Tam Kung

Tam Kung

Thanks to ULN at the insightful blog Chinayouren for his review of Chinese Gods:

… in terms of surprises, this book delivers from the preface. First, you discover it was actually written and self-published by Chamberlain 30 years ago, inspired by a series of painted glass figures he collected from local markets. It goes on to describe an unusual interview in Bangkok with British mystical writer John Blofeld, a reference in Asian religions, who agreed to give the book a prologue in articulo mortis. And then suddenly, before you realize it, you are swimming in the thick soup of China’s beliefs, following the author in his daring quest to make sense of all the Gods.

Most books I have seen about Chinese religions are centred on the three main systems: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, often giving an interpretation of present behaviours in the light of the teachings of the sages. From the outset, this book is radically different: it holds that, for the majority of the Chinese, there has never been more than one unnamed religion,  which absorbed all the other masters and deities — including, in some extreme cases, Jesus Christ and Muhammad (!). Based on this premise, the author explores the main aspects of this religion, analyzing the ways in which it created its Gods, and explaining these Gods as a projection of the Chinese society rather than the opposite.

Having lived in Hong Kong for a long time I thought I had a reasonable understanding of Chinese culture, but reading Jonathan Chamberlain’s book showed me how little I know. Below we print an excerpt.

譚公 Tam Kung: The Boy God

At the end of the praya of Coloane Town in Macau there is a small temple to Tam Kung. Inside, there is a rib from a whale to which some­one has added a number of small wooden carvings, transforming it into a replica of a dragon boat. Whale bones are also very much in evidence at a temple to Hou Wang (侯王) in Tai O, on the southern tip of Lantau Island, Hong Kong. This temple is delightfully sited on a tongue of land almost entirely surrounded by water. The two Gods honoured by these temples are intimately connected for they died within seconds of each other just over 700 years ago.

In 1276 Kublai Khan’s Mongol troops swept south of the Yangtze River and took Hangchou, capital of the southern Sung dynasty. They captured the emperor – no more than a boy – and took him to Peking. The emperor’s younger brothers managed to escape and they fled south. The next eldest was invested with the mantle of Son of Heaven and became the focus of Sung resistance to the invaders. The speed of the Mongol advance bogged down, literally, in the rice country of the south but they remained irresistible, continuing to force their way south. The new emperor died and the mantle fell on the youngest of the brothers – an eight-year-old child. Finally, in 1278 or 1279 (accounts vary), what little remained of the Sung court found themselves on a rocky island off Kwangtung province surrounded by the Mongols. There was no hope of escape. One of the chief ministers took the young boy on his shoulders and leapt off a cliff. Both drowned, but death was honourable.

Such are the bare facts around which a rather more elaborate story has been strung. According to this, the boy emperor arrived in Hongkong harbour with an imperial fleet of junks carrying some 3000 soldiers, retainers and ministers. They landed on Kowloon peninsula roughly where Kai Tak airport now is. They were met by the villagers of the place whose headman – one Tam Kung – welcomed them and did their best to provision them. The emperor built a house on a small hill overlooking what is now Kowloon City. They did not stay long but sailed across the Pearl River estuary to Heungshan, where rice was more plentiful. Shortly after this the Mongol fleet caught up with them. The two fleets clashed and the Sung fleet was scattered and destroyed. Lo So Fu, the chief minister, ordered his wife and daughter to drown themselves while he took the emperor on his shoulders and jumped into the water.

The story incidentally gives the or