Heart and Soul of Taitung’s Lantern Festival Calendar
TEXT / RICK CHARETTE
PHOTOS / CHEN CHENG-KUO
One of Taiwan’s most bizarre annual Lantern Festival traditions is the firecracker infernos that greet the deity Master Handan in Taitung City when he sallies forth on inspection processions. Care to join in?
The traditional Lunar New Year season is brought to a close on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month with the Lantern Festival. At this time visitors to Taiwan can choose “I’ve been there” experiences from among a plenteous palette of vibrant traditional celebrations.
Among the most renowned of these are the Taiwan Lantern Festival, which is rotated around the island, and the official city Lantern Festival events staged in Taipei and Kaohsiung. All feature large-scale theme lanterns based on the Chinese zodiac, creative lantern displays, brilliant sound and light shows, and revelry manifested by numerous other means. They are a modern-day outgrowth of the smaller celebrations held at individual temples.
Among the more colorfully eclectic celebrations are the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival and the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. Each night during the Pingxi festival hundreds of paper-and-wire “sky lanterns” – think of them as miniature hot-air balloons – are released in unison, time after time, carrying people’s wishes up to the gods. On Lantern Festival eve Yanshui, a town in southern Taiwan, literally explodes to life with the release of bottle rockets from “beehive” racks at all angles and in the hundreds of thousands. The most derring-do thrill-seekers brave the onslaught up close, dressed in motorcycle helmets and protective clothing. This annual pyrotechnics blitzkrieg arose as a means to frighten away pestilence-delivering demons in the late Chinese imperial era.
Bombing Master Handan
Matching the explosiveness of the Yanshui spectacle is the Bombing Master Handan pageant, held in Taitung City. This is perhaps the most important annual folk-religion event on Taiwan’s East Coast, and certainly the most important in Taitung City. During the city’s Lantern Festival bash, brave young men representing Master (sometimes “Lord”) Handan are paraded through the streets on a bamboo throne, and are blasted relentlessly with bricks of firecrackers by the thousands of onlookers they pass. These daredevil fellows wear nothing but red shorts, a red-and-yellow headdress, goggles, and a bandana pulled up over the mouth.
Info Nugget: In Chinese culture red is the most auspicious color, associated with good fortune and happiness. One explanatory theory is that long ago, when most Chinese were subsistence farmers, precious animals were only slaughtered on special occasions – i.e., maximum blood/red directly correlated with maximum material wealth/fortune/happiness.
Folk belief is that the more firecrackers you throw, the greater fortune enjoyed in the coming year. Note that firecrackers have red-paper skins, though in this instance the main source of your good luck lies elsewhere, as we’ll see. Residents wait outside homes and employees outside businesses for the deity to pass, as do great throngs of Taiwanese from elsewhere, and as do ever larger numbers of tourists from overseas as the reputation of the event has spread offshore.
Who Is the Master?
There are two main stories about just who Master Handan is. Most widely believed is that he is one of the Daoist Five Gods of Wealth, the Military God of Wealth, who oversees the celestial treasury – the deified Zhao Gongming, a Shang Dynasty general. As it happens, this god cares little for the cold, and the “bombing” heat keeps him warm. Pleased, he returns the favor with blessings and good fortune.
The other story is more nebulous. It’s said that sometime long past a ne’er-do-well member of an outlaw gang sought atonement for his dastardly deeds be getting members of a community he’d harassed to bombard him with firecrackers. After his death, some talent that said story retellers leave unstated got him deity promotion as a god of wealth.
The home of Taitung City’s powerful Master Handan effigy is the Xuanwu Temple. During Taiwan’s 1895~1945 period of colonial rule, the Japanese suppressed traditional Chinese religious expression, and Handan traditions largely died out. In Taitung, devotees rotated their Master Handan icon among shrines in private homes. In 1951 the tradition of procession bombings was rekindled, and in 1989 the master moved into a newly built permanent home, the Xuanwu Temple.
If Master Handan stands at the epicenter of the temple’s immortal world, the heart and soul of its mortal realm is Lee Chien-chih. Today a Taitung County councilor, he has for much longer been the temple’s head. In his youth he was a Handan brave, and the current crop holds him in awe, professing that he could endure almost otherworldly intensive bombardment, and for far longer than the average. Over the years he has been a zealot in promotion of the Bombing Master Handan spectacle as a tourist attraction, and is proud how far things have come.
