Baosheng Cultural Festival: A Festive Event Full of History, Religion and Community

WORDS BY Joe Henley

PHOTOS BY Chang Ziyu, Samil Guo, Su Jianan, Xie Chenghan, Department of Information and Tourism, Taipei City Government

The Baosheng Cultural Festival (保生文化祭) is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in Taiwanese culture. Originally a birthday party for Baosheng Emperor (保生大帝), the god of medicine, the festivities have grown into a two month-long celebration of Taiwan’s history and culture. At the center of it all is Dalongdong Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮) in Taipei, where the deity Baosheng Emperor celebrates his birthday during the third lunar month. (Read more: Ten Festivals Worth Planning your Taiwan Holiday around (Part one))

To introduce you to the Dalongdong (大龍峒) area of Taipei, where many of the key events of the Baosheng Cultural Festival take place, we interviewed Stephanie Huffman, an American writer currently based in Taipei. In addition to writing a book about Taiwan, Huffman is focusing her graduate studies on Taiwanese history and culture. 

Baosheng Cultural Festival is one of Taiwan's most representative celebrations. (photo_Chang Ziyu)
Baosheng Cultural Festival is one of Taiwan’s most representative celebrations. (photo Chang Ziyu)

“ I’ve lived in Taiwan for two years and just love it here. ”

Stephanie Huffman might be a relative newcomer in the Taipei ex-patriot community, but she has gotten more out of her brief time in Taiwan’s capital than most could cram into a decade. With a recently released book, Formosa Moon, a quirky, fun, and informative Taiwan travelogue she co-wrote along with her partner, travel writer Joshua Samuel Brown, and a graduate degree in Taiwanese history and culture from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University due this summer, Huffman has quickly become a sought after voice on all things Taipei. 

Author and student Stephanie Huffman is passionate about Taiwanese temple culture. (photo_Sami Guo)
Author and student Stephanie Huffman is passionate about Taiwanese temple culture. (photo_Sami Guo)

We caught up with Huffman for a chat about the upcoming Baosheng Cultural Festival, which runs from April to June. But before getting into all that, we wanted to know what Huffman, a lifelong student and observer of many different cultures, finds especially fascinating about Taiwanese culture itself. The answer, it turns out, is something near and dear to her heart — the art of puppetry — a theme that turns up from time to time in Formosa Moon.

An Intro to the Baosheng Emperor & the Baosheng Cultural Festival

“Taiwanese glove puppetry is a very unique art form,” says Huffman. “You can see a puppet show live or watch the excellent Pili puppet show (霹靂布袋戲) on television. I highly recommend seeing a puppet show and visiting a puppet museum.”

Taiwanese glove puppetry does have a strong connection with the Baosheng Cultural Festival, as it is one of the performances of the jiaxingxi (家姓戲), literally “family name plays”, during festival time. The plays, Huffman further explains, are done in the classical Chinese style, and bear the names of local families who sponsor their production. All of this is done to honor the man of the hour, or rather the man of the month (two months, actually), Baosheng Emperor, a deity Huffman has had ample time to study during the course of her degree. 

“Baosheng Emperor was a doctor who lived in China during the 10th century,” she explains. “It is said that the death of his parents inspired him to study medicine. He was known for his healing abilities and for helping the poor, and today he is worshiped as the God of Medicine.” 

Baosheng Emperor is kept busy, Huffman says, by the prayers of Taiwan’s faithful for personal healing or for the good health of their loved ones. Even those who have been cured of an ailment might show up at a temple dedicated to the Medicine God to offer their prayers of gratitude. But of course, the best time to show one’s reverence for the one responsible for that most irreplaceable aspect of life — good health — is during the festival named for the god himself.  (Read more: 13 Tips for having a deeper Taiwan Temple experience)

The dragon and lion dance performances are lively and extraordinary. (photo Su Jianan)

The dragon and lion dance performances are lively and extraordinary. (photo Su Jianan)

Can’t-Miss Cultural Events

The festival began, Huffman says, as a single-day celebration of Baosheng Emperor’s birthday. “Over the years,” she goes on, “it has grown into an expanded two month-long festival. There are many events to attend, including religious ceremonies, traditional dances and the well-known Fire Lion fireworks display. Numerous varieties of folk art will be on display and local families host traditional Chinese plays throughout the festivities.” 

“Fire Lion” is one of the highlights of the Baosheng Culture Festival. (photo Wang Nengyou)
“Fire Lion” is one of the highlights of the Baosheng Culture Festival. (photo Wang Nengyou)

During those festivities, there is a lot to take in, as Taipei becomes a cauldron of activity and a metropolis standing in tribute to one of its most beloved celestial beings. Visitors might notice this as a time when temple processions abound in the streets with much revelry and fanfare. These parades, says Huffman, are actually something of an inspection tour, a ritual that is said to bring peace to the community. As for what else can be expected?

