Header image courtesy of Home Affairs Department
Che Kung, also known as “Che, the Great Warrior” (車大元帥; ce1 daai6 jyun4 seoi3) was a general who was deified after his death as the god of protection. Known for his loyalty and healing abilities, Che Kung is a Taoist deity in Chinese folklore who is widely worshipped in Hong Kong. Here in the Chinese Mythology 101 series, we dive into the origins of the god Che Kung and why he is celebrated every Chinese New Year.
Looking back on history, Che Kung was a great general in the Song dynasty who saved the southern regions of China from destruction and disorder. One notable feat attributed to him was the suppression of a rebellion in Jiangnan. Before the collapse of the dynasty, he protected the young child emperor, Zhao Bing, on his escape to the south, avoiding the invading Mongol forces. It was said that Che Kung accompanied Zhao Bing to Hong Kong where the pair sought refuge around the areas of present-day Sai Kung.
Settling there, some of the villagers nearby paid a visit to the legendary general for help in curing their illnesses. After stories of miraculous recovery of patients spread, Che Kung was subsequently known for being skilled at medicine and a great healer. However, the general later fell ill while protecting the emperor and passed away. Moved by his bravery and loyalty, local villagers set up a small temple dedicated to him located near the entrance of Ho Chung Village in Sai Kung, which remains to this day.
After his death, Che Kung would appear in dreams of villagers who were suffering from a plague and believed the late general would save them from it. Allegedly, some would even be cured of their diseases after having those dreams. Because of this and the miracles and blessings he enacted whilst alive and in death, Taoists regarded Che Kung as a deity.
Having sought refuge in Hong Kong and curing villagers of their illnesses, villagers have built temples dedicated to the general. With each Che Kung temple came its own tale for the deified general, following local folktales and even supernatural stories.
This story is about the Ho Chung Village Che Kung Temple in Sai Kung, and the tale begins after its completion. Like every great general, the villagers thought Che Kung should have a steed of his own. So, they decided to build a statue of a white horse to be placed outside of the temple. However, strange things began to happen around the village.
Usually, the village would be blessed with a good harvest: plentiful crops and fruits every year. But ever since the statue’s arrival, all the villagers received were bad crops filled with maggots and unripe fruit. Sometimes they would even find their crops trampled and destroyed, with villagers reporting to have found mysterious footprints in the soil believed to belong to a beast or a monster. These strange occurrences continued to haunt villagers for three years, brewing paranoia and anger in the community.
Deciding to investigate the issue, the villagers consulted a feng shui specialist who concluded that the white horse statue was somehow inhabited by a mischievous spirit that caused their bad harvests. The villagers were shocked and took the statue down, burying it beneath the temple. To prevent the spirit from coming back and wreaking havoc to nearby villages, an incense stove was placed above its burial place to contain it. Afterward, everything was back to normal, and the village finally yielded good crops once again.
Although only a legend, it did not stop people who were curious about the truth to go poke around in the village. Some years ago, there were quite a few ghost hunters and explorers who wanted to find the location of the white horse statue. Having successfully tracked it down and wanting to dig up the remains, it was met with immediate backlash by the villagers, who rightfully stopped their investigation.
One story revolves around the Che Kung Temple at Tai Wai. It is said that cholera broke out around the area during the late Ming dynasty. Desperate to find a solution, the villagers came across some historical writing about the general and realised Che Kung had healing abilities and could clear epidemics wherever he set foot. So, the people decided to build a temple dedicated to the general and the epidemic subsided once construction was completed. According to oral tradition, the temple was originally founded in Ho Chung and was later “invited” by villagers in Sha Tin to “relocate.”—this is used to explain why the Che Kung Temple at Tai Wai is more well-known than others around Hong Kong.
While one story tells of an epidemic cleared, there was another that involved feng shui. It is said that when the villagers were setting up Tin Sam Village near Tai Wai as their home, they invited a feng shui master to observe the area. While walking around the surrounding environment, they noticed the village was where three streams converge. Believing to have good feng shui, the master thought it was the best place to build a temple to bring luck and prosperity to the villagers. So, the villagers quickly built a temple dedicated to Che Kung.
Many temples in Hong Kong are dedicated to the general, with the oldest being Che Kung Temple in Sai Kung’s Ho Chung Village, believed to have nearly 470 years of history. In second place is the temple located in Tai Wai, which is also the most popular location to worship Che Kung. It is said that the temple in Tai Wai was built 200 years after Ho Chung Village’s, which shows how persistent locals have been in worshipping the general.
Since Che Kung is massively worshipped amongst Taoist believers, the government built a new temple in front of the original structure in Tai Wai in 1994, which is eight times the size of its former self. Inside, there is a giant statue of the general in the main hall with brass pinwheels and drums located outside. While the original temple structure has been renovated several times, it is now rarely open to public.
If you would like to pay respects to the god, there are multiple days of worship dedicated to Che Kung, including the twenty-seventh day of the third lunar month, the sixth day of the sixth lunar month, and the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month, although the most common is on the second day of the first month as it is said to be his birthday. However, since it coincides with Chinese New Year, people would worship Che Kung on the third day instead. Known as “赤口” (cek3 hau2; “red mouth”), it is believed that people would quarrel and are prone to arguments and conflicts on this day, so instead of visiting families, a lot of people would make a visit to Che Kung’s temple instead.
Visiting Che Kung Temple is considered an annual tradition for some believers. In fact, it considered part of the “kau chim” tradition during Chinese New Year. Kau chim (求籤; kau4 cim1; beg for a “sign” or “stick”) is an act where people go to temples to have their fortune read by shaking a container with sticks. As a stick drops out, accompanied by a message written in classic Chinese poetry, people bring it to the fortune teller—a feng shui or fortune master—on site to be interpreted. There are five categories of stick fortune, which range from good (上; seong5; “up”), middle (中; zung1), to bad (下; haa6; “down”), with the highest being “上上” (“up-up”) and the lowest being “下下” (“down-down”).
The fortune sticks are labeled with numbers that come with internal degrees and will determine your luck. For example, the number 27 is considered unlucky since it relates to the story of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who sparked widespread discontent amongst the people for building the Great Wall of China. Nowadays, it is considered a government tradition in Hong Kong for an official to go to Che Kung Temple to kau chim every year on the second day of Lunar New Year, and the fortune of the city for the year will be read.
In front of the temple, you would find fan-shaped brass pinwheels that devotees will spin in hopes of bringing good luck. If you’re looking for luck in the coming year, spin it clockwise. If you are having a bad year and need an extra boost of luck, spin it counterclockwise, as this motion is believed to counter the misfortune by spinning them away and leaving it behind. Some people would beat a drum, also believed to bring good luck.
There are various items you can purchase in a Che Kung temple, including good luck charms and pinwheels. If you would like to have your fortune read, there are also fortune-telling services available at each temple. If you would like to pay respects to the general, make sure to dress modestly and avoid wearing tank tops, short skirts, shorts, or dresses. For better luck, make sure to wear clothing with bright colours. Offerings for the god typically include vegetables, fresh flowers, and fruits. However, it is best to avoid melons and pears as it is believed to bring bad luck when presented to Che Kung.