The Incense of the Nine Emperor Gods

The worship of the Nine Emperor Gods or Jiuhuang Ye stemmed from the worship of the Northern Dipper (北斗) - the asterism that consists of seven bright stars of the constellation Ursa Major (i.e. Dubhe 天枢, Merak 天璇, Phecda 天玑, Megrez 天权, Alioth 玉衡, Mizar 开阳, Alkaid 瑶光), and two other stars that were not visible to the naked eye.

Penang Hong Kong Street Tow Boh Keong Temple has a long dated Nine Emperor Portrait that will only be taken out only during the Nine Emperor Festival to worship. Tablet and incense burner is used in place of portrait or statues of Nine Emperor at Kew Ong Yah Temple. The tablet and incense burner are placed in the Octagonal Tower behind the main hall and is out of bound for the public. Devotees can only worshipped at the main hall or during the Nine Emperor Festival when the staff will place the tablet and incense burner of the Nine Emperor on sedan chairs, whole procession covered with a yellow drape.

The Northern Dipper, Dipper Mother, and Nine Emperors (Jiuhuang)
The worship of the Nine Emperor Gods or Jiuhuang Ye stemmed from the worship of the Northern Dipper (北斗) - the asterism that consists of seven bright stars of the constellation Ursa Major (i.e. Dubhe 天枢, Merak 天璇, Phecda 天玑, Megrez 天权, Alioth 玉衡, Mizar 开阳, Alkaid 瑶光), and two other stars that were not visible to the naked eye. Together, these nine stars form the Celestial Net (天罡 or Tiangang), which was used in ancient China for celestial navigation and the formulation of the calendar. Following the spread of Taoism, the stars that form the Celestial Net were anthropomorphized as Astral Lords of the Northern Dipper (北斗星君 or Beidou Xingjun).

“Dou Mu Gong” (literally “Palace of the Dipper Mother”) is named after Lady Mother of the Dipper, amicably called Doumu, or Lady Ancestress of the Dipper (斗姥元君 or Doulao Yuanjun). So why is a temple that worships the Nine Emperor Gods or Jiuhuang called “Palace of the Dipper Mother”? In the Taoist cosmology, Doumu is the feminine aspect of the cosmic God of Heaven. She is perceived as the mother of the nine Star Lords of the Northern Dipper (北斗). A long time ago, these deities were totally unrelated at all. How they eventually became members of the same family - a mother and her nine sons - was a very long process in itself and was the result of efforts by Taoist priests and clergy over the centuries. In popular religion, Doumu is also perceived as the mother of Jiuhuang, but different stories are told of whether Jiuhuang refers to nine gods, or a god whose name has a jiu ‘nine’ in it. In many places in Southeast Asia, Jiuhuang refers to a single deity, and is always represented not by a statue, but an incense urn.  

Many legends were told of the anthropomorphism of Astral Lords of the Northern Dipper. The most popular one was derived from Scripture on the Origin of the Northern Dipper 《玉清无上灵宝自然北斗本生真经》. According to this scripture, Doumu or Lady of Purple Radiance (紫光夫人) gave her husband Zhou Yu (周御) nine sons who were transformed from nine lotuses by magic. Two of the nine sons later became the Great Emperor Celestial Sovereign (天皇大帝 or Tianhuang Dadi), and the Great Emperor of the Purple Tenuity (紫微大帝 or Ziwei Dadi). Both Tianhuang Dadi and Ziwei Dadi are among the Four Heavenly Ministers (四御). The other sons are known respectively as Lusty Wolf (贪狼), Giant Gate (巨门), Store of Wealth (禄存), Civil Chief (文曲), Pure and Chaste (廉贞), Military Chief (武曲), and Troop Destroyer (破军). Together, the nine sons are known as the Nine Emperor Gods. The Lady of Purple Radiance eventually became known as the Lady Mother of the Dipper - with three eyes and four heads, and four arms each on both sides of her body. Among the ancient Chinese, the worship of the various stars of the Northern Dipper thus evolved from the initial veneration of the Astral Lords of the Northern Dipper to the ultimate worship of the Lady Mother of the Dipper and the Nine Emperor Gods.

Details of the Nine Emperor Gods

Lidou, Jiuhuang Retreat, and the Nine Emperor Gods Worship
In the belief of the Nine Emperor Gods, the custom of "Nine Emperor Gods" has a wide range of influence, and the Nine Emperor Gods Zhai is a great exhibition from the custom of ritual fighting.

