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Double Nine Festival
in the Land of Longevity

2 November 2006
 

I Ching is the very foundation of the Chinese culture, which uses a set of symbols and numbers to mirror the process of change in the real world, with odd numbers representing the active principle of yang, and even numbers signifying the passive principle of yin. As the biggest odd number, nine stands for the yang energy that is at its peak before a gradual decline. Understandably, when it comes to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, a correlation between the number and the revered mature age is drawn, and thus the Double Yang or Double Nine (重阳) is celebrated as the festival of longevity.

While the tomb sweeping festival is a time for family-oriented spring outing as Chinese people pay respects to their deceased ancestors and to tidy their gravesite, the Double Nine provides an occasion for family-oriented autumn excursion as part of the way to show gratitude to their living elderly.

The traditional activities during the Double Nine festival include climbing hills or towers, carrying a spray of dogwood, drinking chrysanthemum wine and eating chrysanthemum cake.

An old-fashioned Double Nine Cake would have nine layers to symbolise the supreme yang number nine and a shape that resembles a tower, with five colours to attribute the Five Agents.

Nowadays, there is hardly anyone carrying dogwood grass, and few people would drink chrysanthemum wine, but the practice of mountain climbing and cake eating remains, often with a modern touch.

On this year’s Double Nine, October 31, some nursing homes in Beijing were reportedly held cake-eating parties organised by young volunteers who wore traditional flowing Han dress and performed time-honoured Double Nine ritual that includes kowtow and poem reading.

In shanghai, many career-demanding young people sent a personal career or housekeeper to their parents as a Double Nine gift.

And all over the country the business of travel agencies that arrange escorted senior tours is booming, and most of the bookings are said to be made by children for their parents.

But in nowhere the celebration is more splendid than that in a small county in China’s west province Guangxi.

The Double Nine Banquet
Click on the image to enlarge it

Lasting Fortune County (永福县) hosted a Double Nine banquet that was attended by 1199 Longevity Stars (寿星) aged 70 and over. Sitting by 200 Eight Immortal Tables (八仙桌) arranged in the shape resembling the Chinese character "longevity" (寿), they’ve made history by creating a new Geniis Record.

The county has long been dubbed Land of Longevity. According to the local chronicle record, the oldest local resident had reached the age of 158.

Today the county has 32 elderly aged one hundred or over, up to 12 per 100,000 population. The number of those who have entered their 90s is about seven hundred, with nearly five thousand locals in their 80s, and more than ten thousand well into their 70s.

What is more remarkable is that half of the elderly centennials in the county can still look after themselves, and some of them are even able to carry out rather physically demanding chores like ploughing farmland and chopping firewood. The youth of their spirits are also outstanding. A 101-year old lady plays cards and mahjong with her grand children whenever have the chance, while a 100-year old man loves to collect VCD of his favourite opera.

A journalist who visited the elderly centennials there has summarised following traits that he believed to be the secret to their longevity: A big heart, an even temper, a diligent body and simple meal.

China used to be, arguably, the most aging friendly society in human history. For thousands of years, growing old was something to be celebrated about rather than afraid of. The virtuous tradition, however, was brutally broken in last century.

But the way in which a society treats its aging population tells a lot about how civilised it is. As the true evil can only be found in the heart of those who constantly regard others as evil, the true virtue can only be found in the spirits of those who approaches everybody, particularly the poor or the vulnerable, with compassion.

The good sign is that after a century of confusion, slowly the reason and sense begin to return to the land with a civilisation that is though ancient but certainly not out of date.

Some of the poems on Double Nine festival by famous Chinese poets:

Thinking of My Shandong Brother on Double Nine (九月九日忆山东兄弟)
Wang Wei (王维), Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)

独在异乡为异客,每逢佳节倍思亲。
遥知兄弟登高处,遍插茱萸少一人。

Climb High on Double Nine (九月十日即事)
Li Bai (李白), Tang Dynasty

昨日登高罢,今朝再举觞。
菊花何太苦,遭此两重阳。

Homesick on Double Nine (蜀中九日)
Wang Bo (王勃), Tang Dynasty

九月九日望乡台,他席他乡送客杯。
人情已厌南中苦,鸿雁那从北地来。

Drinking Alone on Double Nine (醉花荫)
Li Qingzhao (李清照), Song Dynasty (960 – 1279)

薄雾浓云愁永昼,瑞脑销金兽。
佳节又重阳,玉枕纱橱,半夜凉初透。
东篱把酒黄昏后,有暗香盈袖。
莫道不销魂,帘卷西风,人比黄花瘦!

Yellow Flowers on Double Nine (九日)
Wen Sen (文森), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)

三载重阳菊,开时不在家。
何期今日酒,忽对故园花。
野旷云连树,天寒雁聚沙。
登临无限意,何处望京华.

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