Coming to a closure with the ghostly affairs, the Taiwanese return to their daily routine, which might require some otherworldly assistance every now and then. Although plenty of deities have an ear for the devotees, they need to be worshipped, too. In Taiwan, right after bubble tea shops and bustling night markets, roughly 15’000 temples make for the most visible landmarks, furthermore, shrines take pride of place in many homes, and altars adorn most offices and restaurants. Beneath the country’s modern façade lies the embodiment of ancient beliefs, inspired by a complex ensemble of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and folk religion. With Taiwan’s status as a contemporary and technologically advanced society, observing such a high degree of devotion might seem odd to many outsiders. In any random temple, people are busy bowing, kneeling, folding palms, rubbing prayer beads, lighting incense sticks, offering gifts, burning joss paper, or tossing curved wooden blocks to beg the gods’ advice before making important decisions. In Taiwan alone, the accumulated annual revenue in temples received from joss paper is roughly USD 400 million – and their salesforce continuously highlights new purposes for the devotees to donate to their temple, or to buy more joss paper to underline Bai-Bai prayers.
According to the 2014 International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, up to 80% of the population believes in some form of folk religion, including shamanism (the belief that individual practitioners can access the spirit world), animism (the belief that non-human entities can have powerful, spiritual essences) and ancestor worship (the idea that the dead continue to exert influence over the living).
Whilst the Communist regime in mainland China repressed traditional culture (including folk religion) followed by its takeover of the country in 1949, religious practices continued to prosper under the KMT Kuomintang government in Taiwan. Whereas most Buddhists focus solely on Buddha, and perhaps his mother Maya, Taoists don’t worship one single historical idol, but a variety of deities (which in the occident would instead claim the title of ‘saints’). Amongst them are all kinds of gods, in fact whoever careered in humbly supporting the forefathers, such as Mazu (Taiwan’s guardian goddess), Zhusheng Niangniang (fertility god), Cheng Huang (a city god), Tsai Shen Yeh (one of !5! wealth gods), Ba Jia Jiang (the 8 generals alias the gods of the underworld), Shunfeng’er & Qian Li Yan (sea and door gods), Wenchang Wang (the scholar god), Tudishen (also nicknamed ’Tudi’, god of the soil and the ground), Ji Gong Shi-Fu (the folk hero who helped the poor with his supernatural powers) et cetera. Aside from the temple grounds, where one may come by for a Bai-Bai whenever paranormal support is desired, shop owners or the entire personnel of large enterprises are permitted to message the gods in front of their place of business twice per lunar month.
Whom to address with which sort of issue; I have no idea, and to be honest, I won’t dig into it, as I’m a genuine atheist with no interest to outsource my problems to anything almighty. I’ve always felt that ’religion’, especially what gods concerned, as a great way to manipulate and to lead human beings. Even here in East Asia, this can be well observed in various ways. For instance, when political candidates are visiting shrines and temples or making subtle references to religions in an attempt to boost their votes. In countries like Myanmar, Buddhism has evolved into a political control instrument, backed by a classified ’superior’ monkhood. In Thailand, up to one million devotees gather every year at Dhammakaya temple to pray in Buddha’s name – only a few people know that it had meanwhile turned into a sect with severe accusations of money laundering and a monetized hierarchy amongst their ‘members’. And with China’s aim to appoint its own Dalai Lama, things become more evident on a large scale.
Mid-Autumn Festival is already well underway, with the Taiwanese replacing their offering tables by sidewalk barbecue feasts. I’m informed that Ji Gong Shi-Fu’s otherworldly assistance is needed in the outskirts of Taoyuan, which sets an excellent opportunity to observe Nana Cheng helping her followers.
Today, Nana is in high spirits, and we finally have time to chat whilst she is still ’conscious’. I’m keen to learn more about the person behind her master’s facade – the upbeat Taipei girl and ex makeup-artist. Her followers would describe her as a gift from the gods, so it’s worth to understand what draws their enthusiasm, but more importantly, what it means to Nana to be the Chosen One. Although there are thousands of oracles in Taiwan, working as taxi drivers, junk dealer, or bubble tea maker, Nana Cheng may be the only clear-minded young lady embodying a rude Chinese folk hero. Nana’s multi-colored hair gently caps the goldish sunnies which extend beyond the edges of her face, she presents her lavishest smile, just as if she’s about to rock the red carpet. Well, she actually does. Nana & her godly avatar are used to the camera, Taiwanese TV crews regularly pay a visit.
The participants are flocking in, waiting patiently until Ji Gong Shi-Fu is ready to investigate the roots of their discomfort. A loud burp thunders through the shrine, indicating that Ji Gong Shi-Fu has arrived. Everyone here has an issue, and it goes beyond the understanding of modern medicine. Nana can’t assist them by herself; only once she has transformed into her master, she is enlightened enough to see the invisible. Staged? A standard answer from the people I’m asking is, „we can’t know, so we care about.“ Nana acts as the negotiator, solving earthly issues with godly advice, and her followers trust that an occult hint every now and then, can’t hurt. Only a few Buddhist or Taoist temples don’t offer such a service, so they feel privileged to have a master like Ji Gong Shi-Fu right in their neighborhood. For many, it’s a lifelong task to find the right spiritual leader, as there’s a rich variety to choose from. Amongst the attendees are all sort of ordinary people, from elderly to youngsters, male and female alike, a worried mother brought her child which apparently can see the former house owner (who passed away long time ago). Others reach out to Ji Gong to bemoan their neck pain, believing in the common Oriental myth for carrying an unwanted spirit on your shoulders. Some have a stomach ache or feel unease with all matters. Ji Gong Shi-Fu’s treatment varies accordingly but often includes fumigation with incense smoke and wise words coming from the beyond. At times, barging into the patient seems to help, too. In front of the shrine, an incineration oven is busy eating up joss paper, meant to compensate for the spiritual healing, thus to pay tribute to the gods.
With the healing session coming to a closure, everyone aims to get their car blessed from Ji Gong, so to prevent accidents in the future. Ji Gong seems to be tired out from blessing all those cars, and returns to his realm, until the next occasion when Nana calls again.
In case you missed Nana Cheng alias Ji Gong Shi-Fu’s Pudu ritual – here we go