Jan Lantern Festival Baiming Carnival
In celebrating the Lunar New Year in Matsu, less emphasis is placed on the first day of the year than on the Lantern Festival that concludes the celebration on the 15th day, when the Baiming and Yingshen religious events are held. These are the largest and most lively traditional events in Matsu each year, and Matsu natives living all over Taiwan return to take part in the festivities. The community celebrations greatly enliven villages whose populations have largely moved elsewhere.
Baiming is a word in the local dialect referring to the traditional practice of arranging a sumptuous overnight feast in a temple as thanks to the gods for their protection, a custom which originated in rural villages around Fuzhou. During the lantern procession segment of the Lantern Festival, icons representing deities are paraded around the area as people pray for peace and safety. Beginning on the 11th day of the first month of the year, townships and villages throughout the county erect ornate archways in squares and in front of temples, and the yingshen (“welcoming the gods”) processions are magnificent. Each temple has its own "schedule" for the proceedings, with the procession and offering ceremonies taking place at different times. Travelers are welcome to take pictures and participate. Check the times in advance to attend more than one event; comparing the differences in the events at different temples is one of the most interesting parts of the Lantern Festival in Matsu.
Most of the early inhabitants of Matsu came from the coastal Changle and Lianjiang County areas of Fujian in China, with the islands serving as home base for fishermen during the fishing season. When severe conditions at sea prevented some of the fisherman from returning to their hometowns to celebrate the new year, they would arrange to hang lanterns on the 15th day of the new year as a way to let their friends and families on the coast of the mainland know they were safe. This is where the early Matsu custom of “wind lanterns” came from, with lanterns hanging from the 15th to the 28th day of the new year. Designs cut from red paper are affixed to the paper lanterns, giving them a beautiful traditional look.
Baiming: A Feast to Welcome the Gods
For the grand annual Baiming event, deities all over the islands are honored with a Baiming feast and village processions in order to ward off evil and disease, to protect the villagers, and to let the deities visit each other; these “public relations events” for the gods also give residents from different villages a chance to visit each other. Baiming ceremonies are usually held in the various temples or village squares, with abundant offerings of food neatly laid out all through the night as villagers burn incense and worship to the gods amidst the cacophony of drums and gongs him and the gleam of the hanging lanterns, praying for the well-being of their families, abundant catches of fish, the flourishing of domestic animals and thriving business.
Among the various villages of the Matsu islands, the earliest Baiming celebration takes place on the seventh day of the first month of the Lunar New Year, while the latest is held on the fifth day of the second month; each temple has its own association (she), with an association head chosen each year. Before the Lantern Festival, the association head collects "blessing money" from each household in the village, receiving different amounts for "small," "moderate," and "great" blessings, and assigns various roles to those participating in the procession.
Village Processions to Welcome the Gods
During the period of the Baiming events, some deity worship associations undertake religious processions that the people of Matsu call yingshen, or "welcoming the gods." In the afternoon or at dusk, icons representing deities are carried in palanquins as part of a large, festive procession. People make offerings along the path of the procession, and village Lantern Festival worship events open to the sounds of beating drums, crashing gongs, and exploding firecrackers.
The day before the welcoming of the gods, a costumed “patrolman,” carrying a wine gourd in one hand and a bamboo pole in the other, stumbles drunkenly along the procession route, leading a few village men carrying the deity’s banner and sounding a gong signaling people to clear the way along the procession route. They notices on red paper reading “keep the streets clean” to walls along the way, clearing the route and asking bystanders not to stay out of the way of the deity's procession the next day.
When the procession of the deity formally begins, the procession group proceeds in a particular order, led by colorfully costumed characters. At the head of the procession is the carrier of a lantern on a long pole with the name of the temple making offerings for the deity being worshiped written on it. Next comes the humorous patrolman character, stumbling along with a drunken gait, drinking from his wine gourd with one hand while he sweeps the path in front of him with his bamboo pole to clear the way for the procession. Following him are the solemn pair of tall, thin General Xie and short, stout General Fan. Also known as Seventh Master and Eight Master, they are responsible for leading the procession, inspecting the conditions of the people, rooting out evil and banishing demons. The two are draped with strings of guangbing, a kind of biscuit resembling a bagel, which people can pull off to eat along the way. Eating guangbing is said to make small children smarter and stop drooling, which usually means they're all gone by the midway point of the procession. Following the generals are several “child” characters, the heads held up by a person inside the costume. Because the characters are children, they sometimes move forward in playful leaps. After them is the Manu, who leads the way for the gods. Following close behind is the regal “Prince,” who walks with even, steady stride. Next is the lantern group, followed by the sacred palanquin, surrounded by yamen (old name of a Chinese government department) runners and generals. To the rear of the palanquin are the drum and cymbal group, and finally the procession of believers. The grand procession continues along its path, filling the air with the sound of drums and cymbals, with households burning incense to welcome the procession as it passes by.
Among the Matsu Islands, Beigan’s processions are particularly interesting to watch, as palanquin carriers perform a kind of dance that shakes the palanquin, their bodies shaking along with the icon of the deity as though possessed.
The Blessing Feast
After the baiming and yingshen ceremonies comes a feast for more earthly beings, called shishe (temple association feast) or shifu, the “Blessing Feast.” In the old days, the association head was responsible for cooking the whole pig and other baiming offerings right at the temple, with association members invited to the temple square for a lively, boisterous feast. Nowadays, shifu feasts are mainly held in restaurants, with the costs paid for with the "blessing money" contributed by association members. After the banquet, each household takes home a bag full of good-luck items, including pork, tangerines, eggs, and buns earlier presented as offerings. The combination is meant to symbolize good fortune and protection, to keep every family safe and happy all year. Pork, as the staple Chinese meat, has long symbolized wealth; eggs symbolize fertility; the word ji, “tangerine” sounds like “luck” in Chinese; and bao, “bun,” sounds like “protect.” The gifts bring the annual baiming and yingshen festivities to a perfect conclusion.