My suitcase was finally shut, all the shopping crammed in; my passport and ticket ready for my flight home to Australia the next day. Now I was just looking forward to enjoying one more delicious dinner with my mother in one of Taipei’s wonderful restaurants…
But my mother had other ideas.
“We go do bai-bai,” she announced, as we were leaving the hotel.
“What?” I turned back to her, struggling to open my umbrella against the gust of wind that whipped down the street. Summer in Taiwan was typhoon season and the news had been warning everyone for days to brace themselves for a whopper of a hurricane to come. Already, the sky was ominous with black clouds and the air heavy with moisture. “What for? It’s going to rain soon – shouldn’t we just get to the restaurant quickly?”
But my mother would not be swayed. She had an appointment with Tu Di Gong, that she was determined to keep. Which is how I found myself ducking raindrops and dodging puddles 20 mins later, as we negotiated a maze of back streets and alleyways, to the little temple in our local neighbourhood…
OK, so in case you’re totally confused about what’s happening, I’d better give you a bit of background:
People often ask me what religion Chinese people follow and I always find that a hard one to answer. (No, we’re not all Buddhists, as a lot of people seem to think! ). In fact, with China being Communist, and the way “religion” was attacked & banned by the Communist regime, I guess the majority of Chinese people in the world is officially “secular”.
Taiwan – where I come from – is probably a better example, since it is a politically-free country where people can make their own choices. Taiwan has always been a melting pot of religions, due to its multi-cultural history and its climate of religious freedom. The native aboriginals practised ‘nature worship’, before the Dutch settlers brought Protestant Christianity to the island, followed by the Spanish conquerors promoting Catholicism when they in turn tried to take over the island. Later, the Japanese insisted on their Shinto religion for the population during their colonial reign of Taiwan but mostly, the island was converted to Buddhism and Taoism by the Han Chinese immigrants who flooded the island from neighbouring China.
One of the nice things about Taiwan, though, is that rather than being divisive and causing hostility, religious diversity has always been embraced by the people of the island. It’s pretty much, “You believe what you like and do what you like – and let me do the same.”
In fact, people are so relaxed about religious diversity in Taiwan that they embrace it on a personal level too – meaning, they’re quite happy to believe and follow the teachings of several different “religions” at the same time. Combine the good things from all.
I know that might sound weird to people from other parts of the world where being of a certain faith means swearing exclusive allegiance to that particular “God” and any involvement in other beliefs is considered sacrilege. But this isn’t the attitude in Taiwan (nor many other countries of East Asia). What people call themselves “officially” often has very little to do with what they actually practise.
The “labels” aren’t so important. The focus is on living a moral life and being a “good person” – and you are judged by your actions, rather than by official membership of any particular religion (clique).
So if you want to combine beliefs and rituals from different faiths and religions to help you live life in a more moral way and become a “better person” – why not?
Oh sure, there are groups of “pure” Christians/ Catholics, Muslims, even Jews etc – but for most Taiwanese – no matter what “religion” they might list themselves as officially – what they’re really doing is following a blend of beliefs, based on a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist & Confucian principles, folk religion and ancestor worship. In fact, it’s not unusual to find Taoist & Buddhist temples side by side in Taiwan (can you imagine a Catholic church standing right next to a mosque??) and in some cases, even under the same roof – as in the famous LongShan Temple, in Taipei.
My mother is a typical Taiwanese this way, happy to live by Buddhist principles of karma, humility and compassion for others, together with Taoist principles of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ – while at the same time popping into traditional temples every now and then to burn some incense and offer a prayer to Tu Di Gong (Earth God) – who looks after the fortunes of the common people. Not to mention, of course, calling on her ancestors regularly to bless and protect her family. It’s not unusual – whenever she is stressed or worried – to find her “talking” to my deceased grandfather, grandmother or great-grandparents – and lately, even my (step)father who passed away 2 years ago – asking them to look after us.
(The Chinese believe that your ancestors and departed members of your family are always watching over you and have influence over what happens to you. They can speak to the gods on your behalf and help you. It is very comforting for the Chinese to feel that there is always someone there, who has a vested interest in your well-being and who is always ready to listen to you whenever you need help or comfort. Sort of like a spiritual “Phone-A-Friend”…or in this case, “Phone-An-Ancestor”! )
Anyway, so when I was in Taiwan with my mother back in July, she was determined to take me to her little local temple the night before I flew back to Australia. Not only did she want to ask the gods’ protection for my safe flight home but she also knew that my husband was about to sit an important exam, as the last stage of his Fellowship training, and she wanted to ask the gods for their help in ensuring him a good result.
