Controversial hotpot, giant carrots, and a tofu-eating cat!
A light (har har) missive from the Taiwan Lantern Festival. Plus, this week: book club on American Pastoral and an outing to see City of Sadness.
Albert and Michelle here. It’s the final day of the annual Lantern Festival, one of Albert’s beloved childhood rituals. Roughly a million visitors from across Taiwan have traveled to see the lanterns. Today’s missive celebrates this whimsical festival.
It’s the Year of the Rabbit, and we’ve seen rabbits in countless scenarios: gazing at a giant carrot, wielding a machine gun, holding a gavel, and, most infamously, boiling in a hotpot. (That bunny has since been removed. The designers insist the bunny was taking a hot bath, not being put in a stew.) We’ve especially loved the Alice in Wonderland takes, including a centerpiece featuring an evil Queen perched above an enormous teacup. As fans of Alice may know, all of her adventures begin when she decides to follow the White Rabbit. (“Nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’”)
There are plenty of non-rabbit themed lanterns, too. Baby P.—OK, she’s not a baby anymore!—was especially drawn to two lanterns: a cat eating tofu and a sheep selling cotton candy. (She didn’t quite understand that the candy was not real and kept asking to eat it.) Some fifty steps away, a pastel-hued homage to The Little Prince had an airplane with a rotating propeller and a nook where you could cozy up with a sleeping fox.
The lantern festival commemorates the end of the lunar new year festivities. In the 1950s, as told to us by our parents, little kids would carry paper lanterns shaped like various animals. Inside each lantern was a lit candle. If you walked too fast or a gust of wind blew nearby, your flame would flicker out and you’d cry and maybe an adult would scold you. Lanterns were also hung on trees along the road. By the time Albert was born, most lanterns were electric or battery-operated, and today the festival is more like a public competition, exhibiting lanterns from cities, agencies, and organizations across Taiwan.
A national festival that rotates cities every year, this is the first time Taipei has hosted in more than twenty years. Besides the book fair, it’s also the first international event since the relaxing of COVID regulations last year. Last night the crowd was packed. We saw countless Amas and Agongs (grandmas and grandpas) with little kids—a testament to the multigenerational family life here.
The festival always takes place on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year. As mentioned earlier, it announces the end of that holiday. You must be thinking: what? A festival to mark the end of another festival? Yes. It’s as decadent as it sounds, and we’re a little incredulous, too. (Since December of last year, it’s felt like a never-ending march of celebrations, from the “Western” holidays to now. Thankfully we’re entering Lent soon enough, so we’ll start a Serious Period of fasting and penance.)
Nobody knows the exact origins of the lantern festival, but there are several claims. One story asserts that Daoists started it back in the Qin dynasty, more than 2000 years ago. Farmers set a large fire in an open field to celebrate the birthday of the god of fortune. (The flames also had the effect of scaring away animals and pests, in the hopes of ensuring a plentiful harvest.)
Another story contends the festival is Buddhist, dating it to the emperor Ming of Han, a convert who built the first Chinese Buddhist temple about 2000 years ago. The lanterns were meant to symbolize the light of the Buddha.
Regardless of its origins, by the sixth century a full-blown lantern festival had taken hold. In both the city and countryside, celebrations gained renown. One emperor of the Sui dynasty invited guests from other countries to come partake in the festivities and see the lanterns. At its height in the Ming dynasty, revels lasted for eight days. People guessed riddles, staged street performances, and ate tangyuan, a sweet glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste.
Han Chinese migrants brought the custom to Taiwan, where communities adopted and transformed it. Perhaps the most famous adaptation is the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Hundreds of thousands of floating lanterns are released into the sky, with people’s hopes and desires for the new year written onto them.
Yet another variation—called “the world’s most dangerous festival”—takes place in Yanshui, a district in the city of Tainan, at the Beehive Fireworks Festival. To ward off plague and evil spirits, hundreds of thousands of firecrackers are lit. But there’s a dangerous twist: the firecrackers are aimed at you, the festival-goer. Read a full account of the 2015 festival, when Nick Kembel and his father braved it together. (Explaining why he took his dad, Nick writes, “My father is a teenager at heart and loves anything involving explosions.”) He recommends wearing riot gear, safety goggles, and a “thісk јасkеt mаdе оf а mаtеrіаl thаt іѕn’t flаmmаblе аnd саn’t mеlt.” All of these apparently can be purchased at a nearby night market.
Since 1990, the lantern festival has become a national event. For years it was held only in Taipei, at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Albert remembers traveling there with his parents, carrying a lantern and getting candy. Yang Ying-feng, a significant Taiwanese modernist artist whom we wrote about several months ago, created the first main lantern to celebrate the year of the dragon.
