Blood Rites in a Taiwanese Temple
By Steven Crook, photos by Rich J. Matheson

In the most popular temple of Taiwan, self-mutilation to please the gods is considered a an honor and a duty.

Taiwan travel

The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.

Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he smokeapplied the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).

In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain, weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and train just as hard.

A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move closer to the tang-ki.

Perhaps it was for safety's sake that the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, outlawed possession. Those who drafted the law likely didn't know that no one willingly becomes a tang-ki; individuals chosen to serve as a deity's intermediary risk supernatural punishment if they reject the role. Or maybe the Japanese expected other realms to respect their laws.


Bloody Rituals Draw a Crowd
From the old city of Tainan we'd traveled north across a flat landscape of fish farms and salt ponds to see this morbid spectacle. Nankunshen Daitian Temple—Taiwan's most visited place of worship, according to official statistics—is renowned for its bloody rituals. Like many other Taiwanese temples, it hosts a commingling of creeds, a melange of Buddhism, Taoism, folk beliefs and local legends.

Shinyi and Meiling explained this to me with informed indifference: Both women grew up in the bastion of tradition that is Tainan, but practiced Christianity. We boarded the bus on Zhongshan Road, a thoroughfare named in honor of Sun Yat-sen. Sun founded the Republic of China (ROC) in 1911. Like Sun, Chiang Kai-shek—the dictator who ruled the ROC after its retreat to Taiwan in 1949—was a Christian. However, traditional Chinese religious beliefs survive far mutilationbetter in Taiwan than on the mainland, where many customs and practices were extirpated by the Communists.

Nankunshen is an ornate structure, yet few notice the antique carvings and exquisite paintings which adorn the interior. The Five Kings enshrined here are prominent folk gods. But not every visitor wishes to petition this powerful quintet. Many make the journey just to witness the spirit mediums' grisly yet mesmerizing displays of self-mutilation.

These bloody sideshows demonstrate the protective power of the deities being celebrated. It's the weekly convergence of gods that makes Nankunshen important. Every Sunday, pilgrims from subsidiary temples all over Taiwan bring icons here. Sunday has no special significance in the Chinese almanac. Nowadays, Taiwanese folk religion is practiced mainly on the Christian Sabbath, simply because then the faithful don't have to work.

Worshippers arriving with a god in tow hope that the pilgrimage can fortify and invigorate their patron. At the heart of folk religion lies a frank reciprocity: Supernatural entities must bring good fortune to their followers, or suffer abandonment. Statues of disappointing gods, or tablets representing unhelpful ancestors, are sometimes smashed and dumped without ceremony.

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