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[Truly Hakka] Enliven the season with Hakka celebrations

Saturday, December 24, 2011
By Lin Yuting, The China Post


As winter deepens and the renewal of spring waits around the corner, a few Hakka festivals are coming up to offer everyone good times and cultural insights; they are introduced below in chronological order:

DECEMBER

Harvest Opera (收冬戲)

To revive the tradition of performing Hakka opera outdoors in front of temples, the Hakka Council annually selects outstanding theater troupes to go on a “Harvest Opera” tour around Taiwan. Hakka or not, you will be able to understand the performances because they are subtitled.

JANUARY

The Kung-kuan Hakka Pug Coi Festival

(公館客家福菜文化節)

Pug coi (福菜) is the most representative variety among Hakka preserved vegetables. Subjecting fresh mustard greens (芥菜) to different levels of pickling, sun-drying and fermentation produces various delicacies. Pairing pug coi with meat in different ways produces several classic dishes for New Year's Eve dinners, conferring on pug coi the symbolic appellation of being the “long-year greens (長年菜),” evoking an abundant harvest and a sumptuous family meal. The Kung-kuan Township (公館鄉) in Miaoli County (苗栗縣) boasts a vast plantation of succulent and fragrant mustard greens; it is also the hub of mustard-green processing in Taiwan where generations of expertise have been inherited. “The Kung-kuan Hakka Pug Coi Festival” allows the general public to experience the culture of Hakka preserved foods in all aspects of their production.

FEBRUARY

Bombing the Dragon (火旁龍) in Miaoli (苗栗)

In “Bombing the dragon,” (火旁龍) the dragon — a serpent-shaped, supple construction propped on poles — is literally attacked with explosives along with the dancers who manipulate the dragon. It is now an annual festive highlight in Miaoli.

First, prior to the Lantern Festival, the dragon is made from a bamboo scaffold, overlaid with colored paper, and painted for additional decoration. Second, in a symbolic initiation ritual, the dragon's eyes are painted on, signifying the awakening of its spirit.

Third, the dragon goes from household to household to bring good luck, and is followed by enthusiastic onlookers. Fourth, spectators start throwing firecrackers at the procession to scare evil spirits away. One dancer props up the dragon's head while others prop up its body. Yet one more props up a fiery ball for the dragon to chase.

Lastly, after the dragon is blown to smithereens — one hopes the dancers and spectators have all remained safe and sound — the dragon is carried back to the Land Deity Shrine where its eyes were first “opened.” The dragon is cremated there to fulfill its return to the spiritual realm.

“Bombing the dragon,” which originated on mainland China and was introduced to Taiwan in recent years, is doubtlessly a dangerous but exiting event that excites the crowd.

The --in Ding Ban Festival (新丁粄節) in Tungshih (東勢)

In traditional Chinese agricultural society, where boys were valued over girls, families celebrated the birth of baby boys by making “xing ding ban,” red-tinted rice cakes, to thank the gods' blessings. After rituals of dedication, the cakes — often impressed into turtle-like forms using wooden molds — are distributed to friends and neighbors. In Tungshih, the tradition of making rice cakes for newborns is preserved in the form of a competition held during the annual Lantern Festival that has become an event renowned around Taiwan.

Fortune Fortress Siege (祈福攻炮城) in Liudui (六堆)

Traditionally, the only region in Taiwan to have preserved the custom of staging sieges is at Wugoshui (五溝水) of Wanluan Township (萬巒鄉). In recent years, however, “fortress sieges” have experienced a revival with support from the Council of Hakka Affairs and the Pingtung County Government (屏東縣政府). Hundreds of teams register for the annual competition at the Pingtung County Park (屏東縣立公園).

Divisions include “Junior Siege,” “Water siege,” “Castle Siege,” “Rotary Siege,” and “Skyward Siege.” The theme among these variations is to ignite firecrackers and launch them toward explosive-loaded baskets housed within the siege targets. The explosives at the targets, upon being hit accurately, would explode into even greater mayhem. These thrilling events could indeed be dangerous; participants are therefore required to wear protective gear such as thick industrial-grade gloves, shatter-safe goggles and masks.

The Ripped Sky Festival (天穿日), i.e. National Hakka Day (全國客家日)

In Chinese legend, the water deity Gonggong (共工) and the fire deity Zhuanxu (顓頊) competed to rule heaven; as they battled, they ripped the sky apart and cracked deep crevices into the earth. A great number of people and living things suffered while deadly objects fell from the sky. Thankfully, the goddess Nuwa (女媧) came to the rescue. She crafted five-colored stones to repair the sky and amassed straw ashes to mend earth, bringing the world back to a habitable state.

From this legend grew the Ripped Sky Festival (天穿日), an annual commemoration of Nuwa's compassionate deeds. Whereas the festival was more prevalent in earlier history, the Hakka people have uniquely continued to observe it into the present day.

In its modern incarnation, the Ripped Sky Festival falls on the 20th of the first month in the lunar calendar. Hakka people prepare sweet rice cakes on this day and run needles and threads through them as a symbolic offering to Nuwa. Hakka people also refrain from working on this day, to purely enjoy it as a day of rest and recovery. In Taiwan, the singing of Hakka mountain songs has emerged as a main celebration. In Zhudong (竹東), an annual contest of Hakka mountain songs has been drawing ever more enthusiasts since 1965.

After consulting public opinion, the Council for Hakka Affairs selected Ripped Sky Festival as National Hakka Day (全國客家日) due to the festival's cultural uniqueness and its non-partisanship with respect to other ethnic groups. Starting this year, the Council is working together with Hakka groups in cities acorss the globe to host celebrations for National Hakka Day. ■

► For more info, please check out www.hakka.gov.tw

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