Admonitions of a Goddess
Christopher Stein (SFS ‘20) is a guest writer for the Caravel's travel edition. The content and opinions of this piece are his and his alone. They do not reflect the opinions of the Caravel or its staff.
Every year in March or April, devotees of Taiwan’s native folk religion carry the idol of the sea goddess Mazu from Taichung to Chiayi and back atop a gilt palanquin. The frenetic pilgrimