In Taiwan, a boat burning festival aims to prevent disease. Will it be able to end the coronavirus pandemic?
The ancient ritual began before dawn, on a beach in southern Taiwan, where thousands of people gathered as they hoisted a 45-foot boat painted in gold and red, over a mountain of paper. Everyone watched in silence as the organizers invited the gods to come aboard.
“Prepare to light the firecrackers” and the boat caught fire quickly.
The boat burning ceremony in Donggang is a traditional Taoist festival that honors the guardians known as Wang Ye, who have protected Taiwan for decades.
Some say the ceremony helped stave off the worst of the SARS virus in 2003, while others say it helped drive off typhoons. The Wang Ye are believed to patrol the world every three years hunting disease and evil, and bringing them back to heaven.
This year, Wang Ye‘s worshipers hope that the eight-day ceremony of religious rites culminating in the burning of a “king ship” can help end the coronavirus pandemic.
Taiwan just emerged from its worst covid-19 outbreak, and the festival represented a return to normal life after months of restrictions.
“I hope that the gentlemen will stop the pandemic and make it disappear from view 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 the garden of childhood.
Home to 24 million people, Taiwan 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, although authorities never imposed a total shutdown.
Donggang, a fishing center of 43,000 people, has recorded only three cases in the past year and none in five months, even as the delta variant spread to surrounding cities. For many, this is evidence that the last boat burning ceremony, in 2018, worked.
More than 30,000 volunteers and spectators attended this year’s festival, and attendees traveled from all over Taiwan, including fishermen who returned from months at sea for the festival.
The burning of the Wang Ye ship, which honors the Song Dynasty scholars who were immortalized after their death 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.