Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival (Travel in Taiwan)

These days, Zuoying is a Kaohsiung suburb best known for Lotus Pond and the colorful temples that surround this pretty body of water. But back in the 17th century, just after Koxinga expelled the Dutch East India Company from Taiwan, it was the military and administrative headquarters of Wannian County and thus a place of considerable importance. Today the toponym lives on in the annual Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival. 

There are times when people on this island put their smartphones down and their 21st-century concerns and ambitions aside, and a much older Taiwan bursts into the foreground. The final day of the Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival was one such occasion. 

My friends and I were positioned in front of Zuoying's Cheng Huang Temple, enjoying a form of entertainment that's hardly changed in hundreds of years. Lion dancers, accompanied by drum-beating and gong-thumping musicians, teased children, snapped their jaws shut inches from spectators' faces, and threw candies into the crowd. But the professional and amateur zhentou troupes who perform these and other stunts aren't slavish in their adherence to tradition. Modern twists on old forms include Techno San Taizi or Techno Prince performances. Another example followed the lion dancers. Five young men dressed to resemble the key characters of Journey To The West danced disco-style to pop music. Even if you've never heard of this classic Chinese novel, you may well know the story (based on the adventures of a seventh-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhist scriptures) because it inspired a Japanese TV series shown throughout the English-speaking world under the title Monkey. 

A few minutes later we turned our attention to the real star of the show – the Great Wannian Fire Lion. This effigy, cute yet dignified, is far larger than a real lion. But for a yellow underbelly, it was covered with red tinsel “fur.” Red, of course, is an auspicious color in Chinese culture. 

The lion is set ablaze at the very end of the festival so as to carry the wishes of the faithful up to heaven. Therefore it's designed to burn well. There's a very real risk of premature destruction, however, because thousands of firecrackers are detonated beneath and around it as it parades through Zuoying's streets prior to its sacrifice. I wasn't surprised to see a man following with a small tank of water and a hand-held sprayer, ready to put out any fires...

The complete article appears in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan, a magazine sponsored by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.

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