Taiwan Journal (formerly Taipei Journal)
Government Information Office of the Republic of China
April 18, 2003
Sea goddess takes annual journey
By Rita Fang
One of Taiwan's biggest religious rituals, the Tachia Matsu procession,
began the night of April 5 with a celebration to see the statue of the
sea goddess off on her annual eight-day pilgrimage. Groups from Japan,
South Korea, Bolivia, Thailand and China performed this year, giving the
distinctly Taiwanese event something of an international twist. To help
make the religious celebrations a truly extravagant affair, the government
sponsored the 2003 Taichung County Matsu International Festival, held
March 29-April 20. The theme of the festival is international tourism.
The culture of Matsu worship has its own distinct history, art and impact
on local life. The festival includes a competition of Matsu photographs,
performances by local and foreign entertainers, inexpensive tours of Taichung
and academic seminars on the various attributes of Matsu worship in Taiwanese
and other Asian cultures. Inside the Chenlan Temple's cultural building
there is an exhibition of more than 100 Matsu statues from different periods.
Inside the Cultural Hall of Tachia Three Treasures is an exhibition focusing
on Matsu, rush weaving and butter cakes--the so-called three treasures
A hand-puppet representation of the procession can be seen in the Taichung
County Seaport Art Center. Posed in glass display cases are puppets of
several members of the procession, such as the leaders of the parade that
informs locals of Matsu's arrival, a person whose job is to strike a handheld
gong, and a messenger with only one shoe. This last detail is meant to
convey his determination to spread the message of Matsu's arrival, so
much so that he will not be distracted by the loss of one of his shoes.
This character also wears a conical farmer's hat to keep out the sun and
carries an umbrella, pork and vegetables, a pipe and a bottle of wine
for periods of rest.
While all the exhibitions help explain the procession to outsiders, the
real procession with its countless pilgrims can sometimes be confusing.
Special traffic arrangements were made April 5 to allow the parade of
followers to traverse the narrow streets of Tachia Township and congregate
near Chenlan Temple to watch one of the eight ceremonies: worshiping Matsu
to ask her for a peaceful procession. The whole affair began at 3:00 p.m.
The route, normally about 280 kilometers long snaking through Taichung,
Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi counties, was extended to over 322 kilometers
long this year to bless even more Matsu temples than ever before.
A few hours later, to the cheers of her devoted followers, Matsu--in
the form of a statue--was respectfully hoisted onto her sedan chair in
what constituted the second ceremony. By this time, the entire temple
and the grounds surrounding it were flooded with a sea of humanity. The
faithful mixed with food vendors and performers swarming in the area.
Folk dances were performed and songs sung to show devotion to the sea
goddess. Even a traditional Chinese lion dance took place to entertain
Matsu and see her off on her one out-of-town trip of the year. For the
entire night before her journey, the sounds of beating drums, exploding
firecrackers and chanting religious devotees combined to form a thrumming
cacophony that engulfed Tachia.
In the middle of the road, musicians performed their spirited repertoires
as audiences lined up on either side to watch and listen. Many local residents
congregated on the second and third floors of buildings in order to get
a better view of the festivities. Wearing traditional costumes, some pious
pilgrims, whose preferred method of worship tended more toward the serene,
made a valiant effort to pray to their deity despite the deafening noise
and crowded streets.
Worshippers young and old carried small religious flags, affixed with
tiny bells and yellow paper, on their backs or in their hands. They hoped
to have the flags imprinted with a red seal in the Matsu temple. Teen-agers
and people in their 20s came out in full force this year--a sign to organizers
that efforts to make the Matsu procession relevant to the younger generation
have been at least partly successful.
The Tachia Matsu procession dates back to the Japanese colonial period
(1895-1945). In the early days, the whole journey was undertaken on foot
to demonstrate proper reverence for the sea goddess, sometimes called
the empress of heaven. Everywhere the procession passed, people emerged
from their homes to worship the statue and demonstrate their devotion
by feeding the pilgrims. Some impassioned believers would even crawl under
Matsu's palanquin in the hope that the powerful goddess would shelter
Although it is only a legend, it often coincidentally happens that rain
accompanies Matsu on her pilgrimage from the Tachia area, providing remote
farms and plantations with the precipitation required for a strong harvest.
This is how the deity earned yet another title, that of "rain goddess."
Today, people pray to Matsu for a variety of things, and the foot march
has been altered somewhat to allow more conventional modes of transportation.
After three days, the procession arrived at Fengtien Temple in Chiayi's
Hsinkang Township. Two ceremonies, during which Matsu followers recited
classics as an entreaty for Matsu's blessing, took place upon arrival.
Built in 1811, Fengtien Temple is a piece of Taiwan's history. It was
the destination for an image of Matsu carried from China's Meichou area
in 1622 when Yen Szu-chi led Chinese immigrants to Taiwan. The Chenlan
Temple, built in the 1730s, is the center of Matsu worship in Tachia and
The climax of the Matsu procession took pace April 9 when Matsu followers
gathered in Fengtien Temple's main hall to celebrate their goddess's birthday,
which actually falls on April 24 this year. Matsu's birthday falls on
the 23rd day of the third lunar month, but it is traditionally celebrated
early. President Chen Shui-bian participated in the ceremony and prayed
to Matsu for a prosperous and healthy Taiwan. After the celebration, the
Matsu image stayed at Fengtien Temple until the night of April 9 when
the return journey began with another ceremony.
In recent years, the procession has had the involvement of local governments
to help focus on cultural heritage, environmental concerns, industrial
development and tourism. There are also groups of teachers and students
along for the ride to convey the cultural and educational importance of
the annual event.
The government welcomed foreigners to take part in the Matsu celebrations
and experience their cultural significance. For this year's international
festival, the Taichung County Government arranged for English-speaking
tour guides and English pamphlets. There were also Chinese, Japanese and