The February Opera
Having gone through long migrations and hard times, Hakka people have developed a precautious, prudent and conservative character which often reflects in their folk culture. There is no reckless enjoyment in life; mere coupled mountain song singing or a three-role tea-picking play is enough for entertainment. For the Hakka folks in earlier days, the most important annual event was the pingan (peace) drama to thank gods for looking after the people. An opera of this nature had to be solemn yet it was also the opportunity for everybody to watch a show for entertainment.
A show that stands out among all Hakka god-thanking operas is the February Opera in Meinong. In the old Hakka tradition, any time after Lantern Festival until the Tomb-sweeping Day is good for tomb sweeping, depending on the schedule of each household. The Hakka folks in Meinong also take the opportunity to pay respects to the Earth God, River God, the Jade Emperor and Lishe Zhenjun, the Snake God unique only to the Meinong area. Individual households used to conduct their own ceremonies. After the retrocession of Taiwan, the Youth Day was added to the calendar. In 1950s, the government promoted frugality in worshipping ceremonies to improve folk customs and somehow the Youth Day became the “unified” tomb-sweeping day for the people in Meinong. As a consequence, it naturally became the busiest day in town and the ceremonies for the river god and the snake god grew more and more lavish. It was not long before certain enthusiasts made the proposal to raise money for opera performance to express gratitude to the river god for the supply of water, the earth god for maintaining peace over the land and the snake god for guarding the crops to ensure good harvests. Thus the February Opera came to being and watching operas by the Meinong Bridge during the tomb-sweeping period became a unique custom in Meinong Town.
“Jianpao Cheng” is sometimes called “Shepao Cheng.” The one held during the Lantern Festival at the Ciyun Temple of Houlong Town in Miaoli County is the most famous. A miniature castle is hung at the tip of a 10-meter bamboo pole. The first contestant to throw lit firecrackers into the castle through either the front or the back gate to detonate the preinstalled explosive device inside is the winner. The original intention of lighting firecrackers was to ward off evil spirits and expel bad luck. Later it was used in occasions such as worshipping ceremonies, weddings and funerals, and god greeting, etc. to show solemnity. Today it has also become a gadget in celebrations and games.