A rare and dramatic sight near the beaches and rivers of Taiwan is that of a finely crafted, intricately decorated wooden boat being burnt to ash, a practice called Burning the King's Boat.
The origins of this ceremony are thought to go back to the Tang dynasty (唐朝) more than a thousand years ago, and are linked to the worship of a class of deities, collectively known as Wang Ye (王爺), known indevidually by their surnames and thought to number in the hundreds. There are many Wang Ye worshipped in Taiwan, all once people who ascended to the title after death as reward for acts of bravery or compensation for their sacrifice. One legend for the origin of a group of Wang Ye is called 'San Shi Liu Jin Shi Ni Shui' (三十六進士溺水), meaning 'thirty six scholars who passed the highest civil service exam in Imperial China drown in water.'
According to this legend, during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor sent thirty six highly educated scholars to travel the kingdom and spread word of the emperor's accomplishments and good character. However, bad weather damaged the boat and all thirty six drowned. The Emperor wanted to calm their spirits and so gave them the title Dai Tian Shun Shou (代天巡狩) meaning 'on behalf of heaven patrolling and hunting.' They were tasked with seeking out evil and particularly plague, and destroying it. To this end, the emperor built a boat, called the King Boat (王船, Wang Chuan), placed thirty six tablets representing the drowned men inside, and launched it into the water.
In older times these boats were sent out, unmanned, on rivers or seas, but more recently they have been burnt, over fears that the drifting ships could endanger other sailers. These King Boats from Southern China washing up on Taiwan's South East coast may well be how the practice first spread to Taiwan.
Other beliefs about the origins of some Wang Ye include a legend that five scholars travelling for an Imperial exam discovered that plague demons (瘟神, Wen Shen) were planning to poison the well, the locals main water supply. In a desperate act to convince the local people not to drink the water, they jumped into the well and died. When the people found their bodies in the well, they knew not to drink the water and so were saved, and the scholars were elevated to Wang Ye for their sacrifice. Thus Wang Ye are heavily linked to sickness and plague, and one of the primary functions of the ceremony to burn the King's Boat is to protect the area from disease. As well as statues or tablets representing the Wang Ye, effigies of plague demons are often put in the plague boat, and Spirit Mediums and Taoist Priests perform rituals to force or trick such demons into the boat so they can be burnt, and thus sent away, with it.
Wang Ye worship, and thus King Boat ceremonies, are particularly prevalent in Southwestern Taiwan, although they take place around the island. However, due to the time and cost of crafting and decorating the boat, these events do not occur often. The two largest and best known are at Donggang (東港) in the South, and Xigang (西港) in Southwestern Taiwan. These each occur on the same year as each other, every three years, the next ceremonies being in 2018.
The actual boat burning in each of these festivals comes at the end of several days of activities, with the Wang Ye responsible for that years ceremony being named by divination and summoned by Spirit Mediums. There is then a procession involving many temple troupes such as lion dancers, dragon dancers and Ba Jia Jiang, who accompany the Wang Ye, in statue or tablet form, through the local streets. The boat itself is also paraded through the streets at the end of the festival. Although traditionally this type of ceremony is mainly believed to combat plague, modern healthcare has rendered such diseases as a less serious concern, and so the boat is thought to collect any form of bad luck from the places and people it passes. Ultimately, it is taken out from the temple to the place of burning, where various rituals are performed, including palanquins carrying Wang Ye and other deities being carried around the boat in a circle. It is then surrounded by a virtual sea of 'ghost money,' filled with paper or wooden representations of the supplies that would have accompanied such a voyage such as livestock, and set alight. At this point the more devout will leave, afraid of being affected by the misfortunes being burnt and of the doorway to the spirit realm through which the boat is believed to pass.
As well as these well known festivals with boats that are often twenty feet long, many smaller such festivals take place around Taiwan, although usually by less well resourced Temples who cannot stage them with such frequency. These boats are often a fraction of the size and the entire ceremonies can take place in a single day, but are less known to tourists and thus special in their own way.