The Spring Cattle Hall

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on July 25, 2016.)

Remains of Shenzhen's Spring Cattle Hall, Nanshan

When we think of temples in China, two types primarily come to mind: Buddhist temples, and those for the practice of Daoism. We could easily add to this the Ancestral Halls, which include an altar containing tablets of deceased family members.

Rarer, though, and therefore somewhat more interesting, are those halls built for specific ceremonies. One such still stands today, the "Spring Cattle Hall" on Dongbin Road in Nanshan.

In ancient tradition, a clay ox was set up on the eastern edge of a city's area (Nanshan was in the past to the east of the city center in Bao'an). The clay figure represented both a live cow (the rite may have originally been a live sacrifice) and Spring itself. Thus the event may have been called "Whipping the Ox" or "Whipping the Spring," and it was meant to encourage Springtime to arrive sooner. It was also meant to ensure the fertility of the land. (In some areas the figure was of a man holding a hoe. This was Goumang, the Lord of Spring.)

After the figure was paraded through the streets, it was ceremonially whipped, always by city officials. It was then broken into pieces by the people, who took the pieces home to be placed in their fields. Some used the pieces for augury: if they were dried out or turned red, the people should prepare for drought. If moist or black, there would be rain, perhaps even floods.

Other ceremonies might also be performed. Mothers might circle the clay ox three times with a babe in arms, to protect the child from illness. The figure itself might be washed with rice water to prevent all disease in the coming year.

The Spring Cattle Ceremony in a diorama at Shenzhen Museum

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