Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prayers and Flames: The Burning of the King Boat (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan wasn’t always the safe, healthy place it is today. Until the early 20th century, malaria was a constant threat and cholera epidemics were frequent. Lacking medical knowledge and influenced by traditions they’d brought from mainland China’s Fujian province, Taiwanese of Han descent lived in fear of plague-spreading demons. Naturally, they sought divine protection from these malevolent spirits, whom they called Wang Ye (王爺), or "royal lords."

The moment the King Ship left Donglong Temple (東隆宮), the exodus began. The vessel wouldn’t be set afire for at least three hours, but Taiwan’s most famous conflagration happens only once every three years, so we wanted to snag a good spot. Judging by the crowd that swept us through Donggang’s (東港) narrow streets, everyone else had the same idea.

Getting to the burning site was more like a mass escape than a religious parade. Because the crowd was so dense, I found myself taking short, shuffling steps. Every few minutes, we were jostled aside so a deity-bearing palanquin, or a team carrying one of the ship’s masts, could pass. But at the beach we got clear views as the sails were unfurled and the anchors raised. Then a king’s ransom in "spirit money" (yellow paper rectangles especially made for burning during folk religion ceremonies) was piled around the hull. Finally, volunteers laid long strings of firecrackers across this mountain of combustible material...

When the whole article is online, I'll post a link here. I blogged about this festival late last year.

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