“Our joint nomination for the Ong Chun ceremony to be inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH) has succeeded,” declared Gan Yong Hoe, president of the Baba Nyonya Association of Malaysia, after traveling from Malacca to Kuala Lumpur to join Dato’ Sri Hajah Nancy Shukri, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Malaysia, at the 15th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage via video on December 17, 2020.
Gan excitedly sent video footage of the event to Chen Geng, former president of the Xiamen Minnan Culture Research Association, an old friend who became an important participant in the joint effort after learning about the ceremony from Gan.
“This is the result we anticipated,” said Chen, a veteran researcher and promoter of the heritage who was always confident that the joint effort of China and Malaysia would succeed.
The UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage called inscription of “Ong Chun/ Wangchuan/Wangkang ceremony, rituals, and related practices for maintaining the sustainable connection between man and the ocean,” jointly nominated by China and Malaysia, on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity an inspiring example of intangible cultural heritage shared by people from different countries and representative of the common concerns and responsibilities involved in joint protection efforts.
Content of the Ceremony
To the ground-shaking thump of drums and gongs, a ceremonial procession departed Huazang Nunnery in Xiamen City of southeastern China’s Fujian Province with Ong Chun, a model of the barge of Ong Yah, a deity believed to protect people and their lands from disasters, bound for the seashore.
On December 22, 2020, a forum was held on the successful ICH inscription of the Ong Chun ceremony and related Minnan (Southern Fujian) marine history and culture in Lucuo, a community in Tong’an District of Xiamen which has hosted the largest and most memorable such ceremonies. Across more than 600 years, 152 such ceremonies have been organized in 14 communities in Xiamen.
The ancient ceremony usually lasts for days but can stretch across months. During the period, participants construct model barges, gather at the shore to make a procession to welcome Ong Yah to temples or clan halls, present offerings to Ong Yah, and perform a variety of traditional folk art such as Gaojia Opera, dragon and lion dances, and puppet shows. For the latest ceremony, organizers commissioned two model barges built over four months, one to be burned as a sacrifice to the deity, and the other to be exhibited to the public after the event. Many local residents and tourists attended the ceremony, and the event was also live-streamed so that worshipers from Yong Chuan Tian Temple in Malacca could attend virtually.
“The model barge was built in an ancient style with similar size and structure including details such as mast, sail, and gorgeous hull décor and paintings,” explained Chen Geng. “The ancient ceremony honors the legacy of our ancestors’ oceanic endeavors and celebrates harmony between man and the ocean.” Legend holds that the ceremony first began in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the coastal areas of the Minnan region before gradually spreading to southern Taiwan and Chinese communities in Malacca and other Southeast Asian areas, with unique significance for various worshipers.
The Minnan region was a global leader in maritime trade during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). By the Yuan Dynasty (1271- 1368), Citong Port in Quanzhou was a global hub of maritime trade. However, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) government introduced a 200-year ban on maritime trade with foreign countries. To continue making a living, coastal residents had to start taking risks at sea. Against this backdrop, communities created this ceremony to honor Ong Yah, the deity believed to be appointed commissioner by Heaven to protect people and their lands from disasters and look after “good brothers” (people lost at sea).
At the ceremony, worshipers would load rice, dry wood, and gold foil on Ong Yah’s barge bound for the sea to comfort lost “good brothers.” In ancient times, coastal inhabitants subsisted on the sea. They saw ceremonial rituals as good deeds that would move the deity to continue protecting them at sea and fostering peace and prosperity while comforting those lost at sea. Worship of Ong Yah has become a positive cultural phenomenon promoting integrity and standardizing behavior.
“Ong Yah’s barge used to be sent out to the sea after the ceremony to eventually be destroyed by the waves and storms,” noted Chen Geng. “So, worshipers would make new barges at regular intervals to replace them. Today, in consideration of maritime traffic safety and environmental protection, the model barges are no longer released into the sea, but burned instead.”
Since the 1980s, Chen Geng has focused on researching the rituals of the Ong Chun ceremony. He has witnessed dozens of ceremonies and hosted or participated in extensive related academic activities.
“The Ong Chun ceremony probably seems fresh for a lot of people, but it’s been quite popular for a long time among residents of certain regions,” Chen said. “Over the last 30 years or more, academic research on the subject has intensified, which culminated in the ceremony’s addition to China’s National List of Representative Elements of Intangible Cultural Heritage as well as Malaysia’s National Heritage Register.”
Ong Chun Ceremony in Southeast Asia
In Malaysia, the new Ong Chu Museum holds a collection of graphic materials and historical artifacts.
“The earliest audiovisual recording of the ceremony in Malaysia took place on December 11, 1919,” said Gan Yong Hoe, pointing to a yellowed photo. “The earliest written record of the event comes from 1905.”
The Ong Chun ceremony emerged in the Minnan region between the 15th and 17th centuries before gradually spreading to Southeast Asia through maritime trade. It is now widely diffused throughout communities in Xiamen and Malacca. The main regional difference is the timing of the event. In Xiamen, it takes place every three or four years when the northeast monsoon season arrives in autumn. In Malacca, it takes place on selected auspicious days of lunar leap years. According to Gan, the Yong Chuan Tian Temple in Malacca hosted the ceremonies in 1905, 1919, 1933, 2001, and 2012. Its latest ceremony took place on November 15, 2020, shortly before the successful ICH inscription.
Gan believes that the post-pandemic period makes the ritual even more significant. “Ong Yah’s barges are released into the sea, which represents the philosophy of harmony between man and nature and respect for life,” he said. “That is the spirit we need to fight the pandemic.”
Gan Tian Loo, special envoy of Malacca to China and honorary advisor of Yong Chuan Tian Temple, called the Ong Chun ceremony an example of Chinese culture “going global.” “Ancestors who migrated to Southeast Asia during surges of overseas emigration from China brought the tradition with them,” he said. “Today, the tradition is inherited by overseas Chinese as a means of interacting with their native lands, so it has extensively promoted people-to-people exchange and mutual understanding.”
Participants in the ICH nomination were largely experts from both countries who believe the Ong Chun ceremony carries the historical memories of ancestors venturing onto the sea. The ritual consolidated wisdom collected from centuries of living at sea including meteorology, tides patterns, ocean currents, and general seamanship. It remains necessary to maintain harmony between man and sea and create new connotations and development space for the relationship. Experts said that Ong Chun ceremony is the result of continuous practice and reproduction in both countries that has preserved cultural diversity while highlighting characteristics of interaction and harmonious coexistence among different civilizations, religions, and cultures of different regions. The recent joint effort provided rich resources to promote cultural dialogue in the name of inclusive social development.
In the process of the joint ICH nomination, Chen Geng and Gan Yong Hoe became good friends. They were pleased to see nongovernmental exchange fuel greater amity between the two countries. Chen has recognized that the Ong Chun ceremony was inherited by the overseas Chinese residing in Malacca. It has also been endorsed by other ethnic groups such as Baba Nyonyas (Peranakan Chinese) and Indians in Malacca, which represents historical evidence of the Maritime Silk Road promoting friendship and understanding between peoples along the route.
Gan Tian Loo said that over the last four years, government units and nongovernmental organizations in both countries actively participated in the ICH nomination. Different sectors of society joined efforts such as organization of ceremonies, official procedures, and construction of academic research platforms, which ensured the success of the joint effort.
At a regular press conference on December 28, 2020, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism pledged to strengthen cooperation with its Malaysian counterpart on building a joint collaboration mechanism for the protection of the Ong Chun ceremony. He expressed hope that protective measures for the heritage would serve as a bond enhancing mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples.
Since the Xiamen Minnan Culture Research Association and the Baba Nyonya Association of Malaysia launched the joint ICH nomination of the Ong Chun ceremony in 2015, they have organized seven mutual visits for more than 300 representatives to attend the ceremonies in the two countries and exchange experience and ideas on jointly safeguarding the heritage, which strengthened ties between Minnan residents and overseas Chinese. Social organizations in the two countries organized a series of supportive academic exchange activities such as the Malacca Maritime Silk Road Culture Forum, World Minnan Culture Festival (Malacca), Baba Nyonya Seminar Camp (Malacca), Seminar on Promoting the Construction of Minnan Cultural Protection Zone (Xiamen), and Man and the Ocean—Xiamen Symposium on Marine History and Culture.
Ye Xizhi, president of the Xiamen Minnan Culture Research Association and Chinese member of the experts panel for the ICH inscription of the Ong Chun ceremony, attributed the success of the inscription to joint efforts from relevant communities, cities, and governments. In the document submitted to UNESCO, the experts panel described the ceremony as “rituals and related practices for maintaining a sustainable connection between man and the ocean.”
In the process of the joint ICH nomination, the China-Malaysia Working Group for Collaborative Safeguarding of Ong Chun Ceremony was established thanks to collaboration between the Xiamen Minnan Culture Research Association and Malaysia’s Baba Nyonya Association. With support from ICH authorities of both countries, an Action Plan on Joint Safeguarding of the Ong Chun Ceremony (2021-2026) was formulated to coordinate the concerted efforts of communities, groups, and individuals to implement safeguarding measures.
“The successful ICH inscription of the Ong Chun ceremony is only the beginning,” declared Gan Yong Hoe. “Greater international exposure will help the ceremony receive better protection through wider joint action.” A coordinating committee will be established to include official representatives and inheritors. The government of Malacca will designate a permanent site devoted to the ritual of sending off Ong Yah. A monument commemorating the successful ICH inscription has already been erected on the shore of the Malacca Strait. Atop the monument is a stone carving of an ancient ship riding the wind.
Dato’ Dr. Mah Hang Soon, Deputy Minister of Education of Malaysia, expressed hope that the successful ICH inscription would release the cultural and tourism potential of Malacca and promote greater cultural exchange between Malaysia and neighboring countries including China.