Today is 9-9 (9th of September) in the Gregorian calendar which makes it the double ninth. In the lunar calendar, used for religious and civic festivals in Asia, the double ninth (ninth day of the ninth lunar month) is an important day which wanders around October in the Gregorian calendar. But Japan has modified its lunar calendar events to fit the Gregorian calendar, so today is the double ninth there, also called the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句). I’ll take today’s post to look at all Double-Ninth Festivals in Asia even though it’s celebrated only in Japan on this date this year.
According to the I Ching, nine is a yang number. The ninth day of the ninth lunar month (or double nine) has too much yang and is, thus, a potentially dangerous date. Hence, the day is also called “Double Yang Festival” (重陽節). To protect against danger, it is customary to climb a high mountain, drink chrysanthemum liquor, and wear the zhuyu (茱萸) plant, Cornus officinalis. Both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.
On this holiday some Chinese also visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects. In Hong Kong, whole extended families head to ancestral graves to clean them and repaint inscriptions, and to lay out food offerings such as roast suckling pig and fruit, which are then eaten (after the spirits have consumed the spiritual element of the food). Chongyang Cake is also popular. Incense sticks are burned. Cemeteries get crowded, and each year grass fires are inadvertently started by the burning incense sticks.
The Chinese origin legend is as follows:
Once there was a man named Huan Jing, who believed that a monster would bring pestilence. He told his countrymen to hide on a hill while he went to defeat the monster. Later, people celebrated Huan Jing’s defeat of the monster on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.
In 1966, Taiwan rededicated the holiday as “Senior Citizens’ Day”, underscoring one custom as it is observed in China, where the festival is also an opportunity to care for and appreciate the elderly.
Double Ninth may have originated as a day to drive away danger, but like the Chinese New Year, over time it became a day of celebration. In contemporary times it is an occasion for hiking and chrysanthemum appreciation. Stores sell rice cakes (糕 “gāo”, a homophone for height 高) with mini colorful flags to represent zhuyu. Most people drink chrysanthemum tea, while a few traditionalists drink homemade chrysanthemum wine. Children learn poems about chrysanthemums, and many localities host chrysanthemum exhibits. Mountain climbing races are also popular; winners get to wear a wreath made of zhuyu.
In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō but also as the Chrysanthemum Festival (菊の節句) and is celebrated at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There are also traditional sports on the day including crow sumo.
There is an often-quoted Chinese poem about the holiday, Double Ninth, Remembering my Shandong Brothers (九月九日憶山東兄弟), by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei:
dú zài yì xiāng wéi yì kè
měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn
yáo zhī xiōng dì dēng gāo chù
biàn chā zhū yú shǎo yī rén
As a lonely stranger in a foreign land,
At every holiday my homesickness increases.
Far away, I know my brothers have reached the peak;
They are wearing the zhuyu, but one is not present.
There are various cakes made for today called Double Ninth cake, also known as “chrysanthemum cake” or “flower cake”. It dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century – 256 BCE). It is said that the cake was originally prepared after autumn harvests for farmers to have a taste of what was just in season, and it gradually became the cake for people to eat on the Double Ninth Day.
The cake was usually made of glutinous rice flour, millet flour or bean flour. In the Tang Dynasty, its surface was usually planted with a small pennant of multi-colored paper and bore at its center the Chinese character “ling” (order). The Double Ninth cake in the Song Dynasty was usually made with great care a few days before the Double Ninth Day, its surface covered with colored pennants and inlaid with Chinese chestnuts, ginkgo seeds, pine nut kernels and pomegranate seeds.
It was considered a nice festive present for relatives or friends. In the Ming Dynasty, imperial families customarily began to eat the cake early on the first day of the 9th lunar month to mark the festival, while the common people usually enjoyed it with their married daughters. It was basin-sized and covered with two or three layers of jujubes. The cake in the Qing Dynasty was made like a 9-storied pagoda, which was topped with two sheep images made of dough. The cake was called Chong Yang Gao in Chinese, which means Double Ninth cake as “Chong” means double, “Yang” simultaneously suggests nine and sheep, and “Gao” means cake. Also, because “Gao” (cake) shares the pronunciation with “Gao” (high, tall), people hope to get a higher position in life by having Gao on the Double Ninth Day.