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Praying in Taiwan: Xiahai Chenghuang Temple (霞海城隍廟)

Xiahai Chenghuang Temple at night. From Wikipedia
In February of 2012 a friend of mine took me to a famous Daoist temple in Taipei, Xiahai Chenghuang Temple (霞海城隍廟). I had asked her to show it to me because I wanted to pray to the Chinese God of Love, Yuelao.

I am not a spiritual person, but I thought it would be interesting to have a first-hand experience of local religious beliefs. 

Though I am not a Christian I was raised in a Christian (Catholic) society, and I have been influenced by it, no matter whether I rationally believe in that religion or not.

From the point of view of Christendom, a Chinese temple may remind of an ancient Roman or Greek temple. It is a colourful building with symbols and statues. The sort of images Christians used to reject as “eidola”, i.e. depictions of demons made by humans. The Christian God has nothing human. He has no shape and is beyond human rational understanding. He therefore cannot be depicted in sacred images.

Chinese Gods, on the contrary, have an earthly form. There are statues and images of creatures that combine animal and human features, and most major Gods have human shape. Many of them are historical figures from the past, such as imperial officials or local “heroes”. Very much like the ancient Roman Ceasars, who were declared to be divine though they were mortals.

On this picture you can see some deities
with animal and human features
Christian religion, and especially the New Testament, regards the pursuit of worldly possessions and desires as a hindrance to faith [note]. Money, vanity, power or sexuality all have a negative connotation. What matters is the “new life” after death. Jesus Christ, for instance, although he was God’s son, was neither a king nor a wealthy and powerful man; in order to be pure and perfect, his mother, Mary, had to be a virgin. He belonged to the poor and weak people of the Roman Empire and he died as an outcast in the most brutal and ominous way. No wonder Christians were so disdainful of Roman and Greek religion. Their God was completely different from the deities of the ancient world, who had human characteristics and shared with them even their evil desires.

Even if a Westerner doesn’t believe in Christianity, he might tend to consider Eastern religions and ritual practices as more superstitious and “naive” than Christianity. Well, I tried not to think this way. We may regard something unfamiliar to us as “strange” and “naive”. But I wanted to take my visit in the temple seriously and try to figure out what people feel when they pray to their Gods.
       


About Xiahai Chenghuang Temple


Xiahai Chenghuang Temple is located  in Dihua Street, in Taipei City’s Datong District [see map]. Though fairly small, it is one of the most famous Daoist temples in the Taiwanese capital, devoted to Chenghuang (Traditional Chinese 城隍, pinyin: Chénghuáng), or Town God. Town gods are deities who watch over human affairs and guard their cities, very much alike ancient Greek Gods [note].The worship of Town Gods is popular in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore as well in Chinese communities throughout East Asia.

In the past, every large and medium-size Chinese city had a Town God, who was usually a defunct local “hero”, a personality who was widely recognized for having contributed to public good. The duty of Town Gods was similar to that of imperial officials in feudal China. “It was believed that Chenghuang was empowered by the celestial ruler to exterminate evils in towns and cities and make citizens live a prosperous and happy life. He was even capable of granting what people prayed for.” [note].

The origin of Xiahai Chenghuang Temple dates back to the year 1821, when a group of colonists from Tongan district of Ximen, in Mainland China’s Fujian Province, settled in Taipei’s Bangka area (today’s 萬華區, Wanhua District). Upon their arrival, one of them, merchant Chen Jinrong (陳金絨), established a shrine devoted to Xiahai Chenghuang, an underworld deity worshipped by inhabitants of Tongan. He built the shrine by using a statue of the God he had brought with him from his hometown [note 1, 2].

In  1853, during feuds between settlers that had come to Taiwan from different parts of Fujian Province, Tongan immigrants were jointly attacked by people from Jinjiang (晉江), Huian (惠安) and Nanan (南安). Consequently, the Tongan population abandoned Bangka and resettled in Dadaocheng. Chen Jinrong’s Xiahai Town God statue had been luckily saved from destruction and brought to Dadaocheng, where the Tongan community raised money to build a temple for the deity. [note]

Taiwan’s Town God worship is a combination of different elements from Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism [note]. One of the most popular deities worshipped in Xiahai Chenghuang Temple is Yuelao, the God of Love (a sort of Eastern Cupid, if you will).

