I have to say that in Taiwan, we don’t often repeat ourselves. Especially now that our time here is running out, I like to reserve our weekends for new experiences. Last weekend was the exception. Last year, we enjoyed the Kaoshiung Neimen Song-Jiang Jhen Battle Array so much that we had it bouncing around our heads all year. It only made sense that we would return to it again in 2014.
What is so special about this festival that made us go twice? The answer is simple. The Battle Array festival combines everything I think of when I imagine classic Taiwanese tradition: martial arts, booming drums, temples, street food, and dancing gods, lions, and dragons.
While the festival only just completed its thirteenth year, the history of the battle array goes back over a century. Originally, Song Jiang, the leader of a group of bandits, invented the battle array in order to train his henchmen. He split his men into two separate groups and gave each man a weapon (think shields, canes, and knives). He then led them in a series of mock duels.
Seeing how successful Song Jiang’s bandits were in combat, local military groups
adopted the method as a training method. Various weapons, formations, and musical instruments were added to the battle array in order to keep the troops in tip-top form.
As Taiwan has moved more toward modern country and away from home-grown bandit and pirate-fighting militias, the tradition of the battle array has become a ritual performed at temples for deities’ birthdays. The teams have also shrunk in size. The original battle array consisted of 107 members. Today, most arrays have only 72 or 36 members.
Like any tradition seeped in history, there is now a movement to preserve the ritual. In recent years, the number of teams training for such battle array performances has shrunk drastically. Seeing this, the government sought out a suitable place to hold the battle array festival.
They chose tiny Neimen in rural Kaohsiung. This town of 15,000 people has 50 to 60 martial arts groups making it an obvious choice for the new Kaohsiung Neimen Song- Jiang Jhen Battle Array. The high density of martial arts groups owes to Neimen’s tumultuous history of uprisings. The valor of Neimen’s warriors is famous throughout Taiwan.
Today, the festival includes a variety of activities. Martial arts troupes from around Taiwan and abroad are invited to show off their moves during the two week festival. In addition, university students in traditional battle array teams participate in a multilevel competition over two weekends. This competition is broadcast over national TV and the winning team takes home some serious bragging rights as well as a good deal of money.
While the martial arts performances are ongoing, festival-goers can sample a wide array of local street food, view fireworks displays, watch traditional deity parades, and see daring lion dancers teetering high on unsteady-looking poles. Visitors can also tour Neimen’s intricate temples, participate in art exhibitions, and learn about Kaohsiung’s rich martial arts history. The entire festival is a nearly overwhelming cacophony of colorful sights and traditional sounds.
There are two ways in which to reach Neimen.
- With your own transport: Follow Highway 22 north from Kaohsiung. In Qishan, turn keep left through all the forks in the road. Then, turn left on Highway 3. Neimen is only another 3 kilometers down the road. Be sure to check the event website for more specific directions within Neimen as the festival seems to move from temple to temple.
- By bus: Take a bus to Qishan from Kaohsiung Train Station or Zuoying HSR Station. The festival operates a free shuttle bus on Saturdays and Sundays from Qishan’s bus terminal to the festival location.
In order to secure a good spot for the performances, be sure to arrive early. The festival is popular and good viewing areas are often limited. It may be a good idea to bring a small stool on which to stand. Performances generally begin around 9, but there is a mid-day break during which time the crowd rearranges itself. The performances recommence around 1:30 in the afternoon.
For more information on the 2014 and the upcoming 2015 festival, be sure to check the event’s webpage: www.who-ha.com.tw (Chinese only).
You can also watch this year’s top performances as filmed by Taiwan’s Channel 32 at http://www.ctitv.com.tw/drama_video_c341v163467.html. (Note the video is cut into 12 parts.)