Go to site main page,
Table of Contents, previous / next chapter.

Text modified: 990602
File last modified: 150702

Chapter 2

The Religion of the Taiwanese

Having developed a picture, however sketchy, of the history and organization of Bǎo'ān village, we now turn to religion. In the present chapter we shall consider some aspects of Taiwanese folk religion in general. In the chapters that follow we shall explore religious phenomena of Bǎo'ān in particular and consider their relation to other facets of village life.

Buddhists and Taoists

One question that is often asked about religion in Táiwān is whether the people are Taoists or Buddhists, and perhaps it will prove easiest to begin consideration of Taiwanese religion by answering this reasonable question. There is something called Taoism, with certain tradition and religious specialists and books associated with it; and it is Chinese. There is also something called Buddhism, with certain traditions, religious specialists and books. It is different from Taoism, but in most ways it is equally Chinese. There is in addition to these two traditions, with their specialists and their books, a corpus of beliefs and practices, the folk religion, which has variously been described as Confucian1 (which it is not), as animistic,2 and as popular.3 All three of these strains, Taoism, Buddhism, and folk religion, have contributed heavily to Chinese religious life, and their inter-penetration is so extensive as to prevent a thoroughgoing sorting of the elements one might associate with each in its "primal" state. It is important that we note how closely these three strains are mixed. At the same time, however, there are certain traits that still carry a specifically Taoist or Buddhist tinge, and, most important, there are separate Taoist and Buddhist clergies whom village people call upon to perform certain rituals. Both the pantheons and the personnel of the Taoist and Buddhist faiths must be clearly distinguished from each other and from folk religion if we are to understand the dynamics of religion in Táiwān today.4

Footnote 1. Groot 1910.

Footnote 2. Reichelt 1951.

Footnote 3. Maspero 1923.

Footnote 4. Contemporary Chinese writers unanimously distinguish Buddhism and Taoism from other beliefs, which are variously treated. For Jiāng Jiājǐn (1957,1959) the classification of religions in Táiwān is Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and "popular beliefs" 民間信仰, the last category including nature worship, divination, and a variety of other things. For Lǐ Tiānchūn (1956) the categories are Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and "common heliefs" 通俗信仰, but unlike Jiāng Jiājǐn's "popular beliefs" this last category includes cults of three popular gods, two of whom Jiāng Jiājǐn (1959) specifically classes as Taoist. For Hé Liánkuí and Wèi Huìlín (1966) the category of popular beliefs is itself composed of Taoism, Buddhism, Lay Buddhism, and individual cults of various historical figures (e.g., Guān Gōng 關公, Zhèng Chénggōng 鄭成功) plus the cults of patron gods, plus many other subdivisions each given equal rank with the rest. A separate category of wizardry 巫覡 includes all practitioners other than orthodox Buddhist and Taoist clerics, and this is considered separate from the category of popular beliefs. Approximately the same format is followed in Hé Liánkuí's contribution to the Táiwān provincial gazetteer (Hé Liánkuí 1955).

   What is more significant than the particular classifications of these authors is their agreement that whatever Buddhism and Taoism may be, they are not the whole story, and that some additional categories are necessary to include the parts of Taiwanese folk belief that they are unwilling to subsume under one or the other of these major traditions.

Buddhism has a hierarchy of supernatural beings which is, as I understand it, clearly and explicitly worked out, if not by a universal Buddhist church, at least by individual schools. Taoism also has a hierarchy of supernatural beings which is, as I understand it, worked out in some detail. These supernatural beings include some gods worshipped only by the Taoist priests, for they are founders of various schools of Taoist philosophy, alchemy, and magic. Both clergies engage in worship of the beings in their respective hierarchies, but only certain members of either hierarchy are worshipped by the people at large.

In the Buddhist religion, popular worship is confined almost entirely to three figures: Guānyīn 觀音, the Amida Buddha, and the Śākyamuni Buddha, in that order of popularity. The arhats are represented in many temples by tiny statues on the wall of a room devoted to Guānyīn, where they are more items of pious and conventional decoration than objects of worship.

