What you need to know
In celebration of his birthday, a palanquin of the Qingshan King was taken on a tour to inspect and give blessings to the city.
As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages the world, Taoist worshipers paraded last weekend through the streets of Taipei for an annual pilgrimage. At the head of the procession was a god known for eradicating a plague more than a century ago.
In celebration of his birthday, a palanquin of the Qingshan King was taken on a tour to inspect and give blessings to the city as participants blared horns on elaborate floats, set off firecrackers, and dragons and lions danced along to electronic music.
Around 160 years ago, an unknown plague spread across the historic area of Bangka in Western Taipei (now Wanhua district) and left many in grave sickness. It was only after early Hokkien immigrants “invited” the Qingshan King (or Lin-An Chun Wang), a Taoist deity they worshipped at home in Huian, Fujian, to Taiwan, did the disease subside and the city return to normalcy as we wish today with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bangka, an aboriginal word for canoe, was an early port city along the shores of the Tamsui river with trade and commercial activities tracing back to the 19th century. Outbreaks of plague, siltation around the port, and sporadic skirmishes between immigrant groups have led to its decline, with people resettling in the northern area of Twatutia (now in Taipei’s Datong district), but Bangka has a glorious past that shapes what Taipei is today.
‘Little New Year in Bangka’
The annual pilgrimage began at the Qingshan King temple, located on “Taipei’s first street.” Built in 1856, the Bangka Qingshan Temple has become a major place of worship, bustling with a sense of community, since the ancient district restored vitality after the plague.
The deity was first brought to Taiwan two years earlier. Legend has it that the holy palanquin suddenly grew too heavy to be lifted as the procession passed through the “Old Street” (now the first section of Xiyuan Road). The worshipers had to build a makeshift shrine on the very spot they stopped marching.
The year 2020 marks the Bangka Qingshan Temple’s 165-year anniversary since it was reconstructed on today’s site. During the pilgrimage, the Qingshan King was welcomed at several other temples and more than 30 altars set up by local believers along the route this year.
Some altars look like temporary temples with a statue of gods, like the Saint of War (or Guan Shengdijun), and are meant to be a venue to receive the Qingshan King.
The Qingshan King festival, which takes place from October 20 to 22 on the Lunar calendar, is one the three largest temple fairs (miaohui in Mandarin) in Taipei and is seen by local people as a “little new year in Bangka,” with temples holding roadside banquets (bando in Taiwanese Hokkien) to celebrate the birth of the god in the earlier times.
The festival has grown to its size today — thanks to the 38-year long Martial Law period in Taiwan, from 1949 to 1987. The Kuomintang government, regarding the time and expenditures spent on rituals as wasteful, mandated all temples across Bangka to hold their fairs on the same days during the Qingshan King festival. Beginning with the consolidation, worshipers living in the district could be seen to be mobilized to welcome the visit of the god in their neighborhood.
After the ban on private rituals was lifted, the celebration for the Qingshan King has probably not been as grand as it used to be, but today, temple followers still gather to hand out Xianguang cake, a snack shaped like a donut. Those who have the cake will be blessed with safety and peace.
The Qingshan King festival is nonetheless more than a series of visits to sacrificial altars. During the two nights before the day of pilgrimage, the god was carried around the district of Bangka with his troops and spirit mediums, patrolling homes and shops to ward off evil and bringing fortune to local people.
The role that the Qingshan King plays in Taiwanese popular religion is similar to that of a city god (or Chen Huang), who cleanses a city from sin and ensures public safety, but the former extends protection beyond geographical boundaries.
The god’s parade was guided by a little kid with a red dot on his nose and facial makeup of a crane. He held a sizable gourd that has the power to suck in the evil spirits captured by the troops.
Accompanying the god in the troops are two generals surnamed Fan and Hsieh, known as the Seventh and Eighth Masters. They are among the eight bodyguards (or Ba Jia Jiang) of the god and revered as deities of the netherworld.
The two have a heartbreaking story of friendship. Hsieh and Fan, both constables at a government office, were met with a pouring rain on a visit to a neighboring town together. Hsieh made Fan wait under a bridge while he ran to a house of a local family to borrow an umbrella. But the riverbanks were flooded in no time. To keep the promise to his companion, Fan did not leave and eventually drowned. Finding him dead after returning to the bridge, Hsieh hanged himself on a tree nearby.
The Jade Emperor, one of the highest-ranking gods in Taoism, was impressed by their strong friendship and appointed them as guards of the underworld.
As the white-faced Fan, the black-faced Hsieh, and other generals took bold strides with a long sword across the streets, ghosts and evil spirits were believed to be scared away by their looks and aura.
A year of reconciliation
The grand celebrations for the birthday of Qingshan King have carried on for more than a century, but two tigers can hardly share a mountain. Longshan Temple, another old temple in Bangka built for the Buddist deity Guanyin, had long been at odds with Qingshan Temple.
This is a snapshot of a longstanding feud among immigrant groups in Taiwan. In the past decades, carriers of the holy palanquin made it a tradition to quietly pass by temples that were not worshipped by settlers from Huian. Longshan Temple, in turn, often closed its doors before the arrival of Qingshan King’s parade.
To the excitement of many believers, the ethnic conflict came to an end with the Taoist god’s historic visit to Longshan Temple this year for a reconciliation.
With the peace made again by the Qingshan King, believers are lifted out of the doom and gloom of the pandemic as they wait to carry the god to the old streets of Bangka with a fresh sense of pride next year.
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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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