Monday, January 28, 2008

Smoke, Fire, Noise, and Possession: A Taiwanese Religious Pilgrimage

About four years ago, I met and became friends with a young woman in Taipei named Sharon. We spent some time together for a couple months, but at about the same time I met my future girlfriend. After my relationship got serious, I stopped seeing Sharon. I was too busy to keep making trips to Taipei, and besides, I figured it was a bad idea to see other women, no matter how innocently, when I was in a serious relationship. Still, Sharon and I exchanged the occasional email on birthdays, holidays, and the like.

Almost a year ago, my relationship came to an end. After that, I eventually started to have more contact with Sharon. A few weeks ago, we were chatting online and I asked her what she was going to do during the New Year holiday. She said that she and her family were going to go on a trip to the south of Taiwan to visit some temples. She invited me to join them, and as I had nothing else going on, I decided I would go. After all, I hadn’t been out of Hsinchu for almost nine months, and I could use the change.

After work on Friday, I jumped on a bus and headed for Taipei. Sharon lives in Keelung, but she goes to school in Taipei, so she agreed to pick me up there and drive me to her home. I was waiting outside of McDonalds on Cheng De Road when I heard someone call my name. I turned around and there she was. I realized that it had been more than three years since I’d seen her and I suddenly got nervous. I walked over to where she was double-parked and gave her a hug. She felt thinner than I remember, but she still looked very good. Sharon had always been quiet and shy about speaking English, and it was still true. She said she had to get something for her friend from McDonalds, so we went in and got some food. Then we got in the car and went to pick up her friend, Lo Bo (carrot), who also lives in Keelung.

I didn’t say much on the drive to Keelung, as they were chatting in Chinese most of the way. I can usually follow the general thread of a discussion in Chinese when I concentrate, but I was tired and just let my mind drift as we drove through the rainy night. A lot had happened to me in the three years or so since I last saw Sharon, and I thought about how life sometimes makes strange circles. I never thought I’d be back in Taipei hanging out with Sharon, but there I was.

Soon we were in Keelung and dropped off Carrot. The next stop was Sharon’s family home. When we got there, her sister-in-law was there with her two-year-old daughter. Her sister-in-law speaks very good English, so we were able to chat a bit. Soon Sharon’s father came in dressed in a blue suit that looked like Chinese pajamas, which I found is the uniform of the temple members. Later Sharon’s brother and a foreigner from Kentucky named David showed up, too. We all sat around chatting for a long time. One of the topics of conversation was Taiwan politics. Sharon’s brother is a staunch green, and he told stories of how, under the KMT, they were forbidden in school to speak even a single word of Taiwanese. Punishment for doing so was a fine, and having to wear a sign around the neck that said something like, “I won’t speak Taiwanese.”

Eventually Sharon had to leave to go to her apartment, so I went to sleep in her other brother’s room who was away staying with their mother in the hospital. Before she left, I asked Sharon what her Chinese name is (she’d told me many times before, but that was when my Chinese was essentially non-existent, so I never could keep it in my head). She said that it was Yuan. I decided at that point that I would call her by her Chinese name, as the use of English names is fairly contrived and not very personal.

I was really tired, but full of a kind of nervous energy. We had to get up very early to start the trip, but I didn’t fall asleep for an hour or so. When I did finally get to sleep, I slept like a stone. I woke up to my cell phone alarm at about five a.m. I dressed quickly and went downstairs. No one was around, so I sat on the sofa and waited. After a while, Yuan came in wearing the same blue outfit I’d seen her father in the night before. I grabbed my bag and put on my coat and we walked to the temple that is adjacent to their house.

Yuan’s father is the manager of the temple, which apparently they established sometime when she was in junior high school. It is a small and simple temple, with the usual three altars dedicated to the main gods that they worship. It is called 慈惠如來道院 (cí huì rú lái dào yuàn), which as close as I can tell means something like “loving mother Taoist temple,” but I’m probably way off on that interpretation. I tried to stay out of the way as some of the temple members loaded supplies onto the bus.

