Mazu worship binds Taiwanese people

Thursday, April 15, 2010
By Alan Fong, The China Post

As an island and an oceanic country, Taiwan has long loved and revered the sea. Since its earlier days as a fishing-based economy, the people in this nation have honored the Chinese sea goddess Mazu (媽祖), also spelled Matsu, as its patron deity. The Mazu religion serves as the glue the bind the people of various ethnicities in Taiwan and as the base of Taiwan's rich and evolving culture.

“Taiwan is one of the world's biggest centers of Mazu belief. Mazu worship has long been the religious belief generating the highest amount of energy in Taiwanese society, it presides over the biggest group of believers, the richest resources and largest number of temples,” said Yen Ching-piao (顏清標), president of the Jenn Lann Temple (鎮瀾宮) also known as the Chen Nan Palace (鎮瀾宮), the heart of Mazu worship in Taiwan.

“The believers always commissioned the best craftsman to build temples in Mazu's honor, thereby erecting one quintessential Taiwanese architecture another another,” he went on, “To the Taiwanese people, Mazu worship is not superstition but a deeply ingrained belief. Taiwanese people love Mazu regardless of their ethnicity and age. You can say that the development of Mazu culture is the miniature of Taiwan's history.”

Built in 1770, Jenn Lann Temple is known as one of the most important centers of Mazu culture in Taiwan for its status as the organizer and starting point of the 330-kilometer Mazu procession in the third lunar month that attracts over a million pilgrims island-wide. The trademark event, which is believed to be as old as the temple itself, has long been one of the biggest events in the Taiwan calendar.

Thanks to the assistance of the government, the procession has gained international followings in recent years. The Discovery Channel ranked by the million-member strong match one of the three religious festivals in the world, Yen explained. The celebrations also help push Mazu culture beyond the confines of religion and establish it as the core of Taiwan's national psyche.

This year, Jenn Lann Temple will hold the procession from April 17 to April 25. The organizers have expanded the celebrations to a nine-day trip throughout southern Taiwan that will pass by over 80 temples in over 20 townships of the four sea-bordering counties of Taichung (臺中縣), Changhua (彰化縣), Yunlin (雲林縣) and Chiayi (嘉義縣). The trip typically begins at midnight. The pilgrimage reaches the Mazu Temple in Changhua City (彰化市) on the first night and then moves to Fuhsing Temple (福興宮) in Hsiluo (西螺), Yunlin, on the next day.

Then the pilgrims usually stay at Fengtian Temple (奉天宮) in Hsingang and return to Fuhsing Temple on the fifth day. After that, Mazu stays at Tianan Temple (奠安宮) and then goes to Mazu Temple (天后宮) in Changhua City before returning to Jenn Lann Temple.

For people unavailable to join the whole nine-day event, the organizer provides one-day free-of-charge “experience” visit of the procession.

In this year the temple will also hold the Cross Strait Mazu Belief and Culture Forum (海峽兩岸媽祖信仰文化論壇) before the celebrations from April 15 to 16.

“In 2008 the Jenn Lann Temple held the Mazu International Forum in which we teamed up with believers in China to propose the listing Mazu culture as an UNESCO intangible cultural heritage,” Yen said.

“In 2009 our effort paid off. The listing of Mazu culture as an intangible heritage marked the globalization of the belief. Since then, the dialogue between the global and the local became the basis of research for scholars in Mazu culture. To enhance the academic research and dialogue in the area, we organize the 2010 Cross Strait Mazu Belief and Culture Forum to enrich the public and the academic knowledge on the goddess,” he added.

The forum will be based on five themes: Mazu belief and cultural heritage, Mazu temple and rituals, the cultural transmission of Mazu belief, regional research on Mazu belief and the cultural phenomenon related to Mazu belief. Scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences will engage in academic discourse with Mazu experts from Taiwan in the two-day Web-cast forum.

An important figure in the Taichung area, the former president of Taichung county legislative body and a former legislator, Yen has been one of the most recognizable person in Taiwan. However, his role as the president of Jenn Lann Temple confers to Yen something more profound then mere fame and influence.

“I spent my childhood on the seashore in central Taiwan. You can say that I grew up alongside Mazu temples. Mazu has been the one I turn to for answers since I was a kid. She is the teacher of my life,” he explained, “a while back ago, I had been not only discouraged but even dispirited when I was at the low point of my life. However, Mazu belief helped me rebuild my life and told me to take positive actions. It also guided me through my anger and remade me a more tolerant person.”

“Until this day, whenever I am unhappy I go to the Mazu temple. I like looking at Mazu's face. It permeates a force of peace and tranquility that can dispense all my troubles,” he concluded.

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