135th Annual Bok Kai Festival in Marysville, CA

Firing of the Bombs. Credit: Bok Kai Temple.

Firing of the Bombs. Credit: Bok Kai Temple.

This past Sunday, March 22nd, I had the opportunity to attend the second day of the Bok Kai Festival in Marysville, California (40 miles north of Sacramento) with a friend. We missed the Dragon and Lion Dancers who paraded through the town on Saturday the 21st, but we were able to witness “Bomb Day” on Sunday, which was quite impressive. From the Bok Kai Temple website:

Bomb Day, or in Chinese, Yee Yeut Yee, takes its name from the colorful firing of the bombs highlighting the celebration, which is in tribute to the Chinese Water God, The Bok Kai [AKA Xuan Tian Shang Di, Xuan Wu, Bei Di, Zhen Wu].

Each year on the second day of the second month of the Chinese lunar year, the Chinese Community of Marysville and the city of Marysville join in putting on the Bomb Day celebration, which marks The Bok Kai’s birthday. When the day falls on a weekday, the festivities will be held on the following weekend for two days.  The annual two-day event draws thousands from Marysville and its surrounding communities.

This year, the parade fell on the second day of the lunar month, and Bomb Day fell on the third.

Youths competing to grab the good fortune ring. Credit: Bok Kai Temple.

Youths competing to grab the good fortune ring. Credit: Bok Kai Temple.

After a long fuse of firecrackers and fireworks that stretched out over an entire city block were ignited, the Firing of the Bombs occurred:

The bombs are fired in a roped arena where young Chinese, and occasionally adults, scramble for “good fortune” rings, which are shot into the air from the bursting bombs, and traditionally bring luck throughout the year. The rings may be kept by those who retrieve them in the scramble, but are often sold to people who want to keep the lucky rings for the year. Those who purchase them in turn pay a fee at the temple to hold onto them.

In addition to the fun and excitement of the celebration, Bomb Day has another aspect: it enables the faithful to worship at the temple, which honors The Bok Kai, the deity responsible for banishing evil spirits and controlling the rains and floods of the spring in time for planting season. During the ritual of worship at the temple, each individual finds out what fortune the new year will bring.

This was the 135th annual Bok Kai Festival, but its history probably goes back even further:

The Bok Kai parade’s rich history is believed to have started as far back as the 1850s. Always held on the weekend closest to the second day of the second month of the Lunar calendar it is the longest continually held parade in California. The parade honors Bok Eye, the Chinese Water God, who protects Marysville from flooding.

The Bok Kai temple stands at the Southwest corner of First and D Streets in Marysville, California. Originally built in the 1850s by Chinese immigrants the temple was destroyed by flooding and then rebuilt in the 1880s. Serving as a meeting hall, court, and a place of worship, the temple was built with its main altar facing toward the river. This was done so that Bok Eye could ward off any evil and protect the community of Marysville from flooding.

Bok Eye is considered the god of the North and is said the be the Chinese water god whose powers have successfully prevented Marysville from flooding since 1997. Bok Eye’s powers include overseeing waterways, water systems, irrigation and rain. This could be why it has never rained during the Bok Kai parade.

11 responses to “135th Annual Bok Kai Festival in Marysville, CA

  • uloboridae

    Very interesting version of a living non-abrahamic tradition (as opposed to many pagans and recons making or recreating new traditions) having gods transfer over to a totally new land. I knew of shrines being set up but not of rituals and festivals.

    • uloboridae

      (Hit enter too soon) with rituals and festivals engaging or petitioning a God. Is he just a god of water in general or is he associated with particular bodies of water traditionally?

      • Heathen Chinese

        He’s the god most often associated with the Chinese “Element” of water, which also corresponds to the cardinal direction north. One of his holy sites is Mt. Wudang (sort of the Daoist equivalent of Shaolin for Buddhists, with martial artists and temples, and where the rap group Wu-Tang Clan gets its name from).

        The anthropomorphic deity Bok Kai/Zhen Wu/Xuan Tian Shang Di is associated with the symbol of the snake-and-turtle, which were in turn linked with the name Xuan Wu (dark warrior) and water/the north since ancient times. The water association seems to be more related to rain/rivers than to the ocean, at least from what I’ve read. If you click the “Xuan Tian Shang Di” tag, there’s a fair bit of information I’ve compiled about him.

        This was my first time going to the festival, but it seems like a lot of the organizers and local attendees grew up in that living tradition, which is really cool to be around. It also seems to be a highly localized tradition: Marysville, CA has the only temple to him that I know of in America. A while ago, I looked for statues of him in San Francisco Chinatown, but didn’t find any. Because I couldn’t find a statue of him to have consecrated properly, I no longer make offerings to Xuan Tian Shang Di on a daily basis, and was therefore very grateful for the opportunity to visit his temple in Marysville.

  • aediculaantinoi

    Very interesting! I was not aware of Bok Kai…I’ll have to learn more about him.

    Washington also has a Marysville, interestingly…I was just there for lunch today, and Sannion used to live there!

    • Heathen Chinese

      I provided a brief overview of my understanding of Bok Kai in my reply to uloboridae’s comment above, also I have a “Xuan Tian Shang Di” tag that hopefully is informative and not too far off the mark. There’s also the Xuan Tian Shang Di blogspot website.

      It looks like both towns were named after the wives of early settlers: California’s after “Mary Murphy, a survivor of the Donner Party,” and Washington’s after Maria Comeford. That’s a really interesting synchronicity that I posted about the California Marysville on the same day that you had lunch in the Washington one, and even more interesting that Sannion used to live there…

      • aediculaantinoi

        Unfortunately, our Marysville was in national news last October when there was a school shooting at the high school (where Sannion went), and the perp and several of his victims were from the Tulalip tribe, which has a very successful casino and mall nearby (and yet, like so many such situations, many tribe members are still not doing well while the casino/resort owners are living large). One of the main Tulalip symbols is the killer whale, which has resonated deeply with me since I was very young…I saw them wild in my infancy pretty regularly, as I was often on boats with my parents and was rocked to sleep by the sea more than once in Puget Sound.

        Anyway…complicated stuff.

        I’ll check out the links! Thank you for those!

      • Heathen Chinese

        Yeah, that’s really intense, and really complicated as well. Thanks for telling me about it, and for situating it within its context.

    • Heathen Chinese

      A funny linguistic parallel (which Chinese culture often finds meaningful even when there’s no actual etymological connection whatsoever)…Bok Kai has history in the California Marysville, and Βάκχος has history in the Washington one…

      • aediculaantinoi

        Yes! The Greeks and the Irish loved things like that…it would be nice if one could write philological articles that used that same methodology to this day, rather than theological ones. 😉

  • theoaklandraiders

    The Joss House up at Weaverville has Xuan Wu enshrined as well as a ton of other immortals.

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