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Water-Worshipping Rites of the Choushui River Watershed

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Author: Kuo Lee-hwan

Taiwan is a mountainous country, which leads to its rivers having the characteristics of having short embankments and swift flows. Whenever there are torrential rains or a typhoon bears down on the area, flash floods occur frequently. There's been multiple flood disasters recorded in history concerning the Choushui River. Thus, among the settlements along the shores of the lower reaches, there are many tales and legends of miracles occurring during the floods. Many of these miracles occurred through the suppression of floods via different yashengwu guardian tablets, wards, and other talismans. Apart from a shared Taoist folk-religion belief system, each particular locale's residents along the Choushui River have very peculiar beliefs regarding "water." This kind of water culture festival doesn't only exist along the Choushui River watershed either. Other areas in Taiwan also have similar water rituals. For example, there's the Lanyang River in Yilan County, Taitung's Xinwugong River, Taichung's Tachia River, the Kaop'ing River in Pingtung County, and the Cengwen and Yenshui Rivers in Tainan, and so on.

In spite of the ceremonies around "water" that have sprouted up here and there over the past century along the Choushui River having different names and occurring at different times, the meanings and implications are extremely similar. They are all conducted as a means to pray for peace in all things and for the river to not flood again. Each festival day, local residents will present offerings on the embankments or at the edge of the water, where they are offered as sacrifices to the river gods or water ghosts. These traditional water ceremonies fully reflect man's long-held awe and fear of water.

First up is the "Ruitian Village Baitifang" held in Lugu along the middle reaches of the Choushui in Nantou County. Ruitian Village is a community built along the river itself. In early times, it was often flooded. As a result, over the past hundred years, there's been a "Baitianfang" ceremony held. Each year on the 23rd day of the 9th lunar calendar month, village residents prepare three sacrificial animals (a pig, a chicken and a fish, nowadays, baked bread shaped to look like these animals), and rice as offerings. They walk with the offerings to the bottom of the creek and give their respects to the embankment. Following the start of the ceremonies in 2013, the location for the ceremony was switched from Ruilong Temple to Shuixian Temple within Ruitian Village. After 2019, the main priest of Ruilong Temple stated that the festival could be cancelled and not performed again.

Xizhou Township, along the northern banks of the Choushui's lower reaches in Changhua County, still has many villages that have preserved water worshipping rituals. Every seventh month of the lunar calendar, there's a string of ceremonies performed to revere the Choushui River. The earliest ceremonies are held on the first day of the seventh month. They are the "Chenggong Village Baixiqian" and "Tianyuan Village Baixiqian." Chenggong Village was originally called Hsiaba. Residents follow local traditions, one of which is to go down to the river embankment to carry out a river ceremony. The village's Fuling Gong temple hosted the "Baixiqian" ritual, with participants hailing from Chenggong Village, Xialiao, Zhongliao, Shangliao, Zhenliao Village and Xipan Village. The ritual begins at 1:30 pm with the burning of incense and finishes around 5:00 pm.

The residents of Tianyuan Village, however, prepare dried foods or meals, sacrificial offerings, fruits, and other goods, as well as joss paper. They first gather at the Aitian Temple where the carry out their yearly Baixiqian ceremony. After villagers arrive in the temple courtyard, they drink blessed water to purify their bodies, and respectfully invite the gods and celestial lords to take a tour, and go together towards the dike next to the creek bed to carry out the ceremonies. When the ceremony is being carried out, the first deity to be worshipped is "Fa Zhu Gong." Next, village residents will once more raise lit incense sticks and face the Choushui River. For the next hour, they will sort and arrange joss paper and then burn it in offering. The entire ceremony process takes about two hours to complete.

The next ceremony we will talk about is the "Dazhuang Village Dazhuang Baixiqian," which takes place on the fourteenth day of the seventh lunar month. The event beings at around 10:00 am on the day of the ceremony. Many residents will have converged on the embankment in front of the Kaitian-gong temple grounds. They will prepare offerings and place them on a table facing in the direction of the temple. During this time, there's several self-prepared offerings that continue to be brought forward by residents. Incense is burned at 1:00 pm during the main ceremony at Kaitian Temple. Once everyone has made prayers to the bodhisattva Guanyin, the villagers will then ambulate in a circle; At around 3:30 pm, the villagers will continue on towards the embankment where they will burn joss paper. The entire event ends around 4:00 pm.

The "Dazhuang Village Sang-a-kha Baixiqian" is performed on the same day. Sang-a-kha is a subsidiary settlement of Tachuang Village. Unlike Dazhuang Village, Sang-a-kha's ceremony isn't performed on a river embankment, but next to the Bi Creek, in the center of the village, on the Ren-guan Bridge on Xinsheng Lane. Bi Creek is a part of the old Chuoshui River course and is currently the first water release route in the Yuzibei Canal. There's no public ceremony carried out in Sang-a-kha. Village residents each come to give offerings of ready-made dry goods or simple dishes. After they've given the offerings, they prepare paper joss money for burning and give the offerings to the "good older brothers and sisters" (a euphemism for good-natured spirits and ghosts) with an air of respect.

The day of the Ghost Festival, on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, Chaoyang Village and Zhangcuo Village hold a joint ceremony. Statues of the main deities from the Nantian Temple will be taken to the Chaoyang river embankment, facing the Choushui River, with prayers made for no more floods, and that the spirits of the deceased will be placated. This is the "Chaoyang Village, Zhangcuo Village Pu An Ding." At 10:00 am the day of, temple staff first prepare an offering table on the embankment, joss paper money, as well as some meat and vegetable offerings that are placed on the table. Residents also bring their own offerings of rice dumplings, meats, and canned goods. At 1:00 pm, statues of the main deities of the Nantian Temple, Lord Guan Shengdijun and Nezha, are paraded around Chaoyang Village. Finally, they come to the observation deck at the No. 2 Chaoyangcuo embankment where they are prepared for a worship ceremony. At 2:00 pm, the temple staff raise up lit incense sticks and the crowd prays towards the Choushui River; At 3:00 pm, the crowd burns paper money on the outside of the embankment and the ceremony then concludes.

Also held on the same day is the "Xipan Village Stupa Pu-du," performed by the Wusheng Temple. The temple staff first set up an altar for offerings. Apart from the temple preparing offerings, regular people are also free to bring offerings as well. The stupa pu-du ceremony is entirely staffed by the temple personnel. Staff members place all the offerings facing the location of the stone stupa tower according to the direction of worship. After the gods guarding the scene are invited out and placed in the direction of the stone tower, the sacrificial ceremony begins. At about 3:00 pm, the ceremony finishes. The temple staff collect joss paper money into a single area and light it safely, then the ceremony is completed.

Given a lot of attention in recent years is the "Taixi Village Bai Xi Wang" in Dacheng Township in Changhua County, taking place on the 16th day of the 7th lunar calendar month. Residents of Taixi Village shoulder offerings carried on poles, and in bamboo baskets to the embankment by the Choushui River, praying to the heavens, to the earth, and to the river god. So far, most village residents still hoist traditionally woven bamboo baskets for their offerings with just a handful reverting to using plastic baskets and containers. About half of the village residents still cook their own food offerings, mostly comprised of vegetarian meals, place-holder molds of the three sacrifices (pig, chicken, and fish-shaped bread loaves), fruit. Some also offer cookies or other biscuits, instant noodle packages, and canned foods for their main offerings. The ritual is carried out for about two hours, starting from 1:00 pm until 3:00 pm. At the end of the ceremony, everyone present goes down to the river-side wall of the embankment to burn joss paper money. After finishing the ceremony, the residents take their offerings back home.

With the ebb and flow of different eras and times, stable embankments have been built along the Choushui River, and especially after the official opening of the Chi-chi Weir in 2002, the Choushui River is no longer an area where flooding is prevalent as was the case in bygone days. After visiting several of the communities along the Choushui River, we discovered that some of the festivities and ceremonies have all but disappeared, but that also, some continue on, going strong. Moreover, with the migration of younger people out of the area, and the subsequent aging of these communities, these kinds of unique water ceremonies and rituals are gradually simplifying from their more elaborate former manifestations.

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