Jiuhuang retreat is an important part of the Jiuhuang worship, and this retreat has its origin in the ritual of Lidou (礼斗, Worship of the Dipper). Lidou dated far back to ancient China. It was written in the 103rd chaper of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that Zhuge Liang intended to conduct the ritual of Lidou before the Battle of Weishui to prolong his life. The ritual had to be carried out seven days in a row, and throughout the seven days, the candlelight should not be put out. On the sixth day, however, Zhuge Liang accidentally extinguished the candlelight. The ritual failed and he died not long after.
There are of course elements of hyperbole in novels, but the practice of Lidou was common in ancient China. According to the Descriptions of Scenic Spots during the Different Seasons in the Imperial Capital (《帝京岁时纪胜》), it was common for Taoist temples across China to set up an altar to pay respect to the Nine Emperor Gods during the birthday celebration of Doumu. The ritual of Lidou was conducted, and offerings were made. Throughout the celebration, which took place from the last day of the 8th lunar month to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, Taoist priests and devotees would practice Jiuhuang Retreat (九皇斋). It is believed that practicing Jiuhuang Retreat helps to eliminate disasters, cure diseases, and ultimately achieve longevity. As such, the practice is still carried out nowadays in many places across the Mainland China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Beijing, etc.

Southeast Asian devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods celebrate the Festival somewhat differently.


The Nine Emperor Gods as the nine legendary figures of ancient China - Fuxi, Shennong, Yellow Emperor, Shaohao, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, Emperor Shun, and Emperor Yu.
These legendary figures were once leaders of the ancient Chinese people, who were the ancestors of what later became the Han ethnic group in China. They were respectedly called huang (皇 or ‘emperor’) in many literary works. Although these nine emperors were important in Chinese folklore, they should not be confused with the Nine Emperor Gods, particularly not the Nine Emperor Gods worshipped in Southeast Asia.

The Nine Emperor Gods as revolutionary martyrs of the Qin Dynasty
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s second son Huhai was enthroned instead as the second emperor of Qin, later known as Qin Ershi (秦二世). Qin Ershi was never groomed to be an emperor. After he took the throne, he depended very much on eunuch Zhao Gao赵高 to the extent that Zhao Gao was made the Premier. Premier Zhao was cruel. People suffered under his rule. Soon, bandits and brigands grew in numbers and attacked the capital of Qin from all directions. Nine men who swore loyalty to one another and became blood brothers soon plotted secretly to raise an army to overthrow the Qin regime.

Unfortunately, news leaked out about the mysterious nine sworn brothers, and they were killed and decapitated. Their heads were taken away, and the bodies were left where they were. Villagers took pity of the nine sworn brothers and placed their bodies in nine ceramic urns. They set the urns in the river, so that the bodies could float out to the sea. A few years later, the Han dynasty overthrew the Qin dynasty. At the same time, the urns that contained the bodies of the nine sworn brothers miraculously floated back to the village. The villagers were amazed, so they collected the bodies and gave them proper burial. None of the villagers knew the names of the sworn brothers, but they believed that the coming back of the urn must have had certain significance. So, they built a shrine for the sworn brothers. Since then, they have made their power felt by protecting the village from harm. They villagers were grateful, and in reverence, they reported the incident to the court through a local leader. The court was amazed, and the nine sworn brothers were conferred the title of Royal Lord (王爷 or Wangye), and they are collectively known as the Nine Royal Lords(九王爷).

Although known and revered as royal lords, the nine sworn brothers should not be confused with the diety of the Wangye worship (王爷信仰) in Taoism, in which Wangye refers to divine emissaries who tour the world of the living on behalf of the celestial realm to expel diseases and evil from those who pray to them. The nine sworn brothers are only preyed upon and respected as local heroes. It seems unlikely that the Nine Emperor Gods worshipped in Southeast Asia refer to these local heroes. Hence, this legend is not widely accepted as the origin of the Nine Emperor Gods worship, particularly not in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the secret society “Hung Society” (洪门)could trace its origins to the Qin and Han period in China. As a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the Manchus and the restoration of the Ming dynastic rule, the Hung Society held its members together using the twin virtues of "righteousness" and "loyalty". Due to its secretive nature, resource materials of the Society are often hidden from the public eye. The numerous branches of the Society further contribute to differing interpretations on its historical origins. The above legend could thus be regarded as one account of the origins and founding of the Hung Society.

The founders of the Hung Society and the incense urn
According to the book 330 years of the Hung Society(《见证洪门三百三十年》), the founders of The Hung Society - Cai Dezhong(蔡德忠), Fang Dahong(方大洪), Ma Chaoxing(马超兴), Hu Dedi(胡得帝), and Li Shikai(李式开) - sought shelter from rebel leader Zheng Chenggong, after they were listed as wanted by the Qing court.

Zheng Chenggong proceeded to send them away to foment unrest around Fujian, Guangdong, and Guilin. When they arrived at the Southern Shaolin Temple at Mount Nine Lotus九莲山in Putian county, they were received by Monk Zhitong(智通和尚), who taught them martial arts, and discussed the uprising plans with them. However, their activities were eventually exposed, and the temple was burnt to ashes. The five founders fled to Gaoxi Temple (高溪庙)at Shicheng county in Huizhou in Guangdong province(广东惠州石城县).

