Saturday, May 27, 2017, 12:13 PM CST – China

Outside In

Divine Donggang

SMOKE ON THE WATER

One of Taiwan’s most breathtaking folk events is held in one of its least-known towns

A boat is ritually burned at the Donglong Temple, Donggang, Taiwan, October 24, 2012

A festival performer in the raiments of a deity Photo by CFP

Seldom have I traipsed home at dawn so energized. Skipping through Donggang’s thoroughfares as the early light overpowered the golden orbs suspended above the street, my thoughts turned to the cleansing nature of a prolonged conflagration.

Nevada’s Burning Man festival may be world-renowned, but why light up “The Man” when you can incinerate bad luck itself – embodied in demonic effigies chaperoned by gods – sealed aboard an elaborately engraved and painstakingly painted wooden barge more than 20 feet long? Such is the nature of a triennial ritual held here known as Wang Ye, referring to five local deities led by Marshal Wen, a folk hero posthumously elevated to godhood.

Academics believe this custom originated in the Song Dynasty as a means to celebrate the gods’ battle against plague-carrying demons. Now, with the specter of plague banished, this still fiercely respected rite is seen more as a prayer for peace and prosperity, though more modern viruses like dengue fever and H1N1 are also thought to be exorcised through the ritual.

Transformation

Donggang, a port that prides itself on its bluefin tuna catch, is for most of the year a laid-back town much like any other sleepy fishing enclave dotted up and down Taiwan’s southwestern coast. But during the week-long festival, which occurs around the ninth lunar month on a date determined by lengthy scrying of wooden divination blocks, Donggang comes alive with firecrackers and color, music and mayhem.

The joy of Wang Ye lies in giving yourself up to the experience; to the magic in the incense, incantations and aromas that infuse the lanes; and the soothing red and gold light that beckons softly from flickering household shrines.

During the day, the roads are seeded with explosive welcomes primed to herald the boat’s arrival, as well as stalls vending everything from fruit juices to wild boar sausage and deep fried squid. For those seeking liquid refreshment, craft beverages can be obtained for exceedingly reasonable prices at The Beer Shop.

You can find all of the above at Taiwan’s infamous night markets, but it is fantang, a Donggang specialty, which really must be sampled. Its literal translation, “rice soup,” is a misnomer. This is congee gone native, sucking up and absorbing anything it can get its hands on — in my experience, this thick potage encompasses fish balls and shrimp, beef shank, cabbage and ginger. Listing the ingredients is a futile exercise because every household’s fantang is different; it is the process, not the recipe, that is key. Cooked continuously for the duration of the festivities, this hearty soup is repeatedly restocked with water and ingredients, and shared amongst neighborhoods and households. Anyone who knows anything about Taiwanese cooking culture need not be told there is intense competition at work here. Reputations are at stake, and the concoctions taste all the better for it.

On the festival’s final day, crowds milled about on the beach from the early evening onwards, but it was only deep morning, when the boat emerged from the nearby Donglong Temple, that the shore came to life. Borne by an army of yellow-uniformed and rattan-hatted palanquin bearers, the vessel was heralded by a resounding gong, which tolled with a haunting rhythm reminiscent of the final scene of The Wicker Man.

Ritual

As the night wore on, a crowd several thousand strong gathered in expectation of the burning, cramming onto the beach and perching atop every conceivable vantage point; chewing betel nut, drinking home-brewed power drinks, or laying down on blankets to get some shut-eye before the main event.

The sand was strewn with paper treasures: replica mansions, livestock, modern appliances and, of course, cash — accumulated in piles so precipitous they eclipsed the view of the waves beyond. Like much in Taiwan, what appeared to be merry chaos in reality had a strict order and a razor-sharp religious and political edge. Every paper packet and package earmarked to be stacked inside the offertory boat bore the names of persons of prestige, and touching them was forbidden. All that occurred in the run-up to the burning, from the distribution of paper money to the precise route of the boat – which was paraded past the townhouses of important temple officials during the day of the ceremony in a bid to symbolically absorb evil spirit – was a carefully choreographed display of local power.

The burning itself was an epic affair, preceded by literally hours of preparations and an at times exasperated commentary from a master of ceremonies who might have enjoyed a few too many pre-game tipples. But, as the night wore on and the moment of ignition approached, the sense of excitement became palpable. The experience of watching the flames lap at the ship’s hull before catching and belching smoke into the sunrise will linger long in my memory: there was a genuine sense of mystique.

Ancient

While the Wang Ye festival can be traced back 300 years, it has a very modern significance. Beds in Donggang were entirely booked out on the big night, which surpasses even Chinese New Year in its importance to the townsfolk, and celebrations such as these are of vital importance to a port that desperately needs a new lease of life.

Persistent overfishing in the deep Pacific, where boats run lines hundreds of kilometers long and often do not return to port for more than a year, has resulted in dim prospects for the town’s younger residents, who have little incentive to sail the seas of their fathers. The dwindling catches have also resulted in the boat captains transgressing the boundaries of legality by relying on shark finning, which was banned in Taiwan in 2011, to turn a profit.

Some have compared the slow decline of the fishing industry here with that of the art of building the wooden boats used in the festival itself. But as my guesthouse host Pei-Lun Huang tells me, several master boat builders remain in the town, and all are now actively striving to pass their knowhow down to the second and third generation. All is not lost for the fishing industry, either, if it can adapt and wean itself off unsustainable and illegal practices, according to Greenpeace.

Fishing is Donggang’s lifeblood — evidenced by the haphazard patchwork of fishing boats jammed prow-to-keel beneath the Yanping Road bridge. But in the absence of an industrial revival, the town must seek other sources of income, with tourism an obvious potential avenue. Pei-Lun’s home was full of guests, and the ebullient father of two was quick to tell me that the number of foreigners in town was noticeably larger this year than he had ever seen.

The triennial timing of the festival makes it impossible to rely on as a draw for tourists, but Donggang has the charm indigenous to sleepy fishing towns the world over, and the seafood is world class. Those interested in exploring Taiwan’s religious, commercial and craft traditions would do well to make the trip, whatever the time of year.

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