A different sort of master leads a group of different teens--this bunch of junior-high dropouts, scooter-racing punks, drug users, ladies' club hosts, and ex-cons make up the Jyou-tian Folk Drum and Arts Group.
These marginalized kids who never cared for school found themselves rejected by their families, schools, and communities. Now, under the guidance of the deity Nezha the Third Prince, they are diligently applying themselves to the study of folk arts and taking the stage.
As the lights slowly come up on the stage, seven large drums begin to sound out a thunderous beat. Drummers with otherworldly facepaint lose themselves in the rhythm, occasionally letting out wild shouts. A fierce, explosive force spreads over the cold theater....
"They've got to shout," says Jyou-tian founder Hsu Chen-jung. At first, they wouldn't make a sound, then they'd let out a timid cry, but now they've gotten to the point where they can shout out all of the pain of their pasts and show their newfound vitality and pride.
Blowing in the wind
On Taichung County's Mt. Tatu, next to a sweet potato field, a peanut field, and a graveyard, there is a temple dedicated to the Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens. This is where the Jyou-tian Folk Drum and Arts Group meets.
There are strong winds on the mountaintop, and the temple's banners flap loudly. The kids of the group stand behind a row of drums in the temple's courtyard, facing the northerly winds. In order to tighten their performance and increase their accuracy, they're blindfolded with black cloths. They practice like this for one or two hours, and though it's rather chilly, sweat is dripping from their brows. The beads of sweat become all the more apparent as they roll down the tattoos that cover their backs--tattoos that give an indication of where these kids are coming from.
Group mainstay Chen Shih-min ("Maria") is a big guy--he stands at 187 centimeters--but he moves with a certain grace. At 23, he's the most experienced member. He says he comes from a "third-rate" family, with a father who was in and out of jail. Once, in first grade, he scored 100% on a Social Studies test, but his teacher berated him for "cheating." Though only eight years old, he shouted back at the teacher that from then on, he'd write only his name on test papers and hand them back blank out of protest. Maria never cared for studying, but he's always had a yen to perform. He started performing at temple festivals with the group in third grade.
Maria says, "In our group, my junior-high comprehensive exam score of 36 was the highest. The others only got 27, 28, and 34." From their raucous voices, it is easy to see that these kids had no interest in academics, and that most of them were the "problem students" of their schools.
The other members of the group have also seen the darker corners of society. A-Cheng, the most handsome one, was once a popular host at a ladies' club. He's also taken money to "marry" a mainland Chinese woman so she could immigrate. "Right after I finished my military service, everything was going wrong," he says. "Even my friends cheated me out of my money, so I just thought, screw it!" He started doing whatever he could to make a little easy money.
Tenth-grader Hsiao Hei is from the mountains of Miaoli. Both of his parents are dead. He got in several fights over his girlfriend, and his aunt decided it would be best to send him away. That's how he ended up at remote Jyou-tian. Then there's Chang-ju, from Ilan. He's got a robbery conviction on his record. After he was released from juvenile hall, his father sent him to Jyou-tian after seeing a news report on it. He told the master to be strict with his son.
"I say the parents still have to take the blame," says Hsu Chen-jung. "These kids all look hard, but that's because they've been hurting. They're scarred inside, so they put out this tough 'Don't mess with me' attitude." He says most of them come from broken homes, and with no one to guide them through the difficult years of their youth, they could only try to find their own way. Hsu grew up in such circumstances himself, and understands their feelings of loneliness and helplessness.
Hsu was born in 1966. When he was a child his parents were in jail, so he was raised by his grandmother. As a junior-high student, he started to fantasize about finding some sort of release through the spiritual world of meditation. He left home and stayed at a Taoist shrine. During the days, he'd clean the altar, practice writing protective talismans, and do penance. When night came, he'd unroll a mat at the foot of the altar and sleep.
"I was completely on my own, trying to find a way forward. I knew I had no family, no background, no friends, and no one to listen to my words. It was going to be tough to succeed," Hsu recalls with a sigh.
The mid- to late teen years are a time when curiosity flourishes and deep loyalties are formed, but they are also a time in which guidance is needed. A group of teens holed up in a temple showing off their skills and dedicating themselves to practicing the "Way of Heaven" rely on each other and their master to get by. When Hsu learned that his own master, who was always lecturing on righteousness and morality, was actually a fraud, he lost his idol in an instant.
After Hsu was discharged from his military service in 1990, he relied on the skills he learned while living at the altar and set up the Jyou-tian temple himself. It began to attract a group of marginalized kids, so he started a folk arts group centered around drumming and parading in larger-than-life deity costumes. After receiving some attention from the academic and art worlds, he started to turn the informal group into a structured performance troupe. There are currently nearly 30 members, around half of whom are salaried full members.
