Roof Raising

Celebrating roof-raising before the construction of a house is a custom in Northern China, and such events often take place in the spring or fall. A Feng Shui master measures the house for auspicious positioning before the ceremony. In the Lao Zhou area of Shandong Province, there is a sacred worm offering tradition that ensures a fortunate roof-raising. The sacred worm is a dough sculpture placed on the living room beam to protect the house from evils. Some worms weigh as much as 10 pounds. These sculptures have big bodies, big ears, and friendly faces, and they have three big flags attached to their back. The worms are decorated with auspicious domesticated and wild animals, figures of fairies and saints, and holy flowers in red, green, gold, and silver, showing lots of power and dignity.

In addition to the sacred worm, there are a variety of different small dough animals, such as Gate-Keeping Lion and Door-Supporting Pig, that bring prosperity to the house. People also make hundreds of colored steamed buns in the shapes of dragons, phoenixes, tigers, swallows, flowers, peaches, Buddha hands, etc. These buns are held in wicker containers and are tossed into the air for the crowds to catch. The number of steamed buns should equal the oldest family member’s age.

Every member of the hosting family is in charge of a specific task during the ceremony. Before the roof-raising, the men help the carpenters and tiling masters, and assemble the materials, furniture, and other items for the roof-raising. Women prepare the roof-raising buns and the feast.

The beam, with “auspicious roof-raising for (host’s name) on (date, month, and year)” written on it, is carried by the host to the new house site. A red cloth and a colorful swallow are tied to the beam representing the saying “a swallow only stays in a kind house.”

When the auspicious hour arrives, an offering table is set up in the open area across the living room. On the table there is a pair of lit red candles, some chicken, fish, pork, liquor, vegetables, and five jujube buns. A big incense burner is set in the center of the table and the back is sealed with red cloth. Inside the burner are small buns, chestnut, dates, and lumps of sugar. The roof beam is usually made of mahogany, which is believed to be the king of all local woods. The host then conducts a series of ceremonies, including burning incense, kowtowing, and making sacrifices. After that, the carpenter and tiling masters climb up on the roof to chant good fortune songs, with the carpenter master on the east, the tiling master on the west. They then lift the roof beam off the floor. The firecrackers go off as soon as the beam leaves the floor. The carpenter and tiling masters lift the beam up to the roof and place it properly, and then release the red thread that was holding the beam. The two red threads then are tied around containers of liquor and small buns and carried back to the roof. The tiling master cracks open the liquor container and lets the liquor pour down through the roof. The carpenter master opens the bun container and tosses the buns out, and the crowd scrambles to catch the buns. It is a very lively scene. Laughter, singing, and the sound of firecrackers mix together and push the ceremony to its climax. There are different “happy songs” in Lao Zhou area roof-raising ceremonies. The singer chooses happy songs depending on the environment and the host. The ceremony ends after the bun-tossing. At noon on the same day, the host entertains guests, friends, and the workmen with a rich roof-raising feast, and together they celebrate the coming of the new house.

In provinces like Shangdong, Shanxi, and Hebei, a statement on red paper saying “Taigong is here and all gods step down” will be posted on the biggest and highest roof beam.

Jiang Taigong (also known as Jiang Ziya) was born in Shangdong during the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC). In the 11th century BC, Jiang Taigong was the advisor to King Wen and his son King Wu, founders of the Zhou dynasty. He was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Shang Dynasty (approximately 1700 – 1045 BC) and establishing the Zhou. He was a major character in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) novel, Feng Sheng Yan Yi (Creation of Gods). The novel depicts him as being able to dispel evil and bring in good fortune. According to a legend in Zhangjiako City, Hebei Province, after Jiang Taigong granted titles to all the gods, he was left with the highest position that Yu Huang Da Di (the highest authority of the heaven) had reserved for him. But then another god appeared and wished for a title, and Taigong gave the last to him, and there was no position left for Taigong. So Yu Huang Da Di decided that wherever Taigong goes, the local gods must give their places to him, and he is able to manage all the gods. This special privilege is highly esteemed in folklore. Therefore, in some areas, the house roof beam has a statement like “Taigong is here and all gods step down.” It is a symbol of good fortune and the hosts’ hope for Taigong’s protection.

The roof-raising custom in Wei County, Hebei Province is a little different. In addition to posting red paper saying “Auspicious Roof-Raising” on the beam, the host ties a pair of crossed red chopsticks and a red packet with five grains. The chopsticks must be borrowed from a newly wed woman before the cock crows for morning, and must be one of six borrowed pairs. Using crossed chopsticks means that evil won’t come and the house is safe. The five-grain packet stands for money and fortune, bringing blessings from the God of the Five Grains and plentiful harvests for the family.

In Hua County, Shanxi Province, the uncles and grandmothers of the host family make two tiger-shaped buns and one rooster-shaped bun, along with other animal-shaped buns decorated with different flowers and red cloth strips. The buns are placed on an offering table right under the beam. The beam is posted with big red auspicious texts and copper money connected with red threads. A pair of chopsticks is tied on the beam. When the fortunate hour arrives, the beam is lifted up to the roof in the sound of firecrackers.
In Shanxi Province, the offering ceremony includes painting Ba Gua (the Eight Diagrams), pinning black-bone chicken, and also offering dough flowers and buns. The buns are usually round-shaped and painted with peonies, Wan-character knots, and other flowers and auspicious characters. Friends and families give each other dough flowers and buns to “support the beam” and add to the happiness of the occasion. When the new house is completed and the hosts family moves in, they fry all kinds of dough flowers, make large offerings to gods and the earth, and welcome the God of Earth to stay in their home to protect the house. Also, relatives and neighbors come to give buns to congratulate and celebrate. This ceremony is called nuan fang, or “house-warming.”

The history of firing firecrackers in roof-raising ceremonies to dispel evil and welcome good fortune dates back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD ). The Record of Jinchu District says, “In ancient times, burning firecrackers was used to congratulate, to bring luck, and to dispel evil.”

By Delei Fu and Yuan Tian