1999 / 4月
Tsai Wen-ting /tr. by Christopher MacDonald
The concept of "Mother Earth" was common to early peoples around the world, including in China, because they conceived of Earth as the parent of all living things for the nourishment of mankind. It was therefore necessary to show proper deference and offer a prayer to the earth before undertaking any act which involved breaking the ground, such as tilling the soil, building a house, or even digging for minerals or laying a road. The worship of local tutelary gods, such as Taiwan's Earth Lords and the "Old Uncle Earth" of the Hakkas, reflects the belief that Mother Earth, rather than being just a cold lump of dirt and rock, is a living entity that gives birth and can feel pain.
In ancient China's zhaji ceremony, a year-end sacrifice of thanksgiving, the emperor would lead a retinue of 100 officials, all clad in black, in "bidding farewell" to the Earth God as he retired for the winter. Farming activities were suspended and the breaking of ground was forbidden, to give the god time to rest. Work resumed in the spring after further ceremonies for the god. This accounts for the western Hunanese saying: "After the spring sacrifice banquet, take up the plow and the rake."
The "ox-plow dance," a sexually suggestive folk ritual that is often performed at temples around Taiwan in Spring to celebrate the reawakening of the world, is actually intended to promote a "sympathetic reaction" in Mother Earth, restoring her to the peak of her reproductive powers. Therefore, explains researcher Li Feng-mao of Academia Sinica's Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, the dance "can't just be cast in an obscene, indecent light."
Li, who studies Taoist ritual, adds that Chinese people's respect for the earth goes beyond just the traditional belief in earth gods. "Before important local religious ceremonies, strict prohibitions apply against any exploitation of 'the mountains and the waters,' with bans on wood cutting, hunting, farming and fishing." This reflects a fundamental attitude towards ensuring that the world can live and multiply without cease, and is not something that is only highlighted in earth god rituals.
There are gods in the ground. Our ancestors, whose lives were so closely tied to that of the earth, bequeathed to us their wisdom about those gods through religious ceremonies and folk taboos. But can today's people, forever developing the land and cutting new roads through the mountains, still believe in gods in the ground?