TAIPEI -- From firecrackers and dance troupes to blaring horns, Taiwan's century-old Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage includes all the elements that exemplify the island's temple culture. Its popularity is also growing rapidly among young Taiwanese, amid rising interest in Taiwan's distinct identity, and in sharp contrast with neighboring China, where worship of the ancient folk gods is moribund.
Every year, thousands of believers embark on a nine-day journey to show their devotion to Mazu, the "heavenly mother," praying for auspiciousness and prosperity. From Jenn Lann Temple in Taichung city's Dajia district, committed pilgrims follow Mazu to more than 110 temples, barely sleeping as they trek 340 km. Hundreds of thousands watch the procession in person, and millions more on television.
This year the procession went ahead despite the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to Taiwan's success in combating infections, marked once again by an increase in participation by young people that has accelerated in recent years. "We often tout the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage to foreign friends as a can't-miss event in Taiwan," said Liao Yi-ju, a 22-year-old college student who was processing for the first time. "The pilgrimage characterizes some authentic and unique elements of Taiwanese culture."
Ambassadors and diplomats from 20 countries were also on the guest list of the Jenn Lann Temple for the departure ceremony on April 9, testifying to the event's growing importance to Taiwan and its international image. But Cheng Ming-kun, vice-chair of the temple, said the most important aspect of the pilgrimage is its emergence as an icon of pop culture.
"Along with cycling around Taiwan and conquering Yushan (the highest mountain in the island state), walking with Dajia Mazu in this journey are now the three things for Taiwanese to do once in a lifetime," Cheng said. "We pay tribute to our frontline medical staff for making this event possible, while praying for those foreign countries still suffering from the pandemic, at the same time letting them see the beauty of Taiwan."
Carried on a palanquin by 10 people on foot, Mazu headed a procession spanning several kilometers, with martial lictors, protector deities and traditional musical troupes leading the way. The police cleared the road wherever the goddess went, while households came out with their palms folded together welcoming her presence. Many also donated food to the pilgrims on the streets.
According to legend, Mazu was born in China with the name Lin Moniang in the 10th century, and was idolized after demonstrating supernatural power. Chinese migrants seeking a new life brought the cult to Taiwan from the 17th century onward, bringing the goddess as a patron for sailors.
While China saw the almost complete destruction of religious institutions during its 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, self-governing Taiwan preserved the Mazu cult and its associated liturgy, setting the foundation for more than 3,000 Mazu temples across the island. As the cult took root and became localized in Taiwan, the goddess evolved as a god for all, attracting more than 14 million believers -- about two-thirds of the island's population.
Chang Hsun, head of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's national academy, said the revival of interest in Mazu's pilgrimage in recent decades could be attributed to the Taiwanese people's quest for an exclusively Taiwanese cultural discourse, particularly after the island adopted democracy in the 1990s.
"Many looked to the temples as the representation of our folk culture as all those traditional elements like folk music, ceremonial rituals, folk opera and architecture were well-preserved," said Chang, who has researched Mazu for more than three decades.
Believers on this year's pilgrimage expressed similar views. "Witnessing the procession pass by where I have lived since childhood, I was fascinated by Mazu and later felt inspired to learn beiguan (traditional music closely associated with temples)," said Chen Chin-yu, 29, who has played the suona, a hornlike traditional instrument, on the pilgrimage for the last four years.
"This belief has become an integral part of our lives, " said Chen, who wears a gown signaling his service to the goddess. "Mazu is Taiwanese people's shared mother, we relay our worries no matter how trivial they are to her."
The influence of the Mazu belief also extends to business and politics, with many company executives and politicians taking part in the procession. In 2019, the technology billionaire Terry Gou, founder of the manufacturing group Foxconn, claimed he had been told by Mazu to stand in the island's 2020 presidential election.
However, Chang said the explosion of support for the cult among young people was largely a phenomenon of the last decade. This in part reflects the growing view of Taiwan as a separate entity from China, which regards the state as a Chinese province even though the Communist government in Beijing has never ruled the island.
"With the increasing emphasis on Taiwan-focused studies in the education system, and social media like YouTubers popularizing the pilgrimage, the craze and pursuit for this tradition erupted among the young generation," Chang said.
The traditional procession has also been reinvigorated by the Jenn Lann Temple authorities' use of technology and creative industries to broaden Mazu's visibility. For instance, the temple has created an app that lets followers track the location of the goddess while watching the procession live from start to finish, providing an immersive experience to those viewing from afar.
The temple has also collaborated with local manufacturers to launch a variety of "crossover products," including marketing devices such as snacks, masks, water bottles and clothing items with Mazu's imprint. A think tank for Mazu studies was launched in Taichung last year by the temple and the island's Mingdao University.
"We are endeavoring to pass this heritage down to the next generation, but it is crucial to highlight to them that the Mazu pilgrimage is not a superstition, but an experience and culture for Taiwanese," said Cheng.
For some of this year's procession participants, however, the importance of the procession was more personal. Lin Hsiang-hao, a 39-year-old medical engineer who was introduced to the Mazu cult by his parents, was waiting for the arrival of the goddess at a temple in Changhua after a march of about 10 km the previous night with his 10-year-old son.
"For me, having inherited this tradition, it has become my promise to Mazu to continue and pass it on," he said.