Monday, February 16, 2009

Greeting the War God

"Jackass" or marketing opportunity?

It's popular to be attacked by firecrackers in Taiwan, at least once a year.

By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, February 11, 2009

YENSHUEI TOWNSHIP, Taiwan — Wrapped tightly in coats, motorcycle helmets, scarves and gloves, a group of Taiwanese bounces up and down like teens in a mosh pit. In the sedan chair they're carrying, their God of War bounces along with them.

Suddenly, amid a thunderous roar, a wave of bottle rockets fires into the crowd and over their heads from a line of racks about 25 feet away.

Welcome to the Beehive Fireworks Festival, Taiwan's answer to Pamplona's running of the bulls. Every year, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, thousands descend on the township of Yenshuei, in the island's rural south, to deliberately put themselves in harm's way.

They'll be hit, over and over, by thousands of firecrackers — and they'll love it.

It may sound like a stunt from one of the "Jackass" movies, but the roots of this festival are religious. According to local officials, it dates to the late 17th century, when this part of Taiwan was afflicted by disease, especially cholera. Locals believed that parading the war god and setting off firecrackers could drive away the plague.

Now, this and other similar festivals are growing in popularity, as townships like Yenshuei hope to cash in on their folk rituals by attracting tourist dollars.

"It's getting bigger and bigger," said Ting Jen-chieh, an expert on Taiwanese religion at Academia Sinica. "Twenty years ago the scale wasn't so big, but now the city wants to promote the festival to get tourists."

This year officials estimated that up to 350,000 people attended. "The bad economy hasn't affected the festival," said Hsu Fu-kai, a festival volunteer. "In fact, it will be even bigger then last year, because we believe the more firecrackers you have, the more prosperity you'll get."

In the festival, bottle rockets are carefully packed in tight rows inside box frames — thus, the "beehive." Each rack contains up to 60,000 firecrackers. Organizers said some 200 racks were used in the main event Feb. 9.

Every year, there are injuries, sometimes serious. Glen Chin, who is making a documentary on the festival, was injured one year when a rack of bottle rockets went off near him before he'd put on his helmet and jacket.

But he says there's little risk if you follow the dress code. "It's a bit dangerous, but not as dangerous as it looks," said Chin. "There's a method to the madness."

I went to Yenshuei on Feb. 8, the eve of the festival, on a junket arranged by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau. The celebrations were a warm-up for the main event held the next night.

In Chinese tradition, the 15th of the first lunar month marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations. Localities across the island celebrate in distinct ways, and Taiwan's tourism officials are now hoping to better market those festivals to visitors.

In northern Taiwan, the main attraction is the sky lantern festival in Pingsi. In the city of Taitung on the rugged southeast coast, there's a ritual called the "Bombing of Master Han Dan." In it, a male believer dressed only in red shorts, red head wrap and banyan tree leaf is paraded around in a sedan chair, as others lob firecrackers at him.

Still, Yenshuei's beehive festival is the island's most intense. It centers on the temple of Guan Yu, the God of War, a second-century Chinese general now revered as a deity (and also a character in John Woo's "Red Cliff" movies). During the celebrations, the God of War leaves home to visit every nearby temple and its gods.

Naturally, Guan Yu has to ride in style. So his icon is placed in a plastic-protected sedan chair (think the Popemobile). Flunky gods get their own, less lavish sedan chairs. Some Taiwanese temples pimp their gods' rides with gaudy neon displays and pulsing techno music on truck flatbeds.

On the night I attended, the holy motorcade proceeded to an open field at a local high school, where the sedan chairs were positioned in front of the bottle rocket racks for the first firecracker beat-down.

Then the God of War began his tour. At each stop, sedan chair carriers bounced the god up and down, sometimes stepping forward and back three times.

"The bouncing means possession by the god," explained Academia Sinica's Ting. "And when two deities meet each other, they need to go back and forth three times, to show respect."

At each temple, the God of War and his entourage are pummeled by more bottle rockets, usually in a nearby street or alley.

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