最古老的里長伯──客家伯公

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1999 / 4月

文‧蔡文婷 圖‧卜華志



土地公近來挺紅,電視劇一齣一齣地搬演,一手元寶一手如意,滿臉笑容、長長白鬚的土地公,扮成廟公時時幫助受欺侮的可憐人。

來到純樸的南部客家村莊,不見老員外,不見土地公廟,客家人指著「地上」墳墓一般的土塚說:「這就咱客家人的土地伯公」。走進正廳裡,祖宗牌位的「桌下」也奉著土地龍神。

看慣今天住大廟、穿華服、員外造型的土地公,可不要笑客家的伯公窩在桌下、坐在地上,太寒酸了。因為這客家伯公不但可以追溯出商周時期的「社神」崇拜,也隱含著中國人對土 地的親近與崇敬!

閩南俗諺說:「得罪土地飼沒雞」,每逢初二、十六,求財的商家不敢怠慢土地公,三牲素果備妥敬土地。神明遊行隊伍中的土地公神尪邊走邊發元寶糖果,土地公儼然是工商社會裡 人見人愛的財神爺。在大家樂盛行的時候,小小的土地公「廟仔」前,經常有賭徒在夜裡聚集,等著土 地公顯靈賞賜明牌。 猜猜我是誰?

從原始管土地農作的自然神,到人格化的社區守護神,由於每一個地方都有其專屬的土地公,因此土地公的角色千變萬化。

傳說中,水神的兒子、夸父的爺爺句龍,因為幫助部族開墾,成為最早出現的土地神。其後善於耕作的老人、忠心的老僕人形象接著確立。因為地方守護神的性格,連唐朝的大文豪韓 愈也當了翰林院所祭拜的土地公;而宋朝名將岳飛則做過臨安太學的土地公。與台灣最有關係的清朝皇帝嘉慶君,幾回遇到匪徒,千鈞一髮之際,就有手拿柺杖的老人出現相救,使得 台灣的土地公可以穿起龍袍、戴起官帽。《西遊記》裡,齊天大聖孫悟空每到異地,也總是一跺腳,叫出當地的土地公,問問在地消 息。

土地公的傳說不可勝數,然而今天所見到的樣子卻是大同小異。關於土地公那老員外的定裝照,曾以台灣土地神信仰及造像藝術為碩士論文主題的王健旺、也是電視連續劇土地公造型 的設計者表示,台灣土地公的老員外造型,與廣為流傳的善書《福德正神金經》最相近。

善書中記載,土地公姓張名福德,生於周武王二年二月二日,擔任稅官的張福德愛民如子,善行無數,享年一百零二歲,並且死後三日容貌不改、面色紅潤。之後,接任的稅 官奸惡無 常、魚肉鄉民,使得人們更加懷念起張福德,一個貧戶便撿了四塊石頭,一塊作屋頂、三塊作牆搭成膜拜的小廟。想不到就因此五穀豐收,變成富豪,於是地方也紛紛祭拜起福德正 神。故事來源不可考,但清楚說明了土地公親民憐貧的形象至今不變。

在台灣,大小鄉鎮、商家店舖幾乎都供有土地公。根據《台灣省通志》三十多年前的記載,台灣登記有案、主奉土地公的寺廟有六百多座,位居眾神之首。然而眾多田頭田尾的土地公 小廟大多是沒有登記的,以輔仁大學應用美術系助理教授賴志彰近兩年在桃園縣所作普查,光是桃園縣就有大小土地公廟將近兩千座,估計全省土地公的數量至少上萬座,真是「有土 地就有祂」。

究竟這無所不在的土地公是誰?走一趟客家美濃及桃園縣偏遠的觀音鄉,雖然看不到土地公員外造型的金身,卻可追溯出土地公原來的真面目! 土地公的真面目

客家人稱土地公為「伯公」,而客家人與土地公的關係也一如與叔伯之間一樣親近。客家庄的婦女在忙完農事、洗手淨身之後,第一件事便是到伯公壇前焚香敬茶;而小孩子們也從小 被教導經過伯公壇就駐足一拜。在這種例行的敬拜中,並非在祈求什麼,而是一種類似對家中長輩的晨昏定省而已。

在客家庄的莊頭莊尾、田頭田尾,還有橋頭或是水尾,處處可見伯公壇或伯公廟存在。根據新修的《美濃鎮志》記錄,光是美濃鎮就有三百多座土地公廟。

客家人的土地公除了稱謂與閩南人不同,墳塚式的土地公壇、鎮守家宅廳下的「土地龍神伯公」,也都是閩南人聚居的村莊少見的。尤其是美濃,由於三面環山、地形封閉,加上百分 之九十的居民為客家人,因而保存了特別完整的客家文化,甚至其他地方已經失傳的中原古禮,像是把守水源的「里社真官伯公」,全省就只有美濃地區還留有三座。

