Religion in Taiwan: 5. The Chinese Pantheon (part 2)

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan
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1. Kuan Yin (觀音) is a shortened form of a title which means “One Who Sees and Hears the Cry from the Human World.” Worshipped especially by women, this goddess comforts the troubled, the sick, the lost, the senile and the unfortunate. Her popularity has grown through the centuries so that she is now also regarded as the protector of seafarers, farmers and travelers. She cares for souls in the underworld, and is invoked during post-burial rituals to free the soul of the deceased from the anguished torments of purgatory. According to Chinese legend, Kuan Yin was originally a princess in the southwest of China. She ignored her father’s plans to marry her into a noble family, choosing instead to meditate and study Buddhist scriptures. Eventually the Jade Emperor elevated her to a goddess. But rather than enjoying life in the land of immortals, Juan Yin chose to alleviate suffering on earth. No other figure in the Chinese pantheon appears in a greater variety of images. Kuan Yin’s standard image depicts her depicts her as a bare-foot woman carrying a small upturned vase of holy dew. She may be seated on an elephant, standing on a fish, nursing a baby, holding a basket, with six arms or a thousand, one head or eight, one atop the next. The main identifying factor is her bare feet. On public altars, Kuan Yin is frequently flanked by two aides: a barefoot, shirtless youth with his hands clasped in prayer, and a maid demurely holding her hands together inside her sleeves. Her principal feast occurs yearly on the 19th day of the second lunar month. Actually, Kuan Yin originated not in China, but India. Still, in the last ten centuries Kuan Yin has been China’s most highly worshipped deity. In Taiwan, there are more than 450 Kuan Yin temples, and her statue rests on altars of thousands more.

2. Kuan Kung (關公) is the second most popular of deities in Taiwan. A historical soldier of the 3rd century A.D., he fought with two sworn companions to try to save a disintegrating dynasty. When captured by the enemy in 220 A.D., he refused an offer to defect and was decapitated, proving his loyalty. The courage of the three heroes has been chronicled in one of China’s most famous novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義). Portrayed on the Peking opera stage, he is the only character who has an all-red painted face, representing his courage and loyalty. Today, Kuan Kung is the patron deity of such disciplined groups as soldiers and policemen and of merchants and businessmen but he is often incorrectly referred to as the God of War. In Buddhist temples, he is one of two guardians on the main altar. Also known as Kuan Ti and by a score of other titles, his image is easily recognized by the severe puce or red face. Often he is accompanied by his two cohorts—Chou Tsang (周倉), a tall, black-faced sword bearer, and Kuan Ping (關平), his scholarly adopted son. Kuan Kung may be standing or seated, astride a red horse or holding his black beard in one hand and a book in the other. His festival is held on the 13th day of the fifth lunar month.

3.  Yu Huang Shang Ti (玉皇上帝), “the Jade Emperor.” Also known as Tien Kung (天公), he is the supreme deity of folk religion. His rule was traditionally conceived of as equal to that of the reigning emperor of China. His special concern is meting out justice to men through his subordinate deities. He is ultimately responsible for the deification of other gods, or for their dismissal from the pantheon as and when necessary. On the Jade Emperor’s birthday (the ninth day of the first lunar month), special sacrifices of pork, chicken, duck, and occasionally goat are placed before his image. Although the emperor himself is considered a vegetarian, he is believed to feast with meat-eating friends. The emperor is usually depicted with two servants who hold fans above his head. In a few temples, he is flanked by civil and military aides. Tien Jung’s wife is rarely depicted on the altar. Images of the Jade Emperor normally show him seated in imperial robes, his flat-topped crown notable for the short strings of pearls that dangle from the front. He holds a short, flat tablet in both hands before his chest. Historically, he did not come into prominence until the 9th century A.D., considered fairly late by Chinese historical standards.

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