Weird religious festival in Taidong

I used to think a lot of Taiwanese culture had disappeared in the rush for the modern trappings of life, but it is alive and well in Taidong at Han Dan Yue. Ostensibly it’s about throwing bizarre amounts of firecrackers at a person representing Han Dan Yue - a taoist god of war, or ‘fame and wealth’ as it says in the brochure. This is supposed to bring prosperity. I’d like to know more about it if anyone has the info.

Whatever, apart from that, there’s a lot of other weird stuff going on, that may or may not have possible gangster overtones. It’s still a completely open street parade which allows you to get as close as you like to the action - which can be too much of a good thing given the insane amount of fireworks going off - and features amazing costumed dancers, decorated chariots, and some masochist type stuff which seems to be, if you take the religious view, connected to a cleansing, or atonement, a casting out of evil spirits - though there may have been something of a gangster style right of initiation involved as well. Regardless, it’s an incredible festival that really needs to be experienced if you have the chance. The video below does have a bit of gruesome stuff, so you may not want to watch if you are likely to be upset by that sort of thing. It’s not meant to be a full representation of the festival - just a montage of what I had on the handycam when I got home.

Thanks for posting that. I’ve always wanted to see the festival as I’ve only read about it. You’re right that there is a strong gangster element to the event. Here’s a good summary:

[quote]In Taitung in Southern Taiwan, the locals celebrate the Lantern Festival by throwing firecrackers at Master Handan, a shirtless man. Legend says the celebration became an annual custom when it coincidentally got rid of infectious diseases that plagued Taitung at the time. Others simply believe the heat and smoke from the fireworks may have stopped the spread of disease.

No matter how it originated, locals have been doing this since the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945). Even today, the identity of Master Handan is unknown. Some say he was a rich Shang Dynasty military officer named Chao Gong-Ming, who later became the god of wealth because he was wealthy. People believe throwing firecrackers at him will bring them wealth.

Another story said he was a gangster and that, in order to repent for his wrongdoings, allowed the townspeople to throw fireworks at him. Others think he was the god of gangsters. People believe his power grows in proportion to the number of firecrackers thrown at him. Local gangsters often played the role of Master Handan in the 1970s and 1980s and it soon turned into a contest among rival gangs, so the folk festival was banned in 1984.

Bombarding Master Handan was revived in 1989 with the gang battle replaced by a show of economic might as local businesses demonstrate their financial success by spending upwards of NT$200,000 on fireworks to bombard Master Handan as he travels past their businesses.

During the day-long festival, a local person (usually a man) wears a headscarf, mask and red shorts and stands in a sedan. The man only has a banyan tree branch to protect himself. Master Handan is paraded around Taitung. Worshippers hurl firecrackers at him believing the more they throw, the richer they’ll become. There are others who believe Master Handan does not like the cold, so throwing fireworks his way keeps him warm.[/quote]

Traditional culture is far from dead. There are unique and genuine festivals like this all over Taiwan. In fact all this week thousands of worshipers from a Miaoli Matsu Temple are walking 400km to bring their statue back to the mother temple to bless it and revive its ling (divine efficacy). Next month will be the massive Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage. In May half of Kinmen will walk 100km in their local pilgrimage. Local religion never went out of style.

Thanks MM, that makes a lot of sense. Traditonal monks were pretty thin on the ground but there were a lot of gangster types hanging around and a short, brutal kung fu fight broke out when some drunk guy (actually one of their own crew) tripped over the long steel rod that the guy had pierced through his tongue causing him to writhe in agony - the pierced guy that is - the guy who got beat up was too drunk to feel much.

The point about the smoke and heat killing disease could be right because it’s way over the top and with matching noise. Maybe they should have tried that during the SARS epidemic. Bring along a mask, goggles, and ear plugs if you plan to get up close and personal.

It’s interesting that the ceremony goes on but no one really can say what it means.

Sign of a healthy living culture I would say. As an ex-Catholic not knowing what a ceremony means seems perfectly normal. :laughing:

Temples in Taiwan have always been a center for ‘community self-policing’ Often the mock battles and rituals are designed to replace the clan warfare that raged before the Japanese came when Taiwan was a lawless frontier zone. At the same time, they are also centers for recruiting and meeting up for real conflict. If you seen Monga, you will notice the close association between Geta, the leader of the Miaokou (Temple Gate) gang and the Zushi Temple.

In real life, one need look no further than the notorious gangster Yen Ching-piao, the Chairman of Zhenlan Temple in Taichung and independent legislator. His power comes directly from the fact that he is the Chairman of the temple.

Temples large and small all over Taiwan are like this. I do feel that the term ‘gangster’ is inappropriate for many of these small town hoods who are only loosely associated with one another.

A lot of these temples, and the related floats in the parades, are local tradesman’s unions. I wouldn’t say they were all gangster’s, well, unless you didn’t pay your bill.

That’s right, I know several people who participated, including a few foreigners, and I am pretty sure they’re not gangsters. The vast majority of the participants are as saddletramp says, just ordinary people affiliated to some civic organization or other. However, hanging around a few small makeshift temples on the street where some of the more bizarre stuff was going on were gangs of people who looked liked gangsters and who were acting as kind of crowd controllers – and fairly aggressively by Taiwan’s usual non-confrontational standards. I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with that – ‘God of Gangsters’ has a kind of ring to it, and it still makes for an interesting cultural event – I’m just curious about it.

According to the brochure I have, the temple responsible for organizing the festival is the Shwen Wu Tang, which was founded in 1988 by Lee Jian-Zhi, after they won a ‘lucky dip’ to decide where Han Dan Yue would be worshiped – he didn’t previously have his own temple.

‘In 1991, Mr Lee established a committee to take care of the temple and organize all kinds of activities about him (Han Dan Yue) on Lenten Festival. Years by years, it eventually becomes annual big event on Taidong Lenten Festivities. Since then, Shwen Wu Tang has been noted for blasting Han Dan Yue around the temples’

This would seem to be at odds with the info posted by Mucha Man that dated the beginnings back to the 1890s – I assume the brochure means that the Shen Wu Tang just took over the organizing of the event at that time.

That would be my guess too. By the late 80s/early 90s the Council of Cultural Affairs has finally stopped trying to direct local Taiwanese culture, martial law had been lifted, and people were forming new organizations with abandon. Temple culture was starting to revive itself, and there was a great public appetite for new festivals. I’m not surprised that someone would start a temple to try to control and direct this old event. It’s a good way to bring prestige to oneself, local influence, and a temple is a fantastic vehicle for generating funds through pilgrim donations.

As you noted, most people involved would be ordinary citizens/believers. But local thugs are often used for crowd control, and also temple performance troupes. Also many temple managers are pretty much local strong men/gangsters. I’ve interviewed a few temple managers and it’s more like going into a mafia club den than a holy space when you step into their office. As Vork would say, many of the people wouldn’t look out of place in Goodfellows.

It’s a pretty interesting world. Tons of money to be made if your temple is famous, and so lots of room for corruption both of those funds, and of the ways you make your temple famous to start generating those funds.

That depends on what you a think a holy space should be like, doesn’t it?