Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sin Gang Township, Chia-yi County, Taiwan


On Saturday, Jerry took us to his hometown of Sin Gang, a small town in Chia-yi County that includes farming areas, several small villages, bike paths and very old neighborhoods.  Sin Gang is also the religious center of this central Taiwan region. Because of this fact, it has “support industries” that go along with their religious practices and rituals. One of those industries is the art of making incense sticks.  Our first stop with Jerry was the Sin Gang Incense Artistic Culture Garden.  

We went to the tiny incense factory and watched a man making incense sticks as a TV cameraman filmed him at his work. The annual pilgrimage and celebration of the goddess of the sea, Matzu, is coming up in two weeks in Sin Gang, so there is a lot of talk about it and preparation for it. I assume this accounts for the TV documentation.

The incense sticks are made from thin bamboo. A craftsman stood at a tall table with a clump of bamboo sticks in his hand, as many as he could manage to get in his fist. Then he dipped them top-end first into a huge barrel of  adhesive solution until they were submerged up to his hand. He pulled them up out of the solution and let them drain.  

Then, with the greatest skill, he tapped their bottom ends on the table, swished them in powered spices that were heaped in a huge shallow bowl. He whipped his bunch of sticks through the spices, yanked them up, tapped their ends and fanned them out. He did this sequence several times.  

Then he took his bundle of sticks and laid them on a big “cookie sheet” and popped them in the oven behind him. When they were done, he gathered them up and dipped the whole bunch about a quarter of the way up the stick into a vat of red dye. Then the bunch was laid out in the sun on a slatted drying table.  

The last step was to bundle and pack them. This process was beautifully and skillfully worked with the characteristic graceful movements of the Chinese. I enjoyed this very much.

We then went into the museum where we saw displays of Chinese culture as well as explanations of the significance of fragrance to life, religion, food and medicine. One display had small sensors to shake and smell dozens of natural aromas from flowers, spices and trees. We saw a piece of cinnamon bark that looked and smelled exactly like a cinnamon stick if it were unrolled and still curled at its edges only it was as big as a door!

The museum was beautifully designed with round “windows,” calligraphy wall hangings, wooden carvings and Chinese furniture. It was a lovely example of the “less is more” philosophy.  

The lamp shades in the background are made of incense sticks.  The heat of  the light bulbs activate the scent.
We left the museum and moved on to one of the two revered temples in Sin Gang. It was ironic that when we got out of the car to walk to the temple, we turned one direction and were facing a Catholic church with a cross on its roof then turned the corner and saw a pagan temple swarming with people.

We happened to come to the temple just as a procession of worshippers were filling the street. Two men were leading the procession. One man had a box full of firecrackers and another man was carrying a large broom, one made out of switches…one we would call a “witches’ broom.” As they approached the entrance of the temple, the man with the firecrackers lit them off in a string of explosions that got louder and louder. The man with the broom swung it from side to side swishing the smoke from the firecrackers into the air.  

The last batch of firecrackers were so loud that we had to stop talking to each other and wait for them to subside. They were deafening. When the smoke cleared, we saw several men carrying ornate “gifts” in their hands. They formed a single file line as they entered into the temple courtyard.

In the center of the courtyard was a huge urn-like structure on legs with a pagoda roof. This is a very common temple piece of “furniture.” I’m sure it has a name. I’m just ignorant of it. It is similar to what sits outside of the temples around town that is filled with sand and the people stand their incense sticks in it. Well, whatever this is, the men would pass their "gift" through this object. All the while the people were chanting. Jerry said they were “welcoming” the god into the temple. Once this ritual was done, it appeared that the crowd of people was allowed to go into the temple and do their praying and offering.  

There were alcoves here and there along the outer walls of the temple. Each alcove had a different god in it that took care of different problems for you. The alcoves were ornately designed and contained any number of things depending on the purpose of the god. However, all of them had a statue or some form that represented each god. I will explain three.

The first one we encountered was an awful looking god. I told Jerry he looked scary. Jerry said yes he was scary because he was the god of people who were bad on earth. People go to this god to pray for those who have died but were bad while alive. I don’t know if we weren’t asking the question in a way Jerry could understand, but we couldn’t get him to explain to us what the people were expecting by praying here…to free their dead ancestors from consequences of being bad? Don’t know, but there sure were a lot of people who came to that god and prayed. Their form of prayer was to bow with their incense sticks or put their palms together in the classic prayer position and bow three times. They didn’t stay long.  

There was also a god to pray to if you were in need of a good grade on a test in school. The student or the parent could offer this prayer. There was a panel with hooks on the wall where you would hang a wooden plaque of you name if you had prayed at this altar. Jerry said your name will remain there until the next year. The students had just completed their national testing a few weeks ago, so the entire panel was covered with names.  