“Palanquins carrying gods and other sacred items will be carried in the streets near the temple,” says Huffman of her own experience in taking in the proceedings. “Large puppets will be worn, and you can see them walking and dancing during the processions. There will be a fire walking ritual, traditional opera performances, drumming, dancing and lots of fireworks.” 

The Deeper Meaning of the Baosheng Cultural Festival

Fireworks are not the only pyrotechnic display on deck, however. No, there is something far more impressive at play, and that’s saying something, given the awe-inspiring nature of the fireworks shows that take place during the festival. During the course of the Baosheng Cultural Festival, those who count themselves among the most devoted and brave of Baosheng Emperor’s believers may prove their devotion by walking barefoot across burning hot coals. 

Three offering ceremony (三獻禮) to celebrate the birth of the Baosheng Emperor. (photo Xie Chenghan)
Three offering ceremony (三獻禮) to celebrate the birth of the Baosheng Emperor. (photo Xie Chenghan)

“For some, fire walking is an act of devotion which may deepen their faith,” says Huffman. On the other hand, she adds, “Others walk across the burning coals as an expression of empowerment. It is a powerful exercise either way!”

In keeping with the fire theme, the fire lion is another deeply important ritual of the festival, wherein a lion statue is set ablaze in front of the temple, and tens of thousands of beehive rockets light up the night sky. Burning the lion, says Huffman, is said to ward off bad luck. 

In addition to these dynamic cultural events, the Baosheng Culture Festival also comprises many activities such as sketch competitions, religious lectures, and historic art tours. In order to make local temples a center of faith for residents, Baoan Temple also organizes a number of social welfare activities, such as awarding scholarships to outstanding students and holding free public health checkups. Thus the Baosheng Cultural Festival not only plays an important role in balancing traditional and contemporary culture, but also provides a direct link between the daily lives of people in Taipei and their unique Taiwanese culture. 

Many people and tourists participate in the Baosheng Cultural Festival. (photo Wang Nengyou)
Many people and tourists participate in the Baosheng Cultural Festival. (photo Wang Nengyou)

Explore the Culture of the Dalongdong Neighborhood

Speaking of Baoan Temple, the house of worship is set amidst the historic Dalongdong neighborhood, once a village unto itself in the days before many such villages expanded into one another to form the city of Taipei we all know today. Dalongdong is a favorite Taipei destination for Hu man, and a center of fascination for many visitors to a city where old and new have struck up a peaceful coexistence. 

The village dates back to the mid-1800s and there are many well-preserved historic buildings in the area. The center altar of Dalongdong Baoan Temple is surrounded by a building featuring murals on its exterior walls. These murals, painted by celebrated artist Pan Lishui (潘麗水), depict famous stories from Chinese mythology and are popular with tourists. The temples pillars are full of impressive artistic details. 

Right next door to Dalongdong Baoan Temple is Taipei Confucius Temple (臺北市孔廟), another important place of worship. 

Confucius (孔子), Huffman explains, was a Chinese philosopher and educator, and his writings on morality greatly influenced Chinese society. “The temple is the only one adorned with southern Fujian-style ceramic adornments among the Confucius temples in Taiwan,” she goes on. “Furthermore, there is a black plaque which was inscribed by the former President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) that reads, ’Educate without Discrimination’ (有教無類) at the main hall of the temple. Although highly revered, Confucius is not considered a god. His temples therefore honor his teachings,” she points out, “and not the man himself.” 

Dalongdong Baoan Temple 

🏠 61, Hami St., Datong Dist.
🕑 Monday to Sunday, 6:30am – 9:30pm
🚃 Take the MRT Red Line to Yuanshan Station ( 捷運圓山站 ). Go out of Exit 2 and follow Kulun Street to Dalong Street 

Taipei Confucius Temple 

🏠 275, Dalong St., Datong Dist.
🕑 Tuesday to Sunday, 8:30am – 9:00pm
🚃 Take the MRT Red Line to Yuanshan Station ( 捷運圓山站 ). Go out of Exit 2 and follow Kulun Street to Dalong Street 

Travel Around the Dalongdong Neighborhood

Moving away from Dalongdong Baoan Temple and Taipei Confucius Temple, there are many restaurants and traditional shops surrounding the temples that tourists may also be interested in. As for tourist spots nearby, Huffman highly recommend Taipei Expo Park (花博公園). The park was originally built for the 2010 Taipei International Flora Expo (2010台北國際花卉博覽會), but has since been converted into an urban recreational area. Inside the park, there is an open air food court called MAJI Square (集食行樂). Visitors can stroll through the marketplace and find things like locally-made honey and organic vegetables there. Also, visitors can explore the park areas of Yuanshan (圓山園區) and Xinsheng (新生園區), and then walk to the nearby Taipei Fine Arts Museum (臺北市立美術館).

