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Mon, Apr 10, 2000 - Page 2 News List

Politicians using Matsu pilgrimage for their own ends

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

As media attention focuses on the eight-day, 300km Matsu pilgrimage which kicked off at midnight on Saturday, it is clear the annual event has become decidedly more political than when it began 200 years ago.

In the run-up to the March 18 presidential election, remarks from Yen Ching-piao (顏清標), Chairman of Chen Lan Temple (鎮瀾宮) and Taichung County Council speaker, brought strong political undertones to the annual pilgrimage.

Yen said that he would decide who to endorse in the election when Matsu gave him "future instruction." He later endorsed independent candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜), and was expelled from the KMT last week as a result.

Chen Lan Temple, in Tachia township (大甲鎮), Taichung County, has increasingly become a source of spiritual inspiration for many political heavyweights.

Four of the presidential candidates included a visit to the temple in their busy schedules.

The election now over, only Soong and fellow independent candidate Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) attended this year's event.

Hsu vowed to prostrate himself along the entire trail, while Soong participated in the ceremony to see off a statue of the sea goddess Matsu, which will be carried throughout the pilgrimage in a palanquin.

The annual pilgrimage also serves as a touchstone for direct links between Taiwan and China.

Before the passage of the Offshore Island Development Law on March 21, over 100,000 Taiwanese Matsu worshippers yearly traveled either illegally in fishing boats across the Strait or went through a third country to reach Matsu temple in Meizhou (湄洲), Fujian Province, where the Matsu statue in Taiwan's Chen Lan Temple comes from, and where the goddess is believed to have originated.

With the passage of the law, worshippers can theoretically travel directly to China with a short stop in Kinmen, instead of going via Hong Kong or outlying Japanese islands.

An easing of the ban on direct links is the stated goal for temple chairman Yen Ching-piao.

On Jan. 30, Yen was joined by religious representatives on a trip to Fujian to conduct talks on a direct boat service for the annual pilgrimage. Earlier on Jan. 18, the Mainland Affairs Council and the transport ministry agreed that quasi-direct passenger boat services to China would be allowed after the March presidential election.

Chen Lan's fame as the starting point for the current pilgrimage, is offset, however, by the temple chairmen's reputation for their connections with organized crime groups.

Donations from Chen Lan's swelling number of believers have made the temple a prosperous business and sparked intense, and sometimes violent, competition between people vying for the coveted post of chairman.

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