Sat, May 04, 2019 - Page 14 News List

The 7-Eleven of Taiwan’s temples

An Eight Generals performance troupe in May 2014 marches in front of the main gate of Tainan’s Nankunshen Daitianfu Temple.

Photo: Noah Buchan, Taipei Times

The gods need to be entertained — especially if they’ve come from overseas. And the Wangye (Royal Lords), the patron deities of Nankunshen Daitianfu, a sprawling temple complex located in Greater Tainan’s rural Beimen District, know how to throw a good party.

Every year the deities host a birthday bash, when hundreds of temples from throughout Taiwan and Asia descend on Nankunshen Daitianfu — their own gods in tow — to pay respect to the Wangye. These temples, of which Hou Hsian-hsun, the temple’s secretary general, says number over 20,000, do this because they have branched off from Nankunshen, in a process known as “dividing incense” (fenxiang).

A wooden sculpture representing a deity on its own possesses no magical powers and so cannot provide worshippers with protection. However, ritually passing it over the main incense burner of an established temple consecrates the deity, which is then enshrined in a new temple, along with ashes from the senior temple’s incense burner. That new temple then becomes a “branch temple” (fenmiao).

The branch temple enters into a subordinate relationship, obliging it to return the newly empowered deity, usually carried at the front of a ceremonial troupe, to the source temple on the deity’s birthday to recharge its power — hence the party.

During this temple festival, hundreds of performance troupes (zhentou) — pole dancing women scantily dressed in bikinis, martial shamans ritually flagellating themselves with weapons — entertain the temple’s main deity and all the guests who have come.

Hou says that worshippers are motivated to establish a branch temple of Nankunshen because it is Taiwan’s oldest Wangye temple, a history that began 353 years ago when a ship sailing from China ran aground during a storm off the coast of Beimen.

Five statues, all avatars of Wangye (folk religion specialists estimate that there are over 100 manifestations of this deity), were retrieved from the wrecked ship and brought to shore. Nankunshen is a rare exception to a general rule that Taiwan’s temples have branched off from temples in China.

Nankunshen isn’t the only temple franchising out as though a 7-Eleven of folk belief. All of Taiwan’s older temples, regardless of their patron deity — Matsu, the Earth God, Baoshengdadi or the Wangye — have branch temples that are expected to send a ceremonial troupe to perform at temple festivals on that particular god’s birthday.

Today, temples large and small, rural and urban have opened their gates to anyone curious enough to show up for a festival, adapting their rituals to changing social and technological trends that appeal to the media, tourists, politicians and government officials, while retaining enough of their traditions to maintain their core believers.

As a result, temples have become wealthy and powerful.

(Noah Buchan, Taipei Times)







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