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Dragons on the Streets! – The Miaoli Bombing the Dragon Festival

February 15, 2014 Destination Global No Comments Email Email

No, I the spectator was not the one who was “bombed,” as in not seeing straight. It was the dragon that had been literally “bombed” with firecrackers, during the 2012 Miaoli Bombing the Dragon festival.

This is a traditional Hakka festival that happens in the small, predominantly Hakka city of Miaoli, in hilly Miaoli County. The Hakka are one of Taiwan’s key minorities. The festival, one of the 12 most important Hakka events of the year, is centered on the annual Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It is focused on these showcase events: the Dragon Eye-Dotting Ceremony/Dragon Dance Competition, Folk Parade Night, Bombing the Dragon Night, and Dragon Incineration Ceremony.

Day One for me, January 31, was Dragon Eye-Dotting Ceremony/Dragon Dance Competition day. This is a morning/afternoon spectacle held before Yuqing Temple. To start, almost 20 long, serpentine dragons were stretched out, in line, 250x250filling the plaza, troupe members beside, thousands of buzzing spectators packing the perimeter. As things proceeded, I was continually approached by helpful support personnel, anxious that the visiting foreigner understood what was happening.

“Dragon masters will now dot the eyes to bring them to life, making them divine,” a friendly tourism official told me. “This invites the gods to come dwell within. If left unpainted, evil spirits can easily enter. The ‘paint’ used is blood taken from a rooster’s crown (as this was said, it happened on the main stage). Red is the Chinese culture’s most auspicious color. The blood is mixed with cinnabar and rice wine.”

As eyes were dotted the dragons’ heads and bodies began to twitch and shake. They were now alive. As my new friend explained that “The masters will now paint the body dots, each granted an auspicious name such as ‘gathering wealth’ and ‘source of fortune,’” it all happened, at high-decibel level so all could hear.

The competition then began, teams showing their skills one by one over three hours, with a number exhibiting quite extraordinary imagination and acrobatic skill. As I watched, a policeman approached and, smiling, volunteered that “Other places have dancing dragons, but only in Miaoli do we bomb them. We Hakka believe the more vigorous the dance and the more hits the dragon takes, the greater the luck and prosperity in the coming year for those who get close. In fact, we believe this festival protects the whole county. Notice the dragons’ joints – each has an auspicious number, with 9, 11, and 15 the luckiest. And the fabric covering the Miaoli-bamboo frame is always some combination of red, green, blue, silver, and gold, representing nature’s five elements.”

At competition’s end, the three winners paraded separately around the plaza, stepping over huge piles of firecrackers, troupe members something disappearing completely in the blasts. This was not true “bombing,” for the dragons had to be preserved for the festival’s other big days. I later got to talk to the leader of the winning team, an engaging young fellow named Qiu Jun-yuan.

“All troupes today were from Miaoli City,” he said. “We start practicing in earnest about a month ahead, a few hours daily if possible. Most troupes are associated with temples, and are like boys’ clubs, the temples encouraging healthy recreation. Our troupe is private, with a private benefactor. Usually an old-time troupe member will be a part-time teacher, for free. You have to be young because the work is so hard, and sometimes we’re on streets and in businesses for hours. Today we won NT$30,000, and by winning we’ll get more and higher commissions in the coming days from big businesses and other groups, to perform privately, because this proves our dragon is most divine and powerful. We’ll also get more commissions elsewhere in the region, mostly in Hakka areas.”

My Day Two and Day There were consecutive, Folk Parade Night and Bombing the Dragon Night, respectively, two days before the Lantern Festival and on Lantern Festival Eve. On Folk Parade Night a “firecracker dragon” slithering over 2km through the streets was lit to kick things off, then a “real” dragon over 130 meters long paraded the city, joined by drum troupes, lion troupes, marching bands… and the dragon-dance troupes, the dragons dipping in and out of buildings, occupants giving troupes red envelopes containing cash in thanks for their blessings. At designated spots the dragons gathered and were bombed, firecrackers in stupendous number stuffed into their mouths and around their heads.

The venue for Bombing the Dragon Night was Riverside Park. This is a monster pyrotechnics-focused party, its highlights a fireworks show, more dragon bombings, a dragon float with the dragon itself a dazzling pyrotechnics platform, and a grand stage show featuring pop and folk-art performances.

The last night, offered the Dragon Incineration Ceremony before Wu Wenchang Temple. There were more dragon bombings, naturally, then teams thanked their dragons, lay them atop great piles of spirit money, piled more atop, and sent the dragons back to the heavens in holy infernos.

Beyond all the colorful fun described above. There are numerous other attractions as well, among them DIY dragon-creation sessions, Hakka food fairs and product bazaars, and an exhibit on the Bombing the Dragon phenomenon.

On both my Day Two and Three I bumped into another new Miaoli friend, a local professor, who like the others was thrilled to know that foreigners know of and are interested in the festival and Hakka life, and spent time explaining things to me. “There are many things to know,” he said. “For example, the Chinese dragon lives in the skies, so the firecracker blasts represent lightning, their sound thunder, the smoke curling upwards represents the curling dragon returning heavenwards. And did you know (I didn’t), that our dragon-bombing tradition only really took off 50 years ago? A local fabric mill owned by today’s Shin Kong Group invited troupes in, locked the gates, and pummeled them for luck. After that, more and more big businesses joined in.”

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