Taiwan: Where Celebrations Never Let Up

After the excitement of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, many residents of Western countries find the first month or two of each year a little sluggish. In Taiwan, however, this is an extremely buoyant period. The Lunar New Year kicks off sometime between late January and mid-February (in 2015, it began on February 18), and is soon followed by the Lantern Festival and Yanshui’s Beehive Rockets Festival [for more details, see the Seeing Taiwan column in the January issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS].

Overlapping with both is the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, running from February 22 to March 5. If you have looked at web pages or leaflets on Taiwan’s tourist attractions, there is a good chance you came across an image of a night sky filled with glowing paper lanterns. The photo was likely taken during the festival, which is held in New Taipei City’s Pingxi District.

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The old town of Pingxi is just 11 kilometers east of Taipei 101, but set amid rugged mountains. Before the discovery of coal transformed this region, isolated homesteads released lanterns at dusk to let their neighbors know all was well. In recent years the custom has been embraced by tourists, who write wishes for health, happiness, prosperity, or true love on their lanterns before launching them into the sky.

Pingxi is best reached by a scenic branch railway, and ready-to-fly lanterns are available year-round. What makes the annual Sky Lantern Festival special are the scheduled mass lift-offs of lanterns several times each evening. Have your camera ready!

More than 300 kilometers down-island from Taipei is the town of Neimen, and like Pingxi it is set among the hills that dominate Taiwan’s interior. The district is known island-wide thanks to the Neimen Song Jiang Battle Array, which this year kicks off March 28.

This multi-day martial arts spectacular celebrates the traditions of the local militias that kept remote villages safe in the days of yore. It also has a religious function, and climaxes on the birthday of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion known in other parts of the world as Avalokiteśvara. Guanyin’s birthday is the 19th day of the second lunar month, which in 2015 falls on April 7.

The event features both traditional temple-affiliated groups and modern troupes. The former evolved out of local defense units, and their displays feature ritualized dueling with swords, pikes, and even farm tools. Until well into the 19th century, Neimen – now part of Kaohsiung City – was a dangerous frontier district where battle-array members had to be ready to fight using whatever was at hand. City-based troupes, by contrast, often add tap dancing, hip-hop, or cheerleading moves to their drills. Background information about the festival can be found on the official website (www.who-ha.com.tw).

Another special event during this season is the Purple Butterfly Valley Two-Year Butterfly Viewing Event, which began on October 4 last year and continues until March 31. It showcases the annual 250-kilometer migration of hundreds of thousands of butterflies from Taiwan’s south to the northwest.

Taiwan-maolin-butterfliesDuring the cooler months, four purple-crow butterfly species – all have wingspans of 60 to 75 millimeters and eye-catching patches of blue and purple – gather in exceptional numbers in a handful of locations in Taiwan’s south and southeast. The best known and most accessible are in Kaohsiung City’s Maolin District, a mountainous area inhabited by members of the aboriginal Rukai tribe.

This migration is one of Taiwan’s most remarkable natural phenomena. At times, a single tree in Maolin may host well over 1,000 butterflies. Taiwan offers excellent butterfly-watching throughout the year. Of the island’s 400-plus butterfly species, 56 are found nowhere else on Earth.

Maolin is an exceptionally attractive place to visit in any season. Details of the Butterfly Viewing Event, local aboriginal culture, and hiking options can be found on Maolin National Scenic Area’s trilingual website (www.maolin-nsa.gov.tw).

Like Neimen’s Battle Array, the Taichung City Mazu International Festival is an extravaganza inspired by Taiwan’s exuberant temple culture. Mazu is Taiwan’s most prominent folk deity. The faithful believe she was once a human being, born into a family surnamed Lin in Meizhou, a fishing community in Fujian (the coastal Chinese province nearest Taiwan) on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in 960 A.D. Credited with miracles during her lifetime, she developed a reputation after her death as a protector of fishermen and sailors.

Over 800 shrines around Taiwan and its outlying islands are dedicated to Mazu, among them Zhenlan Temple in Taichung City’s Dajia District. Founded in 1732, it has long been the starting and ending point of Taiwan’s largest annual pilgrimage. Each spring, the temple’s principal Mazu icon embarks on a nine-day tour to scores of affiliated temples in Taichung and three nearby counties.

Hundreds of thousands of devotees accompany the icon, eager to show their loyalty and hoping to receive the deity’s blessings. Diehards walk the entire distance, more than 300 kilometers, sleeping in temple dormitories and courtyards along the way.

The festival includes entertainments ostensibly laid on for the gods and goddesses, but enjoyed by everyone. In addition to Taiwanese opera and traditional puppetry, zhentou troupes perform lion dances, dragon dances, and stilt-walking stunts.

Details of these three spectaculars, plus several others scheduled for 2015, can be found on the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s official “Time for Celebration” website (www.eventaiwan.tw). Those planning to visit Taiwan should bear in mind that the country has so many festivals that the website can highlight only a fraction of them.

 

taiwan-international-orchid-showGreen-thumbed visitors may enjoy the Taiwan International Orchid Show (TIOS, www.tios.com.tw), held at the Taiwan Orchid Plantation in Tainan City’s Houbi District from March 7 to 16. One in every six orchids sold in the world is cultivated in Tainan City. Last year, TIOS attracted 330,000 visitors from 36 countries, many of whom signed up for package tours so they could enjoy the nearby hot springs at Guanziling or locally grown coffee in Dongshan.

Culture vultures will find checking the websites of Taiwan’s many museums highly rewarding. From February 7 to May 3 this year, for instance, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (www.tfam.museum) is hosting an exhibition titled The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food. Given food’s importance to the local way of life, this should be a fascinating and wide-ranging examination of how food is seen and depicted by artists.

If you prefer gritty reality to pretty pictures, consider visiting When the South Wind Blows – the Documentary Photography of Taixi Village, an exhibition running at Taichung City’s National Museum of Natural Science (www.nmns.edu.tw) until June 14. Like many places in rural Taiwan, Taixi faces a range of challenges including population outflow and the younger generation’s unwillingness to engage in farming and fishing.

For general travel information, go to the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw) or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, toll free within Taiwan).

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