Go to top

In the case of the Taoist figures, the inter-grading with popular religion is more complete. The primary difference is that the masses ignore (and are ignorant of) the deified magicians, and the priests pay little attention to most of the popular gods, although either side would acknowledge the importance of all these beings as gods . The pantheons are intellectually continuous.

The Taiwanese Buddhist clergy dwell in monasteries, and the Buddhist monastery-temples are therefore clearly understood to be Buddhist, despite various practices not historically a part of Buddhism (such as the use of divination blocks and chhiam-papers).5 Taoist priests, on the other hand, practice in public temples, which they neither own nor control, or in the houses of their clients. Taoist priesthood is entirely a private practice, like that of an American lawyer or physician.6 There is no such thing as a Taoist temple, over and against a folk temple, in the way that there are distinctive Buddhist temples, for the "Taoist" temples (that is the places where Taoist rites are performed) are the folk temples.7 These temples, because they are public, folk temples, often contain Buddhist images as well as non-Buddhist ones,8 but Buddhist temples do not ordinarily contain non-Buddhist images.

Footnote 5. The one religion introduced during the Japanese period and still surviving in Táiwān is Tenrikyō 天理教. The first postwar Japanese Tenrikyō missionary arrived in Táiwān during my stay there and was dismayed, as I was, to discover that since the war the Taiwanese Tenrikyō adherents had introduced divination blocks into the temple. In one Tennkyō home I even found a carved joss representing "the Tennkyō god" rather than the mirror used as a semi-mystical symbol of Tenri-ō-no-mikoto 天理王命 in Japan.

Footnote 6. This situation does not seem to be typical for China as a whole. In many parts of the country there have been Taoist institutions very similar to the Buddhist monasteries, as well as a variety of types of Buddhist religious organizations. In Táiwān, however, the Taoist clerics are a dwindling handful of men who are not associated in such organizations.

Footnote 7. The term Taoist is often used in Táiwān to cover everything that is not Buddhist, Christian, or Moslem, and I have often slipped into this usage myself. The usage is convenient and harmless, as long as we remember what it means.

Footnote 8. It is widely held that during the Japanese years. the government resolved to destroy all Chinese temples. Buddhist figures were placed in them, and it was pointed out that they were now Buddhist temples, and hence Japanese. The Japanese were apparently convinced, it is said, for they did not burn the temples. Even the most recent temples, however. are still built with niches or even halls for Guānyīn, often surrounded by the arhats, so it is difficult to accept this historical incident as the explanation for the presence of Buddhist figures today. Basically. certain Buddhist figures are objects of popular and not merely Buddhist worship, and as such they are (naturally enough) placed in popular temples.

Go to top

The Buddhist faith is considered foreign in some way, and Chinese delight in explaining that it is ultimately Indian. Buddhist clerics dress in gray or white or brown robes of distinctive cut, and are celibate and vegetarian, whereas Taoist priests are indistinguishable from the remainder of the population, have families, and eat what they please except during particular rites.

All of this sounds rather complicated. In practice it is very simple. There is a set of village beliefs and practices related to the supernatural. There are, in addition, two traditions represented by clergy. Both clergies are outside the village, and are related to village religion only in being outside specialists called in to perform needed rituals, particularly funerals and temple festivals, but also exorcism and other rites. These occasions are not frequent, and the liturgies and rites the priests perform are not understood by anyone who is not a priest. In the Taoist case the liturgy is typically secret; in the Buddhist case it is heavily Sanskritized and requires an extensive special education before it is intelligible.

In the present chapter we shall be concerned with the religion of village people, not of clergymen. To the extent that village people have ideas about the clergy, or about what the clergy do when they are called to the village to perform ceremonies, we do not exclude the clergy from our consideration. But to the extent that the clergy have their own version of religious doctrine or practice, which is different from the version popular in Bǎo'ān, they are not our present concern. There is a practical reason for this limitation: I have not studied and do not understand the religious ideas of any group of clergy. I agree that such study is important and interesting, and that it is necessary to an understanding of the religious system of China as a whole, just as the religion of the imperial court is important, interesting, and necessary to an understanding of the whole system. I have not included the study of the clergy because it would have taken many, many more years in Táiwān than I spent there, and because it would take many more years in a good library working with materials in languages I do not now read.

