivalent” to the adding of an extra day on leap year. This is the reason the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year on the Western calendar. Each new year starts with an animal symbol and continues and repeats after a 12 years cycle.

Firing of crackers was prevalentt during my childhood days up to part of my adult working life. Normally the din of exploding firecracker would commence from the 24th day of the twelveth moon to the 15th day of Chinese New Years. The New Year festivities and atmosphere was there because of the fire-crackers.

The letting of fire-crackers would be most intense on the 15th day. Many shopowners would challenge each other on the amount of fire-crackers to be let off, the height of the string of crackers and how thick the street in front of their shops being carpeted with the red papers from the exploded crackers.
Crackers was banned in the early 1980s due to sporadic fires because of indiscriminate firing of crackers. Despite strict control and restrictions on the location for letting of crackers there were still accidents. The letting off of fire-crackers was finally banned after much consideration by the Authority. The atmosphere for celebrating the Chinese New Year was lost.

After many years of absence and the dying of the festival atmosphere, families make use of the long holiday to travel abroad. To revive the New Year atmosphere the Authority and the Chinese Community is bringing back the fire-crackers. The letting of crackers is only restricted and licensed by the Civil Defence under strict supervision. To further revive the festivities, the “River Hong Bao” was organized annually along the Singapore River and the Esplanade Promenade.

24 day of 12th Lunar Month

On the 23rd day, the family altar in the hall is spring-cleaned. The household gods and the ancestors tablet are cleaned. The joss-stick urn is polished to look shinning new.
During my childhood era, beginning on this day the doorway were pasted with red paper with Spring couplets written on them. The couplets were meaningful Chinese sayings. The couplets were not taken out until replaced by new ones in the following year. A red cloth is hung outside the house.

Red was the theme for the commencement of the New Year Festivities. Why red? There was a legend that a demon called Nian would terrorise the people. The Nian was afraid and frightened by anything that was red. In order to drive off the Nian household hanged red cloth and lantern and pasted red paper on the house.

The morning of the 24th day of the twelveth month the household gods ascend to Heaven. Once a year as the Chinese believed the gods will visit Heaven and report to the Heavenly Emperor the household affairs. Chinese candies made of flour and sugar mixture, red dates, fruits and home-made pancake of flour and brown sugar are offered. Eight mandarin oranges, four on each plate are placed on the left and right of the altar table. Yellow joss-papers depicting horse carriage and guardsmen with the Chinese character “send” facing outwards from the house are burned together with joss-paper to represent the sending off.

New Year’s Eve

New Year's Eve is celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving. The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a religious ceremony given in honor of the gods of the household and the family ancestors. The religious worship is normally done in the afternoon. Four mandarin oranges placed on each plate is place on either side of the altar together with a “Fa Gao” and “Nian Gao” symbolize wealth and prosperity. The sacrifice to the ancestors, the most vital of all the rituals, unite the living members with those who had passed away. Departed relatives are remembered with great respect because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the fortune and glory of the family.
On this auspicious day a dinner is arranged normally by the head or most senior of the family at the family dinning table in the ancestral home. Food is abundant and the best food, whether the family is rich or poor will be served. At this time the presence of the ancestors is felt. The sense of feeling of the spirits of the ancestors, together with the living, celebrate the onset of the New Year as one great Family. The Family Feast called “surrounding the stove” or weilu in Chinese. The steamboat is the stove where all the family members including the ancestral spirits surrounded. It symbolizes family unity and honours the past and present generations.
After the dinner the married daughter/s will have to return to their matrimonial home and in come cases another reunion dinner in their in-laws’ home.
After the cleaning of the house, flowers are always a must in most households to decorate the home waiting to usher the New Year and to welcome friends and relatives.

15 days of New Year

The New Year is ushered in our family traditionally by burning joss-sticks and making our wishes in front of the altar housing the household gods. New Year goodies are offered. Many people including our family abstain from meat on the 1st day of New Year. Our family only abstain for ½ a day that is up to noon. It is believed that this will ensure long and happy life. For breakfast on the 1st day we will take white rice with plain radish soup and bean curds fried in peanut oil. Some families may prepare sweet noodles that is noodles cooked with brown sugar syrup.

No sweeping of the floor and cleaning of the house is allowed. Brooms have to be keep out of sight. Any shattering of glassware on the floor must be chorused with the verse “Lo Tih Kai Hua” to change the unpleasantness to something blossoming. Broken pieces of glass have to be picked up by hands and not sweep with brooms.
Debt has to be settled by this day. No lending is allowed on this auspicious day. The Chinese believed that if the debt is not settled, the debt for remained for the rest of the year.

