Cranes lift up fireworks and huge fields of firecrackers plaster the ground, while one hears the rhythmic ring of chimes.
We’re in the middle of nowhere, but the streets are full of people, most wear an orange cap and a blue vests (including me) and all walk the same direction.
On the sides there are people with a cheering smile who donate food, drinks, medical aid and anything else you would need to have a great time.
Welcome to Taiwan’s Mazu event.
Mazu’s birthday party
“Once upon a year, the goddess of the sea, Mazu, celebrates her birthday, and strives freely around the country for ten days before she goes back into her temple. “
That’s what I was told in a car during another hitchhiking trip. My driver Akira and his friends went to Baishatun, which is a little town next to Taizhong, in the middle of Taiwan. They registered for an annual pilgrimage in honor of the Taiwanese goddess Mazu, or as they said, they will attend the “Jìn xiāng” (進香) in April. This is not exactly the same as you would imagine Europe’s Camino de Santiago or any other pilgrimage.
They invited me to participate.
Akira made me curious with the words: “You can eat and walk at the same time”. Apart from the food, I am more than eager to learn about other people’s way of life, how others think, live and celebrate.
If I hide in my classroom, behind my books, it is impossible to get the whole picture of Taiwan.
Luckily, Akira lives in New Taipei. We became good friends after hitchhiking and met many times. He eventually asked me again if I wanted to join.
I didn’t understand what this „Jìn xiāng“ was about, but I eventually accepted his invitation!
One of Taiwan’s biggest pilgrimages
According to legends from the Chinese region Fujian, Mazu has divine powers and saved her family from distress at sea. If you translate Mazu literally, you would get a “maternal ancestor”.
Mazu was a real historical person in the 10th century a.d. and her name was Lin Moniang (林默娘). Especially sailors and fisherman worshiped her as a patron saint. At Taiwan’s west coast, Mazu belief has spread the most, but there are Mazu temples and believers in Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand among other countries.
Akira insists that there is a difference between the Jinxiang and other Mazu pilgrimages. Even my Chinese teacher confused the jinxiang with the other big Mazu pilgrimage, called Mazu raojing (繞境) starting at another town called Dajia（大甲）. Dajia’s Mazu pilgrimage has more people, but the route is not as challenging.
Baishantuns Mazu pilgrimage is very popular, because no human decides in advance, where they will carry Mazu, except of the final destination. In their narrative, it is Mazu herself, who decides.
How does she communicate her direction?
Organizers use the traditional fortune telling method called poe divination, which means, to ask a question to a god and throw moon-shaped wooden pieces on the ground. According to the formation how the wood fell on the ground, you know the answer.
That’s why Mazu sometimes changes the direction in inconvenient moments and has to cross a rivers on past marches.
So when Akira asked me, if I do believe that it is Mazu herself, who decides where she goes, I could steal myself out of the affair: “Well, there are no humans who decide where she goes”.
How can Mazu walk?
It was already dark when we finally arrived at the house of Akira’s relative not too far from Baishatun. We slept only for four hours, until we had to get up around 4:30 am.
The relative drove us to a temple where Mazu slept this night. He gave us a blue vest and an orange cap and we were ready to go!
Every night, Akira explained to me, Mazu decides to stay wherever she likes to: Houses, schools, any businesses, police stations or even churches. Akira seemed to find it very cute, how unrestrained she decides to sleep.
It was still dark when we arrived. I found myself in “people mountain people sea” (人山人海), that’s a chinese idiom to say that there are a lot of people. There is no other way I can describe this.
Live broadcasters from the television have already been there. Looks like nobody minded to be filmed while attending religious activities.
When the sun rose, people played chimes and drums, when I witnessed Mazu with my own eyes:
Men in yellow clothes carried her in her sedan chair, or as they call it, jiào zi (轎子).
Masses of people were in front of her, behind her, next to her and literally under her, as I will explain in a moment. Only over her, there have been no people. It’s strictly forbidden to stand on natural places which are higher, such as mountains. Big houses are okay though.
Akira promised me in advance, that there will be a lot of food here. And as soon as we started our long walk, I found out that he hadn’t promised too much:
At least every few hundred meters there was a stand where smiling Taiwanese people offered everyone something: Water, tea, coffee or sports drinks. The food was very diverse, too: There were dumplings, sweets like cookies and candy, sandwiches, zongzi (粽子) (that’s rice and other ingredients wrapped in a bamboo leaf), cakes, soups and even whole meals!
There was even a MCDonald’s stence donating their “food”.
They gave everyone more than they needed to walk with Mazu for up to ten days.
Furthermore, people offered medical aid and massages, as well as many religious items in worship of Mazu. They have got a pretty cool icon: 勇 “yǒng”, which you can translate into bravery.
Someone even insisted to give me beer which I was unable to refuse. 🙂
Kowtow to Mazu :
I enjoyed cookies which a child threw to the cheering masses, drank free coffee, water and tea, and didn’t suspect anything particularly unusual to happen, when hundreds of people lined up in front of the way that Mazu was about to go.
Akira told me that I had to do this too!
I didn’t feel like I really had got another choice. Crowd psychology.
Maybe this is one reason why I nearly didn’t see any foreigner here?
Anyway, Akira rushed me to give him my orange cap before I was supposed to join hundreds of people to kneel or kow tow in front of Mazu’s way. The carriers took Mazu in her sedan chair very close over the row of worshippers.
It’s important that they pass smoothly and uninterruptedly. If they have to stop while they are over you, than you didn’t receive her blessing.
