Taiwan is one of the most fascinating countries in Asia. The discerning travellers come here for the colourful culture, glorious food and breathtaking nature. Tainan, the oldest city, is famous for its temples. So this is one of the best place to see a temple festival.
One afternoon, my friend asked to meet at a street corner in between our apartments. I arrived early drinking my favourite bubble tea. After a few minutes, I saw 3 buses stopped right across the street and the quiet street was suddenly transformed into a circus; there were people carrying all kinds of banners and flags, while the devotees carried incense as they processed to the temple in tempo with the group of musicians playing cymbals, drum and trumpets. What caught my attention was the elaborated altars being carried in the midst of the sea of people. In the distance, the temple lit firecrackers, shifting a mundane Saturday afternoon into a festive one.
I was swept along the current of people as I tried to get some good photos, for chancing upon a local small-scale temple festival is rare.
As I was congratulating myself on my luck, the guy next to me suddenly shouted. His eyes glazed over and he started to strike some kung-fu poses. Then all the helpers started to crowd around him, took off his shirt and put a gold girdle around him. Without warning a few other people also started to become possessed. It’s as if some unknown forces were moving among the crowd and picking up people randomly. I was scared, could it might be contagious?
What was actually happening is called “起乩” (qi-ji). This is a process where a god or deity enters the body of a person. In other word, they are being possessed by a god or deity. This is a popular practice in the taoist tradition. And the people who allow the deities and gods to possess them are called “乩童” (ji-tong). They are the eastern equivalent of shamans, oracles or mediums. They are believed to have been chosen by a god or deity as the earthly vehicles for divine manifestation. Not everyone can be a ji-tong. These people are usually chosen at an early time in their lives, usually in their childhood.
The procession had stopped. Everyone was looking at the 6 people who had entered a kind of trance. The helpers were busy helping the ji-tong. Some dressed them in the appropriate attires, some brought incense for them to smell. My pulse was quickening as I had seen this kind of thing on TV, but I had never dreamt that I would see it live, right in front of me! It was incredibly surreal.
I walked back to the first guy and saw that he was in a “horse stance” posture, while another person held a 1m long steel rod and pierced his cheeks. The sight was quite nauseating. Turning away I saw one of the ji-tong started to beat himself repeatedly with a nail-studded bat. And with each strike, the audience would shout “ho-la”, in Hokkien (a local dialect), which roughly translates to “that’s good enough”. The scene suddenly took a gory turn. I couldn’t look away as the opportunity to observe and experience such deep-rooted tradition doesn’t come very easily.
Still absorbed by the bloody scene, a teenage girl who was next to me suddenly entered a trance as well. She looked around 15 year-old. I was told that it was a child-god who possessed her, that’s why they gave her a pacifier. Then a woman somewhere at the back of the crowd was possessed by the rather popular deity, ji-gong or the Mad Monk, who has a strange hat and carries a fan. They told me that usually women and children would be possessed by a god/deity that doesn’t require self flagellation.
According to the devotees, the more people qi-ji, the better for the temple. It means that the temple is in good favour with the gods or deities. One can call these ji-tong professionals, as they are employed by the temples to bring the presence of the gods and deities to their temples. A local granny told me that for many of them, this is their full-time employment. They would go from temple to temple, festival to festival, and allow their body to be used/possessed by the gods or deities to manifest themselves and bring blessings to the temples and the devotees.
When all the ji-tongs had entered their alter egos, the procession continued towards the temple. Soon the street was once again deserted, as if all that hadn’t happened. Only the distant firecrackers reminded me that it all hadn’t been a dream.
This tradition is still very much practised in the whole of Taiwan. While in smaller cities and villages, this is almost the main festival of the local communities, in bigger cities, it’s becoming less common. When you come to Taiwan, don’t miss the chance to witness this out-of-this-world cultural experience. One of the best places to see it is in and around Tainan.