Sunday, September 28, 2008

Confucius Says...


OK, I can't say that the dress rehearsal for his birthday on September 28th (happy b-day, bro) wasn't eye-catching. It was - it was stately, dignified, sedate...all the things you expect in a ceremony to honor Confucius.

It's just that the real thing is happening tomorrow at 6am and the ceremony was so stately and dignified that I have no idea how anyone could stay awake for it at that ungodly* hour. If I were Lord of the Universe, 6am on a Sunday would be banished from Time.

Not only that, but only a few hundred passes will be given out, so hardcore Confucius fans line up as early as 3am to get them. In what is shaping up to be a drenching typhoon.

We got there as the rain for the latest and greatest typhoon started up - and found that only people with a special ID ("can li zheng" or "ceremony attendee ID") could enter to watch the rehearsal. I knew my sister was inside - Zheng-da brings its foreign students there - so I tried that angle to get an ID, figuring I could get Joseph and Brendan in later. No luck.

Then two students who were not impressed came out and gave us their IDs. Their loss, our gain. The gatekeeper shooed the three of us in before anyone noticed that there were only two IDs.

"Feather dancers" in yellow robes stood in front of the main shrine, occasionally doing a decorous dance lacking completely in flash. Red-robed musicians played instruments "from the Zhou Dynasty" (obviously meaning that they were invented and used in that time, not that the actual instruments in use date from that time)...though I'm not sure I'd call it "playing" so much as striking the same four notes, each held for at least one measure, over and over.

A Master of Ceremonies sang a long, spiraling tune detailing all of the witnesses and groups present. I guess those chants are more mysterious and haunting when you don't know what the guy is singing. When you do know that he's belting out "Reeeeeeeepublic of Chiiiiiiinnnnnaaaaaa in the yeeeeeeear niiiinnneetttyyy seeevvveeeennnnn....wiiittnnessedd byyy stttuuuddeenntss frrooomm Naationaaaaal Taaaaiwaaaan Zheeeeengzhiiiii Universityyyyyy", it loses that sacred touch, you know?

There were more feather dances as people in the various small shrines around the main building gave offerings - or rather rehearsed giving offerings - and they practiced how things will go when Ma Ying-jiu comes to make an offering to Confucius in person.

It was quite fascinating to compare this example of austerity and reserve with the wild pageants that take place at the Bao'an Temple next door. At Baosheng Dadi and Sengnung Dadi's birthdays you can be assured of several giant (ten to fifteen feet high) costumes of various folk deities coming out, some martial artists with painted faces, lion dancers, pole balancers, and other costumes...and the occasional firewalking. I've grown fond of the large porcelain floats depicting mythical beasts and creatures with lit-up eyes and steam blowing out of their mouths. Take all that riotous color and noise and place it next to - literally next door to - the quiet dignity of this ceremony and you end up with a very good metaphor for Taiwan.

When all was said and done, the feather dancers (mostly teenagers) looked relieved and we retired to "Confucius Coffee", located in the temple behind the gift shop. Or tried to - it was closed.

For anyone interested in watching the ceremony next year or sweet-talking your way into an attendee pass for the rehearsal, The Con-Meister's birthday is not on the lunar calendar (or so I'm told); word has it that it's fixed on September 28th every year (ceremony 6-11am), with the rehearsal on the 27th around 3pm at the Confucius Temple near Yuanshan MRT station.

*pun intended

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