在美濃最富盛名的東門樓門邊,有一棵一百五十多歲的老榕樹,吸引著人們樹下小憩,然而走近的外地觀光客可能會覺得很奇怪,怎麼在古城門邊會有這樣一座大墳? 坐在地上,望著藍天

仔細觀看,在隆起的土塚前,石雕的護欄叫做「屈手」,由兩邊圍抱前面的石碑,碑上刻著「美濃庄頭伯公」。美濃愛鄉協會專案研究員洪馨蘭解釋:美濃人的祖先在兩百六十多年前 來到美濃開墾,並在開墾的靈山山麓修建了最早的「開基伯公」,隨後聚居成瀰濃庄,於是又立了這座東門邊的「庄頭伯公」。伯公壇的歷史、位置,無言地見證了美濃的開發歷史。

隨著經濟發展,一來顧念這樣露天的土地伯公遭風吹雨打,二來也求祭拜方便,甚至是跟著流行,這樣土塚式的土地公壇日漸減 少。有的改建成小廟,廟裡也供奉起土地公的金身,甚 至加了土地婆。然而,最受美濃人重視的開基伯公卻沒有改建,擔任今年伯公「新年福」祭典福首 (主要委員)的陳老先生解釋:「也想過替伯公蓋大廟,但是多次擲杯顯示伯公堅持 不要,」此外開基伯公並且茹素、不肯娶妻。

像美濃開基伯公這種「土塚」型式,可以遠溯到商周時代的「社祭」。

人們在進入農耕生活後,開始與土地發生密切關連,初民認為土地生養萬物以滋養人們,因而開始崇拜土地社神,所謂「社」就是土地之主的意思。而土地那麼的廣闊,於是有的直接 以土堆代表大地、有的則種樹或立石(與泥土關連的象徵物)來代表祭祀土地的地方。客家墳塚式的土地壇就是「土社」的延續,而眾多土地公廟總有棵蒼翠大樹在身後,則是「樹 社」的遺風。至於蓋廟或是有人形的土地公廟都是後來慢慢演變而成的。

從古籍中還可以發現,像美濃開基伯公壇那樣堅持不蓋廟宇,得以上見天空、下坐泥土的傳統形式,原來蘊藏著特別的意義。

距美濃不遠的樹德技術學院傳統藝術中心主任吳奕德表示,在〈禮記•郊特牲〉裡記載著:「天子大社必受霜露風雨,以達天地之氣也。」社是祭土地的,需要陰氣,所以必須與天地 相通。當一個國家被滅亡之時,敵國會在其社壇的下面墊著木材,上面加蓋,如此一來,這個國家也就真正地被滅亡了。

這樣的古風精神,前來祭拜的阿婆雖然不知,但是她表示:「下雨?不怕,那是給伯公洗面囉!」美濃鄉土教學教材編輯黃鴻松也表示:「比起住在寺廟神龕內,甚至怕遭小偷而被關 在鐵欄杆裡的伯公,這樣坐在土地上,眼光開闊看著四方的傳統伯公,有著天地人合一的精神。」 「里社真官」土地爺

沿襲千年文化遺風的還不止於墳墓式的伯公壇而已。數年前,美濃往六龜方向的一八四縣道拓寬,位於美濃鎮龍肚庄的一座墳塚式的「里社真官」伯公差一點遭到切穿,所幸經過在地 居民的爭取,這座全省保存最完整的里社真官不僅被保存下來,而且成為縣級指定古蹟。

什麼是里社真官?研究過南投縣草屯鎮土地公信仰的中研院民族所研究員林美容表示,古代社神的祭祀者由天子、諸侯,到地方百姓大小不一,而其中最小的社祭單位就是「里社」, 一里是二十五戶人家,可知古人社祭的普遍,而這最小單位、由民間管理的里社,也就是今天台灣土地公的前身。至於真官就是水神,因此里社真官也就是掌管水源的土地公。

在農業時代,水源是農作最重要的命脈,開墾的先民經常為了爭水源而械鬥,因此在水流要出庄的水尾處,可以發現土地伯公面向著水流看守著,「這樣『把水尾』的設計,可以知道 過去人們對水資源的重視,」林美容表示。的確,在美濃三座里社真官同樣都位於水渠流經處。

在桃園縣客家聚落的銅鑼圈,也有一座水美伯公廟,一樣位居於水道出庄的地方。八十歲的蕭阿海表示:「所謂水美就是『水尾』的美化。」一位住在離水源較遠的阿媽回憶說,過去 附近的女人嫁到銅鑼圈就要淚汪汪,洗乾淨的衣服都不敢擰乾,水要留著挑回家擰給鴨子喝。因為吃水不易,所以過年時,人們都要前來感謝水美伯公。實際上,對農民而言,水土不 分家,因此土地公原本也負責管理水源,在地名有埤、陂的水塘聚落大概都有管水的土地公,例如台北的雙連埤、桃園縣眾多的大池塘等。只不過像美濃這樣沿用古代稱謂的「里社真 官」伯公,卻是絕無僅有。 案下的土地公

