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 of Tachia.

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 them.

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 surrounding areas.

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 Spanish guides.