1993 / 7月
Ventine Tsai /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Robert Taylor
This year, the acceptance rate in the national university entrance exams is expected to reach 50 percent. But the acceptance rate for youngsters to play "spirit children" in this year's Centipede Procession at the Chihe Kung temple near Hsuehchia in Tainan County was only five percent. What's its attraction?
In Taiwan folk customs, each time the birthday of a deity comes around, the faithful hold a festive parade around the temple area, with colorfully made-up folk artists and kaleidoscopic performance troupes, to express gratitude for divine beneficence.
These artists and performers are known collectively as yi-chen, which simply means "arts and troupes." Traditional yi-chen have deep religious significance, as well as admirable artistic skills. Modern troupes are mainly in it for the fun or interest, and reflect a slice of contemporary life. With traditional and modern yi-chen constantly evolving, Sinorama has undertaken a continuing series on Taiwan's arts and performance companies to leave a permanent record of where they are today.
"All boys and girls aged six to nine and weighing under 40 kg who wish to play spirit children in the Centipede Procession, please apply."
After this notice, written on red paper, appeared at the Chihe Kung temple at Houshe near Hsuehchia, there were as many as 695 applications, but of these only 36 would be chosen.
"My 11 grandchildren all put their names down, but only one was picked; it's harder than coming first in the Imperial Examinations!" says one old man. Joining in the fun, an old lady next to him exaggerates even more wildly: "I put in over 20 names, to make sure of one getting in, but not even one of them came up!"
When a bystander asks: "Grandma, are you really so lucky as to have more than twenty grandchildren?" the old lady can only explain in embarrassment" "No, I've only got three, I used neighbors' names for the rest."Everyone has a chance to be Emperor:
On the tenth day of the third lunar month, the day before the Paichiao Festival in Hsuehchia, a boisterous crowd gathers in front of the Chihe Kung temple in the nearby village of Houshe. The 36 children lucky enough to have had their names drawn from among the 695 applicants stand in the center of the temple forecourt, with their mums, dads, grandmas and grandpas in a dense crowd around them, waiting for the roles to be allocated.
This year's theatrical theme, chosen by casting crescent blocks, is "The Water Margin." (Crescent blocks or chiaopei are pairs of wooden crescents, flat on one side, used to divine the will of the deities. The blocks are thrown onto the ground while making a request; if they fall with one flat side up and one down, this indicates the god's approval.) Wu Chun-hsi, the make-up artist, allots roles according to the children's features and character" "A lively lad like this can be a clown; a graceful pretty girl can play a female warrior such as Sun Erh-niang; and anyone can see that a stocky young chap like this one here is just right for Li Kuei, the 'Black Whirlwind."
Most of the roles are cast by the make-up man on his own authority, but the final choice of the Emperor who will ride at the rear of centipede is left to the temple gods. Three candidates selected by the make-up man are led inside the temple together, and the choice is made by throwing down crescent blocks. At this moment the grown-ups from the three families are all burning incense and praying fervently, each hoping they will have the good fortune to be chosen. But what's so great about taking part in the centipede procession? Why do so many parents join the crush?
The centipede procession is an artistic performance with a strongly religious character, of a type often seen in the coastal areas of Tainan County where belief in wangye (heroic figures venerated as deities) is widespread.
The "centipede" comprises segment after segment made from wooden boards, joined together to mimic the shape of a centipede, and with seats mounted on top for children in theatrical costume to sit as the procession advances. In folk legends, the centipede acts as vanguard for the wangye, clearing a path and driving out all things impure, and so it can always be found at the very front of the long procession as it winds its way all around the locality. "Without the Lord Centipede at the front, the Great Lord of the Tao (Ta Tao Kung, another name for Pao Sheng Ta Ti, the Great Emperor Protector of Life) could not come out; and wherever the centipede goes is where the firecrackers are loudest," stresses Liu Cheng-shang, chairman of Chihe Kung's temple management committee.
But the main reason why so many parents flock to take part is not just because the centipede drives corruption from the path of the deity, but because they believe that the centipede procession wards off evil from the people along its path.Peace and safety for those above and those below:
At five the next morning, under a dawn sky tinged with blue, parents lead their children towards Chihe Kung. "What time do you call this, you old devil, why weren't you here at three like I announced?" "I couldn't help it, I set two alarm clocks, but not one of the darned things went off!" Their arms laden with "thanksgiving baskets" filled with sacrificial offerings such as eggs, lean meat and spirit money, the grown-ups exchange excited greetings.
Dressed from head to foot in new clothes to symbolize purity, the children wait bleary-eyed for the make-up man to paint their faces according to the roles they will enact. As he does so, it is as if the attributes of the various spirits are transferred to the children themselves. Weak and thin children especially hope to be painted with the colorful mask of one of the more powerful male characters, for it is said that this can make them immune to all disease.
As old Mr. Chen Fang-chin explains, "Sickly children who won't put on weight, or who wet their beds, will grow fat and healthy once they've acted in the centipede. My son was in it when he was a boy, and today my grandson's in it." As well as believing that the children who ride on the centipede can become healthy, intelligent and safe from harm, people also think that if the centipede steps over a person's body, it will drive away ill fortune and keep evil at bay. This is why when the centipede procession approaches a village, heralded by the din of gongs, drums and firecrackers, people prostrate themselves on the ground and kneel in a long line, to let everything bad be driven out by the centipede as it passes over them. Those who cannot return home in person have their families lay their clothes on the ground for the same effect.