土地公管田地、管橋頭、管水圳,連花園、菜圃、山林、牛欄、豬圈都有土地爺爺,保佑一個小區域的五穀興旺、六畜平安。

根據《禮記•郊特牲》:「家主中霤而國主社」,安置在家中中堂的土神叫中霤,這樣把土地公請回家保護家宅的習俗,也依然存活在客家人的生活中。

走進客家人祭拜祖先的廳堂裡,在祖宗牌位下或是有一個簡單的石碑,或是用一張紅紙寫著「土地龍神」。

詢問多位家宅長輩,都表示「這土地龍神就是土地公,但是只管家裡這塊地方。」從龍神牌位兩邊寫著「福與土並厚,德配地無疆」,或是「福與山河重、德同日月長」的對聯看來, 取用的都是福德正神首字的嵌字聯,可知土地龍神也是伯公的一種,掌理著家宅風水。

至於這龍神為何要屈於案下,傳說是明太祖朱元璋微服出巡時,來到一座客棧吃酒,因為客滿找不到桌子,於是將土地公暫放地上,拿了供桌當飯桌。之後,將土地公放回桌上的老闆 卻在夜裡夢見土地公對他說:皇上將我放在地上,我不敢坐回桌上。

傳說總是有趣而無稽,不過反應的是土地公自古就有被供在桌下地上的習俗。清代文人馮向華便作了這樣一首詩:「不徙高處敬尊神,地下行仙自在身;疑是清修嫌世擾,故藏案下避 凡人。」其實土地公既不是怕了皇帝,也不是怕人打擾,「只是祂原本就是土神,必須與土地相連,」賴志彰表示。 大地的子宮

不論閩、客,在新屋落成或地方不平靜的時候,寺廟或家宅會舉行安龍謝土的儀式。不過在安龍儀式之後,只有客家人還在廳堂的供桌下安置龍神牌位,早晚晨昏,既拜祖先亦拜土地 龍神,使得先人與子孫同享安平。

安龍儀式舉行的時候,作法的道士會用米在地上堆成一條龍,以蛋做雙眼,用錢幣當鱗片。然後用紅線引回龍神,儀式最後,將紙紮的龍頭、龍尾和四爪放入陶甕中焚燒,然後通過廳 堂正後方的龍門,將陶甕埋入家宅後面隆起的土地中,是所謂的「化胎」,又稱「花台」,代表著龍神安住其中。

不論是墳墓、客家墳塚式的伯公壇,或是傳統民居,「在中國人的風水觀裡,都模擬著人體,兩邊伸出的曲手、廂房,就像是人的雙手穩穩環抱著隆起的化胎。除了有著安穩的靠背, 化胎還象徵著母體的子宮,承受天地之氣、孕育一切萬物,是傳統建築最重要的地方,」賴志彰指出。 社區管家公

土地公固守一方土地,不像其他神明那樣四處雲遊,轄境無限,因此與當地居民特別親近。舉凡村莊裡生了小孩要前去向土地公報備,人在過世後也由土地公接引到冥府。在埔里社寮

的土地公廟,不僅守護地方,還可以借錢給有急難的居民,儼然又是地方互助會的會首。丟了車也可以向土地公求救,又好像是警察伯伯。美濃東門庄頭伯公壇前,掛了一幅信徒們致

贈的紅布條,上們寫著「求子求富求貴求學業求平安」,每天清早四點就來打掃的張安勝老先生說:「咱這伯公是有求必應,求考試特別靈驗!」土地公也從土地守護神成了社區守護 神。

春祈秋報

過完舊曆年,又是新的一年。照例是農民向土地公祈求農事順利、闔境平安,「春祈」的季節;到了秋天收成之時則要「秋報」,感謝土地的賜予,許多農民會在稻田的旁 邊,以竹子 綁上祭拜土地公的「福金」,作成「土地公柺杖」,除了感謝土地老爺的護佑,也便於土地公巡行田間。到了今天則演變成農曆二月二日為土地公生日,八月十五為土地公升天的日 子,照例要好好慶祝,分食豐盛的菜餚。

農曆正月下旬,天氣溫暖的美濃已經是稻田一片青青,美濃的開基伯公正在舉行春天「新年福」祭典。下午五點鐘左右,在客家八音的傳統樂聲中,九位福首在道士帶領下,代表土地 公請回「放完年假」的眾天神們。福首之一的林榮安表示,今年繳會費參加的莊民有四百六十多位。同時邀請來客晚上十一點左右,務必來分享「完神」儀式後的平安粥。

平安粥是用祭典中全羊與全豬的肉熬煮,內臟還可炒出兩三道的客家名菜,像是薑絲羊肚、豆豉下水等。洪馨蘭表示,不可錯過平安粥的原因,除了粥本身的好味道外,忙完一天的儀 式,得到了神的祝福之後,在子夜的時候,每個人手上端著一碗冒熱氣的平安粥圍坐在一起,「有著全村人共吃年夜飯的氣氛。」不過更熱鬧的辦桌在第二天中午,參加吃福的四百多 人都將來給伯公請客。

