All Saints Day, Chung Yeung, Ghosts and Gods

Because the celebration of 重陽節 Chung Yeung [1] usually happens in fall, around September or October, and because it bears so much connections with the questions human beings ask themselves about death, I can never avoid each year, to compare it with European fall festivals that celebrate the dead. In Southern and Western European countries, a day of the dead anciently preexists the Christian festival called All Saints Day. In French, people call it la Toussaint [2] and it’s famous in Spanish as El Día de Todos los Santos with the exact same meaning as All Saints Day in English.

Most people – and even Christians – nowadays would argue that celebrating saints is not celebrating the dead. However, in order to really understand the connection, one needs to remember that in the Catholic roots of the belief, the deceased people, because they died, actually accessed sanctity. This day was meant to celebrate all the saints whose names were unknown and which the traditional Christian calendar couldn’t keep a record of. So this means that all the deceased who are not famous saints, but who are supposed to be saints now, are celebrated on All Saints Day. Just as what happens for the Chinese ancestors day during 重陽節 Chung Yeung festival.

When being asked about the kind of spirits they are praying during 重陽節 Chung Yeung, a lot of Hong Kong and Chinese people would say that it is not ghosts they are praying. The concept of ghosts and the concept of dead gods have been discriminated in a way that may make sense in Cantonese and Chinese language, but not really in English. A ghost is etymologically a spirit. It’s the original English word that comes from Proto-Germanic gaistaz and is more or less equivalent of the Latin spiritus.

For Hong Kong and Chinese people, it is important though, to make the difference between what we could call evil spirits or ghouls and ancestors spirits or good ghosts. It’s the latter that 重陽節 Chung Yeung festival is celebrating and we can understand why they don’t want to mix up their celebration with All Saints Day. And the reason is the ambiguous feeling provided by Halloween night, which – not randomly indeed – happens the day before All Saints Day and two days before the official new All Souls’ Day on the 2nd of November. But All Souls’ Day is only a way to open the celebration to a universal human target, taking into account, not only the saints, the best souls among the deceased, but all the souls who were faithful during their life. From the moment when the Roman Lemuria were replaced with Martyrdom Day and, during the 8th century, moved to 1st of November, the festival has spread over almost three days in some way, but with different canonical names.

Halloween celebration, since it has been brought all over the world under the impulse of American and Anglo-Saxon popular folklore such as movies, books or TV series, is in some way reappropriating the original pre-Christian celebration called Samain in the Celtic world, and is progressively erasing the sanctity message brought by the celebration of All Saints Day. In this cultural global mishmash, the fear of mixing up evil spirits with ancestors spirits can somehow be developing.

Words in English that I heard from local people when trying to separate both concepts were such as: ancestors or gods. The word god particularly struck me as I was already aware of important differences of concepts within the deities hierarchy. Here again, this difference is essential.

The 天 tin, the dai and the 神 san, are three of these concepts and they perfectly show how modern European languages such as English have sadly reduced the spectrum of conceptual possibilities in this matter, and have impoverished the theological analysis to such an extent that translations always become complex when trying to relate with other cultural practices. Here again, Christianity has blurred the lines, since ancient Europe didn’t have these issues. 重陽節 Chung Yeung festival celebrates the 神 san. People would translate the same word 神 san as ‘god’, according to different contexts. It has some closeness with the pagan concept of deity, but as a specific spirit, a local god, a faun, an elemental or the soul of a human or an animal. We’re finally not so far from the saints of All Saints Day, regardless of other creatures you might have to encounter before crossing to the month of November. But where the rationalist Christian world insists on separating the mythological aspects from the historical aspects of religion, the concept of 神 san remains interconnected. The word mythology itself translates with the same morpheme: 神話 san-waa [3].

Whatever people think of the local and folkloric differences between Pagan, Christian or Chinese festivals during Fall season, there is a strong and universal structure in the encounter between the falling leaves season and the fact that human beings suddenly remember that their own body is not eternal and that they should pay attention and respect to the ones who lived on this planet before them, loved before them, and suffered before them.

This year, All Saints Day will have a special taste since my mother passed away in April 2020 and I pray for her 神 san to be united with my father’s 神 san since they are now both on the other side of the curtain. No, I’m not originally Chinese myself, but love and life – and certainly death – are always a matter of translation. In all possible meanings of the word translation.

JSD


[1] Yale pronunciation: [cung4 joeng4 zit3] : mostly known as Double Ninth Festival. The name 重陽 Chung Yeung actually means ‘Double Yang’ or ‘Repeating Yang’.

[2] Literally ‘all saint’ stuck in one word, in French.

[3] Literally ‘speech on the spirit’. Compare with Greek μυθολογία (mythos: ‘tale’ and logia: ‘speech’).


Illustration credit: Arnold Böcklin, Die Gefilde der Seligen (Elysium)

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