Heartland Appeal: The Lantern Festival and the Siraya Domain

This year, February 10 is not just the first day of the Year of the Dragon. It also marks the beginning of a period of intense merrymaking – a time of year when Taiwanese people can forget work and school and enjoy seasonal festivities. 

Many will attend local or national editions of the Lantern Festival, a family-friendly celebration which, in the Taiwan of yore marked the climax of the Lunar New Year period. 

As its name suggests, this festival is all about lanterns. Until some decades ago, most of the action happened in temples festooned with traditional paper and bamboo lanterns. Some of the lanterns bore auspicious colors or epigrams; others featured scenes from Chinese myths. Nowadays, the lanterns are altogether grander and decidedly high-tech. LEDs have replaced flickering wicks. 

The Lantern Festival was originally a one-day shindig on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the new year’s first full moon. In 21st-century Taiwan, however, it often begins a week before the lunar new year and may last for more than a month in total. This is excellent news for international visitors who would like to enjoy this spectacular event but are keen to avoid the crowds that jam many of the country’s leisure attractions in the days just after the lunar new year.   

This year, the principal festivities are taking place in Tainan, the former capital, as it commemorates 400 years of history. Between February 3 and March 10, striking lanterns and much more will decorate sites in Anping, the district where back in 1624, Dutch East India Company vessels dropped anchor and connected Taiwan to the wider world. Between February 24 and March 10, additional displays and performances will brighten the surroundings of Tainan High-Speed Railway Station. 

A can’t-miss sight is the 22-meter-tall “Dragon Comes to Taiwan” (龍來台灣) lantern, designed for the occasion by noted artist Peng Li-chen (彭力真). Honoring this year’s Shengxiao animal, Peng’s majestic work bears a name that alludes to both local folk beliefs and the I Ching (易經, an ancient Chinese divination manual also known as the Book of Changes).  

Peng was inspired by the dragon carvings that decorate the stone pillars in front of Tainan’s Grand Matsu Temple (臺南大天后宮), one of the city’s most sublime places of worship. The lantern’s name and shape may draw on antiquity, but in terms of materials, it is an energy-efficient marvel.  

Two logos have been chosen to represent the 2024 Taiwan Lantern Festival in Tainan. The simpler shows a golden dragon in front of what could be the ramparts of a walled city, but which is actually a highly stylized rendering of the Chinese character nan, an abbreviation for Tainan. 

The more complex logo comprises four circles to represent Tainan’s 400 years of written history. Within the circles, 26 motifs symbolize various facets of the city. These include tokens of the past, such as the Dutch East India Company’s Fort Zeelandia, Anping’s sword-lion emblems, and patterns embroidered by the indigenous Siraya people. Qigu Salt Mountain and the Chianan irrigation system recall the region’s economic development. The black-faced spoonbill, pheasant-tailed jacana, and purple crow butterfly are examples of Tainan’s rich ecology. Orchids, silicon wafers, and printed circuit boards signify the city’s modern industries. 

The festival’s organizers have selected 30 different high-quality souvenirs imbued with the spirit of Tainan. Leveraging the city’s farm and fisheries resources, the Agriculture Bureau of the Tainan City Government is promoting 60 specialty products, among them milkfish from Qigu District, shallot butter from the same area, mango pudding from Yujing, and Tavocan pineapple cake. 

Tavocan is the old name for the town now known as Xinhua. Until the arrival of Han settlers from China in the 17th and 18th centuries, Tavocan was a stomping ground of the Siraya tribe. 

We know a good amount about the Austronesian Siraya people thanks to reports, diaries, and drawings in the Dutch East India Company’s archives. Siraya society was matriarchal, without tribal chiefs or kings. The deceased were preserved by smoking before burial in the family’s home. The language had no written form until Protestant missionaries devised a romanization system to help spread Christianity. Activists have drawn on surviving gospel fragments and land contracts written in Siraya in their effort to rebuild the language.    

Xinhua is one of the most accessible parts of the Tourism Administration’s Siraya National Scenic Area, which has covered 12 of Tainan’s 37 districts and a small part of neighboring Chiayi County since its creation in 2005. Naming the area for the Siraya people – whose descendants are advocating for recognition as an indigenous tribe – was seen as another step in Taiwan’s shift from a society in which culture was narrowly defined and dictated by the authorities and the elite, to one that is proudly multicultural.  

The recent launch of the Siraya Tourism Union is a step forward in coordinating private-sector entities and government resources, making it easier for outsiders to access profound grassroots culture and enjoy the finest local cuisines. Members of the tourism union are active in places as different as Jingliao, a delightfully quaint lowland village in Tainan’s Houbi District, and the coffee-growing hill country of Dongshan.  

Among enthralling sights are Tainan Zuozhen Fossil Park, a key site for those with paleontological interests, and Linchupi Kapok Tree Road, where blooming red silk-cotton trees’ flowers are a breathtaking springtime sight.  

This season is an excellent time to travel through Taiwan’s south. Temperatures seldom exceed 27 degrees Celsius, and the sun often shines. For visitors from overseas, getting around the scenic area by public transportation has never been easier. Real-time updates that are accessible online and buses equipped with bilingual LED information boards make for stress-free and eco-friendly traveling.  

During the cooler months, Taiwan’s numerous hot springs attract sightseers and soakers – one of the most popular thermal springs is located within the Siraya National Scenic Area at Guanziling. During the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule, Guanziling emerged as one of the island’s favorite resorts, its muddy alkaline sodium bicarbonate water gaining a reputation for bestowing health and beauty benefits on those who enjoy soaking.  

Elsewhere in Tainan, the Beehive Fireworks Festival helps to keep the little town of Yanshui on the tourist map. This unforgettable parade features tens of thousands of bottle rockets launching over and into the crowd. Like angry bees, these projectiles scream in every direction, bounce off walls and houses, and sting any flesh left bare. Facial protection and fireproof clothing are therefore essential. 

The festival’s exuberance belies its grim origins. It began as a plague expulsion rite to drive out evil spirits that local people held responsible for a cholera epidemic. This fiery exorcism appeared to work, so grateful townsfolk turned it into an annual ceremony. The 2024 Beehive Fireworks Festival will be held on February 23 and 24.    

To find dozens of pages of information about unmissable attractions, suggested walking tours, and other highlights, go to Tainan City Government Tourism Bureau’s multilingual website at twtainan.net. For all kinds of information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan) or go to the website of the Tourism Administration at taiwan.net.tw.