果然中午十一點多,伯公壇前的五十張圓桌已經坐滿了老老小小。忙完祭典的居民們,個個顯得輕鬆愉快,相互熱絡招呼,逗弄著彼此的兒孫。中研院文哲所研究員李豐楙認為,這樣 的辦桌宴飲與一般的吃喝並不相同,這是社群在共同的祈求圓滿之後,得到神的保證,一同宴遊分食,因此叫「分福」或「吃福」。

上過了兩三道菜後,孩子們紛紛下桌嬉戲,這邊一堆坐在供桌上玩,拿著供神的水果吃,那邊一堆爬上了伯公壇大樹下的化胎上遊戲著。「孩子們能爬上供桌玩而不被斥罵的只有伯公 壇,」黃鴻松表示,伯公就是這樣與客家人親近。

遠遠望去,伯公壇真像一位守護莊民的老者,安穩地坐在地上,任著孩子們在身上玩耍,看著祂的子民們歡歡喜喜團聚在一起。不由得想起宋朝詩人陸游的〈春社〉詩:「社肉如林社 酒濃,鄉鄰羅拜祝年豐;太平氣象吾能說,盡在鼕鼕社鼓中。」 失去了土地的土地公

近兩年來,跑遍桃園縣每一寸土地的賴志彰,由田間小路到市鎮大街,一一尋訪每一座土地公廟。他發現今天土地開發處處,相對的土地公也受到不小的波及。許多偏遠山區的土地 公,因為人口外流,被集中合祀;大型工業區或是重大工程的興建,也使眾多土地公一下子失去窩 ~的老房子,形成土地公擠通鋪的現象。而經濟力較強的地方,卻是一再翻新廟容、 個個比大。

然而在桃園縣開發較少的觀音鄉白玉和廣興兩村,卻有一些小到不能再小的土地公,讓賴志彰深深地感受到土地神的存在。他表示,初到這兩個村子時,覺得很奇怪,照理莊頭莊尾土 地公,怎麼這個地方卻看不到土地公?難道他們不拜土地公嗎?問了地方耆老,「有啊!我帶你去看!」在老人家們的帶路下,他發現,老人家崇敬的土地公「居然就是四塊卵石堆在 地上而已」。

還有一個阿婆告訴他在她家旁邊就有土地公,這回更奇怪了,「怎麼什麼都沒有?」仔細一看,在竹林的圈護中,只見地上插著香、供著酒。「土地公應該長什麼樣子?最自然的土地 公就是這個樣子吧!」賴志彰向前合十一拜。

然而,在美濃,隨著經濟力的提昇,許多原本無身無形的伯公,也日漸由石碑變成人形,上了神桌、住起大廟。只是這樣的好意卻不知土地伯公能否消受。而當土地公離土地越來越遠 的時候,人們是否還記得土地公「老土」的性格,記得人們與土地溫柔相待的過去?

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Local Heroes- Taiwan's Earth Gods

Tsai Wen-ting /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Christopher MacDonald


Earth Lord temples can often be found amid lush green expanses of paddy-field, watching over the crops and blessing them with healthy growth.P

The tutelary god known as "Earth Lord" has become a bit of a celebrity of late, showing up in various TV series with his beaming smile and long white whiskers, his trademark magic ingot and ruyi scepter in hand, helping out hapless victims of mistreatment.

At a simple Hakka village in the south of Taiwan, there's no sign of an Earth Lord temple, nor any representation of the god in his familiar guise as a top imperial official. Instead the villagers point to a grave-like mound and say: "That's our Old Uncle Earth." And in the main room of their Hakka homes, a place is reserved underneath the family altar for the local "Earth Dragon God."

Nowadays, Earth Lord tends to be found in big temples, dressed in finery and styled as a high official, but the Hakka earth gods, hidden away under tables or sitting outdoors on the ground, are not to be scoffed at for their apparent poverty. In fact, the Old Uncle Earth deity of the Hakkas has origins that extend back to the cult of the god of the land in the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and stands as testament to Chinese people's traditional closeness to and reverence for the land.

There's a saying in the Min'nan (southern Fujianese) dialect of Chinese that warns: "If you offend Earth God, your chickens will surely expire!" Since no-one who hopes to get rich through business can afford to neglect Earth God, many people honor the deity with offerings of meat and fruit on the second and sixteenth days of every lunar month, while in any procession of popular deities, Earth Lord is the one handing out ingot-shaped candies as he goes. Much loved by the business community, he is effectively its God of Wealth. When the Dajia Le lottery craze was at its height a few years ago, hopeful punters often crowded in front of tiny Earth Lord shrines at night, waiting for the god to favor them with a winning number. Guess who?

From his origins as a nature spirit governing farming matters, to personification as the divine guardian of local communities, Earth Lord has evolved to fill differing needs in every district.

