Century-old Folk Festival Charms Taiwanese and Foreigners Alike

A costumed mascot dances in front of a temple in Changhua. Photo: Naomi Goddard

A unique Taiwanese experience and spectacular showcase of the island’s temple culture, the annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage brings together longtime adherents and, more recently, young Taiwanese interested in local customs. Besides the religious significance, the event is also a major contributor to the central Taiwan economy.

With its firecrackers, dancing troupes, and mascots costumed as various deities, the annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage is a striking spectacle that bears witness to Taiwan’s vibrant temple scene. Starting as a community event a century ago and evolving into a large festival that today draws more than a million followers, attendance at the pilgrimage has become what some consider to be one of three must-try experiences in Taiwan (the other two being touring the island by bicycle and conquering Mount Jade).

The pilgrimage kicks off at Taichung’s Dajia Jenn Lann Temple (大甲鎮瀾宮), as devotees begin following a palanquin carrying a statue of the goddess Mazu (媽祖; literally “mother ancestor” or “heavenly mother” in Chinese) on a trek through the central Taiwan counties of Changhua, Yunlin, and Chiayi and back again. The journey of 340 kilometers lasts nine days and involves little to no sleep as the statue is carried through the night. Blaring horns and drum rolls accompany the long procession throughout, contributing to the renao (熱鬧) – or carnival-like – atmosphere that Taiwanese relish.

Some participants join the pilgrimage to pray for Mazu’s blessings for peace and prosperity in the coming years, while others commit to the journey simply out of devotion to the goddess. Passionate believers fight for a chance to carry Mazu’s palanquin as a symbol of service and as a way to get closer to her to convey their prayers and requests. Some attendees even kneel in front of the procession to let the palanquin pass over them, a ritual said to bring auspicious tidings in the year ahead. Along the way, observers stop and fixate on Mazu’s palanquin with their palms folded, while others donate snacks and drinks to the devotees. Though nearly everyone in the procession is exhausted, they are inspired by the camaraderie and vitality that is on full display.

As a tradition, families give out free food along the pilgrimage route. Photo: Naomi Goddard

However, there’s no requirement that those joining the event take on the full nine-day journey. In fact, only a small portion of devotees make it all the way to the end, while most adherents join for a weekend or a selected portion of the route. The festival itself is completely free of charge, and while such a large event may seem like a logistical nightmare for a first-timer, food and accommodation are surprisingly easy to find. Oftentimes, families line up along major roads to greet the passing pilgrims with refreshments, and many participants have reflected that the volume and variety of food offered during the pilgrimage can sometimes be overwhelming. As for lodging, people usually bring their sleeping bags and camp at random temples along the way, or they simply book a hotel nearby. In some cases, local households will even open their doors for followers to stay for a night.

People camp outside a temple in Changhua. Temples along the route are open to participants
to rest or spend the night. Photo: Naomi Goddard

Despite the official English translation “pilgrimage,” the folk tradition originated from the idea that Mazu (sometimes spelled Matsu in English) has to tour her territory (raojing, 遶境) and purify the surrounding environment. In recent years, the number of participants has often exceeded one million, and 2021 was no exception as Taiwan was still largely COVID-free when the pilgrimage took place in April. This year, organizers estimate that an unprecedented four million people participated in or observed at least part of the event.

“We Taiwanese are all children of our most revered Mazu; she is our patron,” says Cheng Ming-kun, vice-chair of Jenn Lann temple. He stresses that belief in Mazu is not a superstition but a source of spiritual connection and support among the faithful.

Crowds cross a bridge into Xiluo in Yunlin County on the third day of the pilgrimage. Photo: Naomi Goddard

Cheng’s sentiment is echoed by others participating in the pilgrimage. Wu Mei-chu, 62, has been leading a group of friends from Taipei to join the procession annually for the past 16 years. “I sensed a connection with Mazu the first time I took part in the pilgrimage,” she says. “Mazu has been efficacious in our eyes; eight out of 10 members of our group have been able to buy property after joining the pilgrimage.”

