CHINESE CITY GOD TEMPLES AND FESTIVAL PROCESSIONS
San Jose State University
- Traditionally, the City God, usually called Cheng Huang Ye (Lord of the Wall and Moat), played a key role in the so-called "otherworldly bureaucracy" of Chinese religion. He was considered responsible for the safety and prosperity of his territory in the same way as was a county magistrate. In fact, worldly and otherworldly officials were believed to work hand in hand on behalf of their constituents. Members of the populace, and even magistrates, petitioned the City God for protection and material benefits. They believed he and his retinue of lesser divine officials and soldiers assured that justice would be done, even when the acts of evildoers remained hidden from the eyes of worldly authorities. Among the activities of a City God temple considered important for maintaining peace and order were processions of the god around his territory, purifying it of evil influences (ghosts, demons, and the like). These "territorial circuits" (rao-jing) were similar to ones performed by worldly authorities, including the Chinese emperor. In what follows, we will describe, first, two City God temples in Taiwan; second, annual processions at these two temples on different festival occasions; and, third, the general significance of such activities in Chinese religion.
I. TWO CITY GOD TEMPLES IN TAIWAN
- The Temple of the Xia Hai Cheng Huang (Glowing Sea City God) is located in an old area of Taibei City at 61 Gui-hua Street, Section 1. It was built in 1859 by immigrants from Tongan County, Fujian Province, who set up in it a protective deity from their place of origin. It became for them an important meeting center and symbol of ethnic identity in a time of internecine battles with other Fujianese immigrants. Although it still partly serves as a territorial temple for descendants of these immigrants, it is now also important for a wider range of Taiwan's population, especially at the time of its famous annual procession on the City God's birthday (described later).
- In the center of Xinzhu City at 75 Zhongshan Road stands one of the oldest and largest City God temples in Taiwan. In fact, it has the name "Provincial Cheng Huang Temple," its deity having been promoted to the equivalent of a Provincial Governor by a Qing Dynasty Emperor. It was first erected in 1748 and has been reconstructed many times since. It perhaps provides a better example of the official role of City God temples than does Taibei's Xia Hai Cheng Huang Temple, the identity of which was for so long tied to one immigrant group's identity. The Temple in Xinzhu houses a deity who has become famous for miraculous acts of protection for an ever widening constituency. He and his temple cult presumably served well their function within the Qing Dynasty state religion--to support state officials in maintaining peace and order. He was repeatedly awarded promotions and honorific plaques by Qing Emperors. His temple became, and today remains, a center for ritual performances by some of Taiwan's most prestigious Taoist priests. The prominence it gained through its role in the state cult and organized Taoism has been reflected in the large scale of the temple's annual events, such as the ritual procession held in the middle of the seventh month ("ghost month"), a contemporary example of which is described below.
II. RITUAL PROCESSIONS OF CITY GODS
- Every year on a hot June day in an older section of Taibei City, where there are narrow streets normally filled with assorted vehicles belching exhaust and noise, a different scene emerges, a far more interesting one, though also full of strong smells and striking sounds. The Xia Hai Cheng Huang's birthday is celebrated on the 13th day of the 5th lunar month. Activity seems to burst forth from his small temple as the celebration begins, and for the next few hours a growing crowd will enjoy the "mardi gras" of a god's birthday celebration, Taiwanese style. Ears will be deafened by the din of firecrackers, noses filled with the scent of incense, and eyes dazzled by a vivid display of man-sized puppets, acrobatic martial artists, and youths dressed in operatic costumes, not to mention the City God himself in his beautifully carved palanquin surrounded by his colorful retinue. Although what people seem to love most about the celebration is that while it is so "festive" (re-nao, lit.: "hot and noisy"), there is nothing haphazard about the route of the procession. Not only is there the need for parade permits and such, but even more importantly, the need to assure that the City God will make a complete, official circuit of his territory. Likewise, the frightful noises and dazzling actions that tantalize the human crowd are meant also to drive off dangerous nonhuman spirits that may haunt the area's neighborhoods. Or, perhaps more accurately from the traditional point of view, the noise and activity accompany something that stirs far more fear in the hearts of otherworldly spirits: the City God and his divine retinue, ready to fight evil and serve justice. At the start of the procession a portable image of the god is passed out of the temple precincts through the incense brazier, the sacred portal through which passes every sacred object that enters or leaves the temple. It is installed in the god's palanquin and, then, departs from in front of the temple. A rather recent convention is that the palanquin is transported by a truck instead of being shouldered by men. Youths with painted faces and wielding ancient weapons are at the head of the procession. Some such youths are fulfilling a vow made when the god was petitioned for a cure or other benefit. Their martial dance at times becomes frenzied, indicating to some that the god has possessed the youths. Most prominent in the retinue following the palanquin are the god's generals, some of whom are accompanied by their own entourage of divine soldiers. The general is a giant-sized puppet born atop a man's shoulders, while the soldiers are costumed, paint-faced youths. Except for the fact that they are loaded on trucks, the gong and drum as well as the royal parasol that immediately precede the god's palanquin remind one of similar ritual paraphernalia once used in imperial processions. As in most other instances, this Chinese god is treated like royalty, or at least a high ranking official. Before commenting further on the significance of his treatment, let us go to Xinzhu to observe a different City God temple activity.