It was about this time that I realized that we were not just going on a sightseeing tour, but on a pilgrimage in which we would be transporting the temple’s gods to other temples. As the supplies were being loaded, some other temple members prayed, and one old fellow did a little jig while swinging around a box with an incense burner in it. I think he is a spirit medium. He is what is called in Taiwanese a “dan ki” (pronounced almost the same as donkey), or “ji tong” in Chinese.

The dan ki is a spirit medium, which is a person who becomes possessed by various gods and can channel them through his or her body in order to communicate with humans. Yuan told me her mother is one, and that she would like to be one, too. From what I understand, this is something that one can prepare for, but it isn't possible to become one through practice or by any other means. Either you become one, or you don't, and there is nothing you can do about it. I suppose that under those circumstances, you might as well prepare for it.

The spirit medium plays a central role in all the ceremonies I witnessed on this trip. The one I interacted with the most was a Mr Zhang, who took an immediate interest in me. One thing about Taiwanese religion that might be hard for Westerners to get their minds around is that it is not necessarily dominated by people who exhibit the most socially acceptable behavior. Mr Zhang was a good example of this. He drank scotch pretty much from morning to night (we even stopped the bus at a convenience store at one point so that he could jump of and buy a fresh bottle), he smoked constantly--even on the bus, and his teeth had seen a lot more beetle nut than they had toothpaste. Despite all of this, his activities were an important part of the pilgrimage.

The dan ki did the dance, and then left the temple. I think he may have brought the incense down to the waiting bus, perhaps to consecrate it. While he was gone, a man dressed all in black approached the central altar and performed a dance of sorts. It was rather frenetic, yet tightly controlled. I think he is another spirit medium. After he finished, more people came in and they started the ceremony for the gods leaving the temple. Yuan rang a large bell shaped like a bowl while the spirit medium drummed on a wooden instrument. Some of the other people banged on cymbals, and a man played a large drum. While they played, the old incense man put the burner back on the altar and Yuan’s father passed each of the gods through the smoke, and then handed each one to one of the temple members. The gods are represented by small statues in which the spirit of the god resides. After they passed through the smoke, they were carried out to the bus. They did the same with a small chair, on which I believe the main god of the temple sits (you can’t see him, but he is supposed to be literally present in the chair). Finally, the main god’s statue was passed through the smoke, and was carried out. Then Yuan’s father passed a box with little flags through the smoke and put it in the now vacant’ god’s chair. Then the music stopped and we all got on the bus.

As is usual with most of the buses I've traveled on, both in Spain and in Taiwan, our bus was too small for me. The first thing I did as I squeezed into my seat was whack my head on one of the TV screens that are suspended from the ceiling. Everyone got a good chuckle out of that, and then one of the "aunties" insisted that I move back a couple seats so as not to hit my head again. Of course, getting back up and moving just increased the chances of my braining my self again. Luckily I got to my new seat without further damage. Because there was not enough leg room for me, I spent most of the trip sitting up straight and was unable to sleep--at least not well--like most of the other people were.

After the bus got under way, a list of the gods was passed out and everyone sang the names of the gods three times. This seemed strange at first, but it was actually a rather calming ceremony. A few short speeches where then made by various people, and then, in complete contrast to the solemnity of the earlier proceedings, the microphones came out and everyone began singing karaoke. Most of the approximately forty-five people were senior citizens (there were four elementary-school aged boys and one two-year-old girl, but other than that Yuan, who is twenty-five, and I were the youngest people on the bus—an unusual experience for me), and as is usual in Taiwan, the amplifier was turned up to the maximum, so the bus was filled with cheesy Chinese music accompanied by quavery and off-key voices. It was painful at first, but by the end of the two-day trip, I barely noticed it. Actually the worst part of the karaoke was that they were accompanied by mostly really corny videos showing pouty Chinese women engaged in various conflicts with stupid Chinese men. There were a limited number of videos compared to the number of songs, so over the weekend we saw the same annoying videos many times.

A note regarding the noise level: Taiwanese religion is very noisy. It involves gongs, bells, drums, cymbals and a lot of firecrackers and other fireworks. The idea, more or less, is that loud noises keep evil away. I think this concept may have been absorbed by the culture in a more general way, as Taiwan is the noisiest place by far that I have ever experienced. If I had gone on this trip during my first year here, I probably would have gone stark raving mad, but over time I’ve developed a bit of the Taiwanese capacity for blocking things out. For me, it is a survival technique.

