Sanwang Gong (三王宮) – the Three King’s Palace, or Temple – sits out in the fields at Heli (和理), a farming hamlet close to the Duliu river in northern Guangxi province. It’s hard to miss the temple’s tall, austerely whitewashed front and wedge-shaped fire-baffle gables; there’s also an accompanying wind-and-rain bridge, covered over and built entirely of wood, a feature of the Dong minority villages in this area.
Every year on the fifth day of the second lunar month, the temple hosts a huge festival honouring the Three Kings, deities who protect Heli and other villages in the area. But exactly who these kings are depends on who you ask. The earliest written account dates to the eleventh century, when resident “Guzhou barbarians” first accepted Chinese rule and the Song emperor bestowed kingship on three folk gods, naming them as Ningyuan (寧遠王), Suiyuan (綏遠王), and Huiyuan (惠遠王).
At the time their main temple was at the county of Laobao (老堡), but in 1572 the actions of a tyrannical magistrate, Ma Xiwu (馬希武), sparked an uprising against the Chinese administration. A military campaign two years later crushed the rebellion but the area remained unstable for the next twenty years. Then during the 1590s a new magistrate, Su Chaoyang (蘇朝陽) moved the government headquarters to where modern Sanjiang town is today, and locals relocated the temple to Heli. Su also compiled a dubious history of the region, identifying it with the ancient Yelang state, which flourished in the first century BC.
According to Historical Records by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, Yelang territory extended over parts of Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces, and the state lasted from about 400 BC until being defeated and absorbed by the Han empire around 27 BC. The Yelang king once arrogantly compared his power to that of the vastly stronger Han, hence the Chinese idiom 夜郎自大, “Full of the self-importance of Yelang”, used to describe an ignorant braggard.
Despite it’s apparently remote rural setting, the temple is well located: not only are there several large villages nearby, but the river is something of a trade corridor between Guangxi, Guizhou and Hunan provinces. Merchants from as far away as Fujian and Sichuan would stop here on their travels and pray for success; those that made good profits would often donate to the temple’s upkeep the next time they passed by. This wealth bled out into the community, and several of the local clans rose in importance. As their children became educated, they read Su’s account, blended it with their own folklore, and developed a new old tradition:
“Mrs Li was washing yams in the river, when a big, knotted bamboo stem floated past. She heard the sound of croaking from the bamboo, fished it out of the water, and found an infant boy inside. She named him “Zhu” (Bamboo), and raised him. He had three sons, all fillial, virtuous and skilled at martial arts. Emperor Wu of Han (156–87 BC) bestowed the head of the Zhu family with the title of “Marquis of Yelang”; he was also known informally as the Bamboo King. After his death, the three sons built the temple in his honour.”
Another account involves the seventeenth-century Yongli emperor: when the Manchus occupied northern China in the 1640s, Yongli fled south and set up his Southern Ming kingdom in Guangxi. Needing the support of local peoples in his fight against the invaders, he bestowed the title of “Bamboo King” on an existing deity.
Sometimes the three stories are combined, so that the title Marquis Zhu of Yelang does indeed date back to the first century BC, with his royal status later confirmed and renewed during the Song and Ming periods. It doesn’t really matter; the point is that all of them lend an imperial connection to the local deities.
So back to the temple. It has been rebuilt many times, but the current form dates to a major reconstruction in 1844, which combined existing and new buildings into the current single complex, adding a theatre stage inside and above the main gateway. You enter underneath this into a stone-flagged courtyard; a stone tablet dating to the fifty-ninth year of Qianlong’s reign (1794) records how villagers forbade any outsiders, drawn by the outstanding fengshui at Heli, from using their land for burials. Steps up the centre of the courtyard rise through a wooden gateway to two halls filling the rear third of the temple; the left side is dedicated to the Three Kings, the right to the Heavenly Emperor Xianggong and two of his generals.
The Three Kings Festival features sacrifices, theatre and ceremonies, the most important being the “Three Offerings”. This kicks off at an auspicious time in the morning with an explosion of gongs, drums and firecrackers to scare away any malicious spirits. The deity statues are washed and invited to descend to earth, and the priest makes three offerings to each on behalf of the community, encouraging them to taste the food and accept everyone’s prayers. Then paper blessings are burned and the worshipers thank and congratulate the deities.
With the festival in full swing, the temple’s interior is chaos: the rear courtyard is crammed with participants and spectators, the air is thick with incense, and the noise is incredible. Villagers are divided up on either side of the main hall, men on the right and women on the left, all dressed in neat, indigo-dyed festival jackets, bright sashes and white bandannas. The hall’s entrance is guarded by two children dressed as generals, sweltering under their brightly-sequinned theatrical jackets, bobbly tiaras and fierce pheasant plumes.
The whole thing is managed by a crowd of elders dressed in 1920s-style silk robes and pork-pie hats who lead the worship and help at all stages of the ceremony, organising things in advance, acting as foremen, and manhandling the sacrificial goat and pig – the latter dyed a bright festive pink – onto altars inside the door.
Every other year there’s a lion dance led by a traditional “Big-headed Buddha”, with other youngsters dressed up as the Eight Immortals, the Monkey King, and the Three Kings themselves. Statues of the Three Kings are removed from their hall, placed in bamboo sedan chairs and carried out into the fields, followed by the lion dancers, villagers and an orchestra. This is something like an Earth God procession, with the deities being shown around their territory, blessing the land and noting any changes which might have happened since their last outing.
There’s a long pause now, as the spectators disperse to shop, snack, and gossip at the festival market in nearby fields, whose stalls sell everything from wild honey to plastic toys, wooden looms and yarn, rat poison and snacks. The distant sound of shawms, gongs, and drums drifts over as the procession goes around outlying villages. Later on, everyone returns to the temple to watch folk operas – mostly military tales from the Three Kingdoms – which last well on into the night.