Normally, when it comes to clothing used for a religious rite, you think of robes, a miter, a tallit (or prayer shawl), and perhaps a head scarf.
Here is what I wore to honor Guan Yu, the red-faced, bushy-bearded god of war and wealth, at his annual Beehive Bottle Rocket Festival in the village of Yan Shui, Taiwan: a full helmet, large goggles, a dust mask over my mouth to prevent my ingesting debris, ear plugs so I wouldn’t go deaf, a wet towel rolled up around my neck so the rockets wouldn’t enter the helmet and blow my brains out, gloves, a long fireman’s coat that was made of heavy, bullet-proof fabric and lined with what looked like asbestos, two pairs of cotton pants, socks, and sneakers so I could run fast.
Participants in the festival are generally testosterone-charged teenage boys. But there I was, an estrogen-challenged, middle-aged woman, putting her life and sanity on the line to have several hundred thousand bottle rockets shot at me. I was not alone. There was a gaggle of other international journalists with me. Before the event even started, two women writers from Japan ran away screaming. A radio personality hid behind a fire truck.
I entered a large outdoor arena. In the center were huge beehive-like stands, each loaded with thousands of rockets. When the signal was given . . . guess what? They went off like swarms of angry bees headed in our direction. I was about 100 feet from the rockets, hyperventilating from panic. One of the guys with us, a cameraman, decided not to go into the arena. He stood behind a special net set up for media. A rocket pierced the net and hit him in the eye. “Can you still see from the other eye well enough to shoot?” his on-screen partner asked him.
A rocket tore through the glove of another journalist, burning his finger, and one also zinged through a woman’s jeans. Someone yelled, “This is worse than running with the bulls!”
By some miracle, I survived intact. Dazed, but apparently free from any evil spirits, I went to offer my thanks to the deity in charge.
Guan Yu, obviously, is very dear to the people of Yan Shui. The real, historical Guan Yu was a general, admired for his bravery, military exploits, loyalty, and righteousness. After his death, he was elevated to Saintly Emperor Guan, and temples and shrines were built to him. In 1885, the dual horror of cholera and plague spread through the population. There were no hospitals or adequate medical care, so locals turned to Guan Yu for help. They set off firecrackers to honor him and to chase away evil spirits. Gradually, the afflictions subsided, and it became a tradition to light firecrackers or bottle rockets to the god of war during the Lantern Festival (15 days after the lunar New Year). The celebration became known as the Beehive Bottle Rocket Festival — one wonders, if Guan Yu were still alive, if even he would risk the bottle-rocket attack.
For a tamer experience of the Lantern Festival (which is sometimes referred to as a “second New Year”), I donned normal clothes and headed for the town of Pingshi. I was handed a marker pen and invited to write my prayers on a large, reinforced paper lantern. When I’d finished someone lit a fire underneath it and I watched my lantern ascend with hundred of others, glowing in the night sky, growing small until it vanished — delivering, I hoped, my wishes to the gods.
In Yilan County, I gaped in admiration at the two-story-high illuminated lanterns in the shape of a phoenix, a horse, a rainbow with clouds, and an ox. All around the lanterns, people laughed, ate, and flirted.
Even though the Lantern Festival takes place at the time of year when worshippers in Taoist and Buddhist temples make offerings to the gods, ask for favors and blessings, and consult with soothsayers about the future, it’s also a big party where one can dodge rockets, illuminate lanterns, and celebrate the sheer joy of being alive.
Judith Fein is an author, filmmaker, and public speaker. Her website is globaladventure.us.