The Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition, or Qianggu, a festival that originated in the Qing Dynasty, is the largest and most unique of all Qianggu festivals in Taiwan. Its origin is closely linked to the settlement and development of the Yilan plain. The emergence of the festival is a reflection of the hardships faced by the people who immigrated to this area of Taiwan, while the ritual preserves the religious sentiments of freeing wandering spirits from purgatory and showing reverence for one’s ancestors. At the Qianggu competition, participants pay homage to the cooperative effort, struggle, and spirit of sharing that characterized their immigrant ancestors. The tower used at the Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition is the tallest in Taiwan, resulting in an intense and exciting experience that is at once educational and entertaining.
The earliest record of the Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition dates back to the Daoguang Era (1782–1850) of the Qing Dynasty. Legend has it that trade links to China through Wushi Fishing Port facilitated the transmission of the festival from China to Taiwan. The Toucheng Qianggu festival started in Taiwan because Chinese immigrants who settled in the Yilan plain frequently endured natural disasters, disease, and wars. Those who died in the new land or on the journey over became wandering souls unable to return home (in Chinese tradition, people who die away from home become wandering spirits). Therefore, in the seventh lunar month of every year, local residents raised funds to host the Passage Ceremony (pǔdù) to guide lost and wandering souls toward salvation and passage into the afterlife. In addition, on the final night of the Ghost Festival, a massive ghost grappling competition was held to commemorate Taiwanese residents’ ancestral forebears. Participating teams worked together to climb a gupeng, a tower composed of pillars supporting a platform over ten meters tall, to capture offerings and a flag that could be found at the top of a guzhan, a tall bamboo trestlework spire surmounting the platform. However, because the competition was highly dangerous and embodied war-related concepts, it was banned between the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republican period. In 1991, the people of Toucheng, Yilan modified and reintroduced it, adding numerous security measures. The Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition thus evolved from a festival centered on helping wandering spirits to a competitive event. Since then, it has grown into both a major tourist attraction and a local folk-performance and sporting event.
1Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition Event Schedule:
The Ghost Grappling Competition is only one part of Toucheng’s Ghost Festival. The schedule of events includes:
1. The 1st day of the 7th lunar month: festival opening; prayers to the heavenly gods and deceased ancestors.
2. The 15th day of the 7th lunar month: the fanpeng (a tower shorter than the gupeng topped with a single spire) ceremony; scripture readings to free wandering spirits from purgatory.
3. The 25th day of the 7th lunar month: the invocation of the presence of the gods at the festival.
4. The 26th day of the 7th lunar month: the dipper lamp-lighting ceremony performed by Taoist priests at the temple altar. (The dipper-shaped lamps bearing surnames of clans are used in Taoist ritual to pray for family blessings).
5. The 27th day of the 7th lunar month: sacrificial offerings to ancestors during a pilgrimage to the badazhuang (the twenty-four villages of modern-day Toucheng Township as well as Yushi and Baiyun Villages in neighboring Jiaoxi Township).
6. The 28th day of the 7th lunar month: inspection tour and lighting of the water lanterns.
7. The 29th day of the 7th lunar month, 11:00 p.m.: the Ghost Grappling Competition (a preliminary competition is first held at the fanpeng before the official competition begins).
2Constructing the Bamboo Trestlework Towers
To contribute to the Qianggu festival, villagers from Toucheng Township work jointly to construct the bamboo trestlework towers, called guzhan; the process builds community spirit. Because the guzhan are thirteen meters tall and offerings such as chicken, duck, pork, rice dumplings, calamari, rice noodles, shrimp, and crab are tied to the top, they must be firmly fixed. Materials used to secure the guzhan include rattan, nylon cord, plastic cord, and metal wire.
3The Small Tower
The primary towers used at the Toucheng Ghost Grappling are the fanpeng (small tower) and the gupeng (large tower). The fanpeng is also called the beggar’s tower. Basket upon basket of white rice is placed on the fanpeng for the Taoist priest to perform the ritual multiplication of the food so that all hungry spirits can eat their fill.
4The Large Tower
The gupeng, or large tower, is built for the official Ghost Grappling Competition. Structurally, it can be divided vertically into three parts. The bottom section is comprised of a support scaffolding made of twelve Chinese fir pillars measuring approximately thirty-three meters long each. A platform known as a daotapeng built at the top of the pillars increases the difficulty of completing the competition. Above the daotapeng are thirteen bamboo trestlework spires called guzhan that measure approximately eleven meters tall each and have offerings such as chicken, duck, and pork attached. Topping each guzhan are a gold medal and a wind banner. To make things even harder, the pillars are greased, so participants can to experience first-hand how difficult it is to free lost and wandering souls from suffering.
The Toucheng Ghost Grappling begins at 11 p.m., at which point each Qianggu team of five is assigned a pillar and given a hemp rope as a climbing aid. At the sound of the gong, the participants wrap their arms around their pillar and begin the climb upward. Because the pillar is greased, the teams must rely on teamwork, clambering over teammates and standing on one another’s shoulders to work their way up. The teammate who reaches the top of the pole can only get up onto the tower by performing a pullover—a gymnastic technique of swinging the body backwards around a horizontal bar feet first—as he swings onto the platform upside-down. This is the most difficult and dramatic stage of the Ghost Grappling Competition as well as the one in which participants are most prone to sustain injuries from falls. Finally, after scaling one of the spires, the first person to cut loose the binding cords and capture the flag and gold medal at the very top is declared the winner.
The Toucheng Ghost Grappling Competition is open to all interested participants from home and abroad. Males over twenty years of age (regardless of the location of their household registry) who are healthy, have no history of heart disease, and have climbing experience may form a team and register for the event. Each team should consist of a team captain and five members (the captain may not participate in the climb). To register, please contact the Ghost Festival Association of Toucheng Township, Yilan County at (03) 977-1459.