Busy and buzzing procession

Three major ceremonies take place over the nine days of the festival: the opening departure ceremony, the benediction ceremony held when the pilgrimage reaches the Xingang Fengtian Temple (新港奉天宮) in Chiayi, and the seating ceremony, in which Mazu returns to her original location, marking the end of the pilgrimage. Each of these is meticulously choreographed, down to the specific time for each activity. If there is any departure from the liturgy, Mazu’s approval must be sought. As those who have visited temples in Taiwan will know, that permission is sought by tossing wooden divination moon blocks on the ground in what Taiwanese refer to as bwabwei (擲筊).

At each stop along Mazu’s journey, rounds of firecrackers and fireworks are lit to signal her arrival as local neighborhoods welcome the goddess. Heading the procession are several sets of servants fulfilling different duties for Mazu. Armed with swords and other weapons and dressed in costumes, bodyguards and protector deities form Mazu’s army. Meanwhile, musicians playing traditional beiguan (北管) music and dragon and lion dance troupes entertain the goddess.

There are also performance groups formed by households and schools, as well as floats dedicated by private businesses, all of which make the long procession akin to a celebratory parade. You may even see pole dancers with loudspeakers – a slightly less austere form of entertainment for Mazu.

The festival includes a number of music and dance troupes, who provide entertainment for Mazu. Photo: Naomi Goddard

Taichung’s Shun-Tien Junior High School dance class, consisting of 27 students aged 13 to 14, this year performed a folk dance for the procession for the first time. “Many kids in the area have been exposed to the Mazu belief and temple culture growing up,” says Chien Han-yu, the class’s teacher. “An opportunity like this not only broadens their horizons but enables them to be a part of the local culture.”

Thirteen-year-old Liu Yun-yu, one of Chien’s students, practiced daily for over a month in preparation for the final showcase. “I was both nervous and thrilled while performing, but I was honored to be able to participate in this sacred event,” she said.

Mazu in Taiwan

Legend has it that Mazu was originally a real person named Lin Moniang, born in Meizhou, a coastal town in China’s Fujian Province, in the 10th century AD. The annual pilgrimage is roughly timed to celebrate her birthday –  the 23rd day of the 3rd month on the Chinese lunar calendar, which usually falls in April on the Western calendar.

Lin became known for her purported magical powers, and her name spread throughout the region in her early years. She is said to have died tragically at age 28 while attempting to save her father and brother from a boating accident. She was later deified as a sea goddess, becoming something of a patron saint for sailors and fishermen.

In the 17th century, as many Fujianese began migrating to Taiwan in search of a better life, they brought with them the belief that Mazu protected those traveling across the Taiwan Strait, which was then known as the Black Ditch (heishuigou 黑水溝) for its treachorous waters. Such were the beginnings of the Mazu religion in Taiwan.

The Mazu Pilgrimage was born out of this religious belief. In the 18th century, the Fujianese immigrant family that established the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple would make a pilgrimage with the temple’s Mazu statue to Meizhou once every several years. During the period of Japanese colonial control in Taiwan (1895-1945), cross-Strait contact and travel became limited and a domestic pilgrimage thus began to emerge. Its route was altered several times over the ensuing decades until the current circuit was chosen in 1988.

Worship of Mazu became an integral part of Taiwanese history and culture. The oldest tangible piece of Mazu heritage in Taiwan is the Tianhou Temple (天后宮). Located in Magong, the largest island in the Penghu archipelago off of the western coast of Taiwan proper, this temple was initially built in 1604. Meanwhile, the Matsu Islands, which sit off the coast of Fujian but are administered by Taiwan, trace their name to the sea goddess, and many who live there believe it was the burial site of Lin Moniang. The Chinese characters for the island chain’s name (馬祖) are very similar to those of the Mazu deity. Today, these islands house the tallest Mazu statue in the world.

