The Pingtung County Government on Wednesday certified two craftsmen who build ritual Wang Yeh boats as preservers of an intangible cultural heritage.
The craftsmen — Tsai Wen-hua (蔡文化) and Tsai Tsai-an (蔡財安) — are volunteer boatbuilders at the county’s Donglong Temple (東隆宮) in Donggang Township (東港).
Wang Yeh gods are guardian deities of war and pestilence.
Building boats for ceremonial burning as offerings to the gods is one of the most important and distinctive aspects of Wang Yeh worship, the Pingtung Cultural Affairs Bureau said.
Donglong Temple has for more than 200 years observed a boat-burning ritual every three years, the bureau said, adding that in 2010 it was recognized as a national heritage tradition.
Before 1973, the temple’s Wang Yeh boats were bamboo-and-paper miniatures, but since then the temple has constructed 13.6m-long wooden life-size boats, the bureau said.
Tsai Wen-hua, 56, from Siaoliouciou Island (小琉球) is the chief of the temple’s ship design group and has worked on 13 Wang Yeh boats.
Before building Wang Yeh boats, he was a shipwright, a profession he entered by way of his uncle-in-law after he finished elementary school, Tsai Wen-hua said.
He apprenticed under his uncle-in-law at Donggang during the winter and went fishing in the seas near Siaoliouciou in summer until he was 30, when he started to build fishing boats on contract, he said.
In 1979, he became involved in Wang Yeh boatbuilding and eventually assumed the position of chief designer after mastering the whole process, he said.
Tsai Tsai-an, 60, a sailmaker, said he came from a family of Wang Yeh boat sailmakers and that his father had worked on seven or eight boats, while he has made sails for four.
“In my father’s day, outsiders were not allowed to see the building of Wang Yeh boats and the master craftsmen worked behind closed doors,” Tsai Tsai-an said.
“About two decades ago, the process was opened up and outsiders are now permitted to observe or take photographs of the boats, but it is still forbidden for them to get too close,” he said.
Wang Yeh boats are mostly built by volunteers and the craft has had trouble recruiting young people with the skills and interests to replenish its ranks, the craftsmen said.
It is their hope that their status as intangible cultural heritage preservers and the national cultural heritage status of the temple’s Wang Yeh boat rites could contribute to the custom’s preservation, they added.
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