Weng Chihchi, PhD candidate, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
“Blasting the God Handan with Firecrackers” is a Taiwanese folk religious rite that began in the Qing era. An important Lantern Festival custom, the ritual was carried out all over Taiwan prior to the Japanese colonial period. Due to public safety ordinances, however, Taitung is now the only place where the rite is still conducted. Originally named Zhao Gongming, Handan is a “god of wealth and war,” patron spirit of commercial enterprises and guardian of Taoist shrines; he is also known by the title “Lord of the Occult Altar” and similar honorifics. In Chinese “Handan” is written in a number of different ways, all transliterations of the Taiwanese (Holo) hân-tan.
The tradition of “blasting” Handan with firecrackers derives from evolving legends. In one version the god was said to be a “sun goblin,” one of the nine suns shot out of the sky by the mythical archer Houyi. 1 Handan dreaded cold; therefore, when people sought his blessings and protection, a shirtless man would be chosen to represent him, whereupon believers would hurl firecrackers at the man, both to warm the god and to verify his presence. Another version has it that Handan was a ruffian who terrorized all and sundry. Later, however, he came to rue his vicious ways; in repentance he allowed himself to be shackled and beaten to death at a temple fair by the people he had bullied. In a variation on that theme, Handan is tied to a palanquin and killed by volleys of firecrackers.
Because he is known as the “god of war and wealth” and the “gangster god,” Hantan is venerated by the criminal underworld. Ho Chao-ti’s The Gangster’s God (2006) looks at four gangsters from different backgrounds in order to discover what each of them gets out of the “Blasting Handan” rite. An impecunious youth eager to make a name for himself asks, “Can someone with tattoos be voted one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Persons 2 ?” A company manager wants to sever his gangland ties, but finds that he can’t because of business commitments: “I want to pick up a pen, but others are always forcing me to pick up a gun.” A temple head wants to make a new start and the Handan ceremony is exactly what he needs to pave his way to a career in politics. These “brothers” – a Taiwanese euphemism for gangsters – all look to the Handan ceremony to bring new meaning to their lives. They each know that “Every time you get on the palanquin you’d better be ready to die; once you’re on it, the firecrackers will take your skin off. And if you come down from the palanquin, you’ll have no status whatsoever.” Even in the midst of a firecracker hailstorm, those who take on the Handan role are uncommonly calm and confident. Off the palanquin, however, the men’s lives are still subject to ups and downs.
The Gangster’s God explores the aspirations of different economic classes from the perspective of underworld figures. Although they all have mob backgrounds, environment and personal choices have set them on different roads. The film follows the men after they’ve participated in the Handan ceremony: One is injured by fireworks, develops a mental disorder, and disappears; another attains status but loses his health; a third is elected councilman yet continues to nurture a new generation of gang members. The director sympathizes with the racketeers but also takes a look at the women in their lives, wives and girlfriends – when the men risk mortal danger in pursuit of success, the women quietly support them. Thus, the film raises an eyebrow at gender inequality in the underworld.
2An annual competition sponsored by the Taiwan Junior Chamber of Commerce.
|Related Literary Themes：||Nativist Literature|