Kailung Temple’s Coming of Age Ceremony 開隆宮 七夕節十六歲成年祭
I wrote this 7/7 article at the request of an editor several years ago, but never heard from the editor again (see the * below for the complete story). I never found anyone to publish it so here it is:
Tainan’s Kailung temple (開隆宮) is a sleepy and somewhat nondescript temple tucked in an alley off Jung Shan road. Annually, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, this little temple hosts one of the more prominent southern folk festivals, the ancient ‘coming of age’ ritual (七夕節十六歲成年). Kailung temple is the only temple in all of Taiwan to enshrine Chiniangma (七娘媽, protector of children, daughter of Jade Emperor) as the main deity, so is the most popular place to publicly celebrate attaining adulthood and giving thanks for a safe childhood.
Originating in Fujian Province, the coming of age ceremony was widely celebrated in Chinese society as one of the four major rites along with birth, marriage and death. Traditionally women became adults at the age of fifteen and men at twenty; but back in the 19th century in Taiwan’s oldest city, the age was sixteen. For Tainan youths working at the old Five Channels Port 16 was the age that their wages doubled, then becoming able to better carry the family’s financial burden.
Nowadays in Tainan ChiShi (七夕 meaning seven joys) is better known as Chinese Valentine’s Day and for the accompanying Chi Shi Arts Festival. Chinese Valentine’s day originated with the story of the Oxherd and the Weaving Maid (Chiniangma). The story’s variations are infinite, but all end with the two madly in love and being banned from meeting except on the Seventh of August. Their two children were raised by the Oxherd with help from the weaver’s six younger sisters. The Weaver, bereaved of her own children, protects all children under the age of sixteen.
Kailung was Taiwan’s only temple to hold the coming of age ritual which has now spread to 11 temples around Tainan and the heavily promoted Chi Shi Arts Festival is a spin off of this ancient rite. Mostly centered around Tainan’s Confucius Temple, the festival hosts traditional performances, activities and exhibitions as well as a coming of age ceremony, but for a more authentic experience one must witness Kailung Temple’s Coming of Age Festival. I spoke with some temple management to talk about the coming of age ceremony then and now. Wang Hsu-Wei, Kailung Temple’s chairman of the board for 18 years and now retired, never participated in the ceremony himself as he was not the oldest son. It is only in recent years that all children have begun to participate. Wang explains, “Because of the enormous cost involved only the eldest sister or brother participated in the rite. We were very poor back then.”
Mrs. Wang, his eldest daughter, did participate and recounts her day about 36 years ago: “In those days most people still held the rites privately at home. I lived next to Kailung Temple so I had my ceremony at the temple. It wasn’t as grand or popular an affair as today, so we could actually go inside the temple. Today that would be impossible, there are far too many people. In the front corner of the Kailung temple a Chiniangma pagoda was set up which we crawled under three times, signifying our passage into adulthood. We weren’t wealthy, but I remember every finger of my hand was full of rings. All my relatives gave me rings. As custom dictated, my maternal grandmother prepared everything; from offerings of gratitude for Chiniangma’s protection to a large feast. Affluent families would hire singers and have huge outdoor banquets. The actual rites were much simpler then, now the rites are more elaborate.”
At the height of the ceremony on the seventh, one couldn’t move for the throngs of people. Zhang Hsien-hui, Kailung Temple’s master of ceremonies kindly showed me around the temple pointing out especially interesting things and explained that as an officially designated relic, the temple must keep it’s basic form; thus explaining the small size of such an important temple.
Mrs. Chen, mother of 16 year old participant Miss Tsai, says “I didn’t take part in the ceremony when I was sixteen. My older sister did. Everybody gave her gifts. Oh, and a watch! Watches were rare those days, it was gold. Eighteen karat. It was great! Children nowadays don’t understand the traditions. Yesterday I explained the rites to my daughter and now she knows the importance of sharing the responsibilities and burdens of the family and that Chiniangma has watched over her safety for sixteen years. My daughter was happy to come.” Her daughter added, “I didn’t really understand the rites before, but now I do. It was a novel experience.”
Allen, father of a sixteen year old Charlie was explaining to me that his son had become an adult today. My friend asked, “Now you will let Charlie do anything he wants?” Allen promptly replied, “Oh no, of course not. Not yet.” Even Chiniangma was ultimately controlled by her parents.
But some things have changed. Many of the kids needed instruction on incense and prayer rituals and seemed a touch more at home on their cell phones and whizzing through iPod menus. Thankfully, they no longer need to carry heavy loads at the docks all day, but today’s sixteen year old teenagers have a different load to carry; the heavy responsibilities of studying for important examinations.
While their loads and habits have changed, some things will never change. The coming of age ceremony is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. For families, there was great beauty in this day. As proud parents paraded awkward and often embarrassed teenagers through the ancient rituals, it was apparent all were having a great time. Surely they will want to share this day with their children as their parents wanted to share with them today. The coming of age ceremony continues to pass on the responsibilities and traditions of today to the next generation; as it has for centuries.
* The editor wrote:
By the way, I heard that the Tainan City Government holds a traditional
ceremony for Grow-up churdren (about 17 years old) every Summer. It is a
very interesting story. Would you please to cover this event? Good luck!
Editors (not just Taiwanese ones) all too often have horrible grammar and spelling.
Sadly, that is the last I ever heard from the editor; the paper stopped running freelance articles and hired a regular writer for their travel features under a different editor. I had interviewed so many busy people and like to show them something in turn for their time, so had hoped to find another publisher but never did. I have managed to make a little bit of money with the photos though.