One day, when they were resting by the river, an object floated down towards them. They picked up the object, which appeared to be a white cauldron that was carved out of granite.

On the bottom of the urn, was an inscription in Hanliu (汉留) code (a secret code created by the Hung Society) spelt “五十二斤十三两” (wushier jin shisan liang, literally “52 catties and 13 ounces”), which translate into “五湖,南北二京,十三省” (literally “five lakes, Beijing, Nanjing, and 13 provinces”). This urn bears the significant importance of incense urns in the revolution to oppose the Qing and restore the Ming.

An important component of this legend is the joss incense burner, which incidentally corresponds with the practice of praying to the joss incense burners among devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods. In the early days, members of the Hung Society committed many brave and heroic acts in their efforts to "Overthrow the Qing and Restore the Ming", and left behind countless legends. As a secret society, the Hung Society needed to devise a set of unique codes and signals to avoid detection. Chinese temples and its deities – with their aura of mystery and ability to strike fear into the hearts of many – naturally became one of ways members used to communicate secretly with each other. Indeed, many legends surrounding the founding of the Hung Society often involved personalities who had ties with either Buddhism or Taoism.

Celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods festival in commemoration of The Hung Society leader Wan Yunlong
This legend is one of the legends that are more commonly known to Southeast Asian worshippers of the Nine Emperor Gods. It is widely circulated in Ampang of Kuala Lumpur, where devotees believe that the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is held in commemoration of Wan Yunlong (万云龙), the respectable leader of the Hung Society.

On the 9th day of the 9th lunar month in 1734 (the Jiayin Year during the reign of Qing Emperor Yongzheng 清雍正甲寅年), Wan Yunlong was killed in the battle he led against the Qing military at Changsha of Hunan province. His troop members fled to Hainan Island, and subsequently to Siam (currently Thailand) by sea. As they were not welcomed by the Siam government, they were forced to move further southwards, and finally settled in Penang.

Some of the troop members went further south and settled in Ampang of Kuala Lumpur. These remnants of the Hung Society were loyalists of the Ming Dynasty. On the surface, they were making a living through agriculture; in secret they were forming secret societies to unite fellow Ming loyalists in order to overthrow the Qing government.

During the initiation ceremony of one of their members, police officers barged in to investigate.

The police officers demanded to know what they were doing, and one of the leaders said they were praying to the gods for protection and peace. The setup did look like someone was praying, because there wasn’t any idol to be seen.

So the police officers asked to what or whom they were praying to.

One of the leaders wittily pointed to the incense urn and claimed that it represented the gods’ presence.

The police officers were not convinced and asked what the names of the gods were.

The “Nine Emperor Gods,” they said. The police officers had not heard of the Nine Emperor Gods, but they thought the whole dialogue and the setting made sense, so they left.

Since then, Nine Emperor Gods devotees in Kuala Lumpur began to pray to an incense urn in place of a sculpture or statue.

Wan Yunlong is a heroic character often found in the legends of the Hung Society and the Heaven and Earth Society. However, did Wan really exist? Or was he an imaginary character created by the authors of the legends? Or did the authors intend to use him to refer to another person? Till this day, academics have failed to come to any conclusion regarding these questions. Suffice it to say that these legends showed us the links between the Chinese deities and the secret societies.

Lord Lu- The lineage of the ninth prince of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming dynasty
The most well-founded legend is that the Nine Emperor Gods is actually King Lu, the ninth grandson of Ming Taizu.

This legend is one of the more convincing legends that refer to the Nine Emperor Gods as a single being- Lord Lu (鲁王). When Emperor Hongwu established the Ming dynasty, his ninth prince was bestowed Lord Lu who ruled over the state of Lu. Lord Lu’s descendants who succeed him took on the same title. During the final years of the Ming dynasty, when the Manchurian forces occupied Beijing, the remaining royal members of the Ming court fled to the south to establish the Southern Ming dynasty. Lord Lu fled to Fujian, where he sought refuge with Zheng Chenggong’s.

To protect the last of the royal line, Zheng Chenggong sent Lord Lu and his family offshore to Jinmen Island. According to Ming History that was compiled by historians of the Qing government, Zheng Chenggong eventually drowned Lord Lu in the sea after their relationship deteriorated. Lord Lu’s followers were angered, and left Zheng Chenggong’s forces for Southeast Asia. Here, they started praying to Lord Lu as the Ninth Prince (九王爷) after his lineage from the ninth prince of Emperor Hongwu. It was said that there isn’t a statue in this worship because the Ninth Prince was lost in the sea before a statue was carved.