As the Mazu belief took root in Taiwan, it emerged as the island’s most popular form of religious expression, and Mazu evolved from a sea goddess to the de facto patron saint of Taiwan. More than 3,000 Mazu temples dot the Taiwan landscape.

Chang Hsun, head of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, has researched Mazu and the pilgrimage for over three decades. While much of mainland China’s religious and cultural heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, in Taiwan the belief in Mazu blossomed as it became a community-based religion in various localities, Chang says.

“The localization of Mazu has interesting sociological implications, as Mazu temples around Taiwan developed with varying characteristics,” she explains. One example is the difference in the color of Mazu’s face from one temple to another, ranging from black and red to pink and gold. While such nuances may seem trivial to the outside observer, they demonstrate how the religion has become localized in certain ways while its central tenets remain universal across the broader community of adherents.

In the early days in Taiwan, temples were the community centers where households gathered for mutual support and entertainment. This was a major factor in the Mazu belief’s extensive influence, setting the foundation for the early Taiwanese lifestyle and folk culture. “As Taiwan began to look inwards in the 1990s for a self-defining folk culture [in contrast to] Western fine art, it realized that temples are the institutions that have preserved the authentic elements of Taiwan’s folk art, music, opera, architecture, and so on,” Chang added.

A women’s temple group joins the pilgrimage. Photo: Naomi Goddard

Today, Mazu’s influence goes beyond religion and culture to politics and the business world. The Dajia Mazu pilgrimage, in particular, receives support from politicians and government officials, as well as executives of major corporations. Public figures from legislators and city mayors to former President Ma Ying-jeou and current President Tsai Ing-wen all took part in the pilgrimage this year. When Terry Gou, the tech tycoon and founder of contract electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn, announced his bid for the presidency in 2019, he said he had been told to run by Mazu.

Revival of interest

One might think a festival as traditional as the Mazu pilgrimage would have little attraction for the younger generations from Taiwan’s cities. Yet urban Taiwanese youth in recent years have gradually embraced this tradition and folk culture instead of viewing it as old and irrelevant.

The rise in the pilgrimage’s popularity can be attributed to Jenn Lann Temple’s active effort to revitalize the festival and reach out to young people. Local media promotion and government support have also helped define the Mazu pilgrimage and made the goddess a pop culture icon in Taiwan.

The festival includes a number of music and dance troupes, who provide entertainment for Mazu. Photo: Naomi Goddard

“We have tried many ways to make this traditional event more relatable to the new generations. For example, we collaborated with many young and upcoming artists to launch Mazu products,” says Cheng Ming-kun, vice-chair of the temple.

On sale during the procession is a wide variety of limited-edition items with Mazu’s name or image on them, including t-shirts, caps, handkerchiefs, and sneakers. Some Mazu-themed products may even be spotted at convenience stores across Taiwan in April, the month of the pilgrimage. These products have caught the attention of Taiwanese young people and have proven to be a commercial success.

The term “Mazu economy” was coined to characterize this phenomenon. Besides the crossover products on offer, the annual event also energizes the local economy in central Taiwan, with big spikes in consumption occurring throughout the journey. It is estimated that the pilgrimage annually generates at least NT$3 billion (US$100 million) in spending.

The nine-day tradition has also been given a modern twist with the assistance of technology. A mobile app launched in 2015 allows those who are unable to join the pilgrimage in person to track the real-time location of the procession and get the live updates without needing to leave their homes.

Looking ahead, the organizer of the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage aims to elevate this local folk religion to the global stage. This year, the departure ceremony was attended by diplomats from around 20 countries and broadcast live in 11 languages in a bid to connect Taiwan with the world by means of Mazu’s blessings.

“I am touched and very much impressed by the event as well as the enthusiasm demonstrated by the believers. Everyone is truly involved and engaged in the process,” said the EU’s representative in Taiwan, Filip Grzegorzewski, who witnessed the first day of this year’s pilgrimage.