The bizarre Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Phuket

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Pagan ceremonies are expected to be bizarre, but it does not get weirder than the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. While it is nothing unusual for the devotees to torture their own mortal flash a bit, Chinese worshipers in Phuket do it with exceptional gusto and a definite artistic twist. Do they offer their suffering as a tribute to the gods or, to the contrary, demonstrate the power of their deities to make them immune to pain? Both, plus they show off, too. For nine days, the old town of Phuket turns into a magic war-like zone, with firecrackers blasting around like cascade fireballs, wounded warriors parading on the streets, pieces of sharp metal driven through their bodies, and mediums in colorful robes blessing the crowds. At night, possessed men climb the ladders of blades and run on hot coals. Taoist temples are overcrowded, and often look like field hospitals – this is where the priests pierce the cheeks, tongues and other body parts of anyone willing to express their devotion to the Nine Emperor Gods.

© Mark Levitin

Gods in the night sky

The gods in question are, in fact, stars. At least, this is how they are usually perceived by us, mortals. Seven of them make up Ursa Major, and another two are nearby, within the same constellation, yet invisible to the naked eye – which makes one wonder how good ancient Chinese telescopes must have been. Taoist theologists claim they are celestial beings who possess power over life and death, while folk beliefs claim them to be the souls of the Ming Dynasty pirates, later deified, as it is common in Chinese myths. The worship of those nine gods has all but disappeared in progressively secular China, but the communities in South-East Asia continue to conduct ceremonies in their honor. Of those, the festival in Thailand is the grandest by far. The legend here says a Chinese theater troupe had landed in Phuket just as the city was plagued by a terrifying epidemic. Many actors had fallen sick and died until one of them finally decided to travel back to mainland China and invoke the Nine Emperor Gods to Phuket. Divine intervention then put an end to the outbreak. Since then, this festival takes place annually on the first days of the ninth month.

© Mark Levitin

Vegetarian Festival

According to the beliefs of Thai Chinese diaspora, on those dates, the Nine Emperor Gods enter our realm using shrines as portals and possess the devotees. It seems Phuket attracts tourists even from other levels of existence. Humans willing to serve as ambulant units for divine vacations have to prepare themselves; gods are picky. "Ma song", such mediums are called, and the “ma” here stands for 马, “horse“, since they are ridden like faithful stallions by the celestial visitors. Both the ma song and anybody else taking an active part in the ceremonies, or hoping to catch a piece of the godsblessing, have to fast for the entire nine days. It includes abstaining from sex, lies, aggression, and maintaining a strict vegan diet. Hence the popular name for the event: Vegetarian Festival. It takes place in the first nine days of the ninth Chinese month, usually around Gregorian October. If you would like to see it, look for the exact dates on the Tourism Authority of Thailand's official website.

© Mark Levitin


On the days of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, magic is everywhere, and most of it is harmful for the user. Of course, it is a blessing that most people seek, and tables set up as altars line the streets, with possessed mediums stopping at each to conduct prayer. But, what catches the eye of a visitor is self-mutilation taken to an exceptional level. The creativity of it is bizarre, both terrifying and amusing – if an object has a prolonged end, it will end up piercing someone’s face. Spikes, spears, and swords are plentiful, but there are also people parading with palm fronds, umbrellas, toys, exhaust pipes, and musical instruments driven through their cheeks or tongues. The more exotic, the better – try a two-meter-long model of a sailing ship stuck into a guy’s face with its bowsprit. Fireworks blow up all over Phuket, and as if this weren’t hazardous enough, worshipers wrap strings of firecrackers around themselves and set them off, like in a suicide bombers’ training course. When the night falls, large beds of red-hot coals are prepared near the temples to walk on, and ladders made of sharp blades are erected for climbers. Most of the participants are ma song, already "possessed". The coals, of course, completely fail to singe them, and ladders are climbed without spilling a drop of blood. Even more surprisingly, wounds left by the extreme piercing heal in mere days and leave no scars.

© Mark Levitin

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