From self-exploration and reflection to community: The Baishatun Mazu Pilgrimage

by on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 Comments

For over a century devotees of the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu (媽祖 lit. Mother Ancestor), from the Gongtian Temple in Baishatun, Miaoli County have flocked to Beigang’s Chaotian Temple in Yunlin County for an annual 400-plus km pilgrimage in the 2nd Lunar month of the year. They participate for the blessings, protection and fortune afforded by Mother Mazu, who was said to protect the fisherman and sailors on the high seas when she was a living human, known as Lin Moniang. As I lived by the seaside growing up myself I was moved by this significance. This year, as I tracked my way back from my Chinese New Year holiday to urban life in Taipei, I decided to join the devotees on the return leg of their 9-day journey, hoping to find in the ritual space, time and an opportunity for reflection.

The Mazu Pilgrimage (媽祖進香), which literally means an offering of incense, involved more than one thousand pilgrims following by foot Mazu’s jiao(轎)or palanquin, on her journey to the sacred first Mazu temple in Taiwan. While not shunning modern technology - A GPS informs followers of where Mazu is at any point in time – the deity nonetheless has an erratic and unpredictable personality in deciding her path. No one knows which route the unpredictable goddess will take and what locations or occurrences will draw her attention along the way, in fact, the only certainty is that the goddess will arrive at the ancestral temple and will find her way back to her hometown temple. One year Mazu even guided her followers through the cold currents of the Zhuoshui River rather than taking the rather more practical Xiluo Bridge. Mazu indicates the direction she wants to go by leaning and putting more weight on a particular corner of her palanquin, which is held aloft by devotees on their shoulders. The Baishatun Mazu is also fiercely incorruptible by modern politics and etiquette. She is a chaotic force for good, oblivious to any rules that would be imposed upon her. While politics often plagues other religious processions such as the most famous Dajia Mazu, the Baishatun Mazu avoids many of these problems with her anarchical mode of existence. Mazu’s uncontrollable free spirit, nonetheless, seems to give respect to local knowledge, with considerations of geography, the cultural map and mythology of the people and prevailing conditions during the journey.

The Council of Cultural Affairs is now promoting the Baishatun pilgrimage as a distinctive peculiarity of the island's native culture and identity; arguably this may be a strategy to bring this religious activity more closely in line with the needs of the state. But this tradition and community cannot be defined and imposed upon by state ideology. This Mazu pilgrimage is a grassroots, bottom up culture which develops spontaneously in dialogue with the local land and people. It has a thousand different interpretations, and a thousand different truths.

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With her sometimes cruel sense of humour Mazu mocks state control and rules implemented by faraway experts and institutions. In this festival of passionate religious expression, all the repressions that normally apply to earthly beings are broken or sidestepped. The police seem more like spectators, sighing as Mazu decides to divert troublesomely on to the motorway, or guide her followers through private property bumbling, or a movement I could only describe as 'bianging', aggressively through whatever stands in her path. Throughout the pilgrimage local residents light a barrage of fireworks on the roads, in theory an illegal activity, leaving the pilgrims engulfed in a constant cloud of smoke and the police look on impotently as the palanquin barges on through. This freedom of religious expression and creativity is severely lacking in Mazu’s homeland of southern China, where the government’s tight policy of control of religion leaves little space for such crowd-inducing rituals which are viewed with great suspicion, cutting the local populations off from these potentially de-alienating rituals and connection with the land. What I saw on this pilgrimage showed me that a lack of central control on the body and mind stimulates colour, contrasts and distinctive flavours whilst opening the doors for creative problem solving.

What sets the incorruptible Baishatun Mazu apart from other Mazu pilgrimages is the lack of shackles placed upon the followers forcing them to follow a strict temple doctrine; the space allowed for creativity, is inspiring to its followers without being repressive. Those in good health will follow the whole journey on foot as suixiangtuan, but for those who can’t walk long distances they will follow as jinxiangtuan in their car or a coach, stopping off to pray as Mazu sets off in the early morning. By throwing divination blocks, temple representatives will ask Mazu at what time they will set off in the morning which in my experience ranged from 2am to the early afternoon. This disorganized state allows for diverse interpretations and truths and encourages creativity and innovation. All along the journey individual worshippers happily spend their time and money practically, forcing upon you endless cups of green, red and ginger tea, sports drinks, and cans of Mr Brown coffee, also rarely did an hour pass by without being served lashings of thick soup, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf or mantou steamed bread. Many people even go extra lengths to create their own special dishes, such as one man who had been raising fish eggs which he combined with a delicious salmon sauce; each passer-by was treated to one deluxe mouth-watering bite served on a lone potato chip. Almost every house along the way seemed delighted to provide free accommodation to the pilgrims and discuss past stories and inquire as to how Mazu’s mood had been this year. Also known as the Silent Maiden, her mood could only be guessed by each devotee based on observing her interactions with the land and the people.

Each devotee’s belief in Mazu’s powers seems to stem from a different story based on their own personal experience and enlightenment, merely taking part in this year’s walk I encountered a host of different stories which is why I thoroughly recommend readers take part in the procession themselves.

I first heard about this Mazu pilgrimage due to my explorations into the world of performance arts and theatre, more specifically in the year I spent with Sannyas Meditation Theatre, which gets its inspiration from the Butoh tradition and the late Kazuo Ohno. The works of experimental theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski inspired a generation of performers to take part in local rituals, in order to make their performance more seamlessly connected to their inner self and local conditions, parenthesizing the alienating performance training they had received, thus making their performance more natural, truer. For me, asides from unfettered curiosity, taking part in the pilgrimage was a chance to enter a very pure state stemming directly from the connection between body and land and to explore how I would develop naturally on from this.

I kicked off my journey in a characteristically inauspicious way. As I was waiting to meet up with a fellow member of the Sannyas Theatre in the sacred Chaotiangong temple in Beigang, I was found to be leaning unawares on Mazu’s palanquin and was quickly exhorted and shuffled away by her stewards. I commenced the walk over-relishing the physical challenge and was perhaps even a little bit competitive. Jogging sections and even giving a friend a piggy back ride, left my knees and ankles suffering heavily over the last few days. I also found myself slightly overindulging in the free food offerings. Perhaps Mazu sensed that I had not yet entered a pure mind while following her as a couple of nights later Mazu appeared twice in my dreams, staring at me sternly and leaving me waking up damp and sweaty. It was not until later that I realised I had started the pilgrimage more as an observer, outsider than a full participant and seamless member of the community. I had heard a thousand different truths and meanings of peoples own experiences of the Mazu procession but I was still in the process of discovering my own, truthful only if based on the personal experience of my body and soul in dialogue with the community.

Photos by Witek Chudy

See the complete photostory by Witek

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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