What is the Chung Yeung Festival?

You might have noticed there’s a public holiday tomorrow called the Chung Yeung Festival. Not one of the major holidays in Hong Kong, like Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival or Dragon Boat Festival, many might be wondering what it’s all about.

It doesn’t command the huge crowds that have given some festival periods the nickname ‘Golden Week’, due to the increase in tourism sparked by the holiday.

Also known as ‘Double Ninth’, the festival falls on the 9th day of the 9th month in the lunar calendar, and similarly to the Ching Ming Festival in spring, it is a time when families get together at cemeteries to honour their ancestors. The practice of tomb sweeping encompasses all kinds of maintenance of grave sites and is a time to honour the dead, as well as elderly members of society – the nearly dead.

Many of Hong Kong’s cemeteries are built onto the face of hillsides and climbing up these vast vertical graveyards or simply hiking to some of the city’s highest points is thought to bring good luck and is part of the festival’s ancient history.

This custom is rooted in a legend from the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). There are a number of versions of the story, but all have the common theme: the protagonist, usually spurred on by some mythical spirit, seeks high ground to avoid disaster.

In one such tale, a soothsayer advises a man named Jing Huan to take his family up a hill for the ninth day of the ninth moon, to avoid a plague brought forth by a water demon that is predicted to ravage his village. The man dutifully obliges, leading his family up a peak that overlooks the village, advising them to bring chrysanthemum wine and fragrant dogwood leaves with them.  On his return the next day, he discovers that the entire population of his village has been wiped out. It turned out that his family’s trip up the hill had saved their lives, and so the custom began, to remove loved ones to higher ground on the ninth day of the ninth month.

In Hong Kong, some people take a picnic up onto high ground, with many people eating special cakes, named for the festival. Chongyang cake (重陽糕) is made with rice flour and sugar, it can be baked or steamed which sets the mixture into a portable snack. The cakes are often decorated with almonds, chestnuts, jujube or other traditional garnishes.

As the word for ‘cake’ (糕) sounds similar to ‘high’ or ‘top’ (高) in Cantonese, people eat them in the hope of being promoted to high positions. Flying kites is another option if you’re looking for something to do on the day, said to take bad luck up and out into the sky, far away from anywhere where it can cause harm.

So this Chung Yeung Festival, why not make the most of your mid-week break? Take a hike, fly a kite, drink som chrysanthemum wine or just help an old lady across the road — in honour of Jing Huan, the ultimate family man of Chinese mythology.

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For more on Chinese festivals celebrated in Hong Kong: we have a post that asks why we love mooncakes, and another exploring the origins of Dragon Boat Festival.

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