Sunday, March 6, 2016

Praying for Fertility: The Baogong Stone

Dajia (大甲), now part of Greater Taichung, is synonymous with the cult of Mazu, the sea goddess revered by the Fujianese migrants who arrived in this region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their principal house of worship is Jenn Lann Temple, founded in 1732. 

Of course, humans were living in Dajia long before those settlers arrived. It's said the toponym Dajia derives from the name of the lowland aboriginal tribe that once dominated the area, the Taokas (道卡斯). Like Taiwan’s other indigenous groups, the Taokas were of Austronesian origin and spoke a language very different to Mandarin or Taiwanese, but somewhat similar to the Maori tongues of New Zealand. As a distinct tribe, they disappeared long ago, but some of their culture lives on in certain local traditions. 

One location where the influence of aboriginal beliefs on local religious practices is still apparent is on the outskirts of Dajia, in Waipu District’s Xincuo (外埔區新厝). There, childless couples hoping for a baby pray to a 30cm-high rock known as the Baogong Stone (包公石). This object of veneration has a crudely phallic appearance, but - if you look closely- you’ll notice what could be eyes and other facial features. 

Until 2010, the stone was kept in a land-god shrine. Because its apparent ability to cure infertility was drawing a lot of media coverage, there were fears it could be stolen. (From time to time, efficacious icons are snatched from Taiwanese temples.) It was thus moved to its current location, the front room of a private home in the neighbourhood. The family who look after the stone keep a list of couples who report pregnancies after coming here, and the stone is credited with three or four successes per month. 

Taiwan's birthrate is no longer the lowest in the world, but it remains well below replacement level. 

A couple's chances of conceiving are greater, it's claimed, if both visit and pray to the Baogong Stone. If only one can attend, he or she should bring some of his/her spouse's clothing, and rub the garments on the stone's tip. When telling a friend about this place, he asked: "Would rubbing underwear against the stone work better than, say, a sweater?"

It's a good question, and I wish I knew the answer.   

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