In this way, passing between salt pans, fish ponds and rice paddies, the procession snakes its way from one village to the next. The centipede, usually feared by all as one of the "five poisonous creatures," today uses its poison to drive out other poisons, bringing health and security to the community. The high point of the procession is when the centipede enters a temple forecourt to "circle the temple." It forms a ring around all the people in the forecourt, or if it is long enough, may even encircle the whole temple complete with all the people.The centipede's hundred feet--the bearers:
Having begun to gather at three in the morning and set off at seven, it is under the blazing midday sun that the centipede, clearing the way for the Great Lord of the Tao, arrives at Paichiao Ting temple to rest by the sea. The children have been "riding" all morning, and are tired; their parents, who have been "walking" all morning alongside the centipede, passing up water and holding umbrellas to shade their children from the sun, are tired too; they all unroll straw mats or unfold deckchairs to take a quick nap. But the ones who have worked the hardest of all, and are already tucking into their third lunch packs, are the bearers.
The seven centipede processions which still survive come in three sizes, all based on astrological numbers: they carry 36,72 or 108 people. Most have gone over to supporting the boards on wheeled frames to save effort; only the Chihe Kung centipede continues in the old way, relying on human muscle power alone to carry it along.
Liu Cheng-shang says: "It's only when you have people carrying it, with a hundred or so feet marching along, that it really looks like a centipede crawling. It's a tradition, we shouldn't give it up. But it really is difficult nowadays to find people to do this work, so we did think about changing to using wheels. But we couldn't--we asked the spirits, and they said no."
Look closely, and you'll find that the bearers sleeping in threes and fours on the ground under the trees and in the shade of the temple walls are all laborers in their 50's and 60's. "Do you see anyone under 40 working the fields nowadays? Young people today have all got soft shoulders, they wouldn't do this job even for NT$4000 a day," the bearers say scornfully. In fact, once you take off the agent's commission, the bearers, who work in two shifts, don't come out with more than NT$1500 each for the day. "We laborers earn our money the hard way; if your luck's out and you have to shoulder some hefty kid weighing 60 kilos, you'll earn less in money than you spend in sweat!"Parents anywhere just want the best:
Of all the types of performing procession, the ones which involve the most people are the centipedes. To take Chihe Kung temple's 36-person centipede as an example: the children, along with one accompanying parent each, make 72 people, and with 154 bearers, plus another 60 workers to carry the incense and flags and set off the firecrackers, it all adds up to over 280 people. And for a centipede three times this size, the whole procession will form an army more than 800 strong.
Once every three years, the centipede makes a thorough tour of the whole area. But this is not such a year, and by seven in the evening the column has already found its way back to Chihe Kung. "This time it's just one day, so it hasn't been too tiring. Last year my son rode for three days and still wanted to ride; we grown-ups were worn out! His dad took three days off work just for that," says a mother who has been walking with the procession.
A three-day tour not only takes time; it also costs three times as much money. In most processions, there is usually some payment for the performers, but in those processions where children ride in floats or on a centipede, the children have to make a contribution to the temple. This year in the Chihe Kung procession, each child acting a part on the centipede had to stump up NT$13,000; for a three day event it would have been close to NT$40,000, and a family with two children taking part would have had NT$80,000 to find. The one chosen to be Emperor by casting crescent blocks doesn't get away with less than a six-figure sum! "Parents anywhere just want the best for their children. Some grandfathers will even break into their own secret nest egg to pay for their favorite grandchild to take part. In the old days, people were poor, and would only pay for their sons to take part, not their daughters; nowadays people even put their daughters' daughters' names down," says Chen Fang-chin, himself a doting grandparent.
Seeing these children perched proudly up on high, it strikes one that the most arduous burden falls on their parents, looking after their kids' wellbeing from down below. They spend time and money, and even have to go from door to door borrowing residence booklets in order to improve their children's chances of being chosen. Clearly it's this kind of parental love, the same the world over, which ensures that this centipede procession is so eagerly awaited every year.
What a grand sight! The centipede sets out on its journey, carrying 108 people from head to tail (photo by Pu Hua-chih).
This loving grandfather has used his own private savings to pay for his grandson to act a part on the centipede; the boy's father, who has come along to help, once also had the luck to be chosen, a one-in-a-hundred chance.
Playing a part on the centipede is a big event for these children, who have to start being made up as early as three or four in the morning. Though their eyes are heavy with sleep, it's an unforgettable new experience (photo by Pu Hua-chih).
As the procession rests at lunch-time, mothers who have followed alongside all morning unfold chairs and fan their children while wiping the sweat from their brows. Mother love is the same the world over!
The long centipede surrounds all the people gathered on the temple forecourt. "Circling the temple" to drive out evil and attract good fortune is the high point of the procession.
The centipede from Chihe Kung temple at Houshe near Hsuehchia is now the only one in Taiwan which still relies wholly on human muscle power to carry it along. When it draws near to a town or village, the people all rush to kneel on the ground and let the centipede step over them, to keep them safe from harm.