Upon arriving at Jyou-tian, most of the members take up residence in a row of trailers alongside the temple and train with Hsu around the clock. Hsu's sister, Hsu Yu-yi, acts as their "auntie," taking care of their daily needs. How does Hsu manage to get these young toughs in line and training hard?
"It's easy," he says. "If they get hauled off to jail, I rush over and get them out on bail. If they run into trouble with somebody, we adults go solve the problem. When the schools refuse to take them, we'll go around and plead their cases." Hsu says these kids are really lonely and weak inside, so if you just stand by them, they will devote themselves wholly to you. "Why do you think so many kids are willing to go to jail for their gang bosses? It's because they feel they owe them!"
In addition to caring instruction and iron discipline, the kids also have Nezha the Third Prince watching over them. The main hall of the Jyou-tian temple holds the "divine switch" of the prince--that's the pole that holds the middle banner of the five behind Nezha in parades. It's actually a rattan cane.
When a member breaks one of the group's rules--whether it's doing drugs, gambling, drinking, smoking at school, using weapons, or telling lies three times--the leader will question him in the main hall of the temple. Once he has determined that an infraction has taken place, the accused may either admit wrongdoing and accept punishment or he may choose to leave the group. So far, there has never been a case in which the accused chose the latter. The members line up to the sides in two rows while the accused takes position on the floor, hands and feet on the ground and rear raised high. He bites down on a piece of spirit money and receives 20 lashes before the image of Nezha.
Through laughter, tears, and sweat, this group of kids who've come from all over Taiwan struggle together and dream together. "The feeling of being a big family is really great," says elementary school teacher Chiu Yu-wen, who's been teaching English at Jyou-tian whenever she's had free time since she first came three years ago. "It brings me back to my university days when I would join clubs," she says. "It's hard to find this kind of pure feeling after you graduate and start your working life."
Beyond the clouds
The year 2002 was critical in the course of Jyou-tian's development from an informal group affiliated with the temple to a full-fledged performance troupe. It was then that the Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society saw a report on them. The society's members were very moved by the Jyou-tian story and invited the troupe to come to Canada to perform at a Taiwanese culture festival along with the Aboriginal dance group Sun Son Theater.
Their first performance as a performing arts troupe was to take place abroad. It was an intimidating proposition, so the Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society took on Lin Mao-hsien, a lecturer in Providence University's Department of Taiwanese Literature, to lead them on the trip.
"Before I met them, I was really afraid," says Lin. "I was afraid that the quality of their performance would be substandard, and that they would smoke, drink, chew betel nut, and harm our national image." He knew all about these temple groups and the sort of people that join them, but he signed on anyway.
At the airport, A-Cheng was refused permission to leave the country--he had no fixed address and had not received his military conscription notice. Another one couldn't resist the urge to light up a cigarette--he did so in the plane's lavatory and was almost kicked off the flight.
Despite these two unplanned interludes, Lin was extremely impressed with Jyou-tian's performance and discipline. He began to act as a volunteer consultant for the group. Their performance, which was full of folk vitality, was warmly received in Canada by Taiwanese residing there and the locals. The Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society invited them on the spot to come back the following year to perform again.
"The thing that moved me the most was, no matter what troupe was going to perform, the kids from Jyou-tian were always willing to help ready the props and set up the stage," says Lin. "Their self-confidence and humility won them many friends."
From 2002 to 2005, Jyou-tian has been selected to receive subsidies from Taichung County. This year, it was also awarded a subsidy by the central government's Council for Cultural Affairs. By now, it has given many more performances as a cultural entity than it has as a religious one, and the demands of the different environments have brought their skill to the next level.
Taiwan's folk arts groups have traditionally been religious in nature, performing at temple festivals organized by villages and townships. With adults too busy working for a living and kids too busy with school, it is tough for the groups to find members who can dedicate themselves to performing. Thus dropouts and runaways who've found refuge in temples and shrines often end up joining. In particular, groups with tough images like those that carry portable shrines or perform as the Taoist Heavenly Generals have become "hoodlum hives" full of dropout youths.
