Boat Burning at Dawn
No matter where we happen to grow up, there are always certain things that are an inherent part of our particular society. These things are so woven into the fabric of our everyday lives that the very notion of them exists in the subconscious of our collective identity. In many ways, these things define who we are, both as a society and an individual; and yet, these are things we rarely ever step back and think about.
I’m not sure I’m making any sense here. Let me give you an example of what I’m trying to say.
In the US, and most of the Western world, people generally subscribe to some denomination of Christianity. Said denominations might not agree with each other about certain things, but most of their ideals and language are fairly universal. You sing in the choir at Church? We understand. You have a bible verse at the bottom of your email signature? We get it. You get a good-sized helping of gravy on your chicken-fried steak and shout “Prasie Jesus!” while waving your arms about? We nod our heads knowingly.
It’s a Christian world I’ve grown up in, and that’s just what I’m used to. I’m not much of an avid churchgoer myself, but a society’s predominate religion permeates so many aspects of that culture that it’s impossible to live completely outside of its influence.
And that’s just another reason why living here in Taiwan is pretty neat. And pretty different. There’s no Christian subtext here. Not too many church bake sales or “Jesus saves” bumper stickers around. Christianity’s actually more popular here than I expected, but it’s still pretty far down on Taiwan’s religion pecking order. About 70% of the island is either Buddhist or Taoist.
And of course, I’m sure there are Buddhist and Taoist subtexts to life here of which I’m not even aware; but life here is definitely different. Okay, now I’m getting into a realm about which I know very little, so I should stop speculating and just get to my point already.
Both the Western world and Taiwan (and the rest of the Eastern world, of course) have religion-based traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation. In the Western world, for instance, we celebrate the birth of our savior by buying a fir tree, putting it in our house for a few weeks, and giving stuff to people we like. To celebrate the death – and subsequent rise from the grave – of said savior, we hide eggs and make children find them.
In Taiwan, in order to expel plagues and bring in good vibes, we build a giant boat every three years. And then we drag it to the beach and burn the hell out of it.
Now please, follow the jump to read all about my experience at this year’s Boat Burning; plus, see my extensive gallery – and even a neat video – from the event! Huzzah.
Despite the Westernization and economic advances in Taiwan, our little island is apparently still one of the few, main places in Asia where traditional folklore has been preserved and is still practiced to some degree. This boat burning I attended in October is one of the biggest events celebrating this folklore.
Every 3 years, in Donggang (about an hour and a half south of Kaohsiung), an eight-day festival is held, with the intentions of driving away the Wang Ye, or the gods of pestilence. According to Wikipedia, “the Wang Ye began as pestilence-spreading spirits, the vengeful ghosts of promising young scholars who met violent and untimely deaths. To stop disease, people would pray and make offerings to these beings. As time passed, these Wang Ye gradually became disease-dispelling gods and bringers of good fortune.”
Here’s a quick history lesson from Robert Kelly in Taiwan Today:
Wang Ye worship was brought to Taiwan during the 17th and 18th centuries, carried in the hearts of the waves of immigrants from southern China… Donglong Temple [in Donggang], founded in 1706, is one of the oldest centers of Wang Ye worship in the south.
Boat burning festivals reached their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when Wang Ye cults were also at their most popular. The practice spread from Fujian to Taiwan, and varied from temple to temple. In general the Wang Ye were invited to earth in a special beachside ceremony, feasted, and then asked to entice plague demons onto a boat which was then burnt either on the beach or as it was floated out to sea. Boats could be made from paper or wood, and might reach lengths of 100 meters.
Wang Ye worship, and boat burning festivals, began to fade in China in the 20th century, but actually expanded in Taiwan under the early Japanese occupation. Donglong Temple began its festival about 100 years ago.
I’ll be honest. When we left for Donggang that Friday night, all I knew is that we were going to watch a boat burn on the beach in the middle of the night. Why was this boat going to burn? I wasn’t too terribly sure. Everything I’ve learned about this amazing event has been after I actually witnessed it.
Our friend Betty is Taiwanese, but she’s a rare one, in that she’s not really religious in any way. Still, she thought it would be neat to show Amy and I this boat burning. But when we asked her about it, all she could tell us was that it was to bring good things in and keep bad things out. Awesome. Thanks, Betty.
We arrived in Donggang around 1 am and parked in the middle of this little harbor town. Immediately, we could tell this was a big deal. People were everywhere. We followed the crowd down a main street, toward the beach. After about a half-mile or so, we came to the Donglong Temple, one of the biggest and oldest Wang Ye temples anywhere, and the temple that puts on this festival. Hordes of people were milling about outside the temple, and even more were sitting on its massive staircases. There was even a giant projector screen set up to show the boat burning live to the people who preferred to stay at the temple. We didn’t prefer this. We came to see a boat burn in person.
We continued along the road, toward the beach. The atmosphere was really cool – lively but respectful. This was a party, but it had a purpose, and the thousands of attendees seemed to never lose that perspective. That said, all the way up to the beach, food and drink stands lined the streets; there were some carnival-like games you could play, too. And on the beach stood a mass of humanity, happy and energetic and patient, waiting for the culminating event.
There was one really cool spot on the road, right before the beach, where a group of people could buy a big red lantern, write your name and your wishes on it, and then send it up into the night. Amy, Betty and I did this, and it was incredibly cool. I shot a video of it, but I accidentally did the whole thing sideways, and so it’s not much fun to watch.
Right after we were done with our lantern, we saw the boat – a beautiful, massive, hand-made vessel – being pulled by an army of men down the road, toward the beach. People were cheering, smiling, praying. It was so cool and surreal. But of course, the whole night was cool and surreal. We walked back to the beach, worked our way down to a great spot, right on the water.
Now, all the information we had gotten in Kaohsiung said that the boat burning started at 2 am. But apparently that information was wrong. By now it was almost 3, and the boat was just arriving on the beach. We were tired and impatient, and then a man next to us told Betty that they actually wouldn’t be setting the vessel aflame until dawn. The impatient Westerners in us groaned, but honestly, it was fine.
The next couple of hours were spent affixing the mast and three sails onto the boat, and then bringing load after load of ghost money and stuffing under the keel and piling it up on all sides of the ship. For those of you unfamiliar, ghost money (according to Wikipedia) is “sheets of paper that are burned in traditional Chinese deity or ancestor worship ceremonies during special holidays.” For two hours they emptied giant bags of ghost money all around the ship until it looked like a giant close-up view of a toy boat nestled atop a pile of autumn leaves.
And then, just as we noticed the sky was getting a little lighter, they lit the ghost money on fire. Just a tiny flame at first that gradually made its way to the boat. Within 20 minutes, the entire keel was burning. Within 30, the whole boat was engulfed. We stayed and watched it burn for a good hour, transfixed by the powerful serenity of it all. It was gorgeous, surreal, magical, awe-inspiring. Absolutely worth the wait.
Here’s Amy, Betty, and I right as the boat starts to become engulfed in flames.
If you’d like to know more about the Wang Ye Boat Burning, here are some links that are pretty gosh darn interesting:
- Boat Burning Wards Off Plague (Taiwan Today)
- Temple of Fire (Wall Street Journal)
- Boat Burning Festival as Big a Draw as Ever (Taiwan News)
And now for you, the dear reader, is a gallery of our night at the boat burning. As always, they come complete with descriptions, free of charge. Please peruse and enjoy responsibly.