The work of wood carver Lin Yu-hai (林玉海) is so popular that he has a two-year backlog of orders for his hand-carved deity figures.
Lin’s business in Chiayi County’s Shueishang Township (水上) is thriving, despite the challenges posed by the dumping of cheap Chinese deity figures in Taiwan in recent years.
Visitors to the 43-year-old’s workshop first notice it is full of blocks of wood, each marked with a piece of red paper to indicate it as a customer order waiting to be worked on. Despite the two-year waiting list, people are still willing to place orders for Lin’s work.
He reflected that fate did not smile on his impoverished family during his childhood, his father passing away a few days before he finished elementary school.
“As my family had no property and I did not like school, my mother suggested that I learn a useful trade. Because of my interests, I chose to learn how to carve deity figures in wood,” he said.
As there are numerous temple deities in traditional Taiwanese culture, Lin said he had lots to learn and it took him more than five years to master his craft.
Lin started out by producing replicas of deities found in temples around the country, only occasionally making customized deity figures to order.
This all changed six years ago when a friend helped him to set up a blog, after which his work became better known, he said.
“The many different sets of deity figures in Taiwan is bewildering. As a master carver, even I do not know them all,” he said.
“The management and operators of Buddhist temples and Taoist shrines are getting younger, and their specific demands for deities can’t be satisfied by traditional deity figures. Those made purely by hand are receiving more attention and are more in demand now,” he said.
Of the 150 orders waiting to be worked on in his workshop, four are requests for carvings bearing a likeness to deceased family members, to be worshipped and for making ritual offerings to.
“One of them is for a young man who passed away. Four years after his death, a family member saw him in a dream, saying he had received the ‘imperial lord’s mandate’ to have him made into a deity figure for his family to worship. His family were quite skeptical at first, but then they began to be afflicted by illnesses and health problems, so they started to believe and came to me with an order,” Lin said.
Lin uses camphor wood from Taiwan and China for his carvings, explaining that deity figures can only be carved from a single block of wood. A typical piece costs NT$50,000.
Commenting on recent reports that graduates are receiving starting salaries as low as NT$22,000 per month, Lin has some advice.
“It is best to study hard and finish your schooling, but there are many other trades that, if they are willing to put in the hard work and learn, can still allow [young people] to lead a good life in the future,” Lin said.