Thu, Apr 25, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Much ado about Matsu

Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou saying that Matsu told him to run for president next year is just the latest example of candidates seeking legitimacy by interacting with the goddess and attending temple festivals devoted to her

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff reporter

Worshippers touch a Matsu statue for good luck.

Photo: Liao Yao-tung, Taipei Times

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co (鴻海集團) chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) announced last week that the goddess Matsu called on him in a dream to enter next year’s presidential race so as to improve the lives of Taiwanese, throwing a wrench into the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) primary and shining a spotlight on a common practice: candidates for elected office appearing at temples to call on the goddess of compassion to assist them in their candidacy.

“Matsu told me to [run],” Gou, one of Taiwan’s wealthiest businessmen, told a media scrum and supporters at Cihui Temple (慈惠宮) in New Taipei City’s Banciao District (板橋).

The billionaire and neophyte politician follows a long tradition of candidates appearing at temples and religious festivals devoted to Matsu in the year leading up to a national election so as to mingle with constituents at the local level, and have their image beamed into living rooms throughout the nation.

But who is Matsu and why is she the perennial favorite that politicians call on to insinuate the deity’s virtue into their campaign? The various names attributed to Matsu throughout history — shaman (巫), filial lass, celestial consort (天妃), celestial empress (天后), avatar of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), divine matriarch in heaven above (天上聖母) and, in the past few years, goddess of cross-strait peace — illustrate her rise to a pan-Chinese cultural symbol associated with compassion and protection, with elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Most commonly, the devout simply call her Matsu (媽祖), or female ancestor, a title meant to show that she’s close to the people and, with Taiwan’s politics being so divisive, she serves as a powerful symbol of unity — benevolent, compassionate and peaceful. And she is everything for everyone — uniquely Taiwanese for those who believe in independence, but also Chinese for those who tend to see China and Taiwan as “one family on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” (兩岸一家親).

TRANSACTIONAL MATSU

Politicians and the temples they visit benefit from the transaction: politicians revel in the media attention that a visit to larger Matsu temples generate, and temples — and those who run them — are granted legitimacy on the national stage.

Take the Dajia Matsu, a nine-day pilgrimage through central and southern Taiwan that ended last week and attracted over a million visitors and intense media attention. With the exception of Gou, all major politicians from across the political spectrum who have declared, or may declare, their candidacy for president — former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), Legislator Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the KMT; William Lai (賴清德) and incumbent Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as well as Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) — appeared at some point during what is billed as Taiwan’s largest religious event.

What differentiates Gou from other current and previous politicians, who typically appear in front of a temple’s main deity before an election to make a vow that they will serve the people, is that he had the cheek to say that Matsu came to him in a dream. Emphasizing that Matsu told him to run draws attention to a number of biographical details that will almost certainly resonate with voters.

First, Gou’s rags-to-riches biography is the stuff of legend. According to Chinese-media reports, he was born in Cihui Temple a year after the KMT fled China in 1949, and lived there for many years. It is for this reason that Gou has called himself “Matsu’s godson (媽祖乾兒子),” and has explicitly stated that it was Matsu’s benevolence that enabled him to become a successful businessman.

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