Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Know your gods: The Land God

The photo here was taken in the exhibition hall in Taichung Folklore Park, a place I recommend if you're interesting in the Taiwan of yore, folk religion and the traditional way of life. In addition to profane items such as farm tools, rice-husking machines and porcelain pillows, it has a great many censers, josses (Taoist icons) and other items used in rites.

The icon shown is a fairly standard land god (sometimes called an 'earth god'), a minor deity with powers over a defined territory no bigger than a village. Taoyuan County seems to have an exceptional number of land gods - an average of seven per square kilometer according to one report.

The land god is often depicted with a white beard. Sometimes he carries a staff; very occasionally he rides a tiger. According to the National Museum of Natural Science's website:

"The God of Earth, called 'Tu-di-gong' (
土地公) in Chinese, is popularly worshipped in Taiwan. A formal name for Tu-di-gong is Fu-de-zheng-shen, meaning the god of good fortune and virtue. Tu-di-gong is a friendly keeper of nature, agriculture and land, and plays an important role in Taiwanese communities, bringing good luck and harmony. Tu-di-gong temples are almost scattered everywhere around Taiwan: in the field or under a tree; in quiet villages or in noisy cities. People pray to the earth god either in a small shrine or in a cosy temple; either in their neighborhood or in their ancestors' grave yard, because they think there must be a god to bless themselves and their ancestors as well.

"This bearded old man in a red or yellow robe always wears a friendly smile on his face. He is not all-powerful but is a benevolent administrator and integrator for families or communities. In Taiwan, Tu-di-gong is actually the god closest to folks, and has become part of their life."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Fog Plateau

Just back from the Pingtung County township of Wutai (the name means something like 'fog plateau'), the first time I've been there for at least 12 years. It's a gorgeous aboriginal district; in the mist and drizzle it reminded me of Darjeeling, India. We stayed less than 24 hours but that was enough to see the main village, Ali (the settlement at the end of the road), and a good slice of the northern part of the township.

Few villages in Taiwan are as attractive as Wutai, and I mean the buildings themselves, not just the superb backdrop. Almost every house is slate-walled or slate-covered, and motifs of the Rukai tribe - snakes being the most common one - appear everywhere.

To see Wutai you'll need your own vehicle, or someone to show you around.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

National Victory Road

This 1937 Art Deco gem stands just across the road from Fort Zeelandia in Anping. It's on a side lane of National Victory Road (國勝路). As far as I can tell, Anping is the only place in Taiwan to have a road with this name, though there are National Victory streets in Hsinchu's Zhubei City and Tainan County's Yongkang City. I'm wondering if the victory in question is Koxinga's over the Dutch East India Company, though it may refer to the surrender of Japan in 1945.

Incidentally, the man who commissioned the building of the house is now considered a local land god, and is worshiped in a small temple just around the corner. See the final paragraph of this post for details and a photo.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sword-lions in Anping

Anping is the oldest part of Tainan, which itself is the oldest city on the island. One unique local tradition is the 'sword-lion' motif. These emblems, which appear above many doorways, are thought to ward off evil. The colourful one shown here is one of the most famous. It belongs to a house which is now a roofless wreck (but which the citygovernment has promised to restore).

I noticed the second sword-lion a few days ago when visiting Anping. Presumably it was once painted...

Rich Matheson, who took the cover photo for my guidebook, has an excellent set of photos of sword lions on his website.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vital equipment

If you're hiking, cycling or riding a motorbike in Taiwan, get a pair or two of cotton gloves like these. They're available from any general or hardware store in any town. Taiwanese farmers use these when handling pineapples or pesticides, and because they're so cheap (NT$10/pair) they never wash them, but just replace them when they're filthy or too stiff with banana sap to wear.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Religion in Taiwan: Divination Blocks

These are divination blocks, usually referred to by their name in Taiwanese, buay. You'll find them in every temple, large or small. People ask questions of the gods and read the answers from how the buay fall. They're always used in pairs. Here's a detailed explanation from this source:

"In divination the worshipper usually poses a question, and then phrases an answer, the blocks are held out upon the two palms, raised about to the level of the forehead of a kneeling worshipper, and allowed to drop on the floor. There are two positions in which each block can land: rounded side up or rounded side down. Therefore there are three combinations of positions, both blocks might land flat side down, both might land rounded side down or each might land differently. If the blocks land in the last combination, one up, one down, then this is taken to indicate confirmation of the answer.

"It is believed that when the two blocks land rounded side downward and rock giddily on the floor before coming to rest, the god is amused at the statement put to him, and this position is called 'laughing jiao' but when the flat sides come to rest on the floor, so that the blocks fall and come immediately to an abrupt standstill, then anger is indicated. This position is called 'negative jiao'. The positive fall is called 'sacred jiao'. These interpretations of negative replies are seldom taken very seriously, however, and what is important is to determine what form of a statement the god will confirm as a correct statement of his point of view, rather than to develop an emphatic yes or no to a given question. The question is typically presented in a murmured silent prayer and the blocks dropped. If they indicate an affirmative, they are dropped again. A validly affirmative reply requires three consecutive positive falls, and the occurrence of either negative reply requires the reconstruction of the question and another attempt, or requires that one give up.

"These blocks are used in ordinary consultations with household and temple idols, as well as with ancestors."