If I need a theoretical rationalization, however, it is this: this essay is about folk religion. One of the problems in discussing folk religion is deciding who are the folk. Is it reasonable to consider that folk religion includes elements in fact unknown to most of the participants in the system? If one answers categorically that it is not, then one is reduced to making use only of such knowledge as is common to everybody or nearly everybody. Such a decision means excluding a great many data that might be of great significance for the integration of the system at levels higher than those at which the most ignorant people in it may bother to integrate it. On the other hand, if one answers that it is reasonable to include elements that are arcane to the participants, then one finds oneself moving to the other extreme, and trying to include a world of details that are unknown to all but a very few participants (indeed to all participants if the details are the concern of outside specialists). When this happens, it seems to me it is difficult to draw conclusions bearing on the dynamics of social and cultural life, for I do not see how people can be directly influenced by ideas they do not in fact have.

What one ends up doing in practice, of course, is learning everything one can from everyone who is willing to talk about it, and relating it to everything one can think of to relate it to. But as a general theoretical bias, in drawing social and cultural conclusions about ritual activities, I am more inclined to the proletarian view than to the elitist one. For this reason I would be inclined to exclude from a study of village religion most of the testimony of religious elites from outside the village, even if I had it. But of course I do not, and that is why I call this stand I have taken a rationalization.

Go to top

Gods and Ghosts

A man's body lives by virtue of its animation by two or more souls; this is clear beyond question to a Taiwanese farmer. Scholars may dispute, as they have for centuries, about how many souls there are: two, four, or myriad thousands. For simple folk the details are irrelevant. Everybody knows there are at least two. One soul is the Pò / phek . It is the lower soul, associated with the earth, with femaleness, with darkness, and in general with all things Yīn .9 This soul is necessary to life, but is unimportant in the greater scheme of things. It tends to linger in coffins or around graves, and eventually to burn itself out and expire.10 A man has another kind of soul too —an ethereal soul, of brightness and maleness and celestial realms, in other words of Yáng ). This soul is called by scholars a Hún / hûn or a Líng / lêng and in ordinary parlance a Línghún / lênghûn 靈魂.

Footnote 9. For a discussion of Yīn and Yáng, see Fung 1948: 129-142, Granet 1934: 101-126, or van Praag 1966: 76-100.

Footnote 10. But for a discussion of confusion as to the presence of various categories of soul in the grave, see Groot 1892-1910: vol. 4, pp. 5 f., 64 f.

This Línghún is of immortal stuff. There are various points of view as to how this immortal being spends its time after death. One view (by origin a Buddhist one) would send the Línghún to hell 地獄, where it suffers hideously for its shortcomings in the world of the living. The descriptions of these torments are elaborate and various.11 In certain contexts any Taiwanese is prepared to explain the importance and the inevitability of hell, and some maintain that Taiwanese who convert to Christianity do so because they have done evil deeds and wish to escape punishment by adopting a religion that provides no place in its cosmplogy for hell.12 When the soul at length arrives at the final court of hell, penitent after its deservedly hideous purgatorial experiences, it is (somewhat unpedagogically) fed a drink inducing forgetfulness13 and is reincarnated into an earthly form appropriate to the degree of virtue that informed it in its previous existence.

Footnote 11. For a fairly complete recent account taken from texts of various periods, see Eberhard 1967: chap. 2. Another readily available description in the context of traditional drama is provided by Laufer 1923: 4-28. For one of the Taiwanese variants see Nĝ 1955: 7~72 in the Hokkien edition; 99-103 in the English edition.

Footnote 12. I have yet to meet a non-Christian Taiwanese who is aware that hell figures also in Christian thinking.

Footnote 13. This drink is served by the Venerable Goddess Grandmother Mèng 孟婆尊神, whom Werner (1932: 312) describes as the Buddhist Proserpine. DuBoise (1886: 314) writes that when scholars arrived in hell, able by Buddhist chants to avoid punishment, they were transferred to Grandmother Mèng's department and given this liquid. In their next incarnation they died after birth or as infants and were thus delivered anew to the first courts of hell, now defenseless. The usual Taiwanese view is less inclined to pursue the workings of hell to so logical a conclusion.

