Nearly all Chinese festivals, whether based on seasons, myths about gods and ghosts, or a combination of these, stem from a belief in worshipping the gods to appease them and prevent misfortune. At the same time, festivals are a chance for family reunions.
These fascinating traditional festivals are preserved here in the Republic of China on Taiwan, and visitors can see some kind of celebration nearly every month.
Most festivals are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, the current form of which was developed during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). Western or Gregorian calendar dates of the festivals are given through 1997. For festival dates after 1997, please contact your travel agent.
Chinese New YearChinese or Lunar New Year is the longest and most important festival in Taiwan. Customs include paying off debts, purchasing new clothes, thoroughly cleaning the house, enjoying sumptuous family feasts, offering sacrifices to the gods, and giving friends and relatives "red envelopes" containing "lucky money" Firecrackers explode throughout the night on New Year's Eve and sporadically on the following days.
New Year's Eve and the first three days of the new break sometimes lasts up to a week. Movie theaters and major restaurants are essentially the only businesses open during the holiday. People return to work between the fifth and eighth days of the new year, but the holiday atmosphere lasts through the Lantern Festival, on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
The Lunar New Year starts on Feb. 19, 1996; and Geb.7,1997.
Lantern FestivalThe people of ancient China believed that celestial spirits could be seen flying about in the light of the first full moon of the new lunar year. Over time, their torch-lit search for spirits evolved into the Lantern Festival, now celebrated in temples and parks with colorful lanterns.
Traditionally, Chinese parents prepared lanterns form their children to carry on the first school day of the new year to symbolize the hope that the children would have bright futures. In modern Taiwan, small children carrying lanterns roam the streets on the evening of the festival.
The Taipei Lantern Festival, held at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, features thousands of elaborate lanterns, dragon and lion dances, folk arts demonstrations, acrobatic performances, and ceremonial temple processions. this grand, three-day celebration of Chinese culture attracts millions of revelers every year.
The week-long Tourism Festival is held during the same week as the Lantern Festival, and is an excellent time to tour the island since many tourist hotels offer room discounts and major scenic spots have reduced admission.
One of the world's most unique festivals, coinciding with the Lantern Festival, is the famous "rocket hives" fireworks show at Yenshui. For nearly 2000 years the town has fired off these "hives," each of which launches thousands of large, unaimed bottle rockets, to commemorate a successful fight against a plague. But beware, even with protective clothing, eye injuries and burns occur.
The Lantern Festival is on March 4, 1996;and Feb.21,1997.
Birthday of the Goddess of the SeaAccording to legend, Matsu (pronounced "Mazoo")) was born in A.D. 960. In a dream, young Matsu saved her brothers from drowning after their ship sand, and at age 28 she ascended to heaven. Her miracles continued, and Matsu earned the titles Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven.
Matsu, patron saint of fishermen, is one of the most venerated deities in the Chinese pantheon, and her birthday is celebrated with elaborate rites in Taiwan's hundreds of Matsu temples. The largest celebration is at Peikang's Chaotien Temple. Groups from around the island bring images of their own deities to visit Peikang's main Matsu image, considered the most effective image in Taiwan. Visiting deities are paraded down the main street atop or inside ornate palanquins, heralded by mounds of exploding firecrackers. Various folk performances are held in the temple courtyard, while pilgrims attend a steady succession of rituals inside the temple. The temple's Matsu images make inspection tours of the town, and at night, lighted floats parade the streets. smaller parades can be seen in Taipei.
Matsu's birthday falls on May 10, 1996; and April 29,1997.
Lukang Folk Arts FestivalHundreds of thousands of visitors from around the island flock to the tiny town of Lukang for its annual Folk Arts Festival. The festival exhibits a variety of Chinese arts, including lantern making, top spinning, candy and dough sculpture, paper cutting and folding, oil paper umbrellas, kite flying, macrame, wood carving, and puppet shows.
The four-day Lukang Folk Arts Festival begins three days before the Dragon Boat Festival (see below).