Legend has it that Goulong, son of the Water God and grandfather of Kuafu (whose body became the mountains and rivers of the world), was honored as the first tutelary god due to the help he provided early agriculturists in settling virgin territory. He was first conceived of as an expert old farmer, and later as a faithful old servant. Because of his character as the "patron saint" of the locality, Earth Lord's form varied according to requirements. The eminent Tang dynasty writer Han Yu was posthumously venerated as Earth Lord of the Hanlin Imperial Academy, and the famous Song dynasty general Yue Fei similarly became Earth Lord to the Lin'an Imperial College. The Qing dynasty emperor most associated with Taiwan, Jiaqing, is said to have encountered bandits several times during his travels on the island, but each time was saved at the last minute by the surprise intervention of an old man with a staff in his hands.

Since then, Earth Lords in Taiwan have been permitted to wear yellow imperial

robes and a mandarin's headdress. Little wonder that whenever Sun Wukong, the Monkey King in Journey to the West, arrives in a new place, he stamps his foot on the ground to summon the local Earth Lord for news about the district.

Although there are myriad mythical versions of Earth Lord, he tends nowadays to be represented in very much the same way everywhere. According to Wang Chien-wang, who designs the Earth Lords seen in TV costume dramas and who wrote his Master's thesis on Taiwan's tutelary god beliefs and iconography, the representation of the god as an imperial official is connected to the widely used religious text The Scripture of the True Deity Fude.

The scripture records that Earth Lord was originally a Zhou dynasty tax official named Zhang Fude, who was born on the second day of the second month in the second year of the reign of the Wuwang emperor. Zhang treated his people with paternal affection, and performed many good deeds. He lived to the age of 102, and it was reported that his face retained its ruddy complexion for three days after he died. The official who succeeded Zhang was wicked and tyrannical, however, and the people longed for a return to the days of Zhang Fude. One destitute family built a little shrine to him out of four rounded stones-three for the walls and one for the roof. That year the family had an unexpectedly good harvest and went on to become rich, with the result that everyone else in the district took up the worship of Zhang Fude. The story may not have any historical basis, but it does show how Earth Lord has consistently been viewed as siding with the people and having sympathy for the poor.

In villages and towns throughout Taiwan, the making of offerings to Earth Lord is almost universal among businesses and stores. According to a three-decades-old Gazetteer of Taiwan Province, there were over 600 officially registered temples on the island devoted to the worship of Earth Lord, more than for any other deity. But in fact the majority of small Earth Lord temples scattered throughout the countryside remain unregistered. Lai Chih-chang, assistant professor of applied arts at Fu Jen Catholic University, who has conducted a survey of temples in Taoyuan County over the last two years, reports that there are close on 2000 Earth Lord temples in that county alone, with a probable total for the whole island of well over 10,000. As the saying goes: "Wherever there's land, Earth Lord is there."

So who actually is this ubiquitous character, the Earth Lord? A visit to the Hakka town of Meinung in Kaohsiung County, and to the remote township of Kuanyin in Taoyuan County, may not lead to any gilded figurines portraying the god in his mandarin garb, but it can help us to trace Earth Lord back to his original, authentic appearance.

The authentic Earth Lord

"Old Uncle" is what the Hakka people call their earth god, and the role played by the god in their lives is as close as that of any uncle. When the women of a Hakka village have finished their day's farming work and had a thorough wash, the first thing that they do is light incense and offer tea at "Old Uncle's" altar. Their children, meanwhile, are taught from a young age to pause and venerate the god any time they pass the altar. Rather than being meant for sending specific prayers to the god, these routine acts of worship are simply expressions of deference, just as one might inquire, both morning and evening, after the well-being of senior family members.

Altars and shrines to Old Uncle are dotted throughout the Hakka village and surrounding fields, as well as at bridges and beside running water. According to the recently revised Annals of Meinung Town, there are over 300 such sites of earth god worship in Meinung alone.

As well as using a different name for their earth god, the Hakkas have other elements to their worship that are seldom seen in Min'nan communities (which form the majority in Taiwan), such as burial-mound-type altars, and "Old Uncle Dragon God," an earth god guardian of the home who lives on the floor of the main room. Hakka culture is particularly well preserved in Meinung, which is enclosed by mountains on three sides and has a 90% Hakka population. The town even retains holdovers from the ancient culture of China's central plains that have died out elsewhere, including three shrines-the only ones of their kind left in Taiwan-dedicated to the Lishe-Zhenguan Lord, a god who guards the local supply of water.

Next to Meinung's East Gate, the town's most famous landmark, a 150-year-old banyan tree tempts people to rest under its shade. But the attention of an outside visitor may first be drawn by the curious sight of a big burial mound alongside the gate itself.

