In Taiwanese folk belief, some people pray to trees in the firm belief that there is a deity in every big tree. This practice has developed into a unique “big tree deity” culture in what is a unique aspect of Taiwanese folk belief.
Su Jui-chan, a teacher at A-lien elementary school in Kaohsiung County has spent two years visiting 700 sites of big trees and temples and collected his notes in a study.
Su says Taiwanese traditionally refer to grass and tree spirits as the Big Tree Deity, the Tree King or the Ancient Holy Lord, and that the worshipped trees are taller than 10m and older than 100 years. They also differentiate between different kinds of trees, such as banyan, fir, mango and so on.
Su’s study shows that big tree deity worship in Kaohsiung County is mainly found on the western bank of the Kaoping River, and that there are more such deities in Taliao and Chishan than in other townships. Su guesses that the Kaoping river bank is hilly and that mid and upstream parts of the river are close to the mountains and therefore less developed than other areas such as Fengshan and Kangshan. The result is that there are more old trees left there.
Su says tree worshippers include men and women, old and young, and that according to folk tradition, weak and sickly children often are made to worship tree deities as if the deities were their step- or godparents in the hope that the children will grow to be as strong and healthy as the tree deity.
The Banyan King in the Shennong Temple in Neitung Village of Neimen Township is an old mango and banyan tree growing intertwined with each other. A protrusion on the southern side of the mango tree looks like male genitalia, while a cavity on the northern side of the banyan tree looks like female genitalia. As a result, many childless couples visit the Banyan King to pray for children.
In addition, many women of a certain occupation firmly believe they will remain healthy and avoid disease if they touch the cavity on the banyan tree.
There are also innumerable local legends about big tree deities. The best known legend about a big tree deity saving a person is the one about the Parasol Tree King in Tali City, Taichung County. According to legend, during the reign of the Qing dynasty Kangxi emperor, the Parasol Tree King transformed into a warrior dressed in red and then fought off a band of bandits and freed Prince Jiaqing who was visiting Taiwan.
Su also says big tree deities do not rank very high in the spirit world, placing them roughly at the same level as the earth god. Big tree deity worship, however, shows no signs of disappearing, and the ongoing worship and activities remain an important clue when studying Taiwanese folklore.
(LIBERTY TIMES, TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON)
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