Go to top

A second view, held simultaneously with the first, considers the Línghún to continue life in the world of the shades 陰間, a ghostly sphere, invisible to mortals, yet interpenetrating the world of the living in time and space. Their existence can be comfortable if they are well provided by their descendants with food offerings, clothing, housing, and above all with money. Small suits of clothing, papers folded to represent silver and gold ingots, or printed to imitate paper money, and paper houses of enormous complexity are all to be had in any Taiwanese town to be burned and thus communicated to the shades of the deceased. Indeed the artistry these paper houses, equipped as they are with furnishings, and a staff of servants, easily surpasses the level of many a folk art that has received more attention as art. But the lot of such a shade is not always so pleasant. It sometimes happens that the dead has no descendants to provide him with offerings as the years go by. Slowly he is reduced to dire poverty and becomes a most pitiable creature. In desperation, and often in rage, he attacks human beings to gain direct fulfillment of his needs or at least to win attention to his plight. And in attacking human beings he changes categories, for a Línghún (soul) who becomes vicious is a ghost, or Guǐ .14 One village story I recorded tells of the visitation of such an unfortunate supernatural.

Footnote 14. Some writers associate the Hún soul with gods (Shén) and the Poh soul with ghosts (Guǐ). which is admittedly a tidier scheme. Thompson (1969: l0f.) writes: "Now the material or yin, component of the soul (called p'o) was that which would turn into a kuei if not placated by suitable burial and sacrifices…. This power of the hun soul derived from its nature as shen, which not only was a generic term for kindly spirits, but was used in reference to all deities." All I can say is that no one in Bǎo'ān ever explained the scheme to me this way. and many people explained it to me the way I have described it. I suspect that the root of the problem is the change in the meaning of the difficult term Guǐ over time (or between "dialects"), but I am not sinologist enough to be able to trace this in detail.

In a neighboring village a man died and was buried with all the appropriate ritual. A few months later his daughter was working in a field where her father had formerly worked, and he appeared to her, smoking, and wearing very tattered clothes. She was frightened and ran home, and explained about the bad clothes her poor father had to wear in the world of the shades, and that the living ought to provide him with better.

Go to top

Another tale illustrates the malice to which the ghost may be forced.

Near Táinán there is a building with a section where no one dares sleep. One night a brave man and four companions went to the forbidden place. As usual a ghost appeared, an old woman begging. They attacked her with bamboo clubs and she vanished. Subsequently they all fell ill. Four repented and went to ask her forgiveness. They recovered. The fifth is ill to this day.

In a general way, these pathetic and desperate Guǐ can be referred to by a common euphemism: the Good Brethren 好兄弟, known in the English literature by the less polite but more descriptive Chinese term: Hungry Ghosts 餓鬼.15 The Good Brethren are dangerous because they are desperate, and to avoid incurring their jealousy or wrath one sacrifices to them at the gate of the house on the occasion of any important sacrifice to other supernaturals.16 In Bǎo'ān there is no question that the Good Brethren are the single most common category of supernatural worshipped simply because they exact sacrifices whenever sacrifices are to be offered for any reason.

Footnote 15. In Bǎo'ān the usual term is "lonely spirit" 孤魂, although the term "hungry ghosts" is also used. Apparently in earlier times the ghosts were hungry not because they were not tended, but because they were being punished for avariciousness in life. They are accordingly sometimes portrayed with enormous bellies and mouths, but a gullet too small to pass food or water, causing eternal hunger and thirst. This latter interpretation, however, does not seem common in Bǎo'ān.

    Chinese hungry ghosts derive originally from Hindu prera. Soothill and Hodous (1937: 341), in an article under Guǐ in their dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms, discuss various subdivisions of hungry ghosts Although the hungry ghosts have long since lost much explicit connection with Buddhism or its doctrines, Soothill and Hodous do list various Chinese transliterations of the Sanskrit word prera that are clearly intended as sound transcriptions: Bǐlǐduō / pi-lé-to 俾禮多 (p. 320); Bìlìduō / pit-lī-do 畢利多 (p. 361); Bìlì(duō)/phek-lē(-to) 蔽荔() (p. 462). This last writing, however, is apparently used only in the more Chinese sense of a preta seen as an ancestral spirit. become a hungry ghost living among men. and potentially harmful.