Dragon Boat FestivalBoat races during the Dragon Boat Festival commemorate the attempt to rescue the patriotic poet Chu Yuan, who drowned on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C.Unable to save him, the people threw bamboo stuffed with cooked rice into the water so that the fish would eat the rice rather than the body of their hero. This evolved into the present custom of eating tzungtzu, rice dumplings filled with ham or bean paste and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Since antiquity the Chinese have believed that the fifth lunar month is a pestilential, danger-fraught period. Sanitation is emphasized, medicines are added to food, aromatic branches are hung above doors, and beautifully embroidered protective amulets or sachets containing spices or medicines are fastened to the clothing of children.
Large crowds attend the festive boat races in Taipei, Lukang, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. Teams from all over the world compete in the races as excited observers cheer from the river banks.
The Dragon Boat Festival is on Jun 20, 1996; and June 9, 1997.
Chinese Food FestivalSavor the tastes that once pleased China's emperors and explore the fascinating varieties, customs, and dinning traditions of China. The Taipei Chinese Food Festival offers the chance to sample all of the regional cooking styles of Chinese cuisine.
Taipei rightly boasts the world's best Chinese food, and the best chefs from the city's top restaurants and hotels prepare an infinite range of mouth-watering dishes, as well as vegetable, fruit, and ice carvings. Demonstrations and lectures teach food preparation, table setting, the art of tea drinking, and dining etiquette.
Ghost MonthOn the first day of the seventh lunar month, known as Ghost Month, the gates of Hell open wide and the spirits are allowed a month of feasting and revelry in the world of the living. To ensure that the ghosts enjoy a pleasant vacation, lavish sacrifices are set out, sacrificial paper money is burned, and Taiwanese operas are performed.
The climax of Ghost Month comes on the Chung Yuan Festival on the 15th of the month, when great sacrificial feasts are set out in temples and elaborate chanting ceremonies for the dead are conducted by Taoist and Buddhist priests.
This special month is celebrated most actively in Keelung, and the festivities always attract thousands of visitors. One highligh is the annual parade through the streets to a nearby harbor, where bright lanterns, most of which are shaped like little houses, are set afloat.
Ghost Month starts on Aug. 14, 1996; and Aug. 7, 1997.
Moon FestivalThe Moon or Mid-autumn Festival, on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, observes the biggest and brightest full moon of the year, the harvest moon.
One legend about the Moon Festival concerns expert architect Hou Yih, who built a palace of jade for the Goddess of the western Heaven. In reward, she gave Hou Yih a pill with the elixir of immortality, warning him not to take it until he hod fulfilled certain conditions. Hou Yih's ever-curious wife, Chang O, found the pill and promptly swallowed it. As punishment, she was banished to the moon where, according to tradition, her beauty is at its most radiant on the day of the Moon Festival.
The festival is a public holiday marked by family reunions, moon gazing, and the eating of moon cakes-round pastries stuffed with red bean paste and an eggyolk, or fruits and preserves.
The Moon Festival is on Sept. 27, 1996; and Sept. 16, 1997
Birthday of ConfuciusThe birthday of Confucius is celebrated with a dawn ceremony-parts of which date back nearly 3,000 years-at Confucian Temples around the island. The ceremony includes a ritual dance, costumes, music, and other rites. (Due to limited space, the ceremony in Taipei is by invitation only, but dress rehersals are open to the public.)
The teachings of Confucius are not a religion. Rather, they are a guide to appropriate personal behavior and good government, and they stress the virlues of self-discipline and generosity.
Confucius held the radical view that all who possessed the depth and desire to learn, not just the aristocracy, deserved the opportunity of formal education. For this reason, his birthday, Sept. 28, is celebrated as Teacher's Day, and is a national holiday in the ROC.
Double TenThe last major festival of the year is the ROC's national day. Double Ten Day commemorates the anniversary of the Oct.10,1911 revolution which led to the overthrow of the corrupt Ching (Manchu) dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. It is marked with grand parades in front of Taipei's Presidential Office Building, folk dances, acrobatics, dragon and lion dances, and displays of martial arts. A huge fireworks show over the Tamsui River ends the day.
Temple CelebrationsIn addition to the major annual festivals, hundreds of minor festivals are celebrated in Taiwan. Among these are Tomb Sweeping Day, the Medicine God's Birthday, Chinese Valentine's Day, the City God's Birthday, the God of War's Birthday, and ritual boat burning to appease the Gods of Pestilence. Many of these minor festivals involve elaborate temple ceremonies followed by sumptuous evening banquets.
Taiwan's temples also provide some of the best remaining examples of traditional Chinese culture. The temples enshrine a wide variety of gods: buddhist, Taoist, folk, for the Chinese worship a huge pantheon of deities on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. Many of the temples also have fine examples of classical Chinese architecture, stone and wood carving, wall paintings, and embroidery.
Chinese Folk ArtsChinese folk arts developed from the country's customs and traditions. Some arose from the needs of everyday life or a desire for entertainment. Others are closely related to important festivals or symbolize Chinese values or legends. Whatever the source, many of the folk arts practiced in Taiwan have changed little over the centuries, and today these handicrafts make unusual mementos of the exotic culture which fostered them.
Rice Dough Figures and Candy SculptureThese two art forms appeal to children, the young at heart, and dentists. Watching the artist at work is almost as good as eating the product.
Rice-dough figures typically feature animals or characters from Chinese mythology. Candy artists, using techniques similar to the glass blowers of old, create delicious butterflies, animals, and human figures.
Chinese KnottingBefore the invention of writing, the Chinese used knots for record keeping. Now this beautiful craft is used for necklaces, pendants, bracelets, wall hangings, decorative artwork, and to embellish fans, hanging lanterns, and sachets, among others.
Paper CuttingPaper cutting is one of the most popular folk arts in Taiwan. Properly framed or simply pasted onto windows, the gaily decorative cutouts are widely used at festivals. A variety of patterns and the simple equipment needed to complete the paper cutting can be found at some night markets and art supply shops.
Chinese Oil-Paper UmbrellasMaking a traditional umbrella is a slow process requiring a great deal of skill, but the result is a beautiful work of art. These umbrellas can be found at night markets and shops selling traditional handicrafts.
CarvingsThe Chinese have long been masters of the art of carving, and the intricate detail wrought by skilled artisans can be surprising. Some of the best examples in Taiwan of both wood and stone carvings are in the temples-wooden idols, stone lions, pillars, and engraved wall murals. Decorative wood carvings and just about everything bamboo, from bird cages to furniture, can be found in most department stores and gift shops in major cities.
Dragon and Lion DancesDragon and lion dances, whose origins date back to ancient China, are indispensable parts of festivals. The dragon dance was invented to stop the spread of epidemics, then evolved into a folk activity. The lion dance was originally used for worship and to pray for rain, but now the dance is used strictly for entertainment. The lion chases a scampering clown, who dodges from left to right, jumping to and for to make fun of the lion.
The best time to witness lion and dragon dances is on Oct.10, the ROC's National Day, when they are held in front of the Presidential Office Building in downtown Taipei, near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
There and other folk arts, such as embroidery, lantern making, Taiwanese opera, and puppets or puppet shows, can be seen at colorful night markets in Taiwan's major cities, during the annual Lukang Folk Arts Festival, and during many major temple festivals.
Colorful Aboriginal FestivalsOne of Taiwan's most interesting attractions for tourists is the island's aborigine culture. The ethnic Chinese call them ˇ§Mountain Peopleˇ¨because the tribes moved into the mountains the Chinese began to immigrate from the mainiand. Anthropologists have divided the aborigines into nine tribes: Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiat, Tsou, and Yami.
Generally speaking, the aboriginal tribes still retain much of their primitive culture. Vestiges of this culture can be seen every day in commercial tourist areas, such as Wulai near Taipei, the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village near Sun Moon Lake, and the Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Park in Pingtung county.
The most impressive of the traditional aborigine activities are the tribal festivals, of which the harvest festivals are generally the most important. Rich in pageantry, the spirited festivals provide visitors with a wonderful glimpse of the aborigines' colorful traditional clothes, their beautiful singing and dancing, and their vivid culture.
Possibly the largest regular aborigine gathering is the annual Ami harvest festival, held in Hualien in July and August(The dates are set each year in early July by tribal officials).
The annual Flying Fish Festival of Orchid Island's Yami tribe is based on an ancient myth about a talking fish named Blackfin, Who laid down a strict set of rituals and taboos about catching the fish. Flying fish remain a vital part of the Yami Diet. The festival takes place during the second or third month of the lunar calendar.
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