2019 / 6月
Jinguashi's Mazu Procession
Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams
Jinguashi’s procession for the goddess Mazu is a century-old tradition that embodies the collective memories of generations of residents. The procession passes through the steep alleys of the mountain town, treads its stairs and crosses its bridges, walking through the pattering spring rain. In former times, its route would take in the mines, where it would pause to pray for blessings. Modern Jinguashi continues the tradition, spreading wellbeing wherever the palanquins roam.
Candlelight and the scent of incense fill the main hall of Jinguashi’s Cyuanji Temple on the 22nd day of the third month of the lunar calendar. Zheng Jinmu, the temple’s 96-year-old senior monk, wears a yellow robe and leans on a cane in front of the altar, where he chants sutras to wish the goddess a happy birthday. At midnight, the sounds change from those of the “wooden fish” (a wooden percussion instrument) to those of bells and drums, marking the start of Jinguashi’s annual Mazu procession.
Gods mount up
The birthday incense is burned at 7 a.m., and then the gods are invited to mount their palanquins.
The comically dressed po-be-a (“messenger”) sets out first and announces Mazu’s approach. Two pairs of awe-inspiring “god puppets” walking in large wobbly strides guard the procession’s flanks. Next, electric-techno neon god dancers, dragon dancers, and lion dancers come forward one after another to pay their respects before the palanquins. Female amateur dance troupes perform sexy dances to rock music, to the delight of the watching worshipers. It’s a very Taiwanese performance.
The Jinguashi Mazu procession’s seven palanquins make quite a sight. The palanquin carrying Tudigong’s statue leads the way followed by one carrying Baoming Temple’s Shennong statue, another carrying Gengzailiao’s Mazu statue, still another carrying both Guandu’s and Mailiao’s Mazu statues, and then the palanquin of Cyuanji Temple’s Mazu statue, a “lineal descendant” of the Beigang Mazu statue. The palanquin of Guan Yu, Cyuanji Temple’s principal deity, brings up the rear behind an elevated one carrying a Jade Emperor statue.
Because the whole route of the procession ranges up and down slopes via stairs and alleys, the gods ride in palanquins made of rattan, which weigh less than the more typical wooden ones. Even so, they weigh tens of kilograms, require teams of eight to carry them, and leave their bearers out of breath after trips up or down stairs. Given the rain-slick roads, treacherous footing, and cooperation among bearers necessary to make it all work, it’s no wonder the procession has a reputation as the most difficult in Taiwan.
Following the former ropeway up the slope, the procession arrives at the New Taipei City Gold Museum, where worshippers kneel and let the palanquins pass over them to seek blessings from the gods. Five or six times as many adherents wait here this year as in the past: the line stretches all the way to the museum’s ticket booth, and marks the first high point in the procession.
We follow the road past the place where Jinguashi residents have set up an altar to welcome the palanquins. There we see the “swapping incense” custom peculiar to Mazu processions along Taiwan’s northern coast, which involves adherents replacing the procession’s partially burned incense sticks with fresher ones of their own. They then take the partially burned incense from the procession and place it in the incense burners in their own homes, to represent the passing of the gods’ blessings to each household and each resident.
Encouraging moral behavior
Taiwan’s general public is often mystified by the Jinguashi procession. After all, the town doesn’t have a Mazu temple of its own. In fact, the procession is organized by Cyuanji Temple, a temple dedicated to Guan Yu, who local residents refer to as the Lord of Kindness. Why has Jinguashi had its own Mazu procession for the last century?
Lo Shu-jung, head of the Gold Museum’s Education and Research Section, says that the history of the procession is a microcosm of Jinguashi’s development. Articles from Taiwan Nichinichi Shinpo (Taiwan Daily News), Taiwan’s biggest newspaper during the period of Japanese rule, make clear that Jinguashi has been giving offerings to Mazu since at least 1919.
The fact that the Japanese mine owners didn’t bar the local worship of Mazu is itself interesting. Lo and Lin Ching Long, CEO of Cyuanji Temple’s management committee, say that this can be laid at the feet of Huang Renxiang, an important intermediary between Nippon Mining and Taiwanese miners in those days. Huang persuaded the Japanese management that everyone associated with the mines was part of the same “community of fate,” and that they should therefore respect the Taiwanese workers’ beliefs. Huang also gave back to his hometown by donating money to rebuild Cyuanji Temple, which had previously been little more than a shack. Praying to Mazu has remained a tradition at Cyuanji Temple ever since.
As for Cyuanji Temple’s dedication to Guan Yu, research into the mining region’s temples by Wang Hui-chen of the Gold Museum’s Education and Research Section has shown that mine foremen encouraged mineworkers to make offerings to Guan Yu because he was viewed as an incarnation of benevolence and justice, and worship of him reduced pilfering.
