City God Festival in Lunar August
畫布油彩 Oil on canvas
嘉義市立美術館典藏 Collection of Chiayi Art Museum
Rollicking groups of performers parade into the center of the canvas, which has been transformed into a profusion of colors—red, yellow, orange, and green. Looking at the chaotic mingled shapes, we can almost feel the bustling of the crowd and hear the cacophony of percussion instruments and voices.
In 1929, Chen Cheng-po left for Shanghai to teach art, but sometimes returned home for summer vacation, in which case he could experience the City God Inspection Tour that took place each year at the beginning of the eighth lunar month. To Chen, this grand ceremony was a symbol of his hometown and the local folk culture. It was also, of course, an excellent subject for his paintings.
1. 城隍 The city god
The city god is the guardian spirit of a municipality and administers justice in the netherworld as well. During the Qing Dynasty, each time a new prefecture, county, or township was founded, a temple or shrine would be erected at which villagers could pay their respects to the guardian spirit. As an example, construction of Chiayi’s City God Temple began in 1715 following the founding of the county. During Japanese rule, the temple—a relic of a former power—continued to receive support from local residents. And to this day, the people of Chiayi are blessed and protected by their city god.
2. 祭典 The ceremony
In several different locales across Taiwan, there are elaborate ceremonies to welcome the city god. In 1908, gentry and wealthy merchants from Chiayi proposed following the example of Taipei’s Xia-Hai City God Temple and holding an annual inspection tour to create greater local prosperity. The Chiayi City God Festival was thus initiated. With rapid growth of the local lumber industry during Japanese rule, lumber merchants gradually became strong supporters of the ceremony.
3. 遶境 Inspection tour
An “inspection tour” refers to a religious ceremony in which believers parade the statue of a deity out of its temple and throughout the territory over which that god serves as protector. According to popular belief, a visit from the god can purify evil spirits and quell the spread of disease. In the past, inspection tours were important occasions which mobilized the whole community, strengthening social ties and cultivating local identity.
4. 盛況 A grand occasion
Chiayi’s City God Inspection Tour gathered momentum year after year until by the 1930s the number of participants from near and far reached over one hundred thousand. As its scale continued to broaden, the celebration grew in extravagance. During the daytime, artistic troupes competed to see who could produce the biggest crowd-pleaser, and at night, musical ensembles performed to the audience’s delight. Day and night, crowds stopped to enjoy the show.
5. 藝閣 Floats
Traditionally, float platforms were lifted and conveyed along the parade route by the combined strength of several individuals. Their construction was often funded by commercial associations and they were featured in various celebrations. Many float-top performances recounted folktales or stories from traditional opera, usually interpreted by children or female entertainers in period makeup and costume. During Japanese rule, folk festivals frequently hosted float competitions; as a result, the decor and artistry of floats continued to evolve.
A float appearing in a 1915 parade.
6. 旗幟 Banners
Flying high above the crowds were banners bearing the insignia of the city god or inscribed with the advertising slogans of various businesses. The inspection tour was one of the rare celebrations that had the power to attract bustling crowds. Corporations and businesses often seized the opportunity to generate publicity and produced banners and other promotional materials for the occasion. Along the parade route, these banners added bright colors to the scene.
7. 斗笠 Bamboo hats
During Japanese rule, Chiayi’s City God Inspection Tour normally fell on the third or fourth day of the eighth lunar month. Even though summer was coming to an end, temperatures along the Tropic of Cancer remained uncomfortably high. It was hard to bear the heat on a normal day, let alone throughout a morning-to-night celebration. This perhaps explains why the men in Chen’s painting are all wearing bamboo hats—to block the scorching rays of the sun.