Saturday, July 24, 2010
Know your gods: Lord Chi
This serious looking individual is Lord Chi, 'Taiwan's most popular Wang Ye', according to the Encyclopedia of Taoism by Fabrizio Pregadio. '[His] cult appears to have developed in Fujian and can be traced back to the cult of the martial plague-fighting deity Wen Qiong.'
The words Wang Ye mean ‘royal lord’ but this name is more honorific than accurate – the only royal connection is that it's believed the original 360 of the many hundreds of spirits in this category were musicians and scholars employed by Emperor Tai Zong (reigned 626–649).
The Wang Ye cult is stronger in Taiwan than elsewhere in Greater China because of plague-expelling customs in Fujian. Whenever coastal communities in that province were afflicted by disease, they’d place Wang Ye icons on boats and set them adrift. Prevailing currents carried brought many of these vessels to Taiwan and to the southwest in particular. That region has more than two-thirds of the island’s 1,200-plus Wang Ye temples. Knowing exactly what the boats were, Han people living along Taiwan’s coastline received them with a mixture of fear and awe; they knew that ignoring the Wang Ye was to tempt fate, so they built shrines and burned incense.
'The origin of the Wang Ye appears murky, but the term appears in Qing-dynasty gazetteers from Fujian, some of which claim that temples to these deities existed as early as the Song dynasty,' writes Pregadio. He quotes data compiled by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1918 and 1930 showing that Wang Ye temples accounted for about one in seven of all registered shrines in Taiwan; only land-god temples were more numerous.
Taiwan's busiest Wang Ye shrine is Nankunshen Daitian Temple.
I took the photo above in a small temple in Tainan's Anping district called Xi Long Dian. Locals go there to propitiate Lord Chi; tourists go there to see the effigy shown below. It represents a salt merchant who was deified after his death in 1948 and who's now regarded as a land god. The effigy is believed to actually smoke the cigarettes provided by devotees!