After eating lunch at one of them many restaurants or food stands at MAJI Square, you can stroll through the marketplace and find things like locally made honey and organic vegetables. MAJI also serves as a performance expo so there’s a good chance you’ll hear music when you’re there.

The months surrounding the Baosheng Cultural Festival are a busy time for all, and for tourists visiting Taipei whether for the first time or the tenth, there is no better time to be in the capital. From centuries-old cultural practices to displays of art and pageantry, all are surrounded by some of the best food and drink to be found anywhere in the country in the heart of Dalongdong. This is a time when people come to together, faith is affirmed, and all are left looking forward to the festival’s speedy return the following year. 

Taipei Expo Park

🏠 1, Yumen St., Zhongshan Dist.
🕑 Monday to Sunday, all day
🚃 Take the MRT Red Line to Yuanshan Station. You will see the park from the station landing. 

MAJI Square 

🏠 1, Yumen St., Zhongshan Dist. (Inside Taipei Expo Park)
🕑 Monday to Sunday, 11:00am – 9:00pm 

Food to Sample in the Dalongdong Area

Here are some recommendations for where and what to eat in Dalongdong during the festival, or at any time of year for that matter. (Read more: Eight Great Taipei Hole-in-the-wall eateries)

Chongqing Soy Milk (重慶豆漿) 

Chongqing Soy Milk (重慶豆漿) 's deep fried Taiwanese egg crepe

What’s better than a crepe? If you answered a deep fried egg crepe then this is the place for you. This breakfast dish is crispy and flaky on the outside with a soft and chewy center. Pair this with a tall glass of soymilk for a Taiwanese-style breakfast. Soymilk lovers can start their day here with a morning cup. If you want to try a delicious deep fried Taiwanese egg crepe (炸蛋餅) this is the place to go.

🏠 32, Ln. 335, Sec.3, Chongqing N. Rd., Datong Dist. 
🕑 Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 5:30am – 11:30am、Saturday to Sunday, 5:30am – 13:00am

Hong Changji Pig’s Blood Soup (紅昌吉豬血湯) 

Hong Changji Pig’s Blood Soup (紅昌吉豬血湯)'s pig’s blood soup

If you want to eat like a local then a visit to Changji Street (昌吉街) is a must. Here you will find several distinctive dishes including pig’s blood soup. This dish is made with a soup broth base with added semi-solidified pieces of pig blood floating in your bowl. If pig blood soup isn’t your liking, their braised pork on rice (滷肉飯) or fried tofu (油豆 腐) are each a must-try dish.

🏠 3, Ln. 50, Changji St., Datong Dist.
🕑 Sunday to Saturday, 10:00am – 10:00pm 

The House of Black Tea ( 紅茶屋)

The House of Black Tea ( 紅茶屋) 's super cup black tea

Taiwan is famous for its tea and it will only take one cup of high-quality black tea to show you why. The shop has a history over 30 years and is still one of the most popular ones for the locals. This particular tea shop is known for their super cup, a tall and thick takeaway cup for tea lovers. Fans of bubble tea can also get their needs met here. The super cup black tea will fill your craving.

🏠 56-1, Ln. 335, Sec.3, Chongqing N. Rd., Datong Dist.
🕑 Sunday, Tuesday to Saturday, 6:00am – 10:30pm 

Dalongdong Nameless Oily Glutinous Rice (大龍峒無名油飯) 

Dalongdong Nameless Oily Glutinous Rice (大龍峒無名油飯) 's oily glutinous rice

This dish is a Taiwanese classic you won’t forget. This food stall’s oily glutinous rice (油飯) is served with fatty meat and a sweet, spicy sauce. This is a traditional home-cooked recipe so different neighborhood restaurants will put their own spin on the dish. It is often made with pork.

🏠 18, Aly. 18, Ln. 59, Hami St., Datong Dist. 
🕑 Sunday, Tuesday to Saturday, 5:30am – 9:15am 

Meinong Tailiang (美濃泰涼) 

Meinong Tailiang (美濃泰涼) 's signature millet donut

Grain millet is cultivated in Taiwan and is an important staple in the Aboriginal diet. Meinong Tailiang has turned this ingredient into a sweet snack. By combining millet flour with wheat flour, their signature millet donut is chewier than your standard donut.

🏠 13-1, Aly. 21, Ln. 59, Hami St., Datong Dist. 
🕑 Monday to Sunday, 10:00am – 8:00pm 

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