"There are at least 10,000 junior-high dropouts in Taiwan's folk performance groups," says Hsu. "What are they doing when they're not performing? They're getting together to race scooters, fighting, loan sharking, selling drugs, you name it. They've all fallen in with some bad groups." Hsu says it's a worrying state of affairs, as even the very best performance troupes find it hard to compete for festival appearance invitations with the striptease shows on mobile stages often found in the countryside in Taiwan. Most of those who used to perform with him have given it up for other occupations such as delivering gas cylinders or selling stinky tofu. Those who are still performing mostly only do so at local temple festivals and do not think of their performances as a type of art. To evolve into an "arts group," Jyou-tian specially brings in martial arts and dance teachers to instruct its members.
"We're a stiff bunch. The teacher would come in and do the splits without a sound, but we'd be screaming bloody murder--it's simply torture for us," says A-Cheng of the martial arts class. A-Cheng, who was already in his twenties when he joined the group, breaks into a sweat at just the memory.
To build up endurance and strength, they do "human weight-lifting" in pairs. One person lies on the floor and the other puts his hands and feet on those of the first. The one on the floor then pushes his partner up into the air. Or they do sit-ups in groups of three, heels interlocked--one set is 100 sit-ups. Basic drumming practice is also grueling, as it is always done in sessions of one hour or more. But the most difficult physical and mental trial of all is the journey they make on foot around Taiwan every seventh month on the lunar calendar.
The long journey
Every year since 1994, during the kids' summer vacation, the Jyou-tian members have taken their Nezha costume on a tour of blessing around Taiwan. They make the 1080-kilometer trip from north to south through wind and rain. Members wear the costume in shifts, while the others bang gongs and drums, wave incense burners, and carry banners. Everyone plays a part.
The giant Nezha costume weighs more than 30 kilograms and crushes down on the shoulders of its bearer. What's even harder to bear is the stifling air inside and the tight space--there are only eye holes the size of a pair of glasses for the bearer to see out of. One person can only carry it for about a kilometer before trading off, and it's not uncommon for people to cramp up or get heatstroke while inside.
As a form of prayer, the members keep to a vegetarian diet for the entire trip. They cover an average of 40 kilometers a day, walking in the daytime and stopping at local temples at night. Then they take part in ceremonies to rid the area of bad fortune. When they finally get to rest, they take off their shoes and discover that their feet are covered in blisters. Some nights they can't find a temple and have no choice but to camp out in a school playground, washing up in their underwear at the long handwashing sinks. It's a scene right out of army basic training.
"During the long, silent journey of more than 1000 kilometers, some of the kids carry on internal dialogues," says Lin Mao-hsien. "Of course some of them will find their minds settling down." Lin believes that the religious, ascetic journey serves as a sort of purification for the kids, and helps them build self-confidence.
On the last round-the-island tour, A-Cheng pushed himself to the limit by wearing the Nezha costume all the way from Fengping, Taitung County, to Hualien--a 60-kilometer stretch, which took him 13 hours to complete.
A-Cheng recalls, "Every time we came to a slope, I would grit my teeth and tell myself that we were almost there, just hang on. I kept saying to myself, 'Can you make it? Of course you can!'" That's how self-confidence is built. He finished his seemingly impossible task on just water and chocolate. When he took off the costume that night, he had lost almost all feeling in his shoulders. He couldn't raise his arms for two days. But, he says, "I felt a kind of easiness of mind that I'd never felt before. In the past, when I ran into troubles I'd just give up. Now I know that nothing is too difficult for me." You can hear the pride in his voice. To A-Cheng and the others, the 23-day journey is a kind of spiritual purification and an affirmation of the mutual understanding they've built up between themselves.
In addition to the yearly tour of the island, Jyou-tian carried two 35-kilo drums up Yushan in 2004, and last year, after being awarded the Council for Cultural Affairs subsidy, they braved a spell of 8° weather and made a 43-day "pilgrimage" to cultural centers in all 23 of the nation's counties and municipalities.
On this cultural pilgrimage, they'd arrive at a cultural center after a day of walking and, without having time even to wash up, begin to put together their stage, set up the lights, and give a performance.
On the stage, they look like warriors, killers, or dedicated performers. Those tough attitudes they once showed on the streets have been transformed by their collective struggle into a vitality that permeates their performances. That vitality lets them take the stage and interact with others with self-confidence, keeping in rhythm with one another.
"I'm not the star, but I have to admit that it's a great feeling to see the faces of the audience peering through the darkness, wrapped up in our performance for an hour or two," says Jen-chieh, a 19-year-old who is about to start his military service.
These kids, who never heard any encouragement in school and never had a place in society, have found themselves again on stage, under the spotlight.
The audience calls for an encore, and the group rushes back onto the stage, full of spirit. The drums again beat out their rhythms, and when they finish, the kids of Jyou-tian will once again be bathed in thunderous applause.