The last alcove I am going to describe is the one that enshrines the god of business. The ritual taking place here was more concrete than the others. There was a large bowl of water at this altar which had a cabinet-like front to it and contained coins, like a wishing-well. At the top of the cabinet was a slot for you to deposit paper money. If you deposited 100 New Taiwanese Dollars, you were allowed to withdraw from the bowl 2 NTDs. These you would place in your home to bring you good fortune in your business. Another ritual at this altar was to leave food. There were egg cartons and fruit, for example.

There was another alcove that was not dedicated to a single god. It was what I’ll call a “birthday” room.

The three walls of the alcove were lined with cabinets halfway up where there was a shelf with a money slot in it as well as a small cup of hot water. The cup that is shaped like a lotus blossom has verses on it from the writings of Buddha. Next to this cup was a small stack of tiny paper cups. Setting behind the money slot was a god for the sign under which a person was born. For example, Jerry was born during the year of the horse. Every birthday, he comes to this god, puts money in the money slot, pours water from the lotus cup into the tiny paper cup and drinks it. Then prays to the god.

 At the front of this alcove is a tall collection of little Buddhas in individual containers, almost like a snow globe without snow. These have an arched top with a candelabra light bulb at the peak. When it is your birthday, you add your Buddha “snow globe” to the display.  I don’t understand the significance of all these rituals, but they were in full-blown practice the day we were there.

Having seen all this, we were then winding our way down the other side of the temple court. There was a lot of commotion outside. As we exited, we realized the whole procession action was about to begin again, but this time there were more characters in play. There were men pushing and pulling some sort of golden sedan chair on poles. They were heaving it back and forth as if it were stuck in the mud and not able to get into the temple. Then suddenly they were successful and they entered the courtyard with this object.

There was very loud music playing and a man was beating a drum on a platform of a cart being pulled toward the temple. Behind him were more drums on a moving platform and then 4 or 5 giant costumed gods. Their outfits were ornately embroidered and were very colorful. These gods had masks and huge headdresses. It was very carnival-like, the way I image Rio to be.  

The procession stopped, and we watched a group of men gather around 3 other men who removed their shirts and were adorned by others with sashes about their chests. The men put green headbands around their foreheads and gave them some sort of sword. Jerry said the 3 men were receiving a god into their bodies and that this was "very special."  Behind this whole ceremony came the painted-faced priests who preceded the carrying of another god.

One other ritual that we witnessed as we made our way from the temple was the burning of paper money. There was a large, ornate burning furnace outside the temple courtyard, as there is at every temple and sometimes completely separate, standing alone on the edge of person’s property or field. There was a young couple there peeling the yellow paper money off of a stack that they had bought from a street vendor and throwing it in the fire. The purpose of this is to send money to your deceased relatives. This is a very common ancient tradition.

The last thing I want to say about this scene is about the clothing of some of the people in the crowd. There were many people wearing vests. They appeared to be uniforms of some sort. There were several different colors…red, yellow, green, or purple…and several with logos and/or Chinese writing on them. The yin and yang symbol was very recognizable, but the others were not what I could decipher.  You could see people wearing these, men and women, in previous pictures.  Aside from the vests, there were people in very flowing outfits with capes, some with matching caps.

These were either purple or gold. I’m sure one had to be something special to be wearing these outfits, but I don’t know what. The remainder of the crowd was in street clothes. It looked like an odd mix of apparel to me…some very festive and others very casual. There certainty was no “dress code” for going to the temple.

I honestly don’t know if I am describing this with any accuracy. It was all totally foreign. I am just trying to describe how it looked to me. I reserve any analysis or criticism for another time and forum. I need time to process.  At the very least, I will say I am glad to have experienced the reality of a “religion” that is practiced by millions of people that we share this planet with. I am glad I am able to realize that the world is so much bigger than our little corner where we live.  

As I mentioned, the town of Sin Gang has the temple support businesses. Another such business like the incense factory is the ceramic tile industry. All of the massive figures on the temple rooftops are made of ceramic tiles produced in Sin Gang. The craftsman of the factory decided to do something with this art that would beautify the village. He chose to decorate a cement bridge that spans a small street running along the old Beigang River Canal. He made ceramic Morning Glories to climb the sides of the bridge abutments and added a night sky on the underside of the bridge.

Not shown, there is a moon in the dark patch above, which is the night sky.
From what I understood of the story, it became so popular that he designed two other arrangements of local flowers, Chinaberries and Hibiscus, and attached them to the canal wall itself. These are very lovely and have become a popular spot for picture-taking. Lovely indeed!

This was quite a day of experiencing Taiwanese culture! It was eye-opening and necessary in order to understand the life-style of those we have come to care about here in our temporary “adopted” home of Chia-yi County, Tiawan.

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