Hakka Festivals

Banglong (Dragon Bombing)

Lantern Festival is celebrated in various ways in different parts of Taiwan, with sky lanterns in the north, Benglong in central, and beehive rockets in southern Taiwan. The sky lanterns refer to the Chinese Kongming lanterns released at Shifen Village in Pingxi Township, Taipei County. Banglongtakes place in Miaoli City and Miaoli County. The beehive rockets are fired in Yanshui district in Tainan County.

Benglong originated from the Fire Dragon Dance in Hakka regions in China. The most famous performances were from Fengshun, Xingning, Wuhua and Heyuan Counties in Guangdong Province. The dragon is made of paper and tied with firecrackers. The dragon carriers, naked from the waist up, are exposed to exploding firecrackers while they dance until the explosives are spent and the dragon is burnt. The Banglong activity marks the beginning of the lantern Festival in Miaoli City, and has become the biggest local attraction since Mayor Qiu Bing-kun promoted the event in 1988. Dragon dance teams gather together to parade the city. At certain sections, spectators light firecrackers and throw them at the dragons to liven up the atmosphere, instantly filling the streets with deafening roars of explosives and colorful flashes.

The making of the dragon is an extremely serious process. The head is first shaped with bound bamboo strips, then pasted over with paper and colorfully painted. It can weigh up to thirty kilograms. The body, also with a bamboo-strip cylinder for structure, is divided into over ten sections with colorful paper on the side and gilded in gold or silver to resemble the scales. When in action, one person holds the head and many others the body, while another dancer carries a ball of fire in front for the dragon to catch to perform the so-called “Dragon Tease”. The giant dragon twists and coils up and down, weaving between fascinated crowds and undulating like a living being. When people start to toss firecrackers at the dragon, the explosions and the smell of gunpowder whips the crowd into a frenzy.

New Son Cakes and the Paper Ceremony

At Every Lantern Festival, villagers in Nanping, Dongan, Beixing and Zhongning in Dongshi Town, Taichung County all compete with each other to make the largest “new son cakes”. New son cakes are made with glutinous rice and celebrates the addition of a newborn male to the family. The Hakka of Dongshinot only make new son cakes at every Lantern Festival, but also relish taking part in the competition.

The rice cake competition has a long history and it mainly represents a sincere expression of gratitude to the local god of the land for blessing the family with the arrival of a newborn male. It is customary for participants to pay a membership fee which goes towards the prize for the winner. If a member has a newborn male or a newly married person in their home, they need to make red rice cakes for all the members to share. For those who make the biggest and heaviest rice cakes, public prizes are given as a form of praise. Other members will present gifts of money as a prize according to their kinship. As the winners can win quite a lot of public and personal prizes and can make a name for themselves, participants create bigger and bigger rice cakes in hopes of winning the top spot.

New son cakes were originally made to share happiness with local relatives and friends who held the same beliefs. The timing of the Lantern Festival was selected because it followed the happiness of the Spring Festival and also because people didn’t officially have to work and had relatively more time to make rice cakes at home. Everyone who welcomed an additional male in their family since the previous year’s Lantern Festival would express their thanks and their sincerity to share happiness with others in front of the local god of the land. Later on, as people wanted to make a name for themselves, the rice cakes began to get bigger and bigger and it has evolved today into an official competition and has become a special custom of the Lantern Festival.

Paper ceremony

The origins of the paper ceremony stem from Hakka ancestors’ tradition of respecting and treasuring paper. This tradition has gradually died out and is only preserved in an antiquated ceremony in Meinong Town in the Liudui region in the south. A holy site committee still performs the paper ceremony in this town, and the Meinong Paper Respecting Pavilion is listed as a national third class historic site.

Meinong’s Holy Site Committee answers to the Guangshan Temple. The paper ceremony is held to welcome the holy on the birthday of God, the ninth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In the early morning, under the command of the master, everyone takes their positions to the sound of ringing bells and beating drums. The person with the “welcoming the holy” plaque leads the team, solemnly leaving the Guangshan Temple, followed by 2 to 30 people. They are followed by a van loaded with the ash from burnt paper collected from the Paper Respecting Pavilion before Chinese New Year. The team would walk to the side of Meinong River and scatter the ashes into the river after sacrificing the River God and the Dragon Kings of the Ocean, as an indication of the Dragon Kings of the Ocean taking civilization back to heaven. Then the task would be complete. In recent years, despite the heavy pollution of the the river, the Meilong Holy Site Committee still scatter the ashes but now bury the ashes beside the river instead. The purpose of welcoming the holy is still achieved without polluting the river. It seems that this ancient custom has also received modern cleansing.