The discovery of Lord Lu’s tomb on Jinmen Island in 1959 invalidated the above entry in Ming History. Zheng Chenggong did not kill Lord Lu. Instead, Lord Lu spent the rest of his life peacefully on Jinmen Island till he died of asthma. After his passing, the revolutionary martyrs worshipped him as the Ninth Prince (九王爷) after his lineage from Emperor Hongwu. Since it was forbidden to make a statue of anyone with royal blood, the worship of the Ninth Prince took place without a statue.

Celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in commemoration of Lord Zheng Chenggong
During the Qing reign, rebels all over China were united in the name of opposing the Qing and restoring the Ming (反清复明). Zheng Chenggong(郑成功), who was conferred the title of Koxinga (国姓爷, literally “Lord of the Imperial Surname”) by Emperor Longwu of the Southern Ming dynasty, was among the rebels who had organized some of the largest uprisings against the Qing government. Zheng Chenggong and his troops were active in regions around the Zhangzhou and Quanzhou prefectures of Fujian province. Before one of the uprisings, Zheng Chenggong organized for his troops to gather at Dou Mu temple(斗母宫)during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, where they would discuss their plans with the monks from Southern Shaolin Monastery. To evade detection by the eyes and ears of the Qing court, they disguised themselves as devotees of the temple, and used the celebration of the Nine Emperor Gods Festivals as cover-up of their activities. On the last day of the 8th lunar month, Zheng Chenggong arrived at the temple in a ship. Since he was the most-wanted fugitive of the Qing court, his troops had to escort him under an umbrella on his way to the temple from the ship to avoid exposing his identity. He was put in a special room, which was called the Sacred and Virtuous Hall (圣德殿). No one was allowed to enter the room without permission.

During the Festival, rebels called out to each other by raising the Nine Emperor Gods(九皇大帝) flag, which is homonymous to “救王大帝”, literally “saving the Ming court”. They also wrote “日” (literally “sun”) and “月” (literally “moon”) on Doumu’s hand, which combine to form “明” of the Ming dynasty. The discussions were concluded with the ending of the Festival. On the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, Zheng Chenggong had to travel to somewhere else to recruit more rebel members. His troops sent him off in a Royal Ship (王船) loaded with daily supplies, food, and other items.

Zheng Chenggong’s uprisings took place during when the Qing government was the most powerful and prosperous. So naturally, his uprisings failed. But the people of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou prefectures never forgot his efforts. After his fall, the locals celebrated the Nine Emperor Gods Festival from the eve to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month every year in commemoration of Zheng Chenggong and the rebel martyrs. Following the migration of the Chinese from Southeast China to Southeast Asia, the rituals and practices of the Nine Emperor Gods Festivals were brought over. Some of the rituals practiced at Hougang Tao Mu Temple, including “Receiving(welcoming or pick up,接驾)the Gods” (迎神), “Inviting (collecting) the Water” (请水), “Sending the Gods back to the Sea” (送神归海), “Royal Ship” (王船), etc., symbolize the activities that took place in Dou Mu Gong in that autumn before Zheng Chenggong’s uprisings. However, no one really knows if the legends come before the ritual or the rituals come before the legends. All that is agreed is that the legends have provided some sort of an anchor to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods, draping it with a mysterious veil.

(Note: Zheng Chenggong, whose real name was Zheng Sen(郑森), was the son of Zheng Zhilong (郑芝龙). As Prince Tang of the Southern Ming court granted him the use of the royal surname "Zhu" (朱), Zheng Chenggong was also known as "The Lord who bears the Royal Surname". Zheng refused to follow in his father's footsteps in surrendering to the Manchus, and subsequently raised an army against the Qing invaders. When the Qing court cut off his food supplies, he was forced to look for another base for his troops and eventually retreated eastwards to Taiwan island. After a fierce battle, he defeated the Dutch colonialists who had occupied Taiwan, and took control of the island in 1662. Soon after, he died of illness and his descendants continued to govern Taiwan until 1683 when the Qing court launched a major invasion of the island. Zheng's descendants were defeated, and the island was conquered by the Qing. The following year, the Qing court set up the Taiwan prefectural government on the island and placed it under the jurisdiction of Fujian Province.)

Many stories and legends were told about the Hung Society because it was a secret society, and its history was only recorded encrypted. Some of these stories are legend-like and come with metaphors and hints. We laid out the six legends about the Nine Emperor Gods worship, but we do not decide which legend is right, or which is wrong. Many of these legends have diverged from how they were first told, having passed on from mouth to mouth. It is not easy to verify the reliability of these legends from historical sources. By contrast, gatherring feedbacks from the people might point us to discovering the sources and foundations of many popular beliefs.

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