Sitting on the ground, looking at the sky

Closer inspection reveals a stone tablet in front of the mound, embraced on both sides by stone balustrades-called "curved arms,"-and bearing the inscription: "Meinung Village's Founding Uncle." Hung Hsin-lan of the town's neighborhood association explains that the forefathers of today's Meinung residents settled in this location 260 years ago, and built their first "Founding Uncle" at the foot of Lingshan mountain. Later, as the settlement grew, they built the present Founding Uncle next to the East Gate. The history and location of the founder's altar thus testifies to the early history of the town itself.

As Taiwan has developed economically, its mound-shaped Earth Lord altars have gradually disappeared from the landscape, partly because people pitied the poor god stuck outdoors exposed to wind and rain, and partly because worshippers wanted more convenience. It also became a fashion to rebuild the old altars. Some were converted into little shrines where offerings are made to gilded figurines of the god and his "earth god wife." Meinung's much-revered Founding Uncle was not rebuilt, however. As Mr. Chen, a "rites-master" in this year's New Year Blessing ceremony for Old Earth Uncle explains: "We did consider building a big temple for Old Uncle, but repeated casts of the divination blocks indicated that the god was firmly opposed to this idea." What's more, adds Chen, Founding Uncle is a vegetarian, and he doesn't want a wife.

The mound form of Meinung's Founding Uncle can actually be traced back to the worship of the "God of the Land" in the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

When people first began to learn farming and to develop a close relationship with the soil, they believed that the land gave birth to all things for the nourishment of mankind, and hence they started worshipping gods that governed the land. In some places, a heap of earth was used to directly represent the greater world, and in others, trees were planted or standing stones erected-symbolic of the earth from which they came-as the focus of earth worship. The mound-altars of the Hakka people are descended from just such "earth gods," and similarly the great leafy trees that usually grow alongside today's Earth Lord temples are themselves a throwback to those early "tree gods." The building of covered temples and the personification of the deity were much later developments.

As to the refusal of Meinung's Founding Uncle to have a proper temple built around him, historical writings testify to the special significance for Earth Lord of sitting directly on the ground under the open sky.

Wu Yi-te, director of the Traditional Arts Center at Shu-te Institute of Technology near Meinung, refers to a quotation from the Book of Rites: "Imperial worship of the god of the land must take place outdoors, under the elements, that it be open to the vapors of the cosmos." In ancient Chinese history, whenever a country was overrun, the invader would complete the annihilation by raising its enemy's national god-of-the-land altar from the ground on a bed of timber, and covering it over to cut off contact with the sky.

One old grandma who has come to worship at the outdoor altar may not know much about the historical antecedents, but she exclaims: "Rain? Who cares? It's just a face wash for Old Uncle!" Huang Hung-sung, who compiles educational materials about the Meinung locale, says: "Compared to those Old Uncles stuck indoors in temple niches, some even barred off in case of thieves, a traditional god sitting outside on the earth itself, with an open view all around, gives much more sense of the unity of heaven, earth and mankind."

The Old Man of the Land and Water

Grave-shaped altars are not the only feature of earth god worship that date back for millennia. A few years ago the planned widening of County Highway 184 between Meinung and Liukuei threatened to slice right through a mound-shaped altar to the "Lishe-Zhenguan Lord" in Lungtu, near Meinung. Fortunately, local residents were able to save the altar, the best-preserved example of its kind in Taiwan, and at the same time have it designated as a county-level site of historical importance.

Who is the Lishe-Zhenguan Lord? Lin Mei-jung, a researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology who has studied Earth Lord beliefs in the town of Tsaotun, Nantou county, explains that in ancient times, sacrificial rites for the god of the land took place at all levels of society, from the emperor, to the dukes, to the common people of every district. The smallest unit of such worship was the lishe, a li being a single community of 25 households, which indicates how prevalent such worship was among the ancients. Since lishe ritual was handled by the local people themselves, it can be considered a precursor of today's Earth Lord observances in Taiwan. As to the Zhenguan, or "True Official," this was a name for the Water God, so the Lishe-Zhenguan Lord was in effect the earth god in charge of local water resources.

Water supply was the most important determinant of success for early agriculturists, and competition for water resources was often the cause of pitched battles among groups of settlers. This is why Old Uncle Earth is often found alongside watercourses, guarding the precious flow at its "tail end," where it exits from the village. As Lin Mei-jung points out, this use of Earth Lord to "guard the water's tail" shows how important water resources were for people in the past. Sure enough, Meinung's three Lishe-Zhenguan shrines are all located next to running water.

In the Hakka community of Tunglochuan, Taoyuan County, there is a temple dedicated to Old Uncle Shuimei ("Water-beauty"), which likewise stands guard over the channel where water flows out of the village. As 80-year-old villager Hsiao Ah-hai explains: "Shuimei is actually just a nicer way of saying shuiwei ('water-tail')." Another old lady from the village, who lives at some distance from a source of water, recalls that girls of the district would weep inconsolably when they married into Tunglochuan. Instead of wringing out freshly washed clothes, Tunglochuan women carried them home where they squeezed out water for the ducks to drink. Such was the difficulty of obtaining water, that the villagers all came to the shrine at New Year to thank Old Uncle Shuimei. In fact, water and land are inseparable for farming peoples, which is why Earth Lord himself doubles as the custodian of local water resources, and settlements with certain Chinese characters in their names, meaning "-pond" or "-pool," almost always have an Earth Lord who is connected with water. But outside of Meinung, nowhere else has kept alive the ancient name of the Lishe-Zhenguan Lord. Earth Lord under the altar

From the fields, bridges and waterways, to the gardens, vegetable plots, forests, cow-pens and pigsties, Earth Lord is there for them all, blessing the whole district with healthy domestic livestock and an abundance of grain.

