The Environmental Impact of Flooding and the Development of Flood-related Rituals in Yilan, Taiwan
Yilan, located at the northeast of Taiwan, is nestled right between the mountains and the sea. It is isolated, and its terrain goes from high in the west to low in the east. The Yilan Chuoshui River (now Lanyang River) that runs through the middle, along with the alluvial fan and delta that the river flows through forms the principle topography of the Yilan Plain. Yilan is prone to rain, regardless if it is from summer typhoons, or the rains brought by the northeast monsoons of winter. They all bring about large amounts of water to the region. Whenever the rainfall suddenly intensifies the Lanyang River has the potential to flood, leading to diversions of the downstream rivers and causing low-lying areas to nearly turn into a postdiluvian world. The earliest aborigines to inhabit the Yilan Plain were the Kavalans, who had an extremely strong affinity for water. Living scatted over the watery Yilan Plains, the fishing, hunting, sailing and trade that made up their livelihoods all arose from a direct dependency on the water. In the first year of the Emperor Jiaqing of the Ch’ing dynasty’s reign (1796), Han Chinese began to settle and cultivate land in the Yilan Plains. The agricultural lifestyle of Han Chinese settlers was completely different from that of the Kavalans, and with their superior agricultural skills, the Han Chinese gradually became the more powerful ethnic group of the plains. Han Chinese hamlets developed along the areas under cultivation; however, when torrential rain approached, floods broke out bringing a large amount of sand, completely burying entire areas. This caused great loss of life and property in many Han Chinese hamlets. This paper first analyzes and discusses the natural and cultural background behind the ease of Yilan to suffer from flooding, with emphasis placed on the relationship between the people and their geographical surroundings. The effects on Yilan brought by flooding were great, and records of flooding began from the Ch’ing dynasty. However, due to limitations in technological ability, there was quite a lack of Ch’ing era flooding prevention in Yilan. Through the modernization brought by the power of the colonial government during the Japanese colonial period, colonial authorities in Taiwan began to construct levees along the Yilan Chuoshui River. Since then, residents along the banks of the river have been able to reduce the hardship brought by floods. Yet, due to the topography and climate of the Yilan Plains, the levees are unable to completely eradicate flooding. As a result, residents along the banks of the river still harbor a fear of flooding. Among Yilan residents, they refer to the flooding invading their land as “tso-tuā-tsui” (“invading floods”). Moreover, the historical memory of “tso-tuā-tsui” exists forever within the hearts and minds of the residents, which we can discover from memoirs, literary works, and oral history. The second focal point of discussion in this paper looks at how the people of Yilan made use of rituals in their popular religion to respond to flooding. This paper takes the Shengou area on the north bank of the Lanyang River as an example, entering the discussion from Han Chinese water beliefs. By going into the Shengou area to conduct field research, and making use of oral interviews and recorded “pai-poh” (ceremonies involving praying on the levees), this paper aims to analyze the significance behind the belief in malicious spirits and flood rituals in local areas that suffer from floods. The people of Yilan live in an unstable environment brought about in no small measure by the hardships of flooding. The development and construction of this area is interdependent with the flooding situation of the area. This paper observes and studies flood related rituals, and we can see that the people of Yilan themselves are a part of nature. Through the earliest popular religion of making sacrificial offering to the gods, they attempted to dispel the menace and fear brought about by flooding to the area, while at the same time sought to reach a balance with nature.
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