Mandarin oranges are brought along when visiting relatives and friends. Early in the morning family members will first visit the ancestral home. Two mandarin oranges are placed in front of the ancestral tablet and 1 or 3 joss-sticks are lighted to share with ancestors the joy of a peaceful and happy new year. Blessing from the ancestors are sought.
The younger members will offer the elders with 2 mandarin oranges with both hands to wish the elders longetivity, happiness and good health. In return the married elders will present the youngers “Red Packets” containing luck money. Married members of the family will not receive the “Red Packets”, instead they should be giving.
The rest of the day is spend either gossiping and munching of New Year tid-bits amongst family members, or gambling away in card games or square table conference called “mahjong”. In our strict family brought up, we were not allowed to gamble on normal days but New Year period was exception, restricting to only 4 days of the Chinese New Year.
Between the 1st day and the 15th day, Teochew opera singing groups, lion and dragon dance troupes would visit every household to perform in return for red packets. With most people staying in Government HDB flats, the Teochew opera singers are now a dying breed except the lion dance troupes which still perform in the HDB heartland.

Traditionally, the 3rd and 4th days are for the sons-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law. The tradition is not adhered to nowadays because of the busy working schedule. Visits to families and friends are done freely as long as they are free to do so.
The household gods return home from Heaven on the 4th day. Traditional Chinese candies (“Chang Up”) is offered. Yellow joss-paper depicting the horse carriage and guardsmen with the character “welcome” facing inwards to the house are burnt together with joss-paper to welcome back the gods from Heaven.

Superstitious people will stay home on the 5th day to welcome the God of Wealth. No visiting of families and friends on this day because they believed will bring bad luck to both parties. The routine is no more practised by the younger generations.
“Ngoh Seng” or 5 life are offered to the household gods upon their return from Heaven.
The “Ngoh Seng” includes a whole fish, to represent togetherness and abundance. A chicken with a head, tail and feet to symbolize completeness, uncut noodles to represent long life.

The 7th day of New Year is the birthday of human beings. Seven types of vegetables are eaten to celebrate the occasion. Noodles are eaten to promote longevity and raw fish for success. People nowadays are very enterprising, they commercialized the raw fish as a celebration called “lohei” in Cantonese. The “lohei” is not confined traditionally to this day but the raw fish and the ingredients are sold even before the New Year commence.

The 8th day is a busy day for the Hokkien people. They have to fold joss-paper, preparation ofor a pair of sugar cane and food as offering for the worship to the God of Heaven, the Jade Emperor at mid-night on the 9th day. On the 9th day the Jade Emperor Temple along Havelock Road will be thronged with people to worship for luck, longetivity and prosperity.

The 15th day mark the last day of the New Year Festivities. Reunion dinner will be held in some families. After dinner family members will visit temples to borrow “Red Packets”, mandarin oranges, sugared pagodas, tortoises made from flour to bring good luck, wealth, happiness and health. Items borrowed has to be return double the following year. In lieu of items borrowed a Red Packet can be repaid instead.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Chinese Lunar Calendar

Chinese Lunar Calendar

The beginnings of the Chinese calendar can be traced back to the 14th century B.C. Legend has it that the Emperor Huangdi invented the calendar in 2637 B.C. The Chinese calendar is based on exact astronomical observations of the longitude of the sun and the phases of the moon. This means that principles of modern science have had an impact on the Chinese

calendar. In the Chinese Lunar Calendar the 12 animal signs are used as a 12 – year cycle for dating the years. The animal signs represent a cyclical concept of time, rather than the Western linear concept of time. The Chinese calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and is constructed in a different fashion than the Western solar calendar. In the Chinese calendar, the beginning of the year falls typically between late January and early February. The Western calendar since 1911 (Republic model) has been widely used by the Chinese community, but the Chinese Lunar Calendar is still used for festive occasions. Many Chinese calendars normally include both the solar dates and the Chinese lunar dates.

Leap Year

An ordinary year has 12 months, a leap year has 13 months.
An ordinary year has 353, 354 or 355 days, a leap year has 383, 384 or 385 days.

To determine if a year is a leap year, the number of new moons between the 11th month in one year and the 11th month (Winter Solstice) in the following year is calculated. If there are 13 new moons from the start of the 11th month in the first year to the start of the 11th month in the second year, a leap month is inserted.