While there are many big, famous “official” temples around Taiwan – the ones on tourist checklists – owned and maintained by the government or various religious organisations, there are also many tiny little temples such as this one, wedged in amongst the residential blocks or even office buildings.
They’re actually privately owned (anyone can build & set up a temple, to worship the various Chinese gods) – and are open all the time, to provide a place where the local community can come and worship, medidate, pray, find peace, whatever – whenever they need to.
Each ‘little temple’ is usually owned and maintained by some local family wealthy enough to afford it, as a sort of “free community service” – because there is a strong tradition in Taiwan that if you are lucky enough to be blessed with wealth and prosperity, you should “give back” to others in the community. People may make annual pilgrimages to the bigger temples for the main festivals of the year but it is often at these little local private temples that they do most of their worshipping.
And a lot of the time, they’re praying to the “little gods” too, which goes totally against Western expectations. I mean, if you wanted help with something – you’d think that you’d apply to the big guy, right? Go to the biggest boss at the top, the one with the most power? But it doesn’t work like that.
The Chinese pantheon is very much modelled on the system of government in traditional Chinese society, with each god acting as a sort of bureaucrat responsible for certain aspects of life – and all of them reporting back to Tien Gong (God of the Sky/Heavens), also known as the Jade Emperor, who is the supreme ruler and oversees the administration of all the god-bureaucrats and their domains. (And in case you’re thinking of Zeus and his lightening bolts…in Chinese culture, a god’s strength comes not from his “magic” or some other fancy super-power – but rather from his “unending wisdom & benelovence.” The wiser and more benelovent the god, the more powerful he is.)
So just as there is no point you writing to the Minister of Defence, if you wanted your local sewage system sorted – you wouldn’t bother praying to the Jade Emperor if you were worried about your kids fighting all the time. That’s the domain of the Kitchen God, who oversees all matters of home and family.
It’s ironic because it means that many of the lesser-ranking gods are far more important to the Chinese people and worshipped far more diligently, because they are more relevant to their every day lives. I guess it’s a bit like you spending more time befriending the IT guy in your office, rather than the CEO, because the former can do a lot more to smooth out troubles in your every day life!
The other thing about Chinese gods – especially the ones worshipped in everyday life – is that most of them used to be just like you and me once. See, in Chinese culture, gods are often not born into holiness – they are “made”. Through their own efforts of “gaining wisdom, helping others and practising benelovence”, they achieve the status of a “god”.
For example, the Kitchen God was once a man called Zhang Lang who was a bit of a jerk and left his lovely wife to run off with a younger model. As punishment for his adultery, he was struck blind and his young girlfriend ditched him, leaving him to wander around as a beggar. Years later, while begging, he ended up back at his old house. Since he was blind, he didn’t realise that it was his wife who opened the door – but she took pity on him anyway, invited him in, cooked him a wonderful meal and looked after him lovingly (the woman deserves a medal…) – all this wonderful care made him start blubbing out his tragic story. When she heard how much he regretted what he’d done, the wife told him to open his eyes – and he found that wow, he could see again! But when he saw his wife sitting in front of him, he was so overcome with shame & remorse that he threw himself into the kitchen fire. (Hey, this is a Chinese story – you weren’t expecting a happy ending, were you? ) Well, actually, it does have a happy ending. The Jade Emperor took pity on the guy and forgave him, reuniting him with his wife and making him the Kitchen God – also known as the “Stove God”, because traditionally Chinese homes were all centred round the kitchen stove. His job is to protect the home and family – and once a year, on Chinese New Year, he returns to the Jade Emperor to make a report on each family.
I think the fact that a lot of their “gods” used to be human once and made mistakes and weren’t perfect and all-knowing & wise, etc…helps Chinese people have much more of a “personal” relationship with them – because they feel that these gods are much more willing to listen and not so quick to judge; that they really understand.
Anyway, so back to that little temple on a rainy evening in Taipei…
…well, we stopped at a corner shop on the way to pick up some biscuits – because, as my mother said, you never turn up at a temple without an offering of some sort. These are often fruit – but the gods like snacks and biscuits too. If you’re really keen, you can cook up a chicken or some other home gourmet meal to show your appreciation.
And if you’re wondering what happens to all this food…some of it is left there to be collected by the temple owners as a sort of “donation” (possibly redistributed to the needy) but sometimes it’s also taken home again to be eaten by the family, once it has been left there for a decent amount of time and the gods have had a chance to “eat” their fill. Well, it’s only symbolic after all and the Chinese are first & foremost a practical people – why waste good food?
