I spent my first two years in Taiwan living in a quaint little town called Dong Gang in Ping Tung county. It should be familiar to those who have traveled to Liuqiu island, a small, charming refuge just off the coast. The residents of Dong Gang often told me about a special triennial ceremony mutually hosted by the town and the island called King Boat Festival. It is commonly referred to as “boat burning” because that’s exactly what happens. To my chagrin, I moved to Taichung never having seen this unique celebration. I vowed to witness it, and in October of 2009, I returned to my little town to experience the magic.
The timing of the festival is governed by the twelve-year Chinese lunar calendar, occurring four times during the cycle in the years of the ox, dragon, ram, and dog. The purpose is to purify and renew the community and this is carried out by constructing a huge, elaborate wooden boat that serves as a symbolic magnet for demons, evil spirits, and plagues. The boat itself is truly amazing – a giant rainbow-colored work of heirloom-quality art. It is covered with detailed and vivid paintings, totally awe inspiring in its antique aesthetic. A full week of ritual celebration preceded the incineration. For four days the boat was paraded to every corner of Dong Gang on an inspection tour, absorbing the ruin and malevolence from every nook and cranny. This serpentine journey also allowed those who were unable to attend the closing ceremony to partake in the ritual.
I was present only the for concluding night. After a week of celebration the mood had risen to a fever pitch. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were gathered at the incredible glittering gate of Donglong temple to witness the boat’s final preparation. The gate, which can be seen year-round, is a tremendous, jaw-dropping architectural masterpiece coated with hammered gold leaf. In a public display, the boat was loaded with artifacts and offerings for the gods. Then, well after midnight it was hauled by hand to the beach among a teeming throng of people. We waited at the shore, and the boat’s arrival provided a thrilling communion with the mystical. Seeing this phantom ship floating slowly and silently out of the darkness of the town toward the beach overwhelmed me with a truly indescribable rapture. The air was thick with ashes and smoke, blurring the experience into a hazy dream. A massive mountain of paper ghost money had been prepared on the shore and the faithful began to carry heavy sacks of this dedicated kindling, creating a pyre around the hull of the boat. Three towering masts followed by three silvery-white sails were hoisted and mounted. At the conclusion of this slow, deliberate assembly the night was drawing close to dawn. The boat was given its final blessing as one by one, all the participants cleared away from the majestic ship.
The climax of the night was set in motion by eerie music and loud fireworks signaling the combustion. We could hear the first crackles and see the tiniest clouds of smoke begin to rise as the money was ignited. Then came the irony: The ritual strongly forbids believers to actually watch the boat catch fire, presumably to avoid a confrontation with the ghosts and evil that the boat is meant to purge. The massive crowd immediately and quietly turned and dispersed just before the boat itself was immolated. My hosts gave me an almost imperceptible signal and we dutifully turned and walked away from the water’s edge, missing the spectacle that I had waited more than two years to see. Some foreigners and professional photographers, who don’t share such an intense reverence for tradition, remained and were able to capture some magnificent photos of the conflagration.
At the moment we departed, I was stricken again by the inexplicable emotional magic of the ritual. Several hours earlier I had questioned my Taiwanese host about the night’s events. She became very uncomfortable and earnestly warned me that we were not to talk about it. There are other serious and mysterious taboos as well: Households along the final parade route must close all their doors and windows, and no-one is to watch the parade from above, including windows or balconies. I will never forget the experience and I strongly urge anyone who is in Taiwan in 2012 to take part in the King Boat Festival.