ICLP電子報第47期:北港媽祖廟會 ~ Beigang Mazu Festival (Featured in 47th ICLP Bulletin)
Beigang Matsu Festival
By James Smyth
On Thursday, April 21, a group from ICLP went to Beigang for the most important field trip of the school year. This year, over 30 students and teachers left together from Taipei; other students fit the trip into their own travel plans and met us there. Some students said this was their first time to leave Taipei and come to “the real Taiwan,” so it was a precious opportunity for them.
Because teachers and students have contributed so many pictures and videos, I think writing too many words to describe the trip would be like drawing legs for a snake (superfluous (unless it’s Trogdor the Burninator)), so instead I’ll just explain what you’re seeing in the images. Mazu (“Mother Ancestor”), also called Shengmu (“Holy Mother”), is a traditional Chinese goddess. She is a patron saint of the people of southeastern China, including the Taiwanese. In 1694 (Year 33 of Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign), a figure of the goddess was brought from Meizhou, Fujian to Taiwan, and the people of Beigang built a temple to house her. Now more than a million people visit Chaotian Temple every year, and the busiest time of year is her birthday, the recently-passed 19th day of the third month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.
Obviously, the incense, offerings, paper money, dice, censers, and donations were busy at Chaotian Temple, but the most distinctive part of the festival was the parade of pilgrims circling the temple, led by Mazu’s “advance guard.” They must have been exceptionally brave because all around them, people were setting off fireworks, mascots were dancing, and people and gods were both acting as Mazu’s servants. People carried images of the goddess in carts on their shoulders. Not only the Americans but even many Taiwanese thought it was brutally loud. So many fireworks were set off that when the wind blew or cars drove by, their tattered wrappers took to the air like they were dancing. Judging by this tradition, Mazu and the people have a mutually beneficial relationship: the people defend her from manmade threats, and she defends them from natural ones.
The parade floats (called “artistic pavilions”) were like no other. Small children dressed as Mazu sat atop beautifully decorated vehicles and threw candy to the people. I could tell from the many emotional faces in the crowd that they felt like they were encountering the goddess through the children. The children were extremely well-behaved; though the time they spent in makeup must have been longer than a typical school day, and the floats were blaring all kinds of cheerful music, even arch-American anthems like “Yankee Doodle” and “Jingle Bells,” they kept on serving their elders. The next Monday, to keep the positive cycle going, I threw candy I received to my classmates and teachers at school.
Han Feizi said that when all is peaceful under heaven, the people do not need to ask for help from ghosts or gods, and their faith diminishes. Religious belief is weaker every year in modern Europe; might rapidly developing Taiwan suffer the same phenomenon? I’m not qualified to say, but before we arrived in Beigang, a minor accident destroyed my sense of “invincibility.” I was resless at a rest stop, and I decided to get some exercise, so I took off running. Somehow, I slipped, fell, and slid across the concrete headfirst like a baseball player, cutting open my elbow, knee, and stomach. I must have looked like a small child. I was treated on the bus, at the next destination, and in a Beigang hospital, and I’m already much better, but it made me think that no matter what our circumstances, our lives are fragile: a natural disaster or a manmade one, a disease or an accident could break us down. I personally believe that people cannot outgrow religious faith. Speaking of which, recently sea travelers have decreased dramatically, but more people ride airplanes every year, especially Taiwanese, who often travel abroad, and they need a protector goddess, too. Perhaps Mazu is already on the job!