5 December 2011
Taiwan’s Top Festivals
When it comes to the weird and the wonderful, Taiwan certainly boasts some impressive contenders. From religious festivals to ancient cultural events, each and every occasion is celebrated with an immense amount of enthusiasm…and often a fistful of firecrackers. Sprinkled liberally across the lunar calendar, Taiwanese festivals are woven into the fabric of everyday life, young and old swept away by the infectious atmosphere. Here are a few of our favourites…
THE BOMBING OF MASTER HAN DAN
Like most things in Taiwan, it’s all a little eccentric but nonetheless born out of a strong cultural history and heritage. Believed to be the God of Wealth, Master Han Dan forms the focus of this festival and one of the highest honours bestowed is to be chosen to play this leading part. Bare to the waist, Master Han Dan stands on a plinth carried through the crowd by four men and is showered with firecrackers thrown from an enthusiastic following. Since locals believe this will ward off evil spirits and that the more firecrackers you throw, the more you will be rewarded with wealth in the future, the celebrations can become pretty explosive. Usually falling around the end of February, this festival forms a major highlight of the Lantern Festival and Lunar New Year.
THE DRAGON BOAT RACING FESTIVAL
One of Taiwan’s oldest traditions, the dragon boat racing festival sees teams from across the world arrive annually in early June to battle it out in their intricate and beautifully decorated boats. So the story goes, over 2,000 years ago Cyu Yuan, having been exiled from his home in the Chu kingdom, and upon learning that his home province had been invaded and defeated by a fellow kingdom, threw himself into the Miluo River. So popular was Cyu Yuan that the people of Chu descended on the river in their dragon boats to search for his body with buckets full of Zongzih – rice dumplings wrapped in leaves – to distract the fish from eating his remains. Aside from the intensely exciting spectacle of the race itself, it’s worth travelling to Taiwan simply to sample these delicious dumplings which are eaten in huge quantities over the course of the festival. A hotly contested race held against the beat of booming drums, this one is definitely worth the air fare.
THE GHOST FESTIVAL
Taiwan’s answer to Halloween, this lunar festival takes place in September and commemorates departed souls from the underworld. During the festival, which is regarded with a large amount of superstition by the Taiwanese, religious ceremonies are held all over the island and involve offerings of food and drink, ritual dances and music, the chanting of Buddhist monks or Taoist priests, and the burning of spirit paper money. One not-to-be-missed ceremony during the festival is known as “Grappling with the Ghosts” in Yilan’s Toucheng. Not solely about the afterlife and making offerings to the dead, the ceremony also provides the poorer members of the community with alms. At the stroke of midnight teams of young men compete to climb up twelve 30 metre high wooden pillars called Gupeng, and topple massive cones laden with trays of sweets and pastries. A little strange yes, but still no easy feat.
THE LANTERN FESTIVAL
Held on the first full-moon night of the lunar year, the Lantern Festival is commonly regarded as one of the most romantic festivals in Taiwan. As evening sets in, tens of thousands of colourful and illuminated lanterns drift off into the night sky released by visitors from all over Taiwan. In the past, the lanterns were pretty simple – only the emperor and important noblemen having large or overly decorative ones, but today they are far more imaginative and you are likely to see a vast array of different designs floating across the sky. With crowds gathering together in Taipei to liberate their lanterns against a backdrop bursting with lights, the sight is pretty spectacular. We’re definitely keeping our spotlight on this one.