The first temple we went to—霧峰 天顯宮 (wù fēng tiān xiǎn gōng) —was somewhere near Taizhong in a place called Wu Feng. I’m told it is a famous temple. It was the twelfth anniversary of the temple’s founding, so there was a big celebration and representatives of many temples were there. I’d say there were at least one thousand people there. When we arrived, we were one of the first groups. Everyone got off the bus, which had started emanating that “bag of cats” music from some external speakers. The gods, the chair, and the flags were being arranged while they unloaded the big drum. Everyone formed a procession and we headed off down the road towards the temple. The old guy I mentioned before was in the lead, followed by a man carrying the incense and another man brandishing a sword. Next came the gods, and then the rest of the people. Some people lined up, others straggled around. In addition to our musicians, there were people along the road to greet us with more music and firecrackers. It was quite warm by this time.

This is a video of everyone getting the procession ready to head for the temple.

This video shows the procession starting off.

Here you can see the procession as it approaches the gate of the temple.

Before passing through the temple gates, a fairly elaborate ceremony took place with a lot of crazy stepping and sword waving. I think the chair was being waved around, too. I followed from a safe distance so as not to interfere. Eventually we were able to enter the gate. Each member of the procession stepped over or near a pile of burning ghost money. After that, the procession filed into the temple itself. I stayed outside out of respect, but I looked in through a side door.

Basically, there was a lot of bowing and some words were exchanged. The temple members held incense sticks in their two hands while they bowed and prayed. I was told the word for this kind of praying is “bye bye,” or that is how it sounds in English. Of course, the bell and drum were sounding throughout. Eventually it was all done and everyone filed out while the next group entered to pay their respects.

This video shows another group bringing their god to the temple in a large sedan chair.

Next to the temple there was a huge area covered by awnings. It was filled with round tables and stools. Our group staked out a few of the tables. Since it was the twelfth anniversary of the temple, there was a big feast with all kinds of traditional Taiwanese food. There was also free beer being distributed by Tsing Tao beer girls in their usual skimpy attire. There was a big stage at one end of the area where several different acts were performed. These acts were not religious in nature. In fact, the whole feeling of the feast was quite secular. There was a crooner who walked out among the tables as he sang a few songs, then there was a foreigner (maybe American) who was dressed as a clown and who did magic tricks and a ventriloquist act. It seemed freakishly out of place. There were a couple other acts, including an aboriginal dance group, during whose performance several men got on stage and made toasts, which seemed a bit disrespectful of the performers.

In front of the temple, there were other attractions. A group of young men wheeled in large drums and played them for us, and there was also a traditional music group performing consisting mostly of children.

The above is a video of the drummers as they begin to play.

Here the drummers are really going at it hammer and tongs.

During the lunch the people at my table, as well as representatives of the temple we were visiting and other groups, offered me many toasts. Pretty soon I was feeling a bit tipsy, but no one seemed to notice or care. No one, that is, except Yuan, who seemed a little concerned that people might be giving me too much attention in that regard, but I assured her that I was okay.

After lunch the temple members went back into the temple and performed a ceremony similar to the one when they took the gods out of their own temple. We then formed a procession and walked through the smoke and a double-line of people saying goodbye to us. On the way to the bus, the drum and cymbals were going full blast, and continued to do so during the fifteen minutes or so that we waited for the bus to come and pick us up. Back on the bus everyone was a bit worn out, so the karaoke was given a rest for a while as people dozed.

The music continues even when waiting for the bus.

We eventually arrived at a place in Nantou, which was the most beautiful temple we visited. Unfortunately, I left my camera on the bus. This temple was at the foot of a mountain, and we had to walk up some curving paths past a large fountain to reach it. I was carrying a large bundle of prayer books when the man in front of me suddenly went stiff, then started staggering around in a drunken way. I thought he was a spirit medium and had become possessed, but later Yuan explained to me that he was not a spirit medium, but rather that he was going through something called "lin dong," which means something like "soul movement." In this state, a worshipper becomes overwhelmed by the spirit and goes into a kind of ecstasy which causes the unusual movement. She explained that a spirit medium loses all consciousness when possessed, but when lin dong happens, the worshiper is fully aware.

