A Gin Festival Pays Homage to the Sea


THE Gins, an ancient ethnic group in southwestern China, are kinsmen of the Kinhs, the largest ethnic group in Vietnam. They are believed to be descendants of the people of Nanyue, a kingdom from 204 to 112 BC that covered part of southern China and northern Vietnam. In about the 16th century some of them migrated from Do Son near the Vietnamese city of Haiphong to three islands – Wutou, Shanxin, and Wanwei – in China’s Guangxi. There they joined local people of various ethnic groups, including the Han and Zhuang, to explore and develop these islands. In 1958 the central government officially named Gin an ethnic minority group, on the basis of its distinctive history, language, culture, and customs, and after soliciting the opinions of its people.


The Gins carry a golden shrine to welcome the God of the Sea.


The Ha (which means “singing” in the Gin language) Festival is one of the most celebrated events for the Gin people. Subsisting on marine fishing by tradition, the Gins worship the God of the Sea, and the festival is held to celebrate his birthday. It was confirmed a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.


A People of the Sea


Ocean fishing and farming are the mainstay of the Gins’ income, and the sea defines every aspect of the life of these islanders. The faith of Gins is polytheist, incorporating natural religion with Taoism and Buddhism. Awed and perplexed by the unpredictable and formidable weather on the sea, early Gins created a number of deities related to the deep blue, such as the Sea Pacifying Lord, Dragon King, Sea God and Sea Goddess, hoping that their blessings could bring the fishermen home safe with big catches.


The sacrificial rite at the Ha Festival.

The Gins love singing. Their folk songs are of 30 or more kinds of ballads, and many are about the sea. Their exclusive musical instrument is made of a bamboo frame with a single string, which is said to have been smuggled out of the Dragon King’s palace.


The Gins have inherited volumes of myths from their ancestors that are mostly about the marine gods, creatures and plants in human form, or set in the backdrop of the ocean. They testify to the bond between the group and the sea, their love for it and their struggle to make a living out of it. Gin sports are also based in the briny deep. In one word, the sea is omnipresent in Gin life and culture.


Sacrifice to the Sea


The Ha Festival is observed mostly by the Gins living in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The starting date varies in different regions – the 10th day of the sixth lunar month on the Wanwei and Wutou islands, the 10th day of the eighth lunar month on Shanxin Island, and the 25th day of the first lunar month for certain hamlets along the coast; but the format and content are similar, with the theme being the offer of a sacrifice to the God of the Sea and praying for a good harvest and safety.


Prior to the three-day festival, the Gins clean their homes and yards. When the day comes, they put on their best clothes, and gather at the Ha Pavilion for a variety of festive activities that run into the night.


A group of the Gins go to the shore to greet the God of the Sea.

The rite starts with greeting the gods. All residents of the community come to the shore carrying the shrine, banners and a giant umbrella, inviting the gods to the Ha Pavilion. At about 3 pm, a preacher, in the presence of the whole community, greets gods from the sea and heaven as well as the spirit of Gin ancestors, reads an ode, and offers them wine and other gifts. These are followed by performances meant to entertain the immortals and the dead, including singing, dancing and storytelling.


At the conclusion of the rite, some of the participants take seats for a banquet and to watch the “Ha” in the Ha Pavilion. This is a privilege for the men who help prepare the sacrificial objects and serve the food and drinks. Women and children may also help with the preparatory work, but can only listen to the “Ha” outside the pavilion.


Two young women take turns to sing the Ha, while a man plays a three-stringed musical instrument. One woman croons, as she sways and claps two bamboo slips, and keeps the beat with her clappers, and the other harmonizes. After the singer finishes one verse, the man plucks his instrument for a section of the music. This cycle continues until one singer is tired, and the other takes her turn. The Ha singing goes on for three days, and the themes of the songs range from folklores and life’s philosophy to love.


The last step of the rite is seeing the gods off, staged amid a chorus sung by all participants. In addition to singing, which is dominated by women, men’s sports are also a salient feature of the Ha Festival, including a bull fight, a martial arts contest, and wrestling.


The Origin


There are several myths about the origin of the festival. The best known one is that a giant centipede in the Beibu Gulf demanded one man to eat from every passing ship, and threatened to conjure a tempest to sink it if refused. A god killed the monster, and cut it into three pieces, which became the three islands of Wutou, Shanxin and Wanwei. This god was thereafter worshipped by the Gins as the Sea Pacifying Lord, and sacrifices are offered to him at the Ha Pavilion every year.


The Ha Pavilion, the main venue of the celebrations during the Ha Festival and other major Gin events, is a public space dedicated to the memory of ancestors and gods as well as for communal recreational activities. It is located in the vicinity of a village, and built with the best wood available in the region. The style could be pristine or ornate, and evidently incorporates elements of the Han culture, such as the twin dragon sculpture, a traditional Han motif, on the roof ridge.


The pavilion consists of the central, left, and right halls. A shrine is set up in the central hall, to display memorial tablets for ancestors and gods. The columns in the room are carved with couplets or poems. In bigger Ha Pavilions the platform where the rite takes place is flanked by terraced seating sections that are reserved for the elders of the community and those who donate to the building of the pavilion or the organization of the Ha Festival. Their seats are arranged according to their status and contributions.


(Compiled by China Today)