Neimen Song Jiang Battle Ritual A Classic Event Never Fades
【◎Written by Huang Da-wei ◎English translation by Hou Ya-ting ◎Photos by Huang Jing-wen】
The opening ceremony of the Neimen Song Jiang Battle Ritual at Neimen Zihjhu Temple on February 22 was well attended by spectators eager to see legendary Song Jiang battle troupes perform. The combination of dazzling martial-arts moves, powerful kicks, and dexterous leaps fascinated the crowd.
Kaohsiung's Neimen District is a hilly region characterized by a unique badlands landscape. Much of the soil is saline, so agriculture is difficult. As a result, the district's inhabitants have long suffered deprivation. Before the 20th century, frequent bandit attacks added to villagers' misery.
In order to defend themselves, Neimen residents began to practice various martial arts. Over several generations, they honed their fighting skills, and these self-defense practices have evolved into today's Song Jiang Battle Ritual, a flourishing folk art.
This tradition encompasses text troupes and armed battle troupes. Text troupes contribute instrumental or theater performances, whereas armed battle troupes contribute to a variety of arrays. Most importantly, Neimen residents diligently rehearse these traditional folk arts in order to perform for Guan Yin — the name by which the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, known elsewhere as Avalokite?vara, is called in Chinese-speaking communities — on her birthday (the 29th day of the second lunar month, late March on the Gregorian calendar). These troupes are of islandwide cultural significance, and a source of pride for Neimen residents.
Neimen's current name derives from its 18th-century toponym Luohanmen, which literally means Gates of Arhats. The key part of Neimen's Guan Yin celebrations, the “Greeting Guan Yin Procession in Luohanmen,” has been a feature of life in Neimen for more than two centuries.
From the 14th day to the 17th day of the second lunar month, villagers participate in a challenging 80km procession through the entire district and peripheral villages located in mountainous terrain. According to custom, villagers have to form eight lion and dragon battle troupes, four Song Jiang battle troupes, and two dragon battle troupes, to accompany the palanquins which carry effigies of Guan Yin. Legend has it that during the procession, Guan Yin and her human supporters subdue demons and monsters and expel evil.
Since 2015, Taiwan's Ministry of Culture has recognized Neimen's Song Jiang Battle Ritual as a national-level intangible cultural heritage asset.
On February 27, Neimen Zihjhu Temple announced the cancelation of this year's Guan Yi procession and associated Song Jiang battle troupe performances in accordance with central government policies designed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus / COVID-19.
The procession is usually an annual event, the management of which switches every three years between Neimen Zihjhu Temple and Neimen Nanhai Zihjhu Temple. This year would have been Neimen Zihjhu Temple's third consecutive year organizing the procession. The temple's leadership announced that, since the purpose of the procession is to celebrate Guan Yin's birthday, postponement would not be appropriate. Accordingly, the procession was canceled altogether.
“Greeting Guan Yin Procession in Luohanmen” is a custom rooted in local religion and lifestyles; outsiders who observe or participate in this event can enjoy the richness of local culture, as well as the tremendous hospitality of Neimen residents.
Neimen Zihjhu Temple
No. 18, Ln. 115, Jhongjheng Rd., Neimen Dist., Kaohsiung City