Baiming Festival in Ban Li Town on Beigan Island (Taiwan off Coast of China)
By Kevin Stoda, February 15, 2011
This morning, as I arrived on board the small ferry (from Nangan Island) to Beigan Island, I was astounded to see a large butchered carcass on the flooring near the back of the boat. The creature was likely the remains of a large pig.
I should note that pork is the "staple Chinese meat" and "has long symbolized wealth." Part of the flooring on that ferry was a bit bloodied all the way to the passenger area. This particular pig was obviously planned to be part of the Baiming Festiv al that day in Ban Li Town, where I live in.
According to one regional website, " In celebrating the lunar new year in Matsu, less emphasis is placed on the first day of the year than on the Lantern Festival that concludes the celebration on the 15th day, when the Baiming and Yingshen religious events are held. These are the largest and most lively traditional events in Matsu each year, and Matsu natives living all over Taiwan return to take part in the festivities. The community celebrations greatly enliven villages whose populations have largely moved elsewhere."
More interesting still for me is that several people from mainland China (mainly Fuzhou) have showed up again to take part in these local festivals as the cultural thaw between the two China's continues in terms of social events--even while Cold-War-era-like espionage issues continue to be topics of the day in the national press this February 2011.
"Baiming is a word in the local dialect referring to the traditional practice of arranging a sumptuous overnight feast in a temple as thanks to the gods for their protection, a custom which originated in rural villages around Fuzhou. During the lantern procession segment of the Lantern Festival, icons representing deities are paraded around the area as people pray for peace and safety. Beginning on the 11th day of the first month of the year, townships and villages throughout the county [where the Matsu Islands are located] erect ornate archways in squares and in front of temples, and the yingshen ("welcoming the gods') processions are magnificent. Each temple has its own "schedule' for the proceedings, with the procession and offering ceremonies taking place at different times."
Earlier today, Ban Li Township was celebrating part of the ceremonies on the school grounds of the elementary school of Ban Li Town, where I teach. So, those magistrates and legislatures on board the ferry from Nangan to Beigan Islands turned to me and offered to give me a lift to my dormitory housing. I felt flattered to ride with these many officials to the celebration that day. [By the way, I was arriving 24 hours late to Beigan Island this day due to the weekend storms which had postponed over 10 flights to Matsu.]
Upon our arrival, the stage was already set, and dozens of people dressed in colorful costumes were at Ban Li Elementary school, with the Ming Wang (King) figurine from Fuzhou proudly presiding over the events on stage that day. Sadly, once again howling winds welcomed the guests from Nangan, Taiwan, and China this day. [Last year's Baiming festival was blessed with unusually nice weather. See the photos at this link.]
Historically, "[m]ost of the early inhabitants of Matsu came from the coastal Changle and Lianjiang County areas of Fujian in China, with the islands serving as home base for fishermen during the fishing season. When severe conditions at sea prevented some of the fisherman from returning to their hometowns to celebrate the new year, they would arrange to hang lanterns on the 15th day of the new year as a way to let their friends and families on the coast of the mainland know they were safe. This is where the early Matsu custom of "wind lanterns' came from, with lanterns hanging from the 15th to the 28th day of the new year. Designs cut from red paper are affixed to the paper lanterns, giving them a beautiful traditional look."
Besides the lanterns, the Baiming festival overall is extremely loud. Music is played all day and it can be heard clearly--even as the strongest winds howl down towards Ban Li Beach from the direction of Mt. Bi, the tallest point on the island. Likewise firecrackers are set off all day to ward-off evil spirits. There is occasionally a great bit of gonging and drum hammering, too.
"During the period of the Baiming events, some deity worship associations undertake religious processions that the people of Matsu call yingshen, or "welcoming the gods.' In the afternoon or at dusk, icons representing deities are carried in palanquins as part of a large, festive procession. People make offerings along the path of the procession, and village Lantern Festival worship events open to the sounds of beating drums, crashing gongs, and exploding firecrackers.'
Because only about 1000 people live on the island of Beigan, my school principals and other local leaders are busy actively coordinating, speaking, and making sure events go smoothly.
"When the procession of the deity formally begins, the procession group proceeds in a particular order, led by colorfully costumed characters. At the head of the procession is the carrier of a lantern on a long pole with the name of the temple making offerings for the deity being worshiped written on it. Next comes the humorous patrolman character, stumbling along with a drunken gait, drinking from his wine gourd with one hand while he sweeps the path in front of him with his bamboo pole to clear the way for the procession. Following him are the solemn pair of tall, thin General Xie and short, stout General Fan. Also known as Seventh Master and Eight Master, they are responsible for leading the procession, inspecting the conditions of the people, rooting out evil and banishing demons. The two are draped with strings of guangbing, a kind of biscuit resembling a bagel, which people can pull off to eat along the way."
By the way, "[e]ating guangbing is said to make small children smarter and stop drooling, which usually means they're all gone by the midway point of the procession. Following the generals are several "child' characters, the heads held up by a person inside the costume. Because the characters are children, they sometimes move forward in playful leaps. After them is the Manu, who leads the way for the gods. Following close behind is the regal "Prince,' who walks with even, steady stride. Next is the lantern group, followed by the sacred palanquin, surrounded by yamen (old name of a Chinese government department) runners and generals. To the rear of the palanquin are the drum and cymbal group, and finally the procession of believers. The grand procession continues along its path, filling the air with the sound of drums and cymbals, with households burning incense to welcome the procession as it passes by."
It is claimed that " [a]mong the Matsu Islands, Beigan's processions are particularly interesting to watch, as palanquin carriers perform a kind of dance that shakes the palanquin, their bodies shaking along with the icon of the deity as though possessed."