Of Tainan and Temples

We recently travelled down to Tainan to visit my homestay family, the Chens, who I stayed with from 1997 to 1998.  It was only a fleeting visit, and the main purpose was to “gang eng”, or give thanks, for our baby boy.       

Ah, Tainan.  Every time I think of Tainan it brings back such happy memories of my time there.  Tainan is a vibrant and interesting place.  It is the cultural and historical ‘centre’ of Taiwan:  it was the former capital during the Japanese era, and was also where the Dutch made their home during their 30 year occupation of Taiwan.  It is also home to over 200 temples, so is THE place to go to see authentic (and ‘powerful’) Taiwanese temples.  Temples elsewhere in Taiwan may well be grander or more elaborate, but the ones in Tainan are generally older and considered to be more effective (ling).  They are also ubiquitous, and tend to pop up around almost street corner.  I was constantly discovering new temples during my time there, and that is without getting to see all the ‘famous’ ones listed in guide books.       

Lanterns in front of a small, road-side temple

The Chens are deeply devout Buddhists, and even donated the land (and I suspect also much of the building costs) towards a six-story new temple called “Puji daojiaosi” situated in an industrial area on the outskirts of Taiwan.  Actually, their religion is probably not technically ‘Buddhist’ in the true sense, as it is more like a folk religion.  Taiwanese generally don’t tend to get too hung up making distinctions between their temples, and apart from a few well-known Buddhist orders such as Foguangshan and Tzu Chi, most temples are a bit of a mix of deities and beliefs.  But the temple that the Chens patronise is especially interesting as their master (shifu) has the power of prophesy.  I was fairly dubious at first, but several things that the shifu has said over the years has made me deeply respectful.  For example, when I lived in Taiwan in 1997, he correctly predicted that there would be aviation disasters (there were three during a six month period: a China Airlines crash over Indonesia, a fighter jet accident, and a horrific crash into an apartment building in Taipei).  And as I was preparing to leave Taiwan in 1998, he prophesied that there would be a major earthquake: Taiwan is still recovering from a devastating quake that struck central Taiwan in 1999.  I sometimes joke that I will only begin to worry about cross-Strait peace and stability if the shifu decides to immigrate to Australia.
 
I should also add that the power of the shifu comes from an external source rather than from the physical person.  The shifu goes into a type of trance-like state, aided by red wine, before delivering his prophesies.  And the shifu is not always the same physical person: during the time that I have known the Chens there have been three different shifus.  I sometimes wonder how the shifu accounts for this on his resume:  three years working for xyz bank, then four years being a medium for prophesy etc. But I suspect that the shifu’s working life is a little different from a typical Western-upwardly mobile career path.  Maybe he was working in his family business, or perhaps his shifu stint is seen as prestigious and leads to other opportunities.  I must ask the Chens about this.
 
Sam and I went to see the shifu during our last visit to Taiwan two years ago.  At that time, we were thinking about adoption as the medical opinion we received indicated it would be almost impossible for us to become parents, at least naturally.  The shifu was very blunt with Sam, and in rapid Taiwanese told him that “he was not the sort of person” who should adopt.  He said that we were probably not fated to have children, but we could pray (qiu) to a temple called Qinghuagong in a couple of days’ time and maybe we would be lucky.  He wrote us a calligraphy ‘recommendation’ to the Qinghuagong temple, and made it clear that we must “gang eng”, give thanks, to that temple if we were successful.  (I should also add that as we stood up to leave, he suddenly looked at me and then wrote some calligraphy for me to keep near me always for protection.  strangely enough, some health problems I had had seemed to improve not long afterwards.) 

    So it goes without saying that we needed go visit the Qinghuagong temple in Tainan to give thanks for our miraculous baby boy.  Luckily for us, the Chens remembered where the temple was.  We would never have found it as it is hidden in Tainan County.  Qinghuagong is not an especially large or impressive temple, and architecturally its style is quite eclectic (e.g. neon coloured lights in a wooden panel dome supported by ornate carved jade columns).  But it obviously does not need a grand exterior to attract adherents, if our experience is anything to go by.  Qinghuagong principally worships the earth mother “Dimu”, in addition to other deities (including the ever-popular Matzu).  I asked the Chens later how they knew how to find this temple.  They said simply that they had been with their shifu so many years that of course they knew which temples were “effective”.      

Qinghuagong, Tainan County

Sam giving thanks at the Qinghua temple. He is holding a red envelope 'donation', plus a pile of 'ghost money' that he will soon burn.

Our main purpose in visiting Qinghuagong was to deliver a red envelope of money, as Sam had made a promise (kang) to give a certain amount of money if the earth mother could assist us to have a child.  After lighting incense and praying homage at each altar in the temple, we went to find out how to give our ‘red envelope’ to the temple.  We found an elegantly dressed lady at the temple folding pieces of paper that would later be made up into paper lotuses (used for temple rites, and later burned).  The Chens sat down and started folding pieces of paper with her (they are old hands at this, having been folding paper lotuses or similar shapes for many years).  I had assumed the lady was part of the temple, but later learnt that she was in fact the mother of a very wealthy Taiwanese family.  It seems that knowledge of the power of this particular temple gets around!        

Eventually, we found someone to give the red envelope to.  Sam was given a pile of ‘ghost money’, and was told to write details of our name and why we wanted to ‘gang eng’ on some paper.  After praying with the ghost money, he then went and burnt it.  I must say that for a short moment I thought that Sam was going to burn the red envelope and its contents as well!        

Mrs Chen folding paper to make paper lotuses.

Some completed paper lotuses.

 After visiting the temple, we visited a small night market for a quick meal before going to meet the shifu to ‘gang eng’.  Tainan is famous for its street food “xiao chi”.  Although there is actually a formal night market area, most of the “xiao chi” tend to pop up in smaller, semi-informal night markets.  It would be difficult to find most of them, let alone know about them, unless you were accompanied by a local.  The night market that we went to, outside the Chaoxing temple, was a small night market that I think set up on weekends and only some week nights.  It was very good, although we did not stay long.  Definitely somewhere to come back to explore.      

Austin and Sam at a small, road-side nightmarket somewhere in Tainan

     So, how did our latest meeting with the shifu go?  Well, I won’t reveal all but he did tell Sam not to be so judgmental/argumentative (fan shi bu yong ji jiao), and to be sure of himself (yao kending ziji).  And he said that Sam is a much better parent than I am, although he did acknowledge that I am capable (neng gan).  Luckily, I have not taken the assessment of my inferior parenting skills to heart.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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2 Responses to Of Tainan and Temples

  1. China Deals says:

    Great job my friend. Thanks for a great story. Keep up with the good work. Stan

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi Stan, Thanks for the compliments. Hope you can review travel places in Taiwan one day — it is a great place to travel, and the culture is so fascinating. I just love visiting the temples here. And the food. Well, let me just say that nearly everyone puts on weight here, although far so far I am managing to hold out against the trend.

      Taiwanxifu

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