This report is based on case studies of village religious-ceremony organization in the New Territories (formerly, Xin’an Prefecture), Hong Kong. Comparisons are drawn between similar groups in China and Japan.
Focus is on the structure of large-scale religious ceremonies in the New Territories. Every five or ten years, eighty percent of the villages carry out ceremonies that can extend for a week. They are called ‘Great Peace Purification Sacrifices’ 太平清醮. Entire villages participate, groups of Daoist priests and troupes of actors are invited, and activities are performed day and night for anywhere from three days (and four nights) to six days (and seven nights). To console the spirits and gods, courtesies are extended, offerings presented, and plays performed on their behalf.
A distinguishing feature of the ‘Great Peace Purification Sacrifice’ is the way that the names of all clan members are repeatedly read aloud, one by one. At the shortest of ceremonies (three days and four nights), the recitation can be repeated a halfdozen times or more.
The sequence is as follows:
‘First Submission to the Gods’: For the first day, during the third lunar month, certain formalities are carried out in preparation for the ceremonies proper. Facing away from the village temple and directing themselves to the gods above, Daoist priests read aloud the names of clan members from the entire village, calling out the names that have been recorded for submission: heads of households, their wives and concubines, unmarried brothers and sisters, married sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried children, grandsons and their wives, unmarried grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons and their wives, and so on. But women’s first names are neither recorded nor read aloud. As there are cases of more than two hundred names, and since the calling out of the names can be lengthy, the task of reading aloud is divided among the priests.
‘Second Submission’: On the second preparatory day, in the middle of the eighth lunar month, the same formalities are carried out.
‘Third Submission’: The beginning of the tenth lunar month marks the first day of the ceremonies proper. Prior to the performance of sacrifices, clan names are read aloud before the temple a third time, again by multiple priests.
‘Opening Announcement’: Over the beginning of the same month, the list of village members is posted on the public-square bulletin board. Inscribed in black calligraphy on large red paper, it can be as wide as six feet. Daoist priests again divide up the task of reading aloud the names.
‘Inviting the Gods’: On a night during the first ten days of the month, after they invite the highest gods from heaven, one of the Daoist priests reads aloud the roster of villager names.
‘Begging Pardon’: On the last day of the religious ceremony, again during the first third of the tenth lunar month, a Daoist priest reads aloud the list of villager names inscribed in vermilion ink on yellow paper three-feet wide. The document reports to heaven that villagers, having unintentionally committed sins, beg the gods’ pardon.
In addition, the head-worshipper of the village often carries the community roster and accompanies the Daoist priests while the latter perform prayer ceremonies and make a ‘circuit’ to pay respects to the gods. Although villagers do not read aloud names on the roster, they always have clearly in mind that everyone in the village is participating.
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Hokke-do Hall at Todaiji Temple is widely known as a monument built in the beginning of the 8th century, and it is also famous for the many original Buddist statues that are still there. In 2015, construction work was carried out on the building to reinforce it against earthquakes. During this process, a number of ancient writings written in India ink were discovered, including writings from the original construction. These writings were discovered in the canopy within the hall, under the floorboards, and in the halo of the main statue. These writings contain some things of great historical significance, and yet, due to various circumstances, we have reached the present day without making any official report. At the request of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, I have looked at almost all of these writings, and I have received digital photos of them. This paper examines the results of deciphering a particularly important writing, the writing in India ink found in the canopy, and it describes its significance in cultural history. Below is a summary of this.
In order from east to west, the canopies in Hokke-do Hall are called the eastern canopy, the central canopy, and the western canopy. When they were created, they were each different, and looking at them from the perspective of art, the eastern canopy is a work of art from the Nara period (with modern repairs that have been done to it), the central canopy is from the Kamakura period, and the western canopy is from the time of original construction, the Nara period.
The most notable of the discovered India-ink writings were those from the western canopy. The era that those writings came from was determined based on the construction situation of the canopy, and they seem to have been written after the materials for the canopy were prepared but before the canopy was completed. Some interesting content from those writings included a phrase written in the style of Chinese poetry in two different places that means “last night I slept with a young unmarried woman, but the night was too short, and my love was not properly exhausted.” This sort of content—not appropriate for a Buddhist temple—written in scribbles or on practice writing paper in the style of Chinese poetry is not necessarily rare. For example, there are five words scribbled on the inside of the pedestal of the Shakyamuni triad in the main Hall of Houryuuji that was created around the year 623. Additionally, there are also some scribbles in the style of Chinese poetry that can be seen on the wooden writing plates from the end of the 7th century that were excavated from Asuka-ike site in Nara Prefecture. Both of these have content that suggests a rendezvous between a man and a woman, and the ideas and format seem consistent with the writings found in the canopy. The characters that partially remain, such as “beautiful,” “a bush warbler sings,” and “pleasant voice,” could also be part of a series, with these phrases written in the style of Chinese poetry.
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