Photographs and Information about Taiwan's Culture, Nature and People by Rich Matheson

Song Jiang Battle Array 宋江陣

Perhaps not the most exciting or visually appealing of parade troupes, but interesting nonetheless, today Songjiang battle arrays are martial or military troupes 武術 or武 陣頭, rather than an arts troupe 藝術or藝陣頭. I’ve always imagined these troupes actually going to war, romantically (and usually tragically) battling the Japanese colonial authorities. According to Paul Katz, it seems that these were some of the most effective fighting troops in the Tapani battles because of their training and actual battle experience defending their villages. They would march into battle, beating drums and holding their banners high, believing they were immune to bullets and swords.

Nowadays it is purely performance , but I believe Song Jiang Zhen are more like troupes of old in that they are groups of farmers or believers that perform simply for kudos with the gods rather than professionally.(check this) Although competitions, especially the famous Neimen Soong Jiang Battle Array competition (內門宋江陣比賽) staged on Kuanyin’s birthday,  involves substantial prizes.

Soong Jiang troupes are groups of at least ten  members that perform martial arts at festivals, parades or competitions. Historically the number of performers would be 107 people, which has to do with ‘The Water Margin’s’ famous 108 brave warriors, which were probably the first Songjiang troupes, now 36 is a common number. Thirty-six is apparently a common number because of 三十六天罡 , or the 36 stars of the big dipper constellation which is some sort of Taoist precept. I don’t get the association but will add it if I ever figure it out. for more on (三十六天罡 and 七十二地煞go here, a little too esoteric for me).

In the pioneering days of Qing dynasty Taiwan, the Chinese officials were ineffective in protecting the people and preventing crime, which was rife. Village or clan groups formed martial groups from local youths to take protection/discipline matters into their own hands. during the Japanese Era, these groups were no longer needed (except to rebel against the sometimes stifling and exploitive colonial rule), and became purely a performance group.

The performance traditionally begins with a prayer to their 祖師爺, a patron god for occupations, in this case usually 田府元帥 (possibly from the spring/autumn warring states period) or 田都元帥 (patron god of actors and musicians), then with weapons held high, the troupe lets out a battle yell, called 發彩, and finishes in a similar manner.

The actual performances are characterized  by the members, usually dressed in matching sweats, holding weapons, carrying banners, beating drums, battle yells and very involved choreography. Often one person will stand in the middle of the group and perform a solo of his/her martial arts.

Tools/weapons carried by members are mostly modified or unmodified farming tools. Some examples with links to a great online page are listed below, click on each for a full description. 道具(Stage props, I left a few out that were related exclusively to White crane Troupes which I have not written about yet): (雨傘, 謝籃, 頭旗), 兵器(Military Weapons): (藤牌, 官刀, 大刀, 三叉, 鉤仔, 躂刀, 齊眉棍, 牌刀, 雙刀, 雙斧, 藤牌, 耙, 雙鞭) and 樂器(Musical Instruments): (鈸, 鑼, 鑼棒, 宋江鼓, 宋江鼓棒.

This song jiang member has been possessed

Like most traditional troupe performances, there were many taboos members had to follow. Now, I suspect some are not rigidly adhered to. One such taboo has to do with numbers. Were there 108 performers they would risk getting injured, now it is doubtful whether 108 people would  gather for a performance. Another is not being allowed to have five columns because of the homonymous characters 五 (wǔ) and 無 (wú), and a story in the ‘Water Margin.’

Called Dangki or spirit medium

He is probably doing some sort of spirit writing

He is actually part of 宋三陣 or Song Jiang Three troupe, which is the original Songjiang, which spawned ‘Golden Lion’ and ‘White Crane.’

These two martial arts performers are probably not part of  Songjiang Troupe. I have no idea what martial troupe they would be part of , but their performances were spectacular.

Questions: face paint,田府元帥, mostly professional or amateur, prizes for soong jiang competition in Neiman.

Some more on line English info, Chinese info, I got most of my info from this book:

CHEN Yanzhong 陳彦仲 & HUANG Liru 黃麗如
2003 Taiwan de Yizhen (台灣的藝陣), p. 108(oooh, how appropriate is that?)-119. Taiwan dili Baike #35 (台灣地理百科#35). Walkers Cultural Print in Taiwan.


3 responses

  1. Dr Stewart McFarlane

    Excellent Song Jiang Zhen pics. I trained with the group in Dong Gang in 1991 before the big Plague God Festival. I am writing an e-book book on T’ai chi ch’uan at the moment.
    I would like to use 1 or 2 of your images ie 3rd image on the page of the older guy in yellow shirt with shield & head band (his face embodies martial pride and resitance), and the 5th image of the youth in crouching stance, carrying big dao (broad blade spear).CAN YOU CONFIRM WHICH FESTIVAL THEY ARE AT?

    It is to make a point in my book about traditional Chinese martial arts as community ritual/ exorcism and local protection (eg anit Japnese resitance in early 20th century) Song Jiang Zhen make these 2 points and your images are the best I have seen, much better than my old ones. The pics will be fully referenced and acknowledged in my text. A Taiwan TV comapny made 2 videos of the 1991 Dong Dang Wang Yeh Featival, one focussed on Song Jiang Zhen the other on the sacred boat burning. I was consultant & contact with the troupes. Most of my materials on them are stored in UK. I noiw live in Thailand, still train T’ai chi and weapons, wrting and looking after sick & old elephants at an elephant sanctuary.

    The old guys in my troupe also told me that Song Jiang Zhen members were involved in anti Japanese resistance in the early occupation period ie early 20th cent. One local historian of Song Jiang zhen in Jia yi told me that some members were smuggled into mainland China to fight the Japanese there, this must have been in 1930’s. Possibly in that many Dong Kan members were & still are fisherman. I shall be writing more on the in future and will be happy to cite your images.

    My book title is Tai chi for llife, to be published by Mowbray (a purely e book publisher in UK ) in a few months.

    Dr Stewart McFarlane 21 July 2010

    July 21, 2010 at 4:43 am

  2. Here’s an interesting article about this troupe.

    To summarize, its says that they’re trying to promote this in Guan Miao by giving performers signs with the house number and their family names along with a ceramic replica of the role they played. This is to both commemorate their participation and encourage those who see it to learn more about the culture.

    December 11, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    • Interesting bit of “branding”. Sponsors at festivals and of a troupe would often get a red paper bearing a talisman. But models and plaques to performers seems to be a new development.

      February 22, 2014 at 12:07 pm

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