This article first appeared in Rickshaw.
This April, Tainan will host a huge eight-day festival to honor the Goddess of the Sea, Matsu. There will be parades, music and other free events provided by religious pilgrims, the city government, and corporate sponsors. Why?
"Tainan is like a big museum," explains Hsiao Chong-Ray, Director of the Tainan City Government Cultural Department. "Every street is history. Every building is history. The people are history." In order to promote tourism in this "museum," the local government is working to preserve and revive traditional folk art and ceremonies such as the Dragon Boat Festival, or in this case, the birthday of Matsu.
Since Taiwan is an island, it's no surprise that reverence for a goddess of the sea has survived to the present. According to legend, Matsu was born around 960 in the Fujian province of mainland China. Her father and brother were active fishermen in the small fishing village where her family lived. Her concern for them found its way into her vivid dreams; if they encountered problems at sea, she would see their troubles in her sleep. In addition to her sixth sense, she would awaken from her premonitions in a soaking wet dress, as though she had tried to rescue them. Matsu's reputation in her village was elevated to that of deity when her sister witnessed her ascension to the heavens from a mountaintop at the age of 18 - while still alive.
Matsu became worshipped as the Goddess of the Sea, a benevolent spirit who protects fishermen and sailors. Fishermen, sailors and even Navy soldiers continue to revere her today, and the port city of Makung on Taiwan's Penghu Island is derived from her name.
But her kindness does not diminish her fierce power. In one legend, Matsu witnessed two monsters wreaking havoc on a village, hurting people and burning homes. She fought and subdued them, causing them to see the error of their ways and swear to follow and protect her as personal guardians. Chen Lie Yen ("Can See 100 Miles") and Suen Fong Ehr ("Can Hear 100 Miles") are represented in Matsu's temples and parades; Chen Lie Yen is the green demon peering into the distance, red Suen Fong Ehr turns his ear to the outside world.
Another legend of Matsu was explained by Hsiao as we drove past Da Tao Gong temple, dedicated to the God of Doctors. Chuckling, the former art history professor explained that Da Tao and Matsu are bitter rivals. Because Da Tao has an "ugly" head of hair, he always hides it by wearing a hat. Out of spite, Matsu creates a wind-filled storm to blow off his hat and expose his ugliness - every year for his birthday. In retaliation, Da Tao brings rain every year for Matsu's birthday to ruin her make-up. At this point, Natasha Yeh, a promoter of this year's Matsu event (and incidentally, the new editor of the Rickshaw) emphasized, "It's true. It always rains on Matsu's birthday."
Fortunately, this year's birthday celebration will occur after Matzu's actual birthday, March 23, so rain shouldn't be a problem (unless Da Tao gets wind of it). From April 1-8, pilgrims from Matsu temples all over Taiwan will converge on Tainan. These devotees will parade idols of the sea goddess between nine participating Matsu temples throughout the city (some dating back to the 1600s) before terminating their trek at Da Tien Ho Gong, the most important Matsu temple in the R.O.C. The "original" Matsu is believed to reside there, so the other Matsu replicas visit her "like a daughter goes to a mother's house," says Hsiao.
Hsiao, a charismatic man with an obvious passion for Taiwanese culture, repeatedly emphasized the importance of preserving the colorful procession. Born in the Penghu Islands, a Taiwanese archipelago in the Taiwan Strait where Matzu is greatly revered, Hsiao came to Taiwan at age 17 to study at Cheng Kung University. He became a professor of Fine Art History at his alma mater until last year, when the local government "borrowed" him to head its Cultural Department. Though he misses teaching, his new job is enjoyable because "the cultural world is so interesting."
In an attempt to bring international attention to the cultural world in Tainan, Hsiao and the Cultural Department hope to cement the Matsu procession as an annual fixture in Tainan's festival schedule. (Though Matsu's birthday has been celebrated in Tainan for around 100 years, the extent of the celebration has greatly varied.) To ensure this permanence, the local government and corporate sponsors are providing 8 days of almost entirely free activities for the public. From April 1-8 from 10am to 9pm, events ranging from traditional puppet shows to orchestra performances will be held around the city.
Some festival highlights include:
And every evening from 7-9pm, jazz will be performed by musicians floating in boats just off An Ping. Grab a spot on the water and enjoy the sounds of the saxophone, played by Taipei's Cordett (and ask Matsu not to upset his boat.)
A complete schedule of events is available from 06/ 267-4771.
Photos reprinted by permission of the Tainan City Government