The February Opera, Jianpao Castle

Having gone through long migrations and hard times, the Hakka have developed a precautious, prudent and conservative character which is often reflected in their folk culture. There is no reckless enjoyment in life; mere coupled mountain song singing or a three-role tea-picking play is enough for entertainment. For the Hakka folks in earlier days, the most important annual event was the pingan (peace) drama to thank the gods for looking after the people. An opera of this nature had to be solemn, yet it was also an opportunity for everybody to watch a show for entertainment.

A show that stands out among all Hakka thanksgiving operas is the February Opera in Meinong. In the old Hakka tradition, any time between the Lantern Festival and Tomb Sweeping Day is appropriate for tomb sweeping, depending on the schedule of each household. The Hakka in Meinong also take this opportunity to pay respects to the Earth God, River God, the Jade Emperor and Lishe Zhenjun, the Snake God unique only to the Meinong area. Individual households used to conduct their own ceremonies. After the retrocession of Taiwan, Youth Day was added to the calendar on March 29. In the 1950s, the government promoted frugality in worshipping ceremonies to improve folk customs and somehow Youth Day became the unofficial tomb-sweeping day for the people in Meinong. As a result, it became the busiest day in town and the ceremonies for the river god and the snake god grew more and more lavish. It was not long before certain enthusiasts made the proposal to raise money for an opera performance to express gratitude to the river god for the supply of water, the earth god for maintaining peace over the land and the snake god for guarding the crops to ensure good harvests. Thus the February Opera came to being and watching operas by the Meinong Bridge during the tomb-sweeping period became a unique custom in Meinong Town.

Jianpao Castle

Jianpao Castle, called Jianpao Cheng or Shepao Cheng, is held during the Lantern Festival, the most famous of which is held at the Ciyun Temple of Houlong Town in Miaoli County. A miniature castle is hung at the tip of a 10-meter bamboo pole while people attempt to throw firecrackers in it. The first contestant to throw lit firecrackers into the castle through either the front or the back gate to detonate the preinstalled explosive device inside is the winner. The original intent of lighting firecrackers was to ward off evil spirits and expel bad luck. Later it was used to show solemnity in occasions such as worshipping ceremonies, weddings and funerals, and god greeting. Today it has also become a element in celebrations and games.


Dou DengChungyuan festival

Dou Deng
The “dou deng (lantern)” is an apparatus used in Doaist “lidou” ceremony. The “midou (rice measuring bucket)” is filled with rice and candles are lit. Two wooden swords are stuck in the bucket diagonally from both sides and in its center are a round mirror, a pair of scissors, a ruler, a small scale, an abacus, coins and soil, etc. Meat dishes are placed as offerings in front of the altar. The ceremony is to pray to gods to exorcise all the evil spirits and bless the folks with peace and safety at home and prosperity at work.

The lidou ceremony is sometimes called baidou, meaning paying worship to the dou lantern. According to expert Liu Zhi-wan, “Since dousymbolizes stars and stars are the homes of the twelve human yuanshen (spirit), the dou lantern can also be called yuanshen lantern, a symbol of the source of life. The communal dou lantern represents the lives of all the local residents. Each household also has its own dou lantern that represents the lives of the family members.” There is also the folk belief that “northern stars resolve back luck and southern stars prolong life spans.” The lidou ceremony has always been valued widely. In general, the dou lantern can be set up on a long-term or temporary basis. The long-term ones are usually set up at temples during the spring or fall lidou ceremony, whereas the temporary ones are set up at spirit-appeasing or special ceremonies or at the Ullambana Rite at Zhongyuan Festival (Ghost Festival).

The ritual of putting rice in the rice bucket, sticking in various objects and lighting up candles is apparently a symbol stemmed from rice and light. Since ancient times, rice has been the most common evil-warding element. After the Han Dynasty, it was even used by Daoists as an instrument to call spirits. The rice in the bucket therefore carries two functions of driving away evil spirits and calling deities. The lantern made by erecting lit candles in the rice is to convey brightness and warmth. The lasting light in the dou is a token of continuity and brilliant spirit.

Zhongyuan festival (Ghost Festival)

The 15th day of the 7th month on the lunar calendar is commonly referred to as the middle of July, or the Ghost Festival. On this day, Buddhists hold the Yulan Pen (Ullambana) Rite. Ullambana in Sanskrit means hanging upside down. Pen is the vessel for offerings in Chinese. Therefore, Yulan Pen literally means “with the offerings in this vessel the deceased can be freed from the suffering of hanging upside down.” All pious Buddhists can set up Ullambana vessel offerings on July 15th of the lunar calendar to thank their parents for raising them. Initially it was a filial festival but after the Sung and Yuan Dynasties the rite gradually evolved from an expression of filial piety to deliverance of spirits and became the Ghost Festival. Then the preparation of offerings and releasing of water lanterns were added to the celebration. Eventually, the “great boar” also became part of the Pudu (general deliverance) Ceremony.