In leap years, at least one month does not contain a Principal Term (date for the “black”moon and the sun’s longitude is not multiple of 30 degrees). The first such month is the leap month. It carries the same number as the previous month, with the additional note that it is the leap month.

The Twelve Animal Signs

In the Western Calendar the years are dated from the birth of Christ, for example 2006 means 2,006 years after the birth of Christ. This represents a linear perception of time, with time proceeding in a straight line from the past to the present and the future. In Chinese calendar, dating methods were cyclical that is repeated years according to a pattern. The Twelve Animal Signs are used for the cyclical recording of years. Every year is assigned an animal sign according to a repeating cycle : Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Therefore, every twelve years the same animal sign would reappear.

Of the 12 animal signs which sign started the cycle of years? According to Chinese legend, the 12 animals challenged each other to be head. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest. Whoever was able to reach the opposite bank of the river first would head, and the rest of the animals would be position according to their finish. All the 12 animals gathered at the river bank and jumped in. Unknown to the Ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox’s back, and came in first, the ox second, and the pig last.

The animal signs serve a useful interaction during social function. People’s actual age can be deduced by asking what his or her animal sign within a cycle of 12 years. Among the Chinese community more often though, people ask for animal signs not to compute a person’s exact numerical age, but to simply know who is older among friends and acquaintances.

Horoscopes have developed around the animal signs, like the Western horoscopes developed for the different moon signs e.g. Pisces, Aries, etc. A Chinese horoscope may predict a person’s characters, etc born in a particular animal sign. These horoscopes are amusing to most but regarded seriously by superstitious people.

Counting of Years

The Chinese calendar does not count years in an infinite sequence. Instead years have names that are repeated every 60 years.

Within each 60-year cycle, each year is assigned name consisting of 2 components:
The first component – Celestial Stem (Note: Term have no English equivalent).
1. jia
2. yi
3. bing
4. ding
5. wu
6. Ji
7. Geng
8. Xin
9. Ren
10. Gui

The second component – Terrestrial Branch (Names corresponding to the 12 animals).
1. zi (rat)
2. chou (ox)
3. yin (tiger)
4. mao (rabbit)
5. chen (dragon)
6. si (snake)
7. wu (horse)
8. wei (ram)
9. shen (monkey)
10. you (rooster)
11. xu (dog)
12. hai (pig)

In counting the year in a 60-year cycle, each of the 2 components is used sequentially. Example, the 1st year of the 60-year cycle becomes jia-zi, the 2nd year is yi-chou, the 3rd year is bing-yin, etc. When the end of a 1st component is reached the beginning of the component is repeated viz. the 10th month is gui-you, the 11th is jia-xu (re-starting the Celestial Stem), the 12th year is yi-hai, and the 13th year is bing-zi (re-starting the Terrestrial Branch) , etc until finally the 60th year becomes gui-hai.

2637 B.C was the year when the first 60-year cycle first started i.e. the year when the Chinese Lunar Calendar was invented.

The naming of days and months is similar to the naming of years, however the naming has been disused, but the date name is still listed in certain calendars.

Current Chinese Lunar Calendar

The current 60-year cycle started on 2nd February 1984. The year cycle bear the name jia-zi. The date bears the name bing-yin in the 60-day cycle, and first month of that first year bears the name bing-yin in the 60-month cycle.

Example the Chinese New Year on 29th January 2006 is name thus:
Year Cycle : bing-xu (dog)
Month Cycle : geng-yin
Day Cycle : wu-wu

The Republic model of counting dates and months are similar to the Western Calendar. With the Western Calendar date, month and year it can be converted to the Republic date, month and year. The Republic Calendar was started in 1911 A.D., hence the year 1911 was used as the base to calculate the Republic year. The counting of the month and date make use of the Celestial Stem and Terrestrial Branch combination for conversion.

Example the New Year on 1st January 2006 is converted thus :

Republic Year : (2005 – 1911) = 94 (Note: The Chinese year for 1/1/06 is Rooster (2005))
Year Cycle : yi-you (Rooster)
Month Cycle : ji-chou
Day Cycle : geng-yin
Month : 12th Lunar Month
Day : 2nd
Animal sign : Rooster

Note : The Calendar Converter from Western Calendar to Chinese Lunar Calendar can be obtained via the internet using Search Engine under the heading “Chinese Lunar Calendar”.