Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Can Taiwan’s Burning Boats End the Pandemic?

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The ancient ritual begins shortly before sunrise. Thousands gather on a beach in southern Taiwan as volunteers heave a 45-foot boat, intricately painted in gold and red, onto a mountain of incense paper. The crowd watches in silence as the organizers invite the gods on board. “Prepare to set off the fireworks,” a voice sounds over a loudspeaker.

The ship goes up in flames quickly.

The boat burning ceremony in Donggang – a traditional Taoist festival in honor of the protective deities known as Wang Ye – Has protected Taiwan for decades, according to residents. Some say the ceremony helped fend off the worst of the SARS virus in 2003, while others say it helped scare away typhoons. the Wang Ye It is believed that they patrol the world every three years hunting down disease and evil and bringing them back to heaven.

This year, Wang Ye Believers hope the ceremony – eight days of religious rites culminating in the burning of a carefully crafted “king’s boat” – could help end the coronavirus pandemic. For Taiwan, which has just passed its worst Covid-19 outbreak, the festival marks a return to normal life after months of restrictions.

“I hope the Lords will contain the pandemic and make it disappear from sight in Taiwan and around the world,” said Chang Jung-hui, a 65-year-old Donggang native who has attended the ceremony since kindergarten.

Taiwan, home to 24 million people, has fared better than many of its neighbors during the pandemic. The island went 253 days without a new case in 2020 before an outbreak resulted in more than 14,000 infections and 823 deaths between May and October that year, though officials never enforced a full lockdown. Donggang, a fishing center with a population of 43,000, recorded only three cases in the past year and none in five months, although the delta variant spread to surrounding cities. For many, this is proof that the last boat incineration ceremony in 2018 worked.

“It’s a miracle!” says Lin Yi Chen, 35, one of the volunteers at the ceremony, and is happy that the event took place. “It is a sign of the power of the gods.”

According to the police, more than 30,000 volunteers and onlookers came to the festival this year – fewer than in previous years because of the crowd. Participants came from all over Taiwan, including fishermen who have returned from months of seas for the festival. Others have taken time off from work to participate.

“It’s okay to lose your job, but you can’t miss the ceremony,” said Lin Zhi-long, 48, one of the volunteers.

the Wang Ye The boat burn, honoring Song Dynasty scholars immortalized after their death at sea, is at least 300 years old. In Taiwan, it was created by Chinese immigrants who brought the rituals with them in the hope of protecting themselves from diseases and demons in their new homeland.

This time there is a happy atmosphere after months of restrictions at social gatherings. Near Donglong Temple, the streets are crammed with stalls selling food and souvenirs. Inside the temple, people light incense and throw prophecy blocks in search of answers from the gods. The king’s boat is run around town collecting disease and evil spirits, and families set off fireworks as the procession passes their homes. Recent graduates, dressed in their robes, take photos in front of the boat.

“People are so tired. They hope for an event that can inspire them, ”said Lin Yi-chen, 35, an official who traveled from the capital, Taipei.

Li Mei-pin, 56, sits next to the temple packing rice and beans in plastic bags – food for the gods in their hunt for disease and evil.

Li, who runs a local fish shop, says she has been praying since May for the ceremony to take place to rid the world of coronavirus. “I hope everything will be fine after the boat burn ritual,” she says.

Local residents warn that the ritual is not without its risks. During the boat burning ceremony, participants are not allowed to turn away, step on the smoking paper or make loud noises for fear of inviting evil spirits. Children and pregnant women are not advised to participate.

While waiting on the beach for the ceremony to begin, the participants slumber against trees or stand in silence. The residents say it is their duty to uphold the ritual. “The fire is the best way to get rid of the virus,” said Chen Yi-hong, 54, a photographer from Donggang who has documented the ceremony for a decade.

“In Donggang, each resident has their own heavenly mission. We are all children of Wang Ye,” he says.

© The Washington Post

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