I'd been expecting the call but not quite that early. A couple of
weeks ago Aaron had invited us out to see a ceremony releasing fish
and birds back into the wild and he was calling to confirm the
"An hour, at the school gates?" he said. I agreed and checked my
clock. It was seven thirty.
The night had been filled with a wild, howling wind and it had
scarcely dropped with sunrise so that the city was filled with dust
and sand and, in spite of the bright morning sun, the cold cut through
The three of us – Aaron, me and my current flatmate, Todd – took a cab
out to the island in the yellow river where the ceremony was to take
place. I'd been there before and so I knew that it was about a forty
minute trip, time enough to relax a little in the car. I closed my
eyes and dozed and when I opened them again we were approaching the
ramshackle pontoon bridge that connects the island to the shore.
We were not the first to arrive.
At the nearer of the islands two temples – the only complete and
functioning one – dozens of people were kneeling and praying. There is
a short row of rooms where the people on the island spend there time
and we went to sit in one of these to drink tea and talk to the stream
of visitors eager to see the two strange foreigners who had come to
their ceremonies. Finally the abbot – an elderly man in a cardigan and
donkey jacket – came in. He was unbelievably pleased to have foreign
visitors and when I asked if I could have permission to photograph the
ceremony he beamed his approval, informing me that I could – and
should – photograph anything and everything and post it onto the
internet for all my friends to see.
So I became the day's official photographer.
A knock at the door indicated that things were getting properly underway.
The ceremony was a joint Buddhist and Taoist one. In front of the
temple a row of brown-robed Taoists were mirrored on the opposite side
of the entrance by a row of black-robed Buddhists. The fourth side of
the square was completed by the followers who were standing watching
the proceedings. Drums and gongs accompanied the chanting and singing
and as I took a discrete picture from the edges I felt a hand on my
sleeve guiding me into the centre of the action as one of the monks –
also in "civilian" clothing – indicated that I should walk about and
take photographs that I had considered obtrusive.
Feeling a little awkward I did so but was even more surprised a moment
later when he led me into the temple to photograph the Buddha statues
– which is normally a serious faux pas.
In the other room of the temple Master Jin, a woman in he seventies,
and a group of red, silk clad monks were performing rituals that were
largely incomprehensible to me. Here too I was encouraged to take
pictures until the abbot indicated that we were now to become part of
the ceremony. I put my camera away and we were presented with "hadas",
red ceremonial scarves embroidered with floral designs, placed around
our necks my Master Jin.
Outside, we rejoined the followers as prayers and blessings were
spoken over the cages of birds and the large buckets that were
over-filled with fish. I noticed that many of the fish, and at least
one of the birds, appeared to be dead already but moments later dozens
of eager helpers lifted them and we proceeded down to the river bank.
More prayers were said – Master Jin waving a ceremonial sword to drive
off evil spirits. I was asked to open the cage doors to release the
birds and they – apart from the dead one – fluttered off into the
shelter and protection of the skeletal winter trees.
Down at the waters edge the fish were being place into the water,
poured or lifted from bowls and buckets. As I had suspected many were
dead though some that seemed so, revived once they were in the water.
Overhead birds circled anticipating a meal once the humans had gone
from the scene..
With the release complete Todd and I were escorted into the centre of
the crowd to stand with the be-robed monks while people took our
photographs. We were it seemed highly prized and honoured guests.
After a basic, but very nice, lunch where the abbot himself came to
sit with us – firing off a stream of questions through the
interpreting skills of Aaron – we were about to leave when Master Jin
approached us. She said something in Chinese. We were being invited to
return for the evening's ceremony where dead souls would be crossed
over into the next world. Did we want to come?
Of course we did.