While the ceremony was going on, I wandered around looking at the temple and its surroundings. From the approach to the temple I looked back and saw that, though it was still daylight, the almost full moon was rising over the mountain directly behind the temple. It was a truly beautiful sight. Eventually, everyone filed out of the temple and loaded up the gods for our final destination of the day. Back on the bus everyone sang the gods' names again, and then the karaoke started up.

At the end of the first day, we went to a temple called 鎮南宮 (zhèn nán gōng) in麥寮 (mài liáo). We were to spend the night there, so we had to “make camp” by burning five piles of ghost money and performing a special ceremony. Yuan told me that since we were spending the night, we were “soldiers of god” and had to do this special ritual. After the gods entered the temple, we had dinner, accompanied by numerous toasts, and went to our rooms. I slept in a large room with a raised platform running the length of the room on each side, with an aisle down the middle. The rooms were very simple, having nothing but the raised sleeping platforms and some bedding. The next morning we got up early and “broke camp” with more ghost money, and headed off for the next destination.

Even the kids get into the act.

The rest of the trip was more of the same kind of thing. We would arrive at a temple, assemble the procession, perform the ceremonies, and then either eat a meal or have a snack and some tea before reversing the process and loading the gods back on the bus for more karaoke. Despite the similarities, each temple was quite different, and each series of activities had a distinct character. Sometimes the spirit medium seemed to take a while before possession would occur, other times he seemed to get right into it (by the way, one of the spirit mediums took a liking to me and talked to me quite a bit—most of which he said I couldn’t understand, but he did make clear to me that in sixteen years he’d never seen a foreigner on any of the pilgrimages, and further, one old woman told him that she’d never seen one in thirty years).

The procession approaches the last temple on our tour.

Me and the kids.

Kids and me.

The rest of these photos are of the final stage of the pilgrimage when we returned to Keelung and brought the gods back to their home temple.

This was not my first experience witnessing Taiwanese religion in action, but it was my first experience actually being part of what was going on. Before I’d seen these kinds of proceedings as a student, from the outside. Now I found myself in the middle of things, traveling with the pilgrims, sharing their food (and beer), sleeping with them, and talking to them. It was remarkable. One of the things that impressed me the most was how devout Yuan is. It is not often these days that one meets a young person with such strong beliefs, and even if you don't agree with or understand those beliefs, it is hard not to respect such a person.

I took as many pictures as I could, but my memory card isn’t very big, so I soon ran out of room for pictures. Most of what I did get I have included here. I have to admit that I often didn’t know where I was, but I’m including a list of all the places we visited (provided by Yuan). Yuan’s family temple is in Keelung in Taipei County. It is named 慈惠如來道院 (cí huì rú lái dào yuàn). On the first day we visited the following:

  • 霧峰 天顯宮 (wù fēng tiān xiǎn gōng, Wu Feng, Taizhong County),

  • 埔里 寶湖宮 (pǔ lǐ bǎo hú gōng, Pu Li, Nantou County)

  • 天地堂地母廟 (tiān dì tang dì mǔ miào, Pu Li, Nantou County)

  • 麥寮 鎮南宮 (mài liáo zhèn nán gōng, Mai Liao, Yun Lin County).

Second day:

  • 麥寮 鎮東宮 (ài liáo zhèn dōng gōng, Mai Liao, Yun Lin County)

  • 竹南中港 慈裕宮 (zhú nán zhōng gǎng cí yù gōng, Zhu Nan, Hsinchu County)

  • 新豐 明濟壇 (xīn fēng míng jì tán, Xin Feng, Hsinchu County).

There is another pilgrimage in April. This time they will go to the east coast to Hualien. That is a beautiful part of Taiwan, so I really hope I can go. I apologize for any incorrect information in this article, or anything that I have misunderstood. I am far from being expert in this area, so my observations are likely to be less than perfectly accurate. Still, I hope that by sharing my experience I can shed a little light on the unique religious practices of Taiwanese people. For a brief (and perhaps somewhat superficial) description of Taiwan folk beliefs in general, you can go to my previous post from December 31, 2006.

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