“We’ve become one of Taiwan’s most iconic Lantern Festival religious festivities, and are a foundation stone of Taitung culture,” he states. “Taitung County was one of Taiwan’s last areas settled by Han Chinese. People brought the Handan traditions over from the island’s west side sometime during the Chinese imperial era. Into the Japanese era, the bombing processions were part of a larger Taitung deity procession celebrating the Lantern Festival, but since 1951 have been separate, become the signature Taitung Lantern Festival attraction. To my knowledge, today the bombing tradition is observed nowhere else.” In 2013 the Ministry of the Interior declared this one of the Top 100 Religious Scenes of Taiwan – these embody the history of early Taiwanese settlers and illustrate the island’s religious landscape and great diversity. The temple’s troupe has even traveled to Qingdao in mainland China, where local authorities are seeking to rediscover lost traditions.
Info Nugget: To explore the Top 100 Religious Scenes of Taiwan and the related and invaluable Taiwan Religious Culture Map, visit www.taiwangods.com.
Lee states that the young men who volunteer to face Handan-procession bombardment have various motivations, but two dominate: respect for tradition and seeking Handan’s favor. The two young fellows who agreed to pose in costume for this article encapsulate the two inspirations. The stockier of the two wants to do his part to preserve beloved Taitung traditions; for the other, Master Handan answered his prayers in a time of need, and he is fulfilling his pledge to return the favor (others play the Handan role specifically to ask for wish fulfillment).
During processions, the players take turns standing atop Master Handan’s sedan chair to receive the bombardments. Atop an extension, above their heads, sits a small Handan statue from the temple. “The volunteer must have true faith, and be pure of heart, to receive Handan’s protection,” says Lee. “Bombing sessions last 5 to 10 minutes; the longest will go about 15. Afterwards, the volunteer raises his hands high to show he is OK.” His sole handheld “weaponry” is a cluster of banyan-tree sprigs. Daoists believe banyan branches and leaves protect against demons. The bunches are used to ward off firecracker bursts and cinders.
With the adrenaline flowing comes a general numbness, Lee says, and soon the volunteer feels direct firecracker hits merely as pricks of pain. Far more difficult is enduring the smoke. For long spells the volunteer may see nothing at all, and breathing can be labored. Lee himself suffered serious hearing damage when, on one outing, he didn’t realize his cotton earplugs had come out.
The volunteers look on their body wounds partly as marks of valor, akin to how swordsmen long ago regarded their facial wounds in the West, and partly as badges of their devotion, purity of heart, and unselfish service. On a more mundane front, they state that there is a spectrum when it comes to how members of the fairer sex view these “badges,” depending for the most part on how much of a Daoist devotee she herself is. A prospective girlfriend who is a firm believer sees the marks in the same way the volunteers do; those who rarely visit a Chinese temple – “not so much.”
Taitung Bombing Master Handan Culture Festival
Lee’s continuing efforts have given rise to the Taitung Bombing Master Handan Culture Festival, which runs five to six days. Beyond the Handan bombings, it features lantern displays, a culture camp, and performances both modern and traditional. To accommodate numbers, large tent facilities are set up in Taitung’s Seashore Park. Master Handan goes on his grand inspection processions on Lantern Festival day and the next day, accompanied by performance troupes and specially invited deities from other local temples.
Other festival highlights include information sessions for members of the public on the event’s history and traditions, with a private “hands-on” Handan bombardment, and a similar session for international exchange students, with the bravest able to experience the receiving end of Handan bombardment – the perfect “I did that!” story to someday regale the grandkids with.
Getting To/Around Taitung
There are numerous daily Taipei-Taitung flights (45 minutes one way), and regular rail service to/from Taipei, the fastest trains taking just 3.5 hours. Book seats on Puyuma Express trains, the fastest service, well in advance. Quality car-rental chain outlets are located outside the Taitung Railway Station, along with scooter-rental enterprises.
Be sure to take in some of the many other local sightseeing attractions while in the Taitung region. Specially recommended is the Zhiben hot-spring resort area, Zhiben Forest Recreation Area, East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, and East Coast National Scenic Area. We cover the first two in this issue’s Feature article, and have visited the other two in back-issue files over the past few years (issuu.com/travelintaiwan).