Cyuanji Temple also provided free medication and Chinese-language education, which was of great help to the impoverished miners and their families, who otherwise couldn’t afford medical care.
When gold flowed
After Japanese rule ended, Taiwan Metal Mining, a state-owned mining company operated under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, took over operation of Jinguashi’s mines.
Life in the mining town was hard, and not everyone who went into the mines came out again. On the other hand, a gold strike could mean overnight riches. The Mazu procession offered residents an opportunity to pray for protection from calamities, and their more general religious beliefs helped them cope with the vagaries of their lives.
Even though Jinguashi doesn’t have a Mazu temple, the second floor of Cyuanji Temple has a Mazu statue that is a “daughter” of the Mazu statue at Chaotian Temple in Beigang, Yunlin County, and therefore shares in its ling (“efficacious power”). Lin explains that Cyuanji Temple began engaging in exchanges with Chaotian Temple in 1934. He says that adherents have brought Mazu back home to Beigang every year since, but adds: “Mazu has been living at Cyuanji Temple for decades, which makes her practically a local.”
Jinguashi’s Mazu procession attracts many Mazu adherents during Taiwan’s “Mazu frenzy” in the third lunar month.
This year’s procession was the biggest ever, with participation from other local temples, including Baoming Temple, Jinfu Temple, and Wufu Qiansui Temple. It also marks the formation of Cyuanji Temple’s first management committee in its hundred years of existence (part of a larger effort to revitalize Jinguashi itself), which means that a new team organized this year’s procession.
Lin Ching Long, a retired police official, explains, “We just had to do something about how run down Jinguashi has become.”
Jinguashi’s decline was inevitable once its mining output fell, as less mining meant fewer jobs. Other people left to escape the air pollution from Taiwan Metal Mining’s Shuinandong copper smelter. The situation became even more dire when the company ceased operations in 1987. This ended the area’s metal production, depriving it of its economic lifeblood and causing even more people to move away. The town, which had a population of more than 20,000 people in 8,000 households in the prosperous 1970s, is now home to only 600-some people in 100-odd households.
In the old days, each of Jinguashi’s households contributed funds to cover the costs of the Mazu procession. When the population fell, residents coped by having each the town’s four boroughs take turns organizing the event. But when the household contributions could no longer keep the procession going, Cyuanji Temple took on the job of coordinating the four boroughs’ capabilities.
Many of the people who participate in the procession are Jinguashi natives who now live elsewhere. Grandmothers with their grandchildren, uncles and nephews back to visit relatives, they march along the streets of Jinguashi and remind themselves that this is their home.
ChuChu, whose actual name is Huang Zhuping, stands by herself among the adherents lining the road and quietly snaps photographs. She has an unusual personal connection to Mazu in the form of a 2.3-kilogram statuette of the goddess that she has brought to all of Taiwan’s more than 500 Mazu temples. She has also taken it to Mazu temples in Bhutan and on the Japanese island of Shikoku to engage in cultural exchanges and meet people.
A painter who was once a resident artist at the Gold Museum, ChuChu has drawn more than 200 images of Mazu over the last ten years using a technical pen with a 0.2-centimeter tip. In fact, she recently published them in a new book entitled Giver of Courage.
She believes that visiting Jinguashi enables people to experience the sorrow of a hollowed-out town, the desolation and grief that followed on the heels of its loss of prosperity. She also says that those who live here get to experience the ever-changing breath of Nature, which delivers wind one minute and rain the next.
This year’s Mazu procession has attracted more than 100 photographers who gather near the historic bridge to capture images of the procession as it passes, only to be drenched in a downpour. We come to the plaza in front of the town’s historic “Cottage Number 5” to take a break. The rain, now a drizzle, does nothing to dampen the appetites of the crowd. Fortunately, Jinguashi’s residents have prepared a dozen or so dishes, including fried rice noodles, bamboo shoot soup, fishball soup, and chicken-and-squash soup, and are serving the visiting worshipers as they arrive.
While Jinguashi’s Mazu procession is an intangible cultural asset, the tangible sites associated with the town’s derelict mines, such as the Yin Yang Sea and the Golden Waterfall, are spectacular artifacts of the area’s old veins of ore. The ruins of the old exhaust pipes and the 13-level smelting plant give a sense of the prosperity of yore and the dismal state of the present. Following the procession’s conclusion, we sit outside the Alchemy Cafe, soaking wet and drinking hot coffee with an ice-cream floater. Something ChuChu said runs through our heads: “Mazu is a spiritual being. With the procession, she takes you on a symbolic passage through human life.” It doesn’t matter if it rains, or how many sojourners you meet along the way—it is the mental and spiritual journey that is the point.