It doesn’t happen often, but if people like to receive their blessing when Mazu walks around a corner, it’s more likely that it won’t go smooth.
When I kowtowed to Mazu, there wasn’t a lot of space between my back and Mazu’s sedan chair.
I was afraid that it could hit me when Mazu walked over me.
Although I couldn’t see it – my eyes faced the ground – it probably wasn’t too close, but the effect was humbling. It gave me a feeling of inferiority, a reminder that any big earthquake, storm or accident could erase a human’s life any time, and we aren’t actually in control of nature, but that it’s a matter of the nature (or gods).
During the march, I got used to see people who ran in front of Mazu’s way in the hope that people in yellow cloths carry the sedan chair with Mazu over them.
What else could surprise me now?
Whenever Mazu crossed a temple, I witnessed the Jin lai (進來) ritual: The carriers ran with Mazu towards the holy place, but a few meters in front of their destination, they returned to the starting point.
Accompanied with ringing bells and fireworks, they repeated this procedure a few times. The crowd shouted ecstatically until Mazu eventually entered the holy place.
Akira loves Mazu and says that she is very “kě ài” (可愛) – lovable -, how Mazu freely enters the places. On the other hand I noticed Akira’s deep respect for her.
The carriers and everyone else deserves a rest to have food and drinks as well, and everyone could chat with friends and enjoy performances.
Wherever we went, people approached me and gave me Mazu presents, among them a golden card and a picture of Mazu I keep now in my wallet.
I still have got a full bag of Mazu worship icons at home.
Between all those outstanding activities the pilgrimage was – who guessed that – a lot of walking:
We marched for days, made new friends, held many interesting conversations. Taiwanese people let me once again feel very welcome in their country.
The attempt to carry Mazu myself…
In Mazu’s sedan chair, there is one important spot: Right in front of Mazu, there is a place with some bars where one person always goes. The person is surrounded by the big Sedan-chair.
In the unpredictable moment when the carriers take a rest, they call either for a woman or a man to switch the task to carry her in the middle. It is not clear to me how they choose the gender.
Akira wants me to be in the middle, too!
I don’t want to hurt his religious feelings if I refuse to carry her. But I don’t know if it is alright to carry her, either.
Deep inside, I felt that I shouldn’t carry her because I am too foreign to worship a local Taiwanese deity.
My biggest concern is that it might trouble the believers, that I in the role of a traveller, or tourist, interfere their religious activities.
In the end, my politeness not to refuse Akira won over – since I didn’t know what was going on – I decided it is okay to accept Akira’s guidance and go with the flow…
Most people who walk very close to Mazu want to carry her as well, but Akira was determined to give me a chance, regardless of how many other people there are. As soon as he saw the opportunity to move even the slightest bit closer, he pushed me through the crowd.
Eventually I reached the closest point to Mazu.
The unpredictable moment when they call for a new carrier is approximately every 10 minutes. It was not only hard to get here, it was even harder to stay in that position.
It turned out that they called for women four times in a row before they called for men twice afterwards. I missed my two shots because other people were faster and more eager than me to carry her. I was so exhausted.
We finally gave up when I needed to go on toilet.
I was relieved to miss out this opportunity.
Mazu in five words
When I would describe Taiwan in one picture I would choose one from one of those stands where people donate you foods with a genuine smile – It is connected to their hospitality, the love to Mazu and Taiwan. Here are a few more words I associate the Jìn xiāng with:
- Rè nao 熱鬧, means that many people are balled on one spot, and make a lot of noise. This event was bigger than all night markets of Taiwan together, from the amount of food and people. The only difference is that nobody wants to sell you anything (except of their religion and Taiwanese culture).
- Hao ke 好客： The Baishatun Mazu is the most striking example for me, how genuine Taiwanese people can be. Apart from the religious activities and food, I had several long conversations every day, while we marched.
- Xin yang 信仰: Faiths or belief to several gods can coexist with each other, as I could see when Mazu “visited” other temples.
Akira invited me to share his belief, but he didn’t want to convert me as offensively as I experienced it from some Christians. When I asked him to allow me to post pictures of him on my website, he agreed because he wants to share Taiwanese culture – and not his belief.
- Taiwan 臺灣 is so much more than just Taipei.
Some netizens even go that far and call Taipei arrogant or “tianlong”, – that’s a wealthy part of Taipei – because they accuse the capital to suck in most money but doesn’t face many hardships. It’s true that there is a big difference between Taipei and other areas of the country.
The capital however is a great place to be, and I disagree that Taipei would be arrogant… Netizens, if you want to know what you’re accusing Taipei to be, go to Germany!
However, as an international student with an interest in Taiwan, it’s necessary to go out and see the world.
Did I get converted?
For the rest of my year in Taiwan, I carried a Mazu card in my wallet. It felt like the right thing to keep it.
When my language school Shida had the first day of our dragon boat competition, I came to cheer for my team and I carried Mazu amulets. The first race was so close, that I wasn’t sure if we had qualified for the next race until I saw the results on the scoreboard.
I know it’s superstitious, but it feels to me as if carrying more amulets of Mazu brings more luck.
The next day I brought one more amulet and we even won the race.
Our students male team made the 5th place out of 40 teams, and the women even got the third place! Among their competitors, there were professionals.
This outstanding result is most likely not related to me as an outstanding person, but it feels as if a belief in Mazu changes my energy, my hope and optimism.
Did you never have the same feeling about anything else?
Further reading about Mazu:
Or check my interview in Chinese 😀
I would be very happy if you would share you thoughts or any questions with me – I invite you to leave me a comment below or write to me in any way you prefer.