When the annual Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage began on April 17, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), accompanied by Dajia Jenn Lann Temple (大甲鎮瀾宮) chairman Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) and Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), prayed to Matsu in the hope that the goddess will bring wealth and prosperity to the nation.
In the afternoon of the same day, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited the Taichung temple to host the ceremony in which the statues of Matsu and other gods are moved into their palanquins for the tour. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and some other politicians also attended the event.
More recently, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) prayed to Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝) at the opening of the Taipei Baosheng Culture Festival (保生文化祭) and then cut the ribbon to launch the event together with Dalongdong District (大龍峒) Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮) chairman Liao Wu-jyh (廖武治) and other guests.
After the nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29 last year, Tsai led winning DPP candidates such as Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) and Chiayi Mayor Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲) to worship the Five Lords of Nankunshen Daitian Temple (南鯤鯓代天宮) in Tainan — all dressed in Qing Dynasty costumes.
Several months ago, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) and the city’s Taoist Xuantian Emperor Association (道教玄天上帝會) launched a culture festival for the Xuantian Emperor as they welcomed statues of the god from 284 temples across the nation as they were gathered together for a round-the-city tour to pray for the local residents.
During Taiwanese elections, most candidates stop to pray whenever they pass a temple. This is particularly so when it comes to presidential elections, as candidates from the two major parties always visit each and every large temple across the country. Even Christian candidates, such as former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) and Ma, not only prayed to gods and Buddhas, they also visited important Buddhist leaders.
Between elections, key government officials, especially the president, visit temples and attend various religious festivals, and they love to give away boards inscribed with their names to be hung over entrances or in halls.
Take Ma’s daily schedule during the Lunar New Year holidays, for example. Within two days — Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 — he visited the Ciyou Temple (慈祐宮) and the Guandu Temple (關渡宮) in Taipei; Kaohsiung’s Guan Emperor Temple (關帝廟) and Zuoying City God Temple (鳳邑舊城城隍廟); Tainan’s Kaiji Temple of the Jade Emperor (開基玉皇宮); the Fangliao-Sinpu Yimin Temple (義民廟) in Hsinchu County’s Sinpu Township (新埔); and the Longyuan Temple (龍元宮) in Taoyuan.
Local government heads, political party leaders and even presidential candidates habitually visit large temples and attend religious ceremonies, and they do so even more frequently during election campaigns just to attract votes. By doing so, they are actually directly trading political power with religious power.
As politicians try to gain support and ballots from religious groups, religious group operators hope to win recognition and rewards from local government heads or political leaders who tend to see themselves as emperors.
To win elections in Taiwan, it has become a “political-religious custom” for local government heads and candidates to try to attract votes through temples and religious groups. Those candidates who have managed to break this chain of trading between politics and religion are few and far between.
All that is needed is to take a look at the embarrassing scene with Tsai and Yen sitting together at the opening of the Dajia Matsu pilgrimage to be able to understand the power of this habitual political-religious trading.
Chiu Hei-yuan is a former research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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