Sunday, April 17, 2011

Baosheng Cultural Festival 2011: Why I Love Temple Festivals

Firewalking at Bao'an Temple earlier today

Every year, the Bao'an Temple in Taipei holds a long "cultural festival" to mark the birthdays of its two most revered gods - Baosheng Dadi, god of medicine and Shennong Dadi (I've also seen it spelled 'Sengnung Dadi'), god of herbal or Chinese medicine (there is also a fairly well-known Shennong Dadi temple in Dashe, Kaohsiung County). There are Taiwanese opera performances, talks, awards ceremonies, god parades and finally - the most interesting if you ask me, as it is so rare in northern Taiwan - firewalking.

On a specified date of the lunar calendar, the idols are taken out of the temple and their carriers walk them over a bed of hot coals (made slightly less hot by a white substance, which I believe is salt or salt with rice) while a crowd watches and temple workers form a human shield around the whole thing to keep people from getting hurt.

I thought this was unnecessary until I ran into a woman sporting a pair of tongs, clearly hoping to snatch a piece of hot coal as a souvenir.

The firewalking was held today and not many people attended - it was fairly easy to get a first-line view. I blame the rain, which alternated between pouring and drizzling, for keeping the crowds away.

Ow ow ow ow ow.

I had to postpone at least one engagement to make this year's festival, conveniently held over the weekend. All week long I've mentioned to students that I'm going, as I hadn't been able to attend for years due to the dates falling on weekdays.

The most common response is - "why?"

Or "Baosheng Dadi's birthday? What does that have to do with you?" (for the more fluent ones)

It's not easy to answer, really - I'm not even inclined towards my 'native' religion, so why would I be inclined towards the folk religion of Taiwan?

The answer is that I'm not - do I really believe in Baosheng Dadi, fortune tellers, the Old Man Under the Moon, spirit mediums, firewalking, burning a boat for The Thousand Years Grandfather called in from the sea, Matsu, the Lord of Green Mountain etc. etc.? Do I really believe that bajiajiang, when they don makeup and costumes, become the eight generals that they are representing, or that spirit mediums are truly possessed by gods?

No, I don't, to be honest. I don't believe that any of it is true.

So, why the festivals?


Because they're awesome. The Taiwanese - generally - will be the first to tell you that in many ways, these festivals are just as cultural as they are religious. This seems to be a common thread among religions with native roots, that weren't started by a single person or prophet - a belief system so ingrained in daily life and custom that it's hard to even define it as a "religion" in the Western sense.

You would likely offend a few Christians, Muslims or Jews by attending religious services for those religions simply because they're "cool" (imagine, ironic hipsters flooding the church or synagogue!). They'd expect you to be genuinely interested in spiritual matters or at least curious - many might humor you, but on the whole there'd be less tolerance for someone who showed up just because the whole thing was very aesthetically pleasing.

Folk religions are simply not like that - whatever the reason, you're welcome to show up and even take pictures. Many Taiwanese will admit that they practice a lot of the old customs just as much for cultural or family reasons as religious ones - it's a part of a way of life, not necessarily an organized view of how the spiritual world works.

But, you know - bajiajiang, spirit mediums, lion and dragon dancers, tall gods, firecrackers, suo na (those screechy oboe things), drummers, martial artists - it's not only visually stunning, it's not only culturally fortifying, it's also fascinating.

I'm a big believer in people finding their own path - if it works for you and doesn't hurt others, then it's right for you and nobody should be able to tell you otherwise or insist that you follow their ideas of how you should live. Along these lines I respect the views of people of all religions (up to but not including the point where they try to tell me that their way is better for me), I respect atheists and agnostics, and I respect people who follow folk religions such as is done in Taiwan, even if it's just for cultural reasons.

I guess, in a way, that sort of makes me Daoist, though I don't identify as such. Lao Tzu's super hippie "find your own way" and all that.

There's another element to it, though - the wild dancing, the betel nut and energy drink consumed in liver-splitting quantities at the larger festivals, the joyful noise, the firecrackers set off in places that can't possibly be safe, the darker undertones of some of it (what with the gods of the underworld also in attendance at these festivals, the firewalking, the fireworks festivals where they pelt people, the self-injury of the spirit mediums)'s so very, very un-Chinese.

I don't mean that in a political "Taiwan is not China" sense (although that is also true!) or in a "this is not really Chinese" sense. It is Chinese, but I mean Chinese in the sense that many Westerners and many Taiwanese and Chinese have come to view this culture (as different as it is in Taiwan and China).

How do they view it?

Mostly as something very Confucian.

You know - sit down, do what you're told, respect your leaders, don't talk back, subjugate the individual, let's all dance to terse, dry music in perfect harmony and let's all agree that that's what's best.

As a friend put it yesterday, that view is very KMT: sit down, do what you're told, your leaders know what's best, don't talk back, maintain the status quo, we are your betters. There's a reason why the KMT generally favors straight-laced Confucianism over crazy, earthy, follow-your-own-path folk Daoism.

It barely exists in China anymore (there's Buddhism and great reverence for Confucius, but you'll never get photos like these of folk festivals in China because there aren't any - or there are very, very few), and I feel as though there is a great divide in Taiwan over its continued existence here. Nobody of any clout actually comes out and says "this is for low-class people, this is for tai ke, we're more refined than that", but you know plenty - including most likely Ma Ying-jiu - think it.

I'm not just making this up - we chatted with someone who works at the Confucius Temple and she confirmed that it gets preference and often more funding than Bao'an Temple - or the funding is split because "you are right next to each other so you can work it out" and then before Bao'an can get its hands on it, it just...isn't there.

It's almost like a tiny re-enactment - a play within a play - of broader Taiwanese politics, lobbing preferential treatment, resentment and ideology across narrow little Hami Street in Dalongdong.

As a result, she said, whenever the Confucius Temple has one of their staid and buttoned-up functions, Bao'an Temple comes up with a reason to set off fireworks and beat drums: basically screw you guys and the Analects you rode in on!

Which I totally respect - I think it's very much a part of this system of folk beliefs to basically give someone the finger if you think they're undermining you.

The preference is quite clear. "Follow your own path"? Crazy dancing and folk beliefs? The government allows it but deep down, I think they're a little scared of it.

This is just as legitimately "Chinese culture", but it's the darker, more individualistic, more passionate, more uncontrollable version of it: sort of like the yin to Confucianism's yang. You can let go of "sit down, shut up, respect your elders" and be yourself.

All that blather about how "Chinese culture is homogenous" and "They revere the group over the individual" and "they respect authority" goes out the window.

And I love it. This is the "Chinese" (I'd say "Taiwanese" because you really don't see this in China - you might come across some lion or dragon dancers on Chinese New Year or when a new store is opening, but that's it) culture that appeals to me.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is a big reason why I'm still here. It's so exuberant. It's so celebratory. It's so individualistic. It's so loud and in your face. It's everything you don't think of when you think of Taiwanese kids (or Chinese kids) taking math tests and doing what their parents tell them to.

You could almost say it's the ultimate Chinese hippie revolt, or the ultimate indie vibe.

It's also loud.
And ebullient.
And maybe a little dangerous.

...and it's very Taiwan.

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