But controversies have abounded. One year an organizer accidentally set off firecrackers that injured thirty-three people. Another year people decided the light coming from the tiger was too “fierce.” Several fatal airline accidents had occurred, and people worried the aggressiveness of the lantern suggested arrogance or evil. To placate the spirits and give better luck to the country, the hosts removed the fangs of the tiger. And in 1992—a year Albert remembers because its zodiac animal was the monkey, his brother’s sign—led to a decade-long ban on the artist, Yang Ying-feng’s son, because the lantern violated one of the central rules: it didn’t light up from the inside.
The festival started to rotate cities in 2000, partly as an effort to increase tourism throughout the country. Since then, lanterns have become larger and more elaborate. One of the major controversies occurred four years ago, when organizers in Pingtung, a fishing port at the southern tip of Taiwan, unveiled an animal not in the Chinese zodiac. Instead, they created a lantern of a bluefin tuna, a staple in their diet and trade. Critics saw it as a boycott of traditional Chinese heritage, an act of subversion by nativist southern Taiwanese. Defenders countered that fish is an auspicious animal in Chinese culture; besides, they added, a county should be allowed to promote its local heritage.
The Taiwanese artist Akibo Lee (李明道) created this year’s centerpiece: a space-robot-bunny that is over twenty meters tall and swivels to a light show every half hour. A visual artist who made his name creating several classic rock albums, he has also become famous for designing a family of robots. Lee motion-captured the face of Olympic female gold medalist weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun (郭婞淳), made a composite, and mapped it onto the bunny’s head. To be honest, the rabbit wasn’t really our thing and we found it a little creepy. But it’s been a hit with the kids. Baby P. loved the light show and danced with delight during the music. Meanwhile, a friend’s daughter was so convinced by the exhibit that she asked, “Is the bunny going to fly back into space soon?”
We also loved the “secondary lights.” In the photos below, two dragons guard a gate leading to the main square. Just footsteps away is a family of magpies, a sacred bird of several indigenous tribes on the island.
Yet another exhibit featured international collaboration with other cities—always a meaningful theme, as China has systematically picked off Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. We saw light installations from Belize, Indonesia, St. Kitts, Guam, and many cities in Japan, including Hakodate, the ancestral hometown of a former student.
Most of all we were struck by a long street of lanterns created by incarcerated people. As we’ve written, Taiwan is largely a penal society and the dehumanizing conditions of prisons are rarely discussed. So it was surprising to see prisons figure so visibly at a public event. Every lantern was accompanied by the name of the prison that had created, as well as the names of the artists.
This lantern from a prison in Taipei reflects on the inauguration of “citizen judges” in Taiwan this year, an experiment that we hope to write about this year. Six lay people will be randomly selected to participate in trial proceedings.
To learn more, we reached out to Huimin Chen, director of Prison Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing rights of incarcerated people. “Creating the lanterns is one of the most important things in the prisons,” she wrote. “The process takes two months and grows out of nothing. It brings honor to the people who create them.” Real life benefits include increased visiting time to meet with family and friends, as well as points that contribute to their applications for parole.
For years the lanterns made by incarcerated people have swept the competition, winning the top prizes. As Huimin explained, this made others feel bad and led to the creation of a separate category in the competition called “government agency.”
The lanterns highlight the ingenuity and imagination of incarcerated people—and urge us to find new ways for them to participate in public life. The rare fact of their visibility this week suggests an underlying connection between the penal system and Taiwanese popular religiosity. Opportunities for betterment are cruelly limited in Taiwan prison. They involve copying Buddhist scriptures or practicing religious calligraphy. Lantern-making—though cloaked in popular religious tradition—allows for more creative and even subversive practices.
As with the book fair, we were impressed with the thoughtfulness of planning. There was constant crowd control and buses to ferry people. Still, Albert can’t help registering one bit of regret and nostalgia: the city government has clamped down on hawkers, a central part of his childhood. He recalls the candies, goodies, and handmade crafts, and misses those traces from his childhood.
Book Club - Philip Roth’s American Pastoral
This week we’re talking about Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The date is Friday, February 24 at 3 p.m. PST, 6 p.m. EST / Saturday February 25 at 7 a.m in Taiwan. It’s a long book, so don’t worry if you only get halfway through—we’ll play it by ear and decide whether to continue with it in March. All are welcome! Reply to this email if you’d like the zoom link.
City of Sadness Outing and a Tuesday Event on Diaspora
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s classic 1989 film about the 2-28 massacre is being re-released in color. If you’re in Taipei and like to see it this coming Saturday evening, February 25th, let us know!
Michelle will be speaking on a panel titled “How Much Power Does the Taiwan Diaspora Have?” Organized by Liya Yu, the panel also includes Yahan Chuang and Meng-hsi Pan. It takes place Tuesday, February 21st at 8 PM at Tacheles.
And at last our favorite lantern: a shy kid and his dog.