The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.
Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a
drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the
medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked
him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time
the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he applied
the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his
shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent
adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are
possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast
pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).
In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain,
weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac
went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my
ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified
drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters
across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in
mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant
and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and
train just as hard.
A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened
by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was
trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the
spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon
swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move
closer to the tang-ki...
This article appears in the July issue of PerceptiveTravel.com. To read the entire piece, start here. For an anthropological opinion on tang-ki, look at this interview.
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