A variety of gods fill the Taiwanese pantheon. Some gods have lived in heaven since the beginning of time. Others were born as people and attained godhood in their lives or after their deaths. Most of the celestial beings that Buddhists venerate are not, properly speaking, gods. They are bodhisattvas, a person who has achieved enlightenment but has chosen not to become a Buddha yet in order to lead more people into enlightenment. Whatever their origin or where they dwell, are recognized based on the relationship they have with the people.
Some gods have existed since the beginning of time. The Jade Emperor is the traditional king of Heaven. He is very important in Chinese mythology, but not in the ritual lives of common people. The Three Pure Ones, also called the Taoist Trinity, rule the universe according to Taoist teachings. They are worshiped in Taoist temples but do not relate to ordinary people in the same way as popular folk gods. Popular in Taiwan is the Queen Mother of the West. She is loved in Taiwan for her motherly attention to her worshipers. Cai Shen, or the God of Wealth, is often asked to bring prosperity during Chinese New Year and when someone starts a new business. He is familiar to many in the form of a white or blue cat sitting on the front counter of Chinese businesses. Every area has an Earth God, called Tu-Di Gong in Chinese. Tu-Di Gong is a low-ranking heavenly bureaucrat. Because his position places him close to the people, requests are often made for his help. Whenever people move or build a new house, start a business, start a new job, or do anything of importance, they always go to the temple of the local Tu-Di Gong to inform him. Perhaps the Chinese god best known outside of Asia is the one known as Sun Wu-kong, called Kâu-chê-thian (the Great Saint Equal to Heaven) in Taiwan, or most famously, the Monkey King. Popularized in books and movies, he is venerated by Buddhists and as a folk god.
Some humans are recognized as having become gods after their death. Humans achieve godhood in two ways. The first way is through heroic acts. The second way is by having lead a virtuous or enlightened life.
Heroic people are associated with power. When this person dies, it is believed that their spirit remains powerful. Fortune favors them in death as it did in life. If the people remember them in their worship, it is believed that the spirit will work for them to accomplish what they ask for. After it is seen that the spirit can accomplish what is asked of it, the spirit is recognized as having attained godhood. Often, the cult of a god will start small, usually in their home town. As the effectiveness of their intercession becomes more widely known, more people will begin to venerate the god. In pre-revolutionary China, the emperor would confer rank and status on the god, allowing his cult to spread throughout the empire. Today, the recognition of new gods is entirely the work of the people.
Analogous to Christian saints, these heroes are usually the focus of folk worship. The most popular of these among the Taiwanese is Guan Gong. He was made famous by the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a romanticized telling of his legend. Guan Gong is always depicted with a red face on his statues. He is worshiped as a figure of power and can be found in shrines in business establishments. Many recognize him as a god who can get things done for them and give him a prominent place on the family altar. Some gods are believed to be able to accomplice specific prayers. The Gods of the Five Palaces died fighting a disease-bringing ghost, and are now remembered when there is a sickness in a family. Matzu is a goddess who was originally venerated as a protector of fishermen. Today, she is seen as a compassionate mother-figure. In one of Taiwan’s largest rituals, Matzu is carried in procession all around Taiwan. This is done so that she may check on the well-being of her people.
While the heroic gods are often the most popular among folk worshipers, those who are compassionate or find enlightenment are also remembered. These cults often begin in Buddhist circles, but many times spread into folk religion. Buddhists most often recognize enlightened people as having become, or more often having been the return of, a bodhisattva. The most popular bodhisattva in Taiwan is Guan Yin. The name of Guan Yin is called on by anyone in need of help. In some depictions, she has many hands and heads, symbolizing her ability to hear and help all those who need her. Her help is often asked for by couples hoping to have a child. She is seen as a figure of ultimate compassion. While she became popular as a Buddhist figure, it is not uncommon to find her image in Taoist or folk temples.
Gods Native to Taiwan
Most of the gods Taiwanese worship have the origin of their cult in China. There are a few gods which are worshiped only in Taiwan. All of these fall under the category of divinized hero. The earliest is known to the West as Koxinga. Koxinga was a supporter of the deposed Ming Dynasty. He established a base in Taiwan, bringing many Han Chinese with him. Though he didn’t accomplish his goal of overthrowing the usurping Qing Dynasty, he was seen as a figure of power and was venerated as a god soon after his death. Several other anti-Qing heroes are worshiped in small temples, especially in southern Taiwan. One of these was Chu Yi-kuei. His rebellion was put down by Shih Shih-pang, who is also considered a god for his efforts to control the flooding of the Choshui River. When Taiwan was turned over to Japan after the Sino-Japanese war, anti-Japanese rebellions broke out. Wang Fen, a hero of the rebellion, has a temple dedicated to him in Lukang. In Tainan County, the martial arts expert raised a group of men and attached the occupying Japanese. After he was killed in battle, his spirit was seen riding his horse, still leading him men against his enemies. A shrine was built for him after the end of the Japanese occupation. Believing that their gods would give them victory, Yu Ching-fang, Chiang Ting, and Lo Chun began one of the largest rebellions against the Japanese. Luo Fu-hsing was a Kuomintang official who recruited party members inside Japanese-occupied Taiwan. A pagoda was built in his honor in his hometown in Miaoli County. Perhaps Taiwan’s most controversial god is Wu Feng. Stories about him have changed over time, but his story seems to have begun in the forests of Mount Ali. According to the story, the aborigines of the area were getting ready to begin a headhunting ritual in the village of A Pao Tsuo. Wu Feng warned the people and was killed for it. According to some sources, after his death, he worked to eliminate the practice of headhunting in the area. In 1988, the Ministry of Education removed the story of Wu Feng after protests by Taiwan’s aboriginal community. A statue of Wu Feng in front of Chaiyi Train Station was torn down during protests. After more protests, Wu Feng township in Chaiyi County was renamed to Alishan (Mount Ali) Township.
Whatever the origin, worshipers choose which gods to worship based on their efficacy in answering prayers. In private worship, the most important thing in a worshipers mind is fulfilling their needs. While an immediate need such as recovery from illness or a successful business trip is what drives most people to worship, many also understand that worship given to the gods promotes harmony between the spiritual and natural worlds.
Liu Huan-yue, Folk Beliefs in Taiwan