Mazu is a Daoist goddess of the sea, and she is widely revered by the island-dwelling people of Taiwan. Even the smallest towns have at least one temple devoted to her, and in each one of them you’ll find an ornately carved Mazu statue which has been imbued with her power.
Not all of these Mazus are created equal. Their power and prestige is ranked within both formal and informal hierarchies. The latter is determined mostly by word of mouth. Some Mazus have performed miracles, others haven’t. If a crippled person passes under a small-time Mazu during a pilgrimage and then walks again, this particular Mazu will start to develop a reputation and potentially draw more pilgrims seeking health and fortune.
There’s also a formal hierarchy, though it’s administered very loosely (nothing akin to a Catholic Church here, a central institution that can enforce dogma). A Mazu of a given rank can split its soul (fenling, 分靈), creating a new, lesser Mazu that becomes the statue for a new temple, which, in time, will be splitting off its own Mazus and further extending the base of this spiritual pyramid. Young Mazus must return to their parent Mazu every year in order to recharge their powers. There’s also another type of procession whereby a Mazu will leave her temple and travel around her immediate area, visiting other Mazus, blessing locals, and warding off disaster.
These pilgrimages are big events in Taiwan, and millions of believers seize the opportunity to accompany Mazu on her travels every year.
Two of Taiwan’s most important Mazu temples are Qiaotian Gong in Beigang and the Mazu temple in Dajia. But as for which is top dog – that can be a bit of a controversial question. In the beginning, the Dajia Mazu paid tribute to Beigang as a subordinate temple. But in 1987, upon hearing that Beigang was unsure about embarking on a pilgrimage to the Chinese mainland, the Dajia temple committee members decided to skip Beigang and go straight to the highest authority in Meizhou, effectively becoming a rogue Mazu in the eyes of some. This Beigang-Dajia schism has persisted all the way to 2014, and it has even absorbed the debates of Taiwanese identity politics: Beigang is sometimes seen as the ‘green’ temple (for refusing to visit the mainland) and Dajia is the ‘blue’ one (for deepening cross-strait engagement).
You-Zhen and I caught up with the Dajia Mazu for one day of her 2014 pilgrimage, and I mean caught up in the literal sense. We left our hotel in Jiayi at around 8:30 a.m. and took a train and then a bus to Huwei. We didn’t exactly know where Mazu would be; she is after all somewhat of a moving target. So we checked the Dajia pilgrimage website from the bus, and found a real-time Google map of the immediate area, complete with a cute, cartoon Mazu icon showing her current location. I was later told by a pilgrim that it was possible to access the webcams of every volunteer minibus using my smart phone, just one of the many ways that people can follow the pilgrimage remotely.
That’s one thing I enjoy about the pervasive blending of old and new in Taiwan. There’s no major to-do about it, no press conference that the Vatican is launching a Twitter account. It’s just normal and expected that people will want to watch Mazu trace her ancestral path on their iPhone during lunch break.
Walking with the Dajia Mazu was an incredible experience, and I hope that one day I’ll have an opportunity to do the full, week-long pilgrimage. The atmosphere at times can be described as ‘war-like,’ with firecrackers exploding all around you and bits of burning paper whizzing through the smoky air. When you’re anywhere near Mazu, you have to be vigilant because onlookers will wait until she’s about to pass before lighting their payload. The crowd then scatters to a muffled chorus of ‘aieees!!’ as the tiny little bombs burst at their feet. Before long everyone falls back in around Mazu, and an impromptu line forms of people wanting to lie prostrate so that she can be carried over them and bestow good fortune. Farther up the procession is quieter, with uniformed pilgrims marching with their organizational flags, musical instruments, and prayer rods. These rods are decorated with scraps of spirit paper taken from each of the temples visited on the road, all of which will ultimately be put to the fire when the procession makes its final stop at Dajia.
As always, the locals were extremely kind and made me feel very welcome to participate in the procession. Soon after arriving I was beckoned over by a glassy-eyed pilgrim leaning out from one of the trucks in the procession. He handed me a bottle of whisky and offered a drink. I accepted, much to the obvious delight of the other riders, all of whom appeared to be trashed. Then another one held out a bottle of what appeared to be cognac. This one I had to decline; generally speaking I don’t have my second drink until at least noon.