Practice your piety if you’re running for election!
Mazu of Tachia is making a nine-day tour of Southern Taiwan. Mazu is known as the Goddess of the Seas, worshiped by hundreds of thousands of people in Taiwan, where there are at least 1,000 temples dedicated to her. The statue housed at Chenlan Temple in Tachia near Taichung is the most popular. She started the annual tour of her territory last Friday, escorted by tens of thousands of the faithful on a tour of 21 townships in Taichung City and bound for the three nearby counties of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi to complete her tour next Sunday.
One conspicuous pilgrim who won’t be escorting the Goddess of the Seas is Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party and its standard bearer in the presidential election next year. It’s her first ever pilgrimage to the Chenlan Temple: she didn’t visit it in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Other VIP pilgrims have included President Ma Yingjeou, Vice President Wu Den-yih, and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng. Wu and Wang are potential Kuomintang candidates for the 2016 presidential election. Absent was Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei City who doubles as Kuomintang chairman and has declared again and again that he won’t run for president.
Well, it’s election time. Every presidential candidate or hopeful has to take part in the ritual pilgrimage to the most worshiped Goddess of the Seas in order to keep up appearances. Ma was in Tachia despite the fact he will step down as president next May. He is, however, a regular pilgrim. Perhaps he just paid a visit out of habit. Tsai, on the other hand, presumably made her debut at the Chenlan Temple after coming to the conclusion that her absence in 2012 led to her disastrous defeat at the hands of President Ma.
Yen Ching-piao, chairman of the board of directors of the Chenlan Temple, revealed Tsai visited the temple for the first time a couple of days before. Yen, a former member of the Legislative Yuan ousted in 2013 after being convicted on corruption charges by the Supreme Court, said “There was no talk of elections at the temple.” Yen has no party affiliation.
Mazu’s annual inspection of her territory is much like the Ratha Yatra or Chariot Festival in India. The Jagannath triad on three chariots is pulled by devotees three kilometers from its temple in Puri to one in Shri Gundicha and back every year. Devotees compete against each other to pull the chariots, and when there’s a commotion, some of them are sometimes crushed under the chariots’ wheels. Just like some Mazu faithful are seriously wounded — some were even killed in the past — trying to crawl past under the palanquin of the goddess in an effort to get her to answer their prayers through her divine powers.
Of course none of the politicians are going to try that stunt with Mazu on her palanquin. They just showed up like a bad penny at the beginning of her annual tour to associate themselves with Mazu worship to win the votes of the hoi polloi faithful. Politicians at election time love to carry into practice an old Chinese saying, “lin-shi bao fu-jiao” ( ), which literally means “cling to the Buddha’s feet impromptu” or “profess devotion when in trouble.” Or “danger past, god forgotten.”
At any rate, it’s the cheapest way to run for public office. All politicians, regardless of their faith, visit the shrines or temples in their constituencies to worship whichever deities local temples are dedicated to, one benefit for them being that they are accepted without question by the Jack and Jill faithful. So politicians of all stripes never fail to show up at religious or quasi-religious festivals come election time. Election past, gods and goddesses forgotten. Incidentally, Mazu worship is still a folk religion or popular belief, though Buddhism has long reclaimed her as a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, a god in the Buddhist pantheon in India who underwent gender transformation into a female when introduced to China about 2,000 years ago.
Taiwan’s democracy will continue to waste time as long as public office seekers have to profess devotion when running for election.