LIGHT IT UP

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Neil Ever Os­borne with text by Alexan­dra Pope

Rev­ellers across Taiwan ring in the lu­nar new year with fes­ti­vals of lanterns and fire­works. It’s a time to se­cure bless­ings and good luck — and some­times for be­ing struck by fly­ing rock­ets.

AS THE FEBRUARY DUSK FALLS on Tainan, the streets of Yan­shuei District fill with peo­ple. Dressed as if for a day of win­ter sports in heavy jack­ets, gloves and scarves, their faces masked by mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets with vi­sors pulled down, they clus­ter around elab­o­rate palan­quins con­tain­ing stat­ues of a seated war­rior and draped with strings of fire­crack­ers. A blast of flame from a blow­torch, and one of the lit­ters ex­plodes, send­ing rock­ets scream­ing into the air and the crowds. But in­stead of rush­ing away from the erupt­ing palan­quin, the spec­ta­tors raise their ar­moured heads and hands to the shower of sparks. For this is no or­di­nary fire­works dis­play: this is the Yan­shuei “Bee­hive” Fire­works fes­ti­val, where to bathe in fall­ing em­bers is thought to en­sure good luck and good health in the new year — and to be hit by a rocket is the best luck of all. Le­gend has it that in the late 19th cen­tury, Yan­shuei was gripped by a cholera epi­demic. With the death toll mount­ing daily (and with­out the ben­e­fit of our mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of san­i­ta­tion in con­trol­ling the dis­ease), the ter­ri­fied lo­cals in­voked the de­ity Guan Di, an an­cient gen­eral be­lieved to have the power to ex­or­cise demons. At the lu­nar new year, they pa­raded through the city with palan­quins bear­ing the like­ness of Guan Di, ig­nit­ing fire­crack­ers on the road­side to light his way. The epi­demic eased soon af­ter­ward, and the cit­i­zens of Yan­shuei have ever since wel­comed each new year with an ear-split­ting dis­play of fire­power pleas­ing to the war­like Guan Di. To­day, this lit­eral bap­tism of fire is one of the largest folk cel­e­bra­tions in the world, at­tract­ing spec­ta­tors from across Taiwan and be­yond who come to rush the bee­hive palan­quins — so-called be­cause of the buzzing sound of the thou­sands of rock­ets go­ing off at once. It co­in­cides with the Taiwan Lantern Fes­ti­val, a coun­try­wide new year cel­e­bra­tion held an­nu­ally on the 15th day of the first lu­nar month, usu­ally fall­ing in late February. Here, the fo­cal point is the re­lease of pa­per lanterns, which — even mi­nus the py­rotech­nics — carry the wishes of the peo­ple up to the deities.

Clock­wise from left:: Lanterns light up a Taipei street dur­ing the Taiwan Lantern Fes­ti­val; fire­crack­ers draped over a palan­quin ex­plode at the Yan­shuei Fire­works Fes­ti­val in Tainan; fes­ti­val­go­ers in Tainan wear mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets to pro­tect them­selves...

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