The Wang Ye were members of the emperor’s royal family that protected the empire. Over a milennia ago their ship sank and they were transformed into protector spirits. Over 300 years ago Donggang, Taiwan began holding wangchuan ceremonies. Every 3 years they call one of the Wang Ye protector spirits on Day 1 of the festival and for 7 days they lure the evil spirits out and finally send them away with the ceremonial boat burning. I won’t attempt to tell you the complete history but will instead give my impression of the things that I saw. I encourage you to check out the links below for a much more detailed explanation and history of the festival.
The best explanation of the Donggang festival is on a new Facebook page (Taiwan Temples) that was started by Robert Kelly (Lonely Planet Taiwan author) and Rich Matheson (The Taiwan Photographer). This post from their Facebook page explains day one and this post explains the final day.
Another great explanation of Wangchuan ceremonies throughout Taiwan and their history is this article by Steven Crook (Bradt Travel Guide Taiwan author). Similar but smaller festivals are also held in Xigang (Tainan County), Xiao Liuqiu and more recently Penghu.
On day one there is a beach ceremony in the afternoon as described by Taiwan Temples. This would be interesting to witness but I was very busy that day so I arrived in Donggang around 7pm for the procession and later the fire walking. There are about 30 temples in Donggang dedicated to the Wang Ye. The Donglong Temple is the center of the ceremonies but each temple has a part in the ceremony and takes part in the procession.
These students were playing a horn like instrument that collectively sounded like bagpipes. For a long time I never understand why temples played bagpipes and now I know that it isn’t actually bagpipes. Regardless it is a rather awful sound. Okay, this guy playing AC/DC on the bagpipes is pretty awesome.
Each storefront and home along the procession route attempts to create as much noise and chaos bring the evil spirits out of hiding. This storeowner was particularly proud of the mess that they had made. Most likely your eyes will burn and your ears will ring from the massive amount of fireworks and the burnt paper money.
Surprisingly they didn’t close off the road to traffic. They did have a no fireworks or burning zone around the gas station though. If you don’t like fireworks this might be a good place to stand.
The boat wasn’t the main attraction on Day 1 but it was visible at Donglong Temple. These temple followers have already removed their shoes and are ready for the fire walking.
Around 9pm they prepared the fire walk. Initially there was charcoal on the ground and then they splashed an excessive amount of fuel to liven things up.
After the fire dies down they throw large amounts on rice and salt onto the smoldering charcoal. It appeared to be very large crystals of salt that would really hurt to walk on. A master of ceremonies (my description) performed many elaborate rituals while waiting for the charcoal to cool at which time the entire procession would cross. It likely took many hours for the entire procession but I went home after the first several hundred people crossed. I think they waited long enough for the charcoal to only be warm but you can judge for yourself in the video.
The first two fire walkers had crossed several times before and they finally gave the okay for the procession to cross and the crowd applauded. The bagpipe-like music is played in the middle of the video. I have read that people will take a small piece of charcoal (walked over by hundreds) home and make special drinking water or food with it. I chose not to.
The Final Day
During the day the boat was paraded through the streets of Donggang and finally it was parked in the center of the Donglong Temple for all to see. We arrived at 10pm in time for the evening ceremonies.
This elaborate ritual was one of the last big performances before the boat exited the temple at 2am. They ran in choreographed patterns and then would touch banner staffs or whatever other instrument they had.
The boat exits the temple at about 2am and the mob follows in absolute chaos. The boat comes out of the temple and turns right so that would like be a better place to take a photo from. After that the mob follows the boat through the streets of Donggang to the beach. It really doesn’t matter where you are for this part. Everybody is going the same place.
Once again a ridiculous amount of fireworks are shot off and excessive stacks of paper money are burned. Don’t worry about leaving the temple early in order to get a good spot for the boat burning. There is plenty of time to weave through the crowd at the beach especially if you are a small group. However it is impossible to move quickly while the boat is being moved to the beach. You are constantly being pushed and pushing and all you can do is shuffle your feet forward.
The boat is pushed down near the water and for over 2 hours the temple followers pile a mountain of paper money (fake obviously) around the boat. They will even allow foreigners to help with this although a lady wasn’t allowed one time. This will be the hardest part of the night physically (the waiting). You will be standing the entire time and you don’t want to move away at this time since you might not get your spot back and the crowd has become very dense by now. The best place to stand will be near the crowd of 3 meter tall (or taller) tripod photographers that are on ladders. There are hundreds of them at this event and they take it very seriously.
Your hopes will be raised when they start putting the mast up but it will still be awhile before the fire begins. The center mast requires a lot of effort to put up and it looks like it is ready to come down at any time.
After the sails are raised the anchors are symbolically loaded onto the ship. At this time they are also spreading a layer of sand over the paper money to fool the evil spirits into coming towards the ships. It is now time to get ready for the main event. At around 5am they will ask for permission to light the fire.
Somebody has a sick sense of humor and starts the fire with a volley of firecrackers. These don’t actually start the fire but they start a small panic in the sleepy crowd. Be very careful to not push over the photographers on ladders right behind you when the crowd surges backward. Surprisingly the fire starts very slow due to the dense paper mountain. It gradually becomes hotter though and the crowd inches back.
It will take over an hour for the boat to catch on fire and the mountain of paper money will burn until at least noon. We left the beach area around 7am after the entire boat was in flames.
Overall it was an amazing experience but I really hate staying up all night. There is a lot more to the festival than just the boat burning and so many things are really cool. One of the hardest things as a spectator is that things are cool for 15 minutes but they might last 2 hours. This is of course understandable but it requires a lot of time spent standing and waiting. I will probably go back in 3 years since there are so many cool things that are happening. There have only been a few circumstances in Taiwan where I don’t mind excessive pollution created by an event. It is completely ridiculous how much paper money (and of course the boat) is burned and money spent on this festival but it is really cool.
How to get there: It is a one hour motorcycle or car ride from Kaohsiung. It will be very hard to find parking for a car but it isn’t a problem for motorcycles. I would not recommend riding down there for the final night night since you will be extremely tired on the ride home. Buses leave from the main train station (several different companies) every 20-30 minutes and they are probably the best bet. You can also ride the MRT Xiaogang and take a taxi to Donggang (maybe 1000+ each way). You will have to pre-arrange a taxi on Sunday morning or take the bus (pickup near McDonalds). Another option would be to book a hotel/homestay in Donggang for the weekend so you can experience all of the events but relax in your room in between the big events.
When to go: The next festival won’t be until 2018. The first day can be interesting when they are calling the spirit of the Wang Ye at the beach (I didn’t go) and in the evening they start the festival with a loud procession (starting around 7pm) ending with a fire walking ceremony (about 9pm in 2015) at Donglong Temple. On the last day they parade the boat through the city streets in the afternoon and do many ceremonies (maybe starting at 10pm) at Donglong Temple. At around 2am the boat is moved to the beach and it is burned between 5 and 6 am. During the week there are also many ceremonies (I didn’t go) including dancers with amazing painted faces.