Taiwan’s lost culture of gratitude

By Chen Ching-chih 陳清池  / 

Sun, May 20, 2012 - Page 8

There is an American man in Chiayi City whom people affectionately call Biko-a (American). To them, this character from the US genuinely cares about and loves Taiwan and its people. Among other things, he has recently spent time persuading Taiwanese to say lo lat when they express their gratitude. To him, lo lat is a beautiful saying that is authentically Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), but unfortunately has been lost to younger generations. It is as beautiful and genuine to Hoklo as Aloha is to the Hawaiians.

He is right. In fact, I cannot think of any term that is more representative of Hoklo Taiwanese culture than lo lat. So far most of the people joining his movement come from southern Taiwan, with the backing of some key professors of Taiwanese literature.

Lo lat was widely used in Taiwan before the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took over after World War II. The Chinese characters for lo lat are 勞力 (physical labor). Labor was essential in an agricultural society like Taiwan. In earlier times, instead of hiring agricultural workers, farmers exchanged labor as a form of mutual aid. My maternal grandfather was a farmer and he and his farming neighbors exchanged labor during busy periods in the seasonal calendar.

It is believed that with this practice began the expression of one’s gratitude for the help given in the form of physical labor. Lo lat therefore means thanks for your labor and, by extension, favors. In addition, it was expected that the favor should be returned. My father kept a written account of favors received and returned. It was a family tradition. He instructed his children on the importance of repaying creditors and benefactors all debts, financial or otherwise, incurred by the family. Other families also kept the tradition.

However, in Taiwan’s modern market economy, such family traditions are weakening. The KMT government’s language policy contributed most to the weakening of Hoklo in general and the disappearance of the lo lat expression in particular.

I had just turned eight years old when Japan surrendered to the US and its Allies in August 1945. Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan ended, but Taiwan would come under another alien rule — the rule of the KMT — shortly thereafter. The KMT government forbade non-Mandarin-speaking students to speak their mother tongues at school during the White Terror era, which did not end until 1987. Ultimately, young people can barely communicate in their mother tongue with their grandparents, while the elderly folk have had to learn Mandarin to be able to talk with their grandchildren.

Being the first grandson, I was favored by my grandmother in our extended family, which included my father and his two younger brothers and their nuclear families. Wherever she went visiting temples to burn incense, my grandma would take me along. Sometimes we would even travel by train from our hometown of Taoyuan to Beigang to visit and worship Matsu, Goddess of the Sea. In her prayer requesting that the gods grant peace and blessings to our family, she always ended with the expression lo lat to the deities. Naturally, I emulated her whenever praying for good school grades. However, my elementary-school grades were pretty bad and I also failed all junior-high entrance examinations except one. Being young and naive, I thought that with the deities’ blessings there was no need for me to study hard. A year before I was to take an entrance examination to a better high school, I finally realized that without self-help, there would be no divine intervention.

Among the sumptuous food offerings my grandmother would make to the temple deities she would include a dozen red turtle-shaped sweet rice cakes. After returning home from each temple visit she shared the rice cakes with relatives and neighbors. Supposedly, people who ate the cakes would share godly blessings and, having received the favor, the folk thanked my grandma by saying jin lo lat (big thanks).

I also enjoyed accompanying my grandma on her temple visits during festivals. Like all kids I was excited to see the parade of fierce-looking giant temple guardians known as dua sian ang (大仙迋) in their colorful martial arts costumes and almost slow-motion-like walks with their long arms swinging back and forth. There was also the good-looking Third Prince (三太子), followed inevitably by various palanquin-riding deities in the parade. Firecrackers contributed to the atmosphere while smoke and sparks filled the air — temperatures must have risen by a couple of degrees. This was what we called noisy and bustling dau nau ze (鬥鬧熱).

Reports and videos on Taiwan’s temple festivals show that today temple festivals are bigger and more exciting than ever. Temple festivals are an important part of Taiwan’s folk culture and they have become quite sensual. Newly added elements include youth-oriented music and even scantily clad dancing girls. The fanciful-looking Third Prince is as popular abroad as at home and young Taiwanese have certainly helped to raise Taiwan’s visibility abroad at a time when the nation is not recognized diplomatically by the international community on account of China’s political and economic influence.

The revival of temple festivals since the end of martial law in 1987 is great for Taiwan, but the festival spirit should also be revived. As an island nation in the western Pacific, Taiwan has regularly been hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. Taiwanese consequently have traditionally appealed to Matsu. Praying for protection and showing the deities gratitude has become very much a culture in Taiwan.

The expression of gratitude as represented by saying lo lat to deities and to each other is the essence and spirit of that culture of gratitude. It should be revived and popularized. It would be a wonderful thing if younger Taiwanese learned to say lo lat while expressing gratitude to others. Is it not a very Taiwanese way?

It is truly inspirational for us all to know that it is this American in Chiayi who has rediscovered for us the significance and beauty of the term lo lat in Taiwanese culture and is leading the crusade to popularize its use. To him, we should all say: Lo lat! Thank you!

Chen Ching-chih is a professor emeritus of history at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.