(I supose to many Westerners and people from other cultures, the whole concept of an “offering” to the gods seems repulsive – almost like giving a bribe. But as I said, the Chinese are a very practical people and to them, their relationship with their gods is not one of being a servant or devoted follower who never questions “God’s will” – it’s a much more equal relationship of mutual respect and cooperation. Like I said, they see their gods much more like bureaucrats, each with responsibilities to fulfil. They worship and pay respect to their gods – but they also expect their gods to do their jobs. It’s a two-way street. A bit like you voting for your local MP or Senator and supporting their campaigns – but then expecting them to do their jobs, fulfil their promises and look after your interests, in return.)
Once the offering was placed on the altar, my mother lit a few sticks of incense and went outside first, where she could see the sky. There she bowed three times to pay her respects to Tien Gong (God of the Heavens). Although he wasn’t the guy she really came to see – he’s far too busy & high up & important to be dealing with small domestic matters – she still needed to acknowledge him first…
Then she went into the temple for her audience with Tu Di Gong – the Earth God – who is probably one of the most worshipped gods in Taiwan. He’s an old, white-haired guy, affectionately called “Grandpa” by a lot of Taiwanese, who looks after the well-being of the common people.
Traditionally, he looked after agriculure and since so much of Taiwan was a farming community, he was really important to the welfare of the villages. Nowadays, he is still worshipped and prayed to by most families – although he’s more likely to be dealing with problems of commuter stress and mortgages than drought and famine!
People often talk about going to temples to “pray” - the Taiwanese call it “bai-bai” – but I don’t feel it’s really praying in the Western sense of the word because people aren’t usually reciting specific prayers, the way they might do in a church, say. My mother simply bowed with the sticks of incense and said quietly:
“Tu Di Gong – have a look at my daughter. Her name is Hsin-Yi. She is 38 years old. She lives in Sydney, Australia. Please look after her and give her happiness, good health and prosperity. She is flying home tomorrow so please keep her safe. Thank you.”
The gods won’t hold it against you if you don’t use any formal phrasing or offer any proper prayers. It is ultimately your private “talk” with them and there aren’t snobby judgements on “better” ways to communicate. She then repeated her request, this time giving all my husband’s details and asking about his exam.
By the way, there IS a specific ‘God of Students, Scholars and Examinations’ – with a dedicated temple of his own – and during the big college entrance exams every year, his temple is flooded with high school students asking for his blessing…so I suppose if we were doing things properly, we should have made a pilgrimage there, but since we were short on time, it was fine to ask Tu Di Gong instead. According to my mother, he could still take care of things.
Underneath the altar to Tu Di Gong, there was also a tiny little shrine to the Tiger God – a guardian god who wards off evil. So before we left the temple, my mother urged me to light a few sticks of incense for the Tiger God too, to ask for his protection during my upcoming travels…
I have to say, I wasn’t quite convinced the whole temple visit had paid off when I was sitting in the taxi on the way to the airport the next day and got a call from the airline to say that all flights had been cancelled because of the impending typhoon! So much for ensuring my safe journey home! I ended up stuck in Taiwan for an extra couple of days, waiting out the hurricane (which, OK, was not much of a hardship! – well, except for my poor husband who had been eagerly awaiting my return after several weeks alone).
My mother, however, was more than convinced that Tu Di Gong had done his job. He had kept me safe, which was all she had asked for. And I had to admit – as I watched news coverage of Typhoon Vincente from the safety of my hotel room – that maybe she was right. Labelled the Highest Tropical Cyclone Level 10, Typhoon Vincente had luckily missed Taiwan but bombarded Hong Kong, where I would have had to make a stopover on my way back to Australia. All transport had been suspended; shops & offices (and even the Stock Exchange) closed and thousands of trees uprooted as the typhoon tore its way across the island. People were literally blown off their feet as they struggled down the streets looking for shelter, clutching railings and lamp posts in desperation. Even if I had managed to leave Taiwan, I would have been stranded in Hong Kong Airport, for days, in the middle of a very dangerous hurricane…
And funnily enough, when I did finally get home (via a change of airline, to stopover in Singapore instead) – I heard that on that same day, Sydney had been enveloped by a freak fog, forcing all arriving flights to be diverted to Brisbane – three hours up the coast! So even if I had made it to Down Under, I would not have been able to come home – I would still have had a tortuous roundabout journey, waiting in Brisbane until the fog lifted, then finding a seat on a domestic flight to bring me back to Sydney…instead of which, I spent a nice couple of extra days in Taiwan, stuffing my face with more delicious food…not a bad exchange!
Oh – and by the way – my husband passed his exam with flying colours. So I guess Tu Di Gong came through on that front as well!
Hey, I wonder if there is a Chinese ‘God of Excess Baggage’? That would sure be a handy god to have on your side!