August 26, 2009 / 4:03 AM / 10 years ago

Traditional rite turns Taiwan teens into adults

TAINAN, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - Tsai Meng-lin officially became an adult this week, along with a thousand other 16-year-olds in her southern Taiwan hometown, by crawling under a tiny festooned pagoda, leaving girlhood on the other side.

Tsai took part in the revival of a 277-year-old Tainan tradition that mixes folklore with Taoism to render 16-year-olds legitimate wage-earning adults as they finish the ritual, which they perform either at home or at a public temple.

“It was quite a novel experience,” said Tsai, who went to a temple with her mother in a red robe and for extra luck touched a giant cow image fashioned by a Tainan temple as about 100 people watched. “I’m from Tainan, and this is something we do here.”

The rite-of-passage ceremony starts with incense burning, coin tossing and food sacrifices, for spirits as well as for ancestors, Tainan history scholars explain. Cosmetics, for women, or cigarettes, for men, may also be put on the altar.

Sixteen-year-olds then cross under the altar three times. Emerging, girls crawl to the left and boys to the right. An elaborately decorated altar, made of paper and bamboo, is later burned as an offering to the parents, who in turn offer a feast.

Tainan, a southern city known for preserving Taiwan’s cultural heritage, has promoted the “Coming-of-Age Celebration,” which hails from nearby south China, as a tourist draw for the past eight years.

“You can talk about local culture and global culture, but you’ve got to keep something local to stand out,” said Wang Ming-yuan, boardmember at a participating temple.

The ritual has special resonance in Tainan because, in the 1800s, local underage port workers were unable to collect full pay before their 16th birthday, city documents say.

“It means they’ve grown up, they’re like trees and can’t be blown away by a windstorm,” said Fu Pei-ying, standing director with the city’s culture exchange association.

Turning 16 also means taking on household responsibilities, the city government says on its website, part of an effort to remind its citizens not to forget the custom.

City Hall first sends annual reminders to Tainan’s 16-year-olds, who number around 11,00 and may not know what the ceremony is as they get caught up in high school.

The rituals drew at least 1,000 teenagers over five days, ending on Wednesday.

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