Yuelao – The Match-Maker


Yuelao (月老) is the short form of 月下老人 (Yuexialaoren), which literally means “old man under the moon”.

According to a legend from the Tang Era, one evening a man called Wei Gu was passing by a guesthouse in the city of Songcheng. He saw an old man who was sitting under the moonlight and reading a book. He thought it was strange and asked the man what he was doing. The man replied that he was reading a book where all past and future marriages of men were recorded. He pointed at a woman who was hawking food on the street. She had a three-year-old daughter. The old man told Wei Gu that that child was destined to become his wife. Wei Gu, however, disliked the girl and hired assassins to kill her.

More than ten years elapsed, and Wei Gu got married. To his surprise, he discovered that his bride had a scar on her eyebrow. She was the same girl the old man had predicted would be his wife. [note]

The legend became so popular that the “old man under the moon” was incorporated in popular religious beliefs as the god of love.


Praying 


    The pot where you throw incense sticks
    When I went to the temple I didn’t know exactly how to pray. Fortunately, my friend taught me how to do it and explained me a lot of things, which I will now tell you. Of course, what I’m going to say is not exhaustive. I didn’t do any research afterwards. If you find any facts that are not correct, please let me know. 

    As you can see on the pictures, the temple was really crowded. There was a long queue that went from the door and reached to the courtyard. My friend assured me that most people – among whom there were many young and pretty girls – had come to pray to Yuelao.

    First of all, we bought a bundle of incense sticks from an old woman. We burnt two of them and threw them into a big pot. The sticks are not the only things we had to purchase. In order to ask the God a question or tell him your wish you should make a “sacrifice”. There are people who buy food, for example sweets, biscuits or fruits. Or you can buy fake money. We opted for the money and put it on the long table in front of the main door. Then we lined up.

    The main shrine has a variety of Gods and deities. Chuanghuang, the Town God, sits with his wife at his side at centre of the shrine, surrounded by several Gods. There are also other, smaller rooms with several deities. It is customary to pray to all Gods and not only to the one you want to ask something to. 

    When you pray, you have to hold the incense sticks up and lower your head slightly. You have to bow three times and introduce yourself. Tell the God your name, where you come from and where you live. As my friend told me, the address is very important, so don’t tell the God a wrong address. Afterwards you are ready to ask the God for something. Different Gods are in charge of different aspects of human life: work, family, health and so on. After  praying to a God, you have to throw two incense sticks into a pot.

    You can either simply tell a God your wish, or you can ask him a question. How does the God answer your question? There is an interesting method for that (I have to remark I noticed that other temples have other systems, but this one seems to be used everywhere). You take two small wooden objects that are shaped like a half-moon. They have a flat side and a rounded concave side. You throw the two shapes on the ground. If they both land on the concave or the flat side for three times in a row, the God says yes. If, however, one of the shapes falls on one side, but the other one on the other side, the God says no. 
     Two wooden shapes you have to throw on the ground
      to receive a God’s reply



    The main shrine. Yuelao is the God in the middle of the
    picture with a stick in his hand and the big pendant
    After finishing my prayer I was given a small bag with a lucky charm inside. I also got a cake, which has a peculiar meaning: after their wedding, married couples bring cakes to the temple to thank the God who helped them. These cakes are then distributed to the visitors of the temple who also want to find their second half. First time visitors receive an additional small gift, in my case a candy.

    I was supposed to always take the lucky charm with me. But I didn’t. One day, I decided to take it out and put it in my bag. That afternoon I had a huge fight with my ex-girlfriend. Apparently, Yuelao had decided that we didn’t belong together. For some reason I believed in it. Maybe because – as Freud said – sometimes you know what’s right or wrong for you, but you need an external object to show it to you. 
        
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