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The Festival

In Koh Leng village in China, there is a famous Guan Gong temple founded in 1748 during the reign of Qing emperor Qian Long. As an important temple in the village, Guan Gong’s cultural worship became a central part of Koh Leng’s life.

When we migrated to Singapore, the worship of Guan Gong was brought here too.The worship of Guan Gong took on dual dimensions. On one hand, it reminded us of home in Kinmen where the ancient temple was. On the other hand, Guan Gong, the famous general from the Three Kingdoms period, was known for his loyalty to his sworn brothers and his integrity.

Guan Gong thus reminded us not only of home but also served as a reminder to Koh Leng migrants that we should stay united and to look out for each other, like brothers.

Guan Gong’s influence remains to this day. When the clan association was established in 1951, a shrine was set up for the worship of Guan Gong.

Every year, the clan association gathered to commemorate Guan Gong’s birthday on the 13th day of the fifth lunar month.

These celebrations serve to remind us of the importance of mutual support and become a platform for fellow members to catch up with each other’s lives as well as an opportunity for their children to interact.

Worship of Guan Gong

History of Guan Gong

Guan Yu (关羽) was a historical figure who lived in China during the Three Kingdoms period, (三国) (CE 220-CE 280).

Historical background

Towards the end of the Han dynasty (汉朝), the emperor had been reduced to a nominal ruler. Powerful clans and court officials fought against each other to become the power behind the throne. Meanwhile, disenfranchised peasants began a series of uprising. The most severe of these movements was the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黄巾起义).

As the political disintegration intensified, regional warlords were no longer contented to be the power behind the throne. They aspired to be rulers of their own empire. Nevertheless, others remained loyal to the Han dynasty and sought to restore the power of the Han Emperor.

Guan Yu belonged to the group who aspired to restore the Han Dynasty. He had met two other persons with the same ideal; Liu Bei, (刘备)a distant member of the Han royal family and Zhang Fei (张飞). They became sworn brothers at the Peach Garden (桃园结义) and vowed to work together towards the revival of the Han Dynasty. Liu Bei was the eldest of the three brothers; Guan Yu was the second brother and Zhang Fei the youngest.

When the regional powers Cao Cao (曹操) and Sun Quan (孙权) proclaimed themselves Emperors Wei (魏) and Wu (吴), Liu Bei declared himself the Emperor of Shu (蜀) with the aim of restoring the Han dynasty, often referred to as Shu-Han (蜀汉). With this development, Chinese history entered the Three Kingdoms Period, (三国时代) a political scene that lasted for 60 years from CE 220 to 280.

As a General, Guan Yu was well known for his integrity and bravery. As an individual, he was respected for his loyalty and righteousness. During a battle with Wu forces, Guan Yu was captured and beheaded.

Guan Gong culture

After his death, General Guan Yu became the embodiment of loyalty, righteousness, bravery and benevolence(忠义勇仁) . Guan Yu’s brotherhood pact with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei provided strong imagery and symbolism for friends to look after each other in times of hardship. This ideal offered motivation and role model for Chinese migrants when they arrived at their host society.

His popularity and the respect he commanded are reflected by the list of posthumous honours bestowed on him by subsequent emperors. During the Ming dynasty, Wu Cheng En wrote the novel San Guo Yan Yi (三国演义), Romance of the three Kingdoms, using the Three Kingdoms period as a backdrop and immortalized Guan Yu and his sworn brothers.

The Taoist worshipped Guan Yu variously as the God of Literature, God of War and Martial God of Wealth and is referred to as Guan Gong (关公), and as a sign of respect, Guan Di (关帝).
In southern China and overseas Chinese community in Taiwan and South East Asia, Guan Gong is also manifested through spirit mediums.

The Chinese Buddhist regarded him as Sangharama Bodhisattva (伽蓝菩萨). As Sangharama Bodhisattva, Guan Gong is usually found in the Bell Tower of forest-style Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Monastery. In the Hokkien temple Thiam Hock Keng in Singapore, Guan Gong can be found both in his Taoist and Buddhist form.

Globalization of Guan Yu Culture

Many overseas Chinese communities worship General Guan Gong and dedicated temples or set up altars in his memory. Such practices reflect the importance these communities placed on social solidarity and the need for mutual support in a foreign land. The notion of brotherhood has also been appropriated by triads to emphasize the group identity and brotherhood of triad membership.

The history and continuous popularity of Guan Gong reflects the collective ideals of the Chinese over time and how these ideals are manifested as they migrate overseas. Among the overseas Chinese community, the temples dedicated to Guan Gong also demonstrated how the traditional social ideals provided a model for migrants as they leave their homeland to seek opportunities.