- The seventh month of the Chinese lunar year is called "ghost month." It gives expression to Chinese reverence for ancestors as well as fear of ghosts, who are thought of as pitiful and mischievous spirits of the dead for whom no family has adequately cared. Overlaid on these themes is the Buddhist one of compassion for beings reborn in low states of existence, especially the insatiably hungry beings of the preta state. For Chinese, ritual observances for them occur on lunar 7/15, a kind of Buddhist "all souls' day." On this day people can hire Buddhist monks, although Taoist priests will also do, to perform rites of "universal salvation" (pu-du) for those pitiful beings referred to alternatively as "orphaned spirits" (gu-hun, which best reflects the native Chinese perspective) and "hungry ghosts" (e-gui, which reflects the Buddhist perspective). Since it is generally believed that these beings are given a kind of amnesty during the seventh month, freed from their hellish abode and allowed to return to this world, people also take certain precautions at this time. Among these, in Xinzhu at least, is the practice of taking the City God on a purificatory procession through his realm on lunar 7/15.
- As in Taibei, his procession features large figures representing his brave divine generals, such as General Fan and General Xie, and the Horsehead and Cowhead Generals. The somewhat more traditional quality of life in Xinzhu demands, however, that a god's palanquin be carried on poles shouldered by men, not on a truck. Also, the procession has a broader frame of reference, with participants from other cities bringing divine images in palanquins or martial arts troupes to perform lion dances. Although the territory covered by the procession is within Xinzhu City, the broader territory which Xinzhu's Provincial Cheng Huang claims as his realm is symbolized by these visiting participants. And, indicating pan-Chinese, perhaps pan-Asian, religious concerns, outside every traditional home will be found a table of offerings for hungry ghosts. These offerings show Buddhistic compassion at the same time that they express the hope that hungry ghosts, their appetites satisfied, will give up their inclination toward making mischief with human lives.
- Perhaps the key to understanding traditional Chinese City God cults lies in their complementary roles in official and popular religion. In both roles they were gods of place, protectors of a specific territory. But in the official cult, the stress was also on the role each has had as bureaucratic underlings in a larger hierarchy, whereas the popular view has naturally stressed the god's nature as a local hero capable of performing miracles to help local people. In fact, the history of many City God cults has revealed a process whereby a heroic figure in a people's struggle to occupy new territory became deified after death and was later transformed into a City God, as the territory came more fully under the state actual jurisdiction. Of course, a City God's role in the state cult did not keep him from serving his function as a unifying symbol for people in a specific locality, even when this was at the expense of official concern with order, as in the case of Taibei's Xia Hai City God symbolically aiding in his constituents' battles against other imperial subjects.
- Another noteworthy feature of City God cults is the transparent way in which they reflect the often noted "bureaucratic" nature of the divine realm in Chinese religion. Of all the deities in the Chinese divine hierarchy, from the celestial Jade Emperor to the neighborhood Lord of the Land, the City God is the most archetypally bureaucratic and the most transparently symbolic of the qualities of civic personality encouraged by Chinese Literati: loyal, honest, just, dutiful, conscientious, and so forth. A closer look at some of the figures in a City God's typical retinue shows how they represent some of these specific qualities. Generals Fan and Xie represent loyalty, according to the following tale: due to a tragic misunderstanding General Fan (by far the shorter of the two) drowned during a flood as he waited for his friend at an appointed place; and General Xie accepted responsibility for his loyal friend's death and hanged himself. Thus, each is now represented in a form connected with his tragic death: Fan is dark black and Xie is pale white, with a long neck and protruding tongue. Representing justice are the Horsehead and Cowhead Generals, often pictured to the left and right of a City God, like jailers ready to carry off and punish guilty offenders.
- While the solemn theme of divine moral retribution underlies key figures and events of City God cults, as it does so much else in Chinese religious life, let us not forget the lighter side of cult activities. It is hard to imagine that the Chinese people would have preserved through so many centuries activities like the festival processions described above had they only expressed solemn themes of moral retribution or territorial purification. Their "hot and noisy," "Mardi gras" atmosphere has probably had at least as much to do with the continued existence.
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