As is written in the Book of Rites: "Zhongliu is master of the home, and She [god of the land] is master of the state." "Zhongliu" is the name of the earth god that people keep in their houses, a custom that still plays a part in Hakka life.

On entering the main room of a Hakka home, where the family altar stands, one may notice a simple stone marker or strip of red paper underneath the ancestral memorial tablet, inscribed: "Earth Dragon God."

As Hakka family elders confirm, "the Earth Dragon God is another version of Earth Lord, but he's only responsible for the area inside the home." On either side of the Dragon God's tablet, a couplet reads: "Good fortune (fu) as plentiful as the earth; Virtue (de) as boundless as the land," or "Good fortune multiplied, like the mountains and rivers; Virtue eternal, like the sun and moon." The use of two characters at the head of each line that combine to form Fude, Earth Lord's name, underlines the fact that this Dragon God, who governs the inner fengshui of the house, is in fact none other than Old Uncle Earth himself.

As to why the Dragon God has to content himself with a place underneath the altar, the legend is that emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming dynasty was traveling incognito among the people on one occasion, and stopped for refreshment at a busy inn. Since he couldn't find a proper place he sat down at the table used for making offerings to Earth Lord, first removing the icon and putting him on the ground. The innkeeper later lifted the god back on top of the table, but that night he dreamt that Earth Lord spoke to him, saying: "The emperor put me on the ground, I dare not get back on the table."

It may be just a legend, but it demonstrates that the custom for keeping Earth Lord on the ground, under the altar, is one that dates back to ancient times. As it says in a poem by the Qing dynasty man of letters Feng Xianghua: "Don't raise the god up high to venerate him, it's easier for him to operate down on the ground; He'd rather meditate in peace unmolested by the world, so stash him below the altar to avoid common mortals." In fact, Earth Lord is neither afraid of the emperor nor worried about being bothered by people, says Lai Chih-chang. "It's simply that as the earth god, he needs to be in contact with the ground." Womb of mother earth

Among both the Hakka and the Min'nan peoples, when a new house is ready, or if there is some sort of disturbance in the district, a ritual is performed in the home or temple to "pacify the dragon and thank the earth." But it is only the Hakkas who place the Dragon God tablet underneath the family altar at the end of the ceremony, so that as they pay their routine respects to the ancestors and the earth god, they can ensure peace and safety for both their forebears and their descendants.

During the dragon-pacifying ceremony, the officiating Taoist priest heaps dry rice on the ground and spreads it into the form of a dragon, using eggs for its eyes and coins for its scales. Later, he guides the spirit of the Dragon God into the house along a red thread. At the end of the ceremony, paper models of the dragon's head, tail and claws are burned in a pottery urn. The urn is then carried out through the "dragon door" at the rear and buried under a mound at the back of the house. This mound, called the huatai (meaning both "incubator" and "raised flower bed") is where the Dragon God dwells in peace.

Lai Chih-chang notes that the lay-out of grave-sites, Hakka mound-shaped altars, and traditional Chinese houses, simulates the form of the human body, in line with the concepts of fengshui. "A pair of curved 'arms' reaches round on either side, like hands wrapped around the pregnant bulge of the huatai. As well as providing a firm backrest for the god's tablet, the huatai symbolizes a mother's womb, open to the essences of the universe and giving birth to all creation, and is the most important part of a traditional building." Community caretaker

Unlike other gods that roam at will and exercise authority throughout the land, Earth Lord adheres firmly to his own turf, and is therefore particularly close to the local populace. When villagers give birth, the news is reported to Earth Lord, and when they pass away, it is Earth Lord who escorts them across the threshold into the nether world. In the village of Sheliao in Puli Township, the Earth Lord temple not only protects the district but also provides loans for families facing a crisis, like any rotating credit association. You can even request help from him, like the local "bobby," if your car gets stolen. And in Meinung, a red banner draped in front of the Founding Uncle altar at the East Gate, presented by a local believer, reads: "Praying for sons, for wealth and for honors; for academic success and for peaceful well-being." Chang An-sheng, a local senior who sweeps the altar at 4 a.m. every morning, remarks: "Old Uncle here grants whatever you request. He's especially effective with requests for examination success!" Once the divine protector of the land, Earth Lord has become protector of the whole community. Spring prayer and Autumn thanksgiving

The lunar New Year celebrations are over, and another year begins. By tradition this is the time of the "Spring Prayers," when rural people ask Earth Lord for a successful year on the farm, and for general peace and well-being. In the fall, once the harvest has been gathered in, they requite Earth Lord for his blessings with an "Autumn Thanksgiving," when many farmers erect "Earth Lord Staffs"-bamboo poles festooned with "lucky money"-beside their paddy-fields, both as an expression of gratitude to the god, and as an aid to him in his perambulations among the fields. Nowadays, the Spring prayers are observed on the second day of the second lunar month, which is Earth Lord's birthday, and Autumn thanksgiving is observed on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the date that Earth Lord ascends to heaven. By tradition, there is always a rousing celebration, and a sumptuous feast shared by all.

