The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Taiwan, a boat-burning festival aims to ward off sickness. Can it end the coronavirus pandemic?

The Wang Ye boat is engulfed in flames on a beach in Donggang, southern Taiwan, on Oct. 31. (Alicia Chen/The Washington Post)
correction

The Wang Ye boat burning ritual honors scholars from the Tang dynasty. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Song dynasty. The story has been corrected.

DONGGANG, Taiwan — The ancient ritual began just before dawn. On a beach in southern Taiwan, thousands gathered as volunteers hoisted a 45-foot boat, lavishly painted in gold and red, on top of a mountain of joss paper. The crowd watched silently as organizers invited the gods aboard. “Prepare to light the firecrackers,” a voice intoned over a loudspeaker.

The vessel quickly went up in flames.

The boat-burning ceremony in Donggang — a traditional Taoist festival that honors guardian deities known as Wang Ye — has protected Taiwan for decades, according to residents. Some say the ceremony helped stave off the worst of the SARS virus in 2003, while others say it has helped scare away typhoons. The Wang Ye are believed to patrol the world every three years hunting disease and evil, and taking them back to heaven.

This year, Wang Ye worshipers hope the ceremony — eight days of religious rites that culminated in the burning of a carefully crafted “king boat” on Oct. 31 — can help end the coronavirus pandemic. For Taiwan, which is just emerging from its worst covid-19 outbreak, the festival represented a return to normal life after months of restrictions.

“I hope the lords will curb the pandemic and make it vanish from sight in Taiwan and the whole world,” said Chang Jung-hui, a 65-year-old Donggang native who has participated in the ceremony since he was in kindergarten.

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Taiwan, home to 24 million people, has fared better than many of its neighbors during the pandemic. The island went 253 days without a new case in 2020 before an outbreak this year led to more than 14,000 infections and 823 deaths between May and October, though officials never enforced a full lockdown. Donggang, a fishing hub of 43,000 people, has recorded just three cases in the past year and none in five months, even as the delta variant spread in surrounding towns. To many, this is evidence that the last boat-burning ceremony, in 2018, worked.

“It is a miracle!” said Lin Yi Chen, 35, one of the volunteers in the ceremony, who was delighted that the event was able to go ahead. “It’s a sign of the power of the gods.”

More than 30,000 volunteers and onlookers came to the last two days of this year’s festival, according to police, fewer than in previous years because of crowd limits. Attendees traveled from across Taiwan, including fishermen who returned from months at sea for the festival. Others took time off work to attend.

“It’s okay to lose your job, but you cannot miss the ceremony,” said Lin Zhi-long, 48, one of the volunteers.

The Wang Ye boat burning, which honors Tang dynasty scholars who were immortalized after their deaths at sea, dates back at least 300 years. In Taiwan, it originated with Chinese immigrants who brought the rituals in hopes of protecting themselves from disease and demons in their new homeland.

This time, the atmosphere was one of joy after months of restrictions on social gatherings. Near the Donglong Temple, streets were crammed with stalls selling food and souvenirs. Inside the temple, people lighted incense and tossed divining blocks, seeking answers from the gods. The king boat was paraded through the town to collect disease and bad spirits, and families lighted firecrackers as the procession passed their homes. Recent graduates, dressed in their gowns, snapped photos in front of the boat.

“People are so tired. They are hoping for an event that can inspire them,” said Lin Yi-chen, 35, a public servant who had traveled from Taipei, the capital.

Li Mei-pin, 56, sat next to the temple, packing rice and beans in plastic bags — food for the gods on their quest to hunt disease and evil.

Li, who runs a local fishing business, said she had been praying since May that the ceremony would go ahead, to rid the world of the coronavirus. “I’m hoping that after the boat-burning ritual, everything will be fine,” she said.

Residents caution that the ritual is not without risks. During the boat-burning ceremony, attendees must not turn away, step on the joss paper or make loud noises for fear of inviting bad spirits. Children and pregnant women are advised not to attend.

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Waiting on the beach for the ceremony to begin, attendees napped against trees or stood silently. Residents say maintaining the ritual is their duty. “The fire is the best way to eliminate the virus,” said Chen Yi-hong, 54, a photographer from Donggang who has documented the ceremony for a decade.

“In Donggang, every resident has our own celestial mission. We’re all the children of Wang Ye,” he said.

Kuo reported from Taipei.

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