As they changed from being regarded as martyred defenders of home villages into deities, the worship of the Yimin (righteous people, 義民) became not only a religious ritual, but also a symbol of Taiwanese Hakka culture.
Popular belief has it that the Yimin were Hakkas who helped the Qing Dynasty put down Hoklo uprisings in Taiwan and thus were given the right to be worshipped in Yimin temples.
However, Weng Jui-chung (翁瑞鐘), president of the Lujhou City Hakka Association in Taipei County, pointed out otherwise.
"To tell the truth, they [Yimin] were not trying to help any government -- they just wanted to defend their villages against forces that invaded," Weng said.
Weng also said that Yimin ethnic composition was not purely Hakka.
"They were not all Hakkas -- there were Aborigines and even Hoklos as well," he said.
The mixed ethnic composition of the Yimin can seen in the Hsinpu Yimin Temple in Hsinchu County, which is one of the oldest and the largest Yimin temples in Taiwan, he said.
In 1781, Lin Shuang-wen (林爽文), a Chinese immigrant of Hoklo ethnicity launched a large-scale uprising in Taichung that soon swept north, a document printed by the Taipei Yimin Temple in Taipei County said.
Threatened by Lin, Hoklo businessmen in Hsinchu asked for help from Hakka communities on the outskirts of the town, the document said.
As their villages were also threatened, the Hakkas quickly organized a militia of more than 1,300 men to defend their homes.
The militia included mostly Hakkas, but also had some Hoklos and Aborigines, it said.
The militia played a key role in defeating Lin's forces, it said.
After the uprising, 200 bodies of those who died in battle were collected and buried in Hsinchu, the document said.
In appreciation of their help, the Qianlong (
"One can only be worshipped as a deity once approved by the imperial court," Taipei Yimin Temple chairman Wu Tai-tung (
There are no statues of divinities in Yimin temples as in other temples. Instead, there is only a "divine" tablet made of wood in the middle of the temple that reads: "Divine seat of honorable, loyal, eastern Guangdong Yimins by imperial order."
Eastern Guangdong is a region of China that most Hakkas in Taiwan trace their roots back to.
Divine tablets are usually used for ancestral worship.
Another special custom in Yimin worship is fengfan (
"We do fengfan on the first and the 15th days of each lunar month," Wu said. "There's a special emotional tie between we Hakkas and Yimins -- they're our ancestors, but they're deities as well."
Most Yimin temples around the country are affiliated with the Hsinpu Yimin Temple in Hsinchu, Wu said.
"We [members of the Taipei Yimin Temple] return to the home temple [in Hsinchu] every year on the 13th day of the seventh lunar month," Wu said.
But there are exceptions.
In Pingtung, there is a Yimin temple honoring those who died in battles against an uprising in southern Taiwan led by Chu Yi-kuei (
There is also a Yimin temple in Taichung County's Tungshih Township (東勢) that worships local militiamen who defended their home villages against an armed uprising led by Tai Chao-chun (戴潮春) in 1862, Tungshish Yimin Temple chairman Kuan Ye-yi (
What is so special about the Tungshih temple is that, instead of having a wooden tablet that bears only a line describing the deities, there are two wooden tablets with all of the Yimin's names inscribed upon them.
"A smaller tablet has the names of Yimin leaders, while the larger one carries the names of their followers," Kuan said, adding that there are around 20 names on the smaller one and around 60 on the larger one.
"We are the only [Yimin] temple with tablets that contain the Yimin's full names," he said.
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