According to history books, the Hakka in their hometowns in China could choose any day from July 1st to 15th on the lunar calendar for the Zhongyuan ceremony. Every household would prepare fruit, some dishes and alcohol to pay respects to their ancestors. After dark, they would light candles and incense outside and burn ghost money, referred to as shaoyi (burning clothes). Some would release water lanterns on the river, called pudu (general deliverance).
Some would hang paper on bamboo poles stuck in the rice field, called guatianzhi (paper hanging over the paddy).” Customs varied in different places. In Taiwan today, besides paying respects to their ancestors, most Hakka also participate in pudu (provide food offerings to ghosts) activities at various temples during the Zhongyuan Festival. 

Yimin Festival

For Hakkas in Taiwan, regardless of their time or background, the Yimin is at the center of their most important belief. The worship ceremonies may vary in different locations and the concept of the Yimin Festival may carry different connotations, but its existence and prevalence has become a Hakka totem.

Generally speaking, the creation of the Yimin belief is closely related to two significant civilian uprisings in Taiwanese history. The first was the Zhu Yi-gui Incident in the 60th year of Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1721) in Qing Dynasty, which resulted in the erection of the Zhongyi Shrine at Xishi in Zhutian Township in Pingtung County. The second event was the Lin Shuang-wen Incident in the 51st year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1786), which led to the installation of the Baozhong Pavilion at Fangliao in Xinpu Township in Hsinchu County. The Zhongyi Shrine in Liudui was built with more government influence, and as a result the worshipping rituals are performed in an official capacity and are more removed from the belief of common Hakka folks. The Baozhong Pavilion has always been strongly linked with folk belief, starting from the legend behind its construction. In order to maintain the scale of ceremonies and allow the Hakka in Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli to participate, cross-village associations have been organized. This has not only expanded the reach of the Yimin belief but also extended its influence on Hakka groups in different parts of Taiwan and cultivated it into the most representative belief of the Hakka people.

The Baozhong Pavilion Yimin Temple at Fangliao in Xinpu Township in Hsinchu County originally attracted only worshippers from the nearby Xinpu, Fangliao and Liujia areas. During Daoguang Emperor’s reign, the sense of Hakka identity emerged and the Hakka from areas such as Hukou, Guanxi and Qionglin also started taking turns to host the annual ceremony. By the beginning of Emperor Guangxu’s reign, adjacent Hakka regions had all completed development and joined the event, expanding the rotation of hosting duties to 14 localities. As the host of each year tries to outdo the previous one, the scale of the ceremony increases by the year.

As worship grows, Hakkas in remote areas have to perform branched-off ceremonies to carry on the belief. Extensions have been built due to migrations of certain people or actual needs. The expansion has turned the Yimin Festival into the most important and the most representative event in the Hakka belief structure. Its scale and significance has even surpassed those of the Sanshan King, the Hakka guardian deity.



The End-of-year Opera

The most famous drama in the Hakka villages in Taiwan is the end-of-winter opera, also called the peace opera. This is the biggest event after the autumn harvest in August. The show originated from the traditional concept of “Praying in spring and showing gratitude in autumn.” In spring, farmers prayed to gods of heaven and earth for sufficient rainwater and rich crops. After the harvest in autumn, they had to repay the blessings from gods. Aside from an abundance of offerings, they also hired opera troupes to make outdoor performances to show their thankfulness and sincerity. The people in the past may have truly believed in the solemn significance of making prayers and expressing thankfulness to deities through these performances, yet, more importantly, the villagers had the opportunity to enjoy some dramas. As most of the Hakka were busy all year round, naturally they learned to cherish this wonderful time that came only once a year.

As part of a performance that has solemn significance and provides satisfying entertainment, troupes that performed end-of-year operas often traveled to one town right after another. It could take as long as one to two months to make a complete round through one township or one worship circle. Obviously this was arranged on purpose to maximize the function of these shows.

Even for Hakkas today, one of their deepest childhood memories might be going to different places with their grandfather or grandmother to see a play. It is akin to a long TV series in which Hakka farmers followed the troupe from one village to another. When, a month or two later, the theater season finally came to an end, the farmers would then begin to do the post-harvest work in the field. 

After the retrocession of Taiwan, under the policy of so-called correcting folk customs, end-of-year operas were criticized as wasteful and they were to be performed only on one day. The people were suddenly deprived of the one-to-two-month show and their enthusiasm for post-harvest thanksgiving greatly dwindled. After the 1970s, new kinds of entertainment emerged and attracted audiences away from outdoor opera troupes. Temples continued to hire performances once in a while but they were no longer the source of entertainment for the town.

Since its creation, this Council has made arrangements for end-of-year operas to be performed at annual Hakka Arts Festivals in major Hakka towns with the aim to revive Hakka culture. The HAC has hired outstanding troupes to perform and tour, and they have been well received by the Hakka community.