Blog / Culture

Small Town Portraits: Boat-Burning at Donggang

Often bypassed by tourists heading from Kaohsiung to Kenting National Park — or ignored by those who use it as a jumping-off point for excursions to the island of Little Liuqiu — the southern town of Donggang deserves more than a glance. And if you’re visiting Taiwan in the autumn of 2024, you might even want to time your trip to fit in Donggang’s spectacular boat-burning festival.

Now home to 46,000 people, Donggang still feels like the fishing village it used to be. Small boats tie up less than 100 metres from Donglong Temple. Turn any corner and you’re likely to see someone shucking oysters or fixing a net. Taiwanese gourmets drive in from other parts of Pingtung and Kaohsiung to enjoy seafood at one of the town’s restaurants or inside Huaqiao Seafood Market. Several of the market’s eateries serve sashimi. Other options include shark meat fried with ginger, garlic, and pickled cabbage.

Donggang seafood vendor

Foodies often talk of Donggang’s ‘three culinary treasures’. The first of these is bluefin tuna, usually consumed in the form of sashimi. So great is the anticipation that builds up ahead of bluefin season that the first fish to be caught is often auctioned for over £250 per kilogram, with top-notch restaurants as far away as Tokyo competing to bring it to their diners.  

The other treasures are sakura shrimp and escolar roe. The former are tiny and usually served shallow fried and lightly seasoned on white rice. The latter is carved into thin slices and eaten cold. At its best, it offers an engrossing combination of cheese-like flavours and textures. Like much of Taiwan’s food scene, the seafood restaurants of Donggang are used to serving locals. The best way to enjoy their signature dishes is by arranging a Life of Taiwan private tour and letting your guide introduce items and order on your behalf.

Taiwan is now one of the world’s safest tourist destinations and its people benefit from a much-admired universal health insurance system. The island wasn’t always this comfortable, however. For most of its history, Taiwan was a thoroughly unhealthy place. In the 1700s, it was said that of every ten people who migrated here from the Chinese mainland, “just three remain; six are dead, and one has returned home.” Until the late 1940s, cholera, scrub typhus, and bilharzia were major health threats. Victory over malaria wasn’t declared until 1965.

In an atmosphere of superstition and scientific ignorance, the Taiwanese of the 17th and 18th centuries blamed epidemics on malevolent spirits. Then as now they sacrificed incense and joss paper to deities they believed could protect them.

The roof of Donglong Temple, Donggang

For perhaps 1,000 years, until such rituals were suppressed by the Communist regime, people in southern China conducted plague-god rites. These were designed to expel disease-spreading demons by leading them onto boats which were then burned or set to float out to sea. 

This tradition was carried to Taiwan by early migrants. Because prevailing sea currents mean that vessels pushed out to sea usually come right back to Taiwan, local plague-expulsion festivals culminate in boat burnings — and Donggang now has the biggest and most fascinating event anywhere in the Chinese world. 

Hosted by Donglong Temple, these festivals are celebrated in each Year of the Goat, Year of the Dog, Year of the Ox, and Year of the Dragon. Next year (2024) will be a Dragon year, so planning for what’s now called the King’s Ship Festival is well underway. If you have an interest in witnessing this deeply impressive expression of religion and tradition, contact Life of Taiwan today and begin planning your guided tour of Taiwan.

The key characters in the festival are known as Wang Ye, supernatural personalities once feared as plague-spreading fiends but now honoured as protective spirits capable of preventing all manner of calamities.

Loading the King’s Ship during the triennial festival

The King’s Ship is assembled by volunteer craftsmen and completed well in advance. Built to precise dimensions decided by means of divination, then adorned with delicate paintings of dragons, elephants, and sages, each vessel is a thing of beauty. The cost is often upwards of £200,000. 

The festival lasts an entire week with the biggest crowds on the final day and night. If you arrive early, you can follow the boat as it’s dragged through the town, drawing evil influences aboard. The vessel then returns to Donglong Temple where rites cow evil spirits into submission with the help of boiling oil, fireworks, and whips, while expressing thanks to beneficial ones through chanting, drumming, and pipe music.

At dusk, the loading begins of items chosen to amuse and distract the supernatural entities who’ve been hoodwinked into boarding the ship: Tobacco pipes, dice for gambling, plus utensils and condiments for cooking. Every item is highly traditional. The spoons and buckets are wood not plastic. Earthenware pots hold drinking water. The writing materials are inkstones and calligraphy brushes. The boat is equipped with a miniature cannon and a tiny lifeboat. These dimensions make sense when you consider that the effigies aboard the King’s Ship are seldom more than 40 cm tall.

As dawn breaks, the boat is still aflame

After midnight, the hundreds of volunteers who make the festival happen drag the boat to a nearby beach. The masts are erected, the sails unfurled, and the anchors raised. Hundreds of bales of joss paper are piled around the hull and an hour or so before dawn the wooden ship is consigned to the flames. Fire consumes the boat with shocking speed. Seeing the hull char and the sails disintegrate as the sky begins to brighten is an unforgettable experience. At least half of the crowd set out for home well before the flames die down — just knowing that the evils aboard the ship are being consigned to another world means they’ll sleep well at night. But first-timers often stick around, beguiled by the smouldering wreckage and processing the extraordinary rite they’ve just witnessed.

Effigies of plague gods going up in flames

If you think Donggang’s boat-burning celebration or another of Taiwan’s festivals could be a cornerstone around which you could enjoy and explore this diverse island, get in touch with our experts today to plan your Taiwan guided tour. We will devise an itinerary that precisely reflects your interests, the speed at which you like to experience a destination, as well as your culinary and accommodation preferences.