It's late in the first lunar month in Meinung. The weather is getting warmer, the surrounding fields are already green, and the New Year Blessing ceremony is being held for Founding Uncle. At around five in the afternoon, amid the traditional sounds of Hakka bayin music, nine rites-masters headed by a Taoist priest appeal on behalf of Earth Lord for the gods to return from their "New Year vacation." One of the rites-masters, Lin Jung-an, says that more than 460 locals paid to take part in this year's ceremony. Later, at around eleven o'clock that night when the ceremonies are over, guests are invited to partake in a special dish, called "at-peace" congee.

This congee includes the stewed flesh from all the sheep and pigs used in the ceremony, along with special stir-fried Hakka dishes such as tripe with shredded ginger, and fermented soya beans in chopped organs. Hung Hsing-lan says that it is essential to stay till the end, both for the food and the atmosphere. When everyone is sitting together with their steaming bowls of congee, after a long day of ceremonies and having received the blessing of the gods, "it's like having the whole village get together for New Year's eve dinner." However, an even bigger feast takes place the following day, when over 400 people gather for lunch as guests of Old Uncle Earth.

Sure enough, shortly after eleven o'clock the next morning, there are 50 big round tables set out in front of Founding Uncle's altar, all fully seated with local people young and old. Everyone is relaxed and happy now that the official ceremonies are over, with people warmly calling to one another and playing with each other's kids. Li Feng-mao, researcher at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, feels that what makes this occasion different from most other temple feasts is that it brings a whole community together to "share the good fortune," having jointly completed their rituals of prayer and received blessing from the gods.

After the first two or three dishes, the children get down from the table and begin to play, some sitting on the altar and eating the offerings of fruit that have been set out there, while others clamber about on Old Uncle's huatai under the big tree. Says Huang Hung-sung: "It's only at the Old Uncle altar that kids can climb onto the offerings table without getting told off." That's how close the god is to the Hakka people.

Viewed from afar, Old Uncle really does seem like a kindly old protector of the local folk, seated solidly on the ground, letting little children play about on top of him as he watches over his revelling people. A few lines by the Song dynasty poet Lu You come to mind: "Sacrificial meats all around, and rich sacrificial wines, local people all at worship, wishing for a year of abundance; For the picture of a universe all at peace, no better image do I know of than the rumbling drums of the earth god celebrations." Dispossessed of his land

During the last two years, researcher Lai Chih-chang has covered almost every inch of Taoyuan County, from country byways to city boulevards, searching out every single Earth Lord temple. Along the way he has witnessed much land development, with considerable consequences for the local Earth Lords. In many of the more remote mountain districts, the population drain has led to Earth Lords being consolidated together for joint worship, while in major industrial areas, and sites where large development projects are in progress, numerous Earth Lords, suddenly deprived of their own hideaways, now have to cram together at a single altar. Meanwhile, temples in areas with economic clout are repeatedly refurbished, and built ever larger than one another.

On the other hand, in the less-developed villages of Paiyu and Kuanghsing, in Taoyuan County's Kuanyin Rural Township, Lai was deeply struck by the presence of earth gods in some of the very smallest Earth Lord representations. He says that when he first arrived in these two villages, he found it strange that there were none of the usual Earth Lord shrines to be seen, and wondered if perhaps the locals didn't even worship the god. But when he asked one of the old inhabitants about this, the man exclaimed: "Of course we do! I'll show you where." It turned out that what the old people venerated as Earth Lord, "was actually just four large stones piled on the ground," says Lai.

An old lady in one of the villages also told him that there was an Earth Lord right next to her house, but Lai's first reaction on seeing the site was: "How come there's nothing here?" On closer inspection, all he saw was incense sticking out of the ground, and an offering of wine, sheltered by a little grove of bamboo. "Well what's Earth Lord supposed to look like?" remarks Lai, as he presses his palms together in an attitude of prayer. "That's exactly how Earth Lord appears in his most natural state!"

In Meinung, however, growing prosperity means that many such formerly "bodiless" Earth Lords have gradually evolved from stone tablets into human figurines, with altars before them and large temples for their homes. The intention is good, but who knows how well Earth Lord can withstand these developments? As Earth Lord moves ever further from nature, do people still remember his "down-to-earth" character, and the gentle interaction that there used to be between people and the earth?