Footnote 16. Although the term "Good Brethren" is itself a euphemism, the practice of worshipping them at the gate provides the source for a secondary euphemism, for the act is often called "worshipping the gate" 拜門口.

In this view, then, there are two fates for a Línghún: either it has descendants who provide it with offerings piously or it is ground down in poverty. The Línghún with descendants who see to its welfare is also an ancestor 祖先. Technically, some informants insist, a Guǐ and a Línghún (and hence also an ancestor) are the same thing. The difference is that the term Línghún communicates nothing save that the individual is dead, while the term Guǐ has rather ugly connotations that he may be dangerous or that he is not properly taken care of by descendants. The word tends to be avoided save as a term of abuse.17

But Guǐ are also set in opposition to another category: gods or Shén .18 The conceptualization relevant in making this distinction is that the condition of a Línghún after death is dependent —and if we are to be consistent with our earlier description, we can only insist that this means partly dependent— upon the merit it has accumulated in its terrestrial life. If you are good you become a god; if you are bad you become a ghost, say many village people, as though that were the whole story.

Footnote 17. As an abusive term it has extensions among the living. A naughty or uncooperative child, for example, is a "little ghost" 小鬼. The English expression "little devil" seems similar in many contexts. A man fond of liquor is an "alcohol ghost" 酒鬼, a term used in playful scolding (covering some of the contexts in which American "wino" might be used).

Footnote 18. Classically the opposition is another manifestation of Yīn and Yáng. Cf. Groot 1892-1910: vol. 4, pp. 407 ff.

link to picture

When we men are good, we have a good report; and when we are bad, we have a bad report. The idea is always the same. Gods are those who have done good deeds as men, those who love virtue and study the ways of the buddhas and after death join the buddhas . Those who devote themselves to the salvation of others become gods [Shen] at death.
… The notion is that men of a good nature become gods; men of virtue become gods, and those without it become ghosts. A ghost who did very bad things before death may decide to practice virtue after dying; he can in that case become a god. A man may be very poor yet desire to be rich, and he can become rich. The situations are the same.

In this conceptualization there is a continuity between Guǐ and Shén, and some informants, when pressed to distinguish between the two, declare that there is no real difference save in their being bad or good. Still, a Shén is conceived to occupy an enviable position as an official in a celestial hierarchy, a salaried sinecure in an ancient and honorable tradition, dispensing decisions with the force of law. A Guǐ, on the other hand, is deprived of such honor, and spends his days in misery and dark doings.

Go to top

link to picture

To review: When a person dies, he becomes a Línghún. Or, if you prefer, his Línghún lives after him. He goes to hell, where he is punished for his earthly transgressions and is then reincarnated to try again. At the same time another theory tells him that what is crucial is whether or not he has descendants. If he does, and if they worship him and provide him with sacrifices, he lives a fairly content life as an ancestor in a shadowy afterworld that is not known in detail. If he has no descendants (or if the unfilial wretches fail to provide for him), he lives in the same shadowy afterworld as a miserable and starving Guǐ. If he was in life a man of exceptional virtue, he may be appointed to a position in the celestial bureaucracy and be a Shén, although the chances for this are, frankly, slim, given the number of virtuous competitors and the small number of positions that seem to be available. As a Shén he presumably has a coterie of worshippers who provide for him, and his position is substantially better than it was when he was merely an ancestor, not to mention a Guǐ.

This scheme or, more exactly, these two schemes are not without their contradictions. This same Línghún that is suffering in hell pending reincarnation is obliged to reside in ancestral tablets at least part of the time, and this same ancestor that is worshipped in the tablets may simultaneously have duties in a celestial hierarchy. Village people do not seem to make any attempt to put the eschatology together more compactly. No one I asked about the matter could give a pat answer as to how an ancestor could go on being an ancestor once he had been reincarnated, for example. Yet it is clear that the two conceptualizations do coexist and occasionally come into revealing conflict with each other. At one funeral in Bǎo'ān, for example, various ancestors were invited to reside in small paper effigies in order to observe the funeral games and other festivities, but great difficulty was experienced in getting one of the Línghún to the effigy because the ancestor was in hell and had to get special permission to leave. This required several extra verses of the priestly chant before divination blocks revealed that the spirit had at last arrived. Historically such problems result from syncretism, particularly of Taoist and Buddhist elements with folk beliefs. But the Chinese are not a people given to apologetics, and authoritarianism in religion has traditionally concentrated on outlawing sects considered politically dangerous or subversive of the state rather than on doctrinal issues.19 Accordingly there is little concern for tight logic in the folk system.

Footnote 19. Cf. Groot 1903.

Guǐ, Shén, Línghún, ancestor: these more or less exhaust the terms we shall need to consider the supernatural in Bǎo'ān. At the risk of generating a loose end, however, I ought to concede that there are other words relating to the supernatural. These categories of beings are spoken of in traditional tales especially, and are not quite the same as the supernaturals we have been dealing with, but are not altogether different either. Several religious traditions, immensely imaginative writers of fiction and fantasy, and a wide variety of popular theater, all perpetuated by a literary tradition surpassed in antiquity by none other on this planet, have maintained in popular understanding and belief a wealth of other beings. To draw a loose parallel, we might say they are similar in many ways to the traditions of "little people" or "good fairies" in Europe, although the Chinese beings are more sacred. How, we ask, do immortals 20 or buddhas , as well as sundry evil fairies 妖精 or 妖怪, devils 魔神 and false or evil gods 邪神 fit into the scheme?

Footnote 20. To avoid confounding the following discussion with too many Chinese words, I have used a single gloss for each term, selecting the most common or self-evident glosses. not necessarily the most accurate, and making them isomorphic with the Chinese terms. I have not necessarily followed the same convention in other parts of this work. however.

When I questioned several informants and demanded of them that they make a nice tidy chart showing how these various kinds of beings relate to one another, the results were inconclusive. One informant simply listed buddhas, immortals, gods, and men in that order, as a kind of hierarchy of importance. Another provided a list of beings into which man can be transformed: as a living being a man can become an immortal or a buddha. Immortals, he explained, live in the mountains and are Taoist. Buddhas live in "the east" and are Buddhist. That is about the only difference. At death a man can become a god, gods dwelling also in the mountains, or he can become a ghost. Ghosts too may die, and both ghosts and men are therefore mortal, in contradistinction to gods, immortals, and buddhas, who are immortal.21 A third informant agreed that it is a living man who becomes a buddha or an immortal, and a dead man who becomes a god or a ghost. Buddhas are different from immortals, however, in that they lack an individual soul and therefore have no freedom, whereas immortals have these attributes. No immortal would want to become a buddha, she explained. Then she added that immortals struck her as rather "cute," possibly thinking of the famous eight immortals who appear so often as a rather lighthearted artistic and literary motif. Gods live in heaven for the most part, although it is impossible to be sure about some. The Five Kings surely dwell in heaven, but the Queen of Heaven she could not be certain about. Ghosts are most pathetic, for they are homeless, and they are always subject to extinction if killed by supernaturals of superior categories.

Footnote 21. Therefore it is to one's advantage to be good in life so as to become a god at death and attain immortality.

Go to top

The fourth informant had the most complicated and ultimately the most interesting scheme of all. It centered in man: as a living being, man can become an immortal, although there is at the moment only one immortal in the world, a certain Liú Bówēn 劉薄溫.22 Not all immortals were originally men, however. It is possible also for animals to become immortals. When they die, men become either gods or ghosts. Ghosts are of several kinds. Fallen gods become ghosts, but are designated "false gods." Animals can also become ghosts, although not gods, and are designated "evil fairies," a category also including anthropomorphized inanimate objects (which are properly called Yāujīng 妖精 according to this view, although Yāuguài 妖怪 and Yāujīng tend to be confused with each other). Buddhas live in the Western Heaven; immortals dwell in the mountains; but gods live in their temples, where they can tend to human affairs.

Footnote 22. He is listed in most Chinese biographical dictionaries by his given name, Liú Jī 劉基. The historical Liú Jī (1311-1375) was a statesman of the early Míng. To him is attributed the Hot Biscuit Song 燒餅歌, interpreted prophetically in a way similar to the Western Nostradamus.

Interesting as these results may be, they do not betray a clear, shared, detailed conceptualization of any single scheme, even among willing and verbal informants. This is not surprising, for the unity "supernatural being" is imposed, and it makes as little sense to suppose that all will be easily arranged into a single scheme as to suppose that a European is prepared to arrange Oberon and Father Christmas on the same chart with Saint Hilary and the Angel Gabriel. I propose for present purposes to leave Oberon and Father Christmas off the chart. For Táiwān, we do not need Oberon very often, and we will learn more without him, at least for a time. In this book we may productively confine ourselves to the Línghún in its three important manifestations in Bǎo'ān: as a god, an ancestor, and a ghost.

The gods are conceived as occupying positions in a celestial government very similar, at least in broad outlines, to human governments. The traditional view, and the one most often expressed by Chinese, is that the hierarchy is a sort of mirror of the Chinese governmental structure of imperial days (even to civil service examinations). Today, some Taiwanese explain it, and perhaps conceptualize it, as resembling the Republican government, ruled over by a president, vice-president, various underlings and directors, and divided into divers ministries and commissions.

The same theme is repeated in symbolism within the temples themselves. The usual Chinese temple is in the form of a yamen, with the statue of the god of the temple situated where the official would sit. Many temples are provided on either side with racks where tall poles are placed, each of which terminates in a highly stylized emblem, usually carved in wood. Individually, these emblems are not readily interpretable by anyone I have talked to; but collectively they are understood to represent the offices of a kingly court —the subordinate officials who, in the nature of things, would normally be part of the court attached to the yamen (with little attention to what level yamen we are talking about). In processions they are carried by young boys before the palanquin of the temple god to "represent" the presence of his subordinates. These staffs are not found in all temples, for they are expensive. Nor are they in any way a necessary part of even the largest temple. But they are a way of making the temple more beautiful 好看. It is interesting and significant that the way chosen to make the temple beautiful also emphasizes the official nature of its object of worship.

Go to top

Prominent as the bureaucratic theme is, the hierarchism is seldom very neat if one looks closely. The only figure whose position is universally agreed on is the Jade Emperor 玉堏上帝, who is at the top. Below him is a group of gods who are higher than other gods, but whom one tries in vain to rank. Some Taiwanese place Guān Gōng 關公 just below the Jade Emperor himself (and indeed it is even whispered about that Guān Gōng has recently succeeded to the office of Jade Emperor). In Xīkǎng the Twelve Plague Gods are immediately below the Jade Emperor. Some informants insert most of the Buddhist pantheon at this point, including and especially Guānyīn. Others include the gods who preside over the dead.

Hazy as all this is, in any given region there is a general sense that such and such a god is "high" (Mandarin , Hokkien ), and that because of this he may have advantages that make it easier for him than for some lower god to accomplish certain things a petitioner wants to have him do. Many conditions can effect the degree to which a community focuses on a particular deity and regards him as important: the presence of a shrine, particularly a large and important one, naturally brings the importance of its enshrined objects of worship to the attention of people in the area. It is difficult to live in southwestern Táiwān without being aware of the Five Kings enshrined in huge temples at Nánkūnshēn 南鯤鯓 and Mádòu,23 for example, even though they may not be otherwise relevant in a given community. Another important consideration influencing the position of a deity in the eyes of a community is the presence or absence of a particularly efficacious religious effigy carved in his likeness. The efficaciousness of a joss in turn depends upon other factors: the willingness of its owner to lend it for seances is important, because a joss builds its reputation through its successful use in divination. A third and very important factor in the status a god is perceived to have in a community is the presence or absence of a spirit medium whom he may possess and through whom he may advise the community with an intimacy impossible through other means of divination.

Footnote 23. For a discussion of the shrine at NánKūnshēn, see Chén Qīnggào and Xiè Shíchéng 1963: 309-313. On the shrine at Mádòu see the same work, pp. 223-229; also a special edition of the journal Fǎhǎi 法海 vol. 4, no.1(5 May 1959).

We shall consider such matters as josses and spirit mediums below. The point here is that at least among the farming people the hierarchy of gods is not the same from place to place or from time to time, even though it is believed to be more or less permanently fixed in heaven.

Go to top, table of contents
previous / next chapter