Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival
A Great Fire Lion Visits Temples around Lotus Pond
Text: Steven Crook
Photos: Rich Matheson
These days Zuoying, a Kaohsiung suburb, is best known for Lotus Pond and the colorful temples that surround this pretty body of water. But back in the 17th century, just after Koxinga expelled the Dutch East India Company from Taiwan, it was the military and administrative headquarters of Wannian County and thus a place of considerable importance. Today the toponym lives on in various forms, as “Zuoying District” and in the names of the district’s major mass-transportation hub and a large naval base, as well as in the names of happenings such as the annual Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival, evoking the glory of the past.
There are times when people on this island put their smartphones down and their 21st-century concerns and ambitions aside, and a much older Taiwan bursts into the foreground. The final day of the Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival was one such occasion.
My friends and I were positioned in front of Zuoying's Chenghuang Temple, enjoying a form of entertainment that has hardly changed in hundreds of years. Lion dancers, accompanied by drum-beating and gong-thumping musicians, teased children, opened gaping jaws and snapped them shut inches from spectators' faces, and threw candies into the crowd.
But the professional and amateur zhentou troupes that perform these and other acts aren't slavish in their adherence to tradition. Modern twists on old forms include Techno San Taizi or Techno Prince performances. Another example followed the lion dancers on this day. Five young men, dressed to resemble the key characters in Journey to the West, danced disco-style to pop music. Even if you've never heard of this classic Chinese novel, you may well know a bit about the story (based on the adventures of a seventh-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhist scriptures) because it inspired a Japanese TV series shown throughout the English-speaking world under the title Monkey.
A few minutes later came the real star of the show – the Great Wannian Fire Lion. This effigy, cute yet dignified, is far larger than a real lion. But for a yellow underbelly, it was covered with red tinsel “fur.” Red, of course, is an auspicious color in Chinese culture.
The lion is set ablaze at the very end of the festival so as to carry the wishes of the faithful up to heaven, and is therefore designed to burn well. There's a very real risk of premature destruction, however, because thousands of firecrackers are detonated beneath and around it as it is paraded through Zuoying's streets prior to its sacrifice. I wasn't surprised to see a man following behind with a small tank of water and a hand-held sprayer, ready to put out any fires.
The modern Wannian Folklore Festival dates from 2001, when the Kaohsiung City Government's Civil Affairs Bureau began coordinating and sponsoring traditional events in Zuoying District. Since 2005 the central government's Tourism Bureau has been lending a hand, and the festival – always held in mid- or late October – has grown steadily in popularity.
The Fire Lion has its origins in rites traditionally conducted at Ciji Temple, a house of worship that overlooks Lotus Pond's southwestern corner. In these ceremonies, the lion was believed to serve as a mount for Baosheng Dadi, a medicine deity. He's far from the most important god in the expansive Chinese folk pantheon, but his career is worth reviewing. Baosheng Dadi, which means “life-protecting emperor,” is an honorific title given to Wu Ben, a healer who lived in China’s Fujian province. It’s said he once brought a skeleton back to life, and following his death in AD 1036 he was credited with successful posthumous interventions in hopeless cases – clearly an exceptional physician who deserves reverence!
For the first eight days of this nine-day-long festival, the Fire Lion tours temples and other area landmarks, going as far afield as Kaizhang Shengwang Temple. This shrine is located in Kaohsiung City's Fengshan District, some 8 km southeast of Lotus Pond.
As part of the festival, the historical links between Zuoying and Fengshan were explained during a low-key event called “Grandpa Tales Telling.” Beneath a banyan tree near the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas – probably Lotus Pond's single most famous sight – a knowledgeable gentleman outlined the area’s rich past. A crucial episode was the seizing of Zuoying in early 1787 by a force participating in a major rebellion led by a man named Lin Shuang-wen. This spelled the end of Zuoying as a political center, because the imperial court in Beijing responded by moving the county magistrate's office to what's now called Fengshan. There it stayed until Kaohsiung County was merged with Kaohsiung City at the end of 2010.
After sampling the food and getting a taste of events that happened long ago, join a session of Gongpaocheng, a spectacle not to be missed. Though an English translation of the name – “attacking the city wall with firecrackers” – makes it sound like an act of vandalism, it's actually a game of skill in which participants hurl lit fireworks at dollhouse-sized paper models of Zuoying's old city gates. These are suspended about head-height, and filled with firecrackers. Make sure your friends have their cameras ready, because if you succeed in getting a firework through the opening at the front, the gate is sure to explode in a shower of sparks.
It's said that soldiers stationed in Zuoying back in the 19th century played this game to kill time, and also to sharpen the throwing skills they'd need if they had to fight. If you want to play, register in advance through the festival's website or in person at one of the information centers. There's also a team event; in 2012, first prize was NT$20,000 cash.
Fans of the performing arts are spoiled for choice, as the festival always includes pop concerts, drumming, Taiwanese opera performances, plus choral and instrumental acts, all of which are free. The schedule for the secondary stage at the Confucius Temple included enka (popular Japanese ballads) and belly-dancing. What would the Great Sage think?
The festival also gave Kaohsiung residents a chance to see a form of Chinese opera seldom seen in Taiwan, Sichuan Face-changing Opera, during which changes in mood are conveyed by use of an amazing technique. An actor waves his cape or sleeve in front of his face, and in that split second it seems as if the previous full-face makeup is removed and a totally different color-and-pattern scheme has been applied.
This being Taiwan, the festival naturally has a culinary angle. In fact, it has two. Vendors on the western side of Lotus Pond sell everything from hot dogs to stinky tofu. Other interesting eating options can be found at the lakeside temples, which give away traditional snacks such as ong-ku-koe (Taiwanese pronunciation) and tangyuan. The former is a turtle-shaped rice-based cake which symbolizes good luck and longevity. The latter is a popular dessert consisting of little balls made with rice flour and filled with sesame paste, crushed peanuts and sugar, or something else sweet.
Note also that, since 1949, Zuoying has been home to many Chinese mainlanders, who came in the great exodus across the Taiwan Strait at the end of the Chinese Civil War, making this neighborhood perhaps the best in the metropolis for authentic mainland delicacies.
As you can see, you’ll have much to see and do at Lotus Lake and in the surrounding district during the Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival. Be sure to arrive with an empty stomach, plenty of space on your camera's memory card, and a wish to pin on the Fire Lion!
Lotus Pond is easy to reach. If you're coming from another city, you may want to take a Taiwan High Speed Rail train to Kaohsiung's THSR Zuoying Station and then take a Red 51 bus. The TRA (regular railway) station closest to Lotus Pond is “old” Zuoying Station (not to be confused with New Zuoying Station, part of the same complex containing the HSR station). From it, you can walk to Lotus Pond in less than 10 minutes.
Other attractions in the area include the North Gate of Zuoying Old City and two sites that will appeal to ecotourists. Zhouzai Wetland Park is where the Pheasant-tailed jacana, a rare wading bird, was first sighted in Taiwan; the species has returned following restoration of the environment. Also within walking distance of Lotus Pond is the 4.66-hectare Protogenic Plants Garden, which has a collection of indigenous plants and trees that nature-lovers will find engrossing.
English and Chinese
|Zhouzai Wetland Park||洲仔濕地公園|
|Dragon and Tiger Pagodas||龍虎塔|
|“Grandpa Tales Telling”||阿公來講古|
|Great Wannian Fire Lion||萬年迓火獅|
|Journey to the West||西遊記|
|Kaizhang Shengwang Temple||開漳聖王廟|
|Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival||高雄左營萬年季|
|North Gate of Zuoying Old City||左營舊城|
|Protogenic Plants Garden||原生植物園|
|Sichuan Face-changing Opera||川劇變臉|
|Techno San Taizi||電音三太子|