Carrying the golden statue of a revered ancient general, villagers in eastern China dash wildly through waterlogged fields in a mud-spattered celebration of a local rebel adored for stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Spurred on by the roar of firecrackers and cheers of families crowded on muddy banks, teams of men splash through the quagmire, in a centuries-old ceremony that is part of the lead up to China’s Lantern Festival on February 11.
It is a time for colourful ceremonies in the coastal province of Fujian, where the Hakka people have held on particularly strongly to their folk traditions.
At the centre of the celebrations is the solemn-faced gilded effigy of Guan Gong, a Chinese general who lived nearly 2,000 years ago during the Eastern Han dynasty and has been granted god-like status.
But he is not the main focus of the festivities.
For villagers here Guan Gong acts as a stand-in for a local rebel king named Zhang Lian, akin to a Robin Hood figure, who looted riches and helped the poor.
He rose up in 1560 against the corrupt Ming empire, which used its massive army to impose heavy taxes on local peasants.
After two years of fighting, the government crushed the insurrection, leading the hero to flee to Indonesia, where legend has it he eventually became king of the southeastern island known today as Sumatra.
Seeking to honour him without upsetting the emperor, Ming dynasty peasants paid tribute to an image of Guan Gong instead.
Local families pray to the statue, light incense and sacrifice chickens, before carrying it down to the field.
Villagers on Wednesday ran through the flooded fields to the point of collapse and then splashed water on the statue and each other in the winter morning chill.
Stomping about in the mud is also a way to “awaken” the farmland for the coming spring and express hopes for a good harvest year.
Hu Sheng, one of the men carrying the statue in a bamboo litter, told AFP that he travelled to the ceremony every year from the southern city of Shenzhen where he works.
“Everyone respects Guan Gong. I must come back for this because I hope he will bless me and my family this year, and I want everyone to have a good harvest,” he said.