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Festivities open Taiwan’s past

Government will soon take steps to boost tourism

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NEIMEN, Taiwan — Flakes of firecracker wrappers flutter to the ground like snow and in the air hangs the acrid smell of gunpowder from a deafening barrage of fireworks. Hundreds of men carrying spears, daggers and axes parade by, slashing and stabbing the air with their weapons in one of Taiwan's oldest festivals.

The procession of weekend warriors leaps and kicks its way through this tiny southern mountain village as hundreds crowd along the side of the road and watch in delight. The display reaches its climax as the men march into the square of the red tile, swooping roof temple, where they pair off in mock battles. Swords strike rattan shields — "thack, thack, thack" — as the crowd chants — "Huh, huh, huh!"

It looks like a lot of macho fun, but it's also serious business. Just as Americans try to reconnect with their historic roots in weekend re-enactments of Civil War battles, the men of Neimen Township are re-creating the spirits of their ancestors, who began forming militias to fend off marauding bandits about 400 years ago during the Qing Dynasty.

The temple performance is one of hundreds of traditional celebrations that go on throughout Taiwan during the year — weekend events that adventurous tourists and business travelers can seek out if they are ready to do some research, make a few phone calls and arrange their own transportation.

The celebrations provide a fascinating window into Taiwan's rich religious traditions, a complex mishmash of Buddhism, Taoism and folk gods, such as Matsu, the patron saint of fishermen who has more than 500 temples built in her honor in Taiwan.

The festivals are also special because they're authentic, a straight shot of Taiwanese culture with no chaser. They're not watered-down, choreographed souvenir magnets for foreign tourists, who can rarely find the celebrations. The Taiwanese government, which for decades has focused on manufacturing and ignored tourism, has done little to promote them.

But the government plans to begin aggressively showing off the festive side of Taiwan with more brochures and information on its Web site, says C.T. Su, the Tourism Bureau's director general. Most foreigners don't realize that if they want to see authentic Chinese religious traditions, it's best to travel to Taiwan, not China, Su says.

"These kinds of festivals have never been interrupted here," she says.

The same can't be said about similar events in China, just 100 miles west across the choppy waters of the Taiwan Strait. When the atheistic Communist Party took over the mainland in 1949, they tried to stamp out religion. Communist zealots smashed Buddhist statues, burned or shuttered temples and tried to wipe out all superstitions.

Although Beijing has relaxed its grip in recent years and there's a gradual resurgence in spiritual practices, many fear it will be impossible to completely restore the traditions that were not celebrated by the generations caught up in communism.

For the past five decades, this leaf-shaped island of 23 million has refused to be ruled by China's Communist Party, though the ancestors of most Taiwanese came here from China within the past 400 years.

The links to the mainland are displayed in Neiman's martial arts festival, called the Sung Chiang Battle Array. The celebration's origins date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when the government was unable to protect the village from mountain bandits. Villagers began organizing their own militias to defend their homes.

The festival was also inspired by "All Men are Brothers," a classic epic novel about warriors battling bandits. One of the leading characters in the book, also translated as "The Water Margin," is the general Sung Chiang.

Although the Sung Chiang Battle Array tradition has died off in most parts of Taiwan, the 20,000 people of Neimen County still celebrate it with great fervor. There are about 15 different troupes with between 30 and 100 members each.

"We spend months and months practicing our routines," says factory worker Chang Wen-ji, holding a kung fu stick and wearing a white tunic with a pink scarf on his head, the special costume for his troupe.

One of the main purposes of the Sung Chiang militias is to protect Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, similar to the Virgin Mary, whom the villagers carry from town to town once every three years on a multiday inspection tour of temples.

A group of men carry a Kuan Yin statue, protected in a sedan covered with an elaborately embroidered gold and red cloth. The goddess's porters sway, backtrack and appear to stumble as they march forward, and according to legend, the mens' legs are completely under the spell of Kuan Yin.

Few adventures are complete in Taiwan without sampling the local culinary specialty.

Traveling in Neimen, you can also see how much of Taiwanese life has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

Taiwan Tourism Bureau: www.tbroc.gov.tw