Folk Customs and Related Cultural Artifacts

"Each village has its own customs" is a very familiar adage among the Hakka. "Customs" refer to the folk customs. To understand folk customs from the cultural heritage angle, in addition to the rather abstract concept, we must also rely on concrete artifacts. Thus the Preservation Act explains folk customs and cultural artifacts as follows: "traditional customs, beliefs, holidays and related cultural artifacts with a specific cultural significance related to the life of the people." This is a definition that combines the abstract with concrete cultural artifacts.


Although folk customs as literally understood are abstract, in the life experience of the ordinary person they are concrete and clear. Facing daily life, the natural and human cultural environment and human relations, there was a whole series of traditions the Hakka had brought with them from China for coping with the challenges of the environment and to help them adjust to local life.


As for seasonal festivals aside from those celebrated as well on the mainland of China, like Spring Festival, nativity of the King of Heven, 15th of the 1st lunar month, ching-ming, Dragon Boat Festival, Seventh Eve, Mid-Autumn Festival, Double Ninth Festival, Start of Winter Festival, Winter Solstice Festival, wei-ya Festival and New Year's Eve, there are also many folk holidays with a rather specific character. After yuan-hsiao (15th of the 1st lunar month, also know as the Lantern Festival) in northern Taiwan on the 20th of the lunar calendar there is the "Sky Piercing," tien-chuan,  Festival. On this day sweet rice cakes ("year cakes," nien-kao) especially put away during the New Year period are made into a very savory treat called "fried rice cakes." Sometimes the fried rice cake is very sticky and can be considered the sticky material used in the legend to patch the "leak in the sky." There are also many folklorists who say this custom is connected to legend of the goddess Nu-Wa who filled the cracks in the sky she had created, but it is still to be determined whether Nu-Wa is regularly worshiped in Hakka villages. Currently only in Chuangwei, Ilan is there a "Sky Mending Temple" where sacrifices are made to Nu-Wa. In Hakka villages it is tien-kung, the Ruler of Nature or King of Heaven, who receives the sacrifice of fried rice cakes on the 20th. Although the custom of the Sky Piercing Festival awaits further study by academics and specialists, it is a day all Hakka must celebrate.

In addition to the Sky Piercing Festival, the Hakka Tomb Sweeping Festival also has a special character. The Hakka call the Tomb Sweeping Festival the "Paper Hanging Festival." From the middle of the 1st lunar month all the way to Spring Festival Hakka everywhere can be seen returning to their villages to "hang paper." The Miaoli area seems to make the 16th of the 1st lunar month the local Paper Hanging Festival day. In the Hsinchu area, where my own clan comes from, Paper Hanging day occurs on the first Sunday of the second month of the lunar calendar. The neighboring Lai family goes with our clan to hang paper on this day. In Taichung in Shihkang the Liu Yuan-lung clan has selected the "spring equinox" as the day for paper hanging. As to why Hakka want to finish their tomb sweeping before the Spring Festival, some say that because farmers are busy people, a day is chosen that responds to  local requirements. The unique character of the timing of the paper hanging has a Hakka logic to it and this is one way of thinking about cultural resources.


As for cultural artifacts related to temples and shrines, there are things worth unearthing, such as the various gods, idols, sacrificial space, items used in making sacrifices, temple artifacts, and temple records. Let's take an example of "sacrificial space" to explain the character of the Hakka. The Hakka ancestor tablet is carved with family member names according to the chao-mu system. We can say that this is directly carving the clan genealogy table on the tablet. The Hakka call the tablet the a-kung po tablet (or Great Tablet). This tablet is placed in the hall (or the clan temple, shrine). The Hakka have a saying, "The ancestors are in the hall, the gods are in the temple." The "hall" refers to the ancestral hall. The ancestors are safely ensconced in the ancestor hall and set up on the central axis, that is the most important position in the hall. (Some people may place spirits like Kuanyin and others on the spirit table and those who are particular about things may place Kuanyin to the side but a little higher than the ancestor tablet to show respect but the primary position is still occupied by the ancestor tablet.) This would be a distinguishing characteristic of Hakka sacrificial space. Another distinguishing characteristic is the Earth Dragon God beneath the spirit table. Why the Dragon God became a unique Hakka belief we won't go into here and will restrict ourselves to discussing the significance of its position. The Dragon God is located beneath the spirit table which itself is located on top of the central footing (axis) of the house in the hall, or main room. He is the god of the earth, and because his incense is place there with him, the area is kept exceptionally clean, implying a consecrated space.


For spiritual ceremonies and folk beliefs, there are spirit births, temple meetings, chen-tou, habits, phoenix spirit writing, moral books and phoenix meetings. For example, at the end of 2005 the Miaoli Cultural Affairs Bureau published Hsi chia hsin po. This was a "phoenix book" discovered among the people during Hakka research on a book by Chen Yun-tung from the previous generation entitled The Records of Hsi-hu Village. So-called "phoenix books" were documents recording the events during the Japanese occupation period of the "phoenix hall" movement (spirit-writing cult). The Taiwan gentry linked up with the intelligentsia and brought Confucianism over from the Hakka areas in China to teach commoners using the "phoenix spirit writing" as a methodology. Some people say spirit writing functioned to prohibit drug use (opium smoking) locally in the guise of religion. The Kuangshan Hall and Taichuan Hall in Meinung and various similar Halls elsewhere all were part of this type of folk belief.


In the religious ceremonies there were chai-chiao, fa-hui, equipment and items association with execution grounds. In religions there were Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, and folk beliefs. Even in food and drink there are things to be noted: special processed foods, characteristic cooked foods, snacks and festival food and drink.

In folk customs and related cultural artifacts, things that can be observed and recorded are perhaps the most popular topics for Hakka studies because folk custom exists as the most intimate part of daily life. Nevertheless, because it is too close to daily life its value is easily overlooked owing to its over-familiarity. Perhaps if we try seeing the minutiae of daily life from a different angle, we will be able to find more cultural resources of value. (text: Chen Pan)