For most of its history, Taiwan was a thoroughly pestilential place. In the 1700s, it was said that of every 10 Chinese migrants who reached the island, “Just three remain. Six are dead, and one has returned home” (三在六亡一回頭). Not until well into the Japanese colonial era was plague brought under control. In the late 1940s, cholera, scrub typhus, and bilharzia (a disease caused by parasitic worms) were still major health threats. Victory over malaria was finally declared in 1965.
Given the virulence of these ailments and the scientific ignorance of the island’s early settlers, it is hardly surprising that epidemics were blamed on malevolent spirits. Then as now, Taiwanese beseeched their gods for protection. Many people wore sachets of incense ash gathered from temples, similar to the amulets that now dangle from rearview mirrors in cars and trucks across Taiwan.
These notions and habits were carried to Taiwan by migrants from the China mainland. As Carol Ann Benedict explains in her book Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-century China (Stanford University Press, 1996), in southern China plague-god festivals “were periodically held in many communities as prophylactic measures against epidemics; similar rituals were held after an epidemic had broken out. Lasting about a week, the jiao (醮, sacrificial rites) included days of elaborate temple rites and liturgies, culminating in a large processional designed to expel all remaining plague demons and send the plague god back to heaven. This was done by placing the wenshen (瘟神, “epidemic gods”) on massive boats (wenchuan, 瘟船, “plague boats”) made of paper or grass that were then burnt or floated away.”
Some scholars think the discovery that fire is effective at destroying pathogens may be one inspiration for this custom, which could be 1,000 years old.
Within Taiwan, the term wangchuan (王船) is preferred to wenchuan. Two major ritual boat-burnings are celebrated each Year of the Goat, Year of the Dog, Year of the Ox, and Year of the Dragon – timing inspired by the triennial inspection tours made by mandarins in ancient China. The best known of these is the King Boat Festival (迎王平安祭) organized by Donglong Temple (東隆宮) in Pingtung County’s Donggang Township. As 2015 is the Year of the Goat, the King Boat Festival will run this year from October 4 to 11.
The other major ritual boat-burning ceremony is sometimes called Taiwan’s Foremost Offering of Incense (台灣第一香), and is centered on Qingan Temple (慶安宮) in Tainan City’s Xigang District. The 2015 edition was held May 28 to June 1.
Xigang is a nondescript town with a population of just 25,000. However, its wangchuan rites – first held in 1784 and now involving 96 villages – are said to be more faithful to tradition than the one in Donggang...
The entire article appears in the magazine's recent travel and culture special, and can be read online by clicking here. Both photos are mine, and were taken at the 2012 King Boat Festival.
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