Wash your hands. Don’t point. Enter by the right door and leave by the left. Don’t complain and avoid negative thoughts. Though the previous imperative sentences read like etiquette lessons a parent might teach to their child, they are in fact a few of the injunctions listed in Places to Pray: Temple Prayer Outings, The Quest for Good Fortune (祈福之旅: 廟宇祈福行，結緣求好運), a foldout brochure recently published by the New Taipei City Government.
Up until a decade ago it was practically unthinkable that a government body would produce a lavishly illustrated travel guide about a segment of society that many bureaucrats deemed superstitious. Though that attitude had much to do with the more unsavory practices of folk religion (funeral strippers, bone cleaners, spirit mediums), it did extend to houses of worship and prayer. Today, however, temples are being promoted by government officials as must-see destinations for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of Taiwan. And much effort has gone into Places to Pray.
The 22 temples shown on the brochure’s map, all of which are to be found in New Taipei City, range from Liao Tien-ding Temple (廖添丁廟), a shack-sized structure in Bali (八里) dedicated to Liao Tien-ding (廖添丁) — known as Taiwan’s Robin Hood (台灣羅賓漢) because legend has it he stole from wealthy Taiwanese collaborators during the Japanese colonial era and gave the spoils to the poor — to Cingshui Zushi Temple (清水祖師廟), an enormous 243-year-old temple located in Sansia (三峽).
A box beside the map uses symbols to indicate the specialty of each temple — and gives visitors a sense of what preoccupies believers who visit there. For those preparing for an exam, Wenchang Shrine (文昌祠) in Sinjhung (新莊) specializes in “praying for success.” Hunglodei’s (烘爐地) patron god Tudigong (Earth God, 土地公) is known to bring good fortune for those who pray there, and Guniang Temple (姑娘廟) in Shiding (石碇) is an ideal place to pray for “true love.” Those “praying for a son” should visit Tamsui’s (淡水) Longshan Temple (龍山寺).
Places to Pray brochures can be picked up for free at the New Taipei City Visitor Information Centers at: Banciao Train Station (板橋火車站), Tamsui MRT Station (淡水捷運站), Xindian MRT Station (新店捷運站) and the Rueifang Train Station (瑞芳火車站)
Another box, “key prayer terms,” explains the most common forms of prayer. Worshippers seeking divine assistance to a question can zhijiao (擲筊, or “bwa bwei” as its called in Hoklo, also known as Taiwanese), tossing crescent-shaped red blocks that, depending how they land, determine the deity’s answer.
But perhaps what makes Places to Pray exceptional is the clarity, brevity and variety of the information that has been translated from the Chinese original. Each temple is pictured, below which a paragraph or two describing the temple’s history and major deities, as well as its address (in Chinese and English — necessary when asking for directions), transportation information and a section called “What you need to know.”
Sinjhung’s 300-year-old Dazhong Temple (大眾廟), for example, attracts worshippers “praying for justice,” and is dedicated to the God of Hell (地藏王菩薩, also known as the Bodhisattva Dizang) and the Massed Lords of the Civil and Military Realms (文武大眾爺, also known as Lord of the Hordes). Until recently, those involved in a dispute would come before the deity and swear to the truth and justice of their position. Lying to the god, it was believed, would bring misery and misfortune. Another deity enshrined in the temple, Dong Daye (董大爺, or Uncle Dong), specializes in handling curses and vows. Today, however, the gods are mostly known as being “efficacious at helping people find stolen items, and members of the judiciary and police are frequent visitors, seeking help in handling cases.”