Saving The Souls Of The Ancestors – ‘Qianshuichezang’: Taiwan’s Unique Religious Festival
Every year between the 1st and the 9th day of the 6th month of the Lunar Calendar (July 16 – July 24) a traditional folk festival takes place in Kouhu Township, in Taiwan‘s Yunlin County, to commemorate the souls of people who died over a century and a half ago.
The festival is called ‘Qianshuichezang‘ (牽水車藏), which literally means ‘leading along water containers’. The name refers to traditional lantern-like, three-level cylinders made of bamboo sticks and paper. The ceremony is held at Wanshan Shrine (萬善祠), near Jinhu harbour, and Wanshanye Temple (萬善爺廟) in Jinhu. The three levels represent the division between water, sky and underworld. Each side of the cylinder is painted with images of humans and benign spirits.
In the temples, people offer foodstuffs and paper money to the deities. The offerings are carried from the villages to the temples by women on traditional bamboo poles. The food and money are placed on round tables in front of the statues of the gods.
During the ceremony, the cylinders, which are fixed to the ground, are “turned” by the worshippers, a gesture that is believed to pacify the souls of the ancestors. The containers are then arranged in rows in front of the temples and burnt. This helps the souls of the deceased break away from the water in which they are trapped.
The Qianshuichezang festival has a long history, dating back to the 25th year of the reign of the Qing Emperor Daoguang (1845). At that time, the region called Hukou prospered thanks to a natural harbour. However, life was not easy for the local inhabitants because the area was prone to flooding, a phenomenon which the people called “washing the harbour” and which periodically caused destruction and human deaths.
In June 1845, exceptionally heavy rains poured down the Hukou region. The following month, the storms intensified and caused a massive inundation. Over night, the whole coastal area stretching from Huwei Creek (虎尾溪) to Beigang Creek (北港溪) was submerged. When the tide ebbed, the retreating water revealed a scene of destruction: the earth was strewn with dead bodies, the fields and villages were devastated. The authorities put the death toll at 3,000, but the official figures underestimated the actual number of victims, which may be as high as 7,000. There were so many corpses that it was impossible to bury all of them, and the demand for coffins far exceeded supply.
As soon as Emperor Daoguang learnt of the catastrophe, he ordered disaster relief to be sent to Taiwan. The imperial granaries, which played an important part in the state’s market regulation and famine prevention, were opened and 1,000 pecks (hectolitres) of grain were shipped to the island. The government also provided 1,000 silver taels. Moreover, the Emperor issued an edict bestowing upon the burial ground of the flood victims the title Wanshan Tonggui (萬善同歸), a Buddhist term meaning “A myriad good deeds have the same goal” (see Albert Welter: Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism, 2005, p. 122). However, the measures taken by the imperial government were not enough to prevent another tragedy. Perhaps due to the large number of unburied bodies and bad hygienic conditions, a plague broke out, killing another 3,000 people.
In the first year of the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1851), relatives of the victims began to raise money to build a temporary shrine near a burial ground in order to make sacrifices to the gods. This shrine was the forerunner of Wanshanye Temple. In 1858, Wang Dayou, a merchant from Waibu near Taichung, raised money and, with the help of the county government of Jiayi, built a temple.
According to Taiwanese folk beliefs, adults who are provided with proper funerals can be worshipped as ancestors in shrines and can reincarnate. But people who die a violent death or drown, do not find peace in the afterlife. They leave behind wandering ghosts that can neither be worshipped properly nor reincarnate. Such ‘angry’ souls can be dangerous to the living. The hungry ghost festival as well as the lantern festival are two examples of religious festivals in which humans try to placate such restless souls.
‘Water ghosts’ are particularly terrifying and dangerous. It is believed that after having spent some time trapped in the water, they can escape by substituting themselves with another drowned soul. Therefore, they wait for a victim to draw into the water (Daniel E. Overmeyer: Religions of China, pp. 93-95). Lanterns as well as “shuichezang” are believed to be means to guide and pacify the souls of water ghosts.
Every year, all members of the villages once hit by the flood must take part in the Qianshuichezang festival. People who live outside of Kouhu are expected to return to their ancestral home during this period.
In 2010, the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan designated the Qianshuichezang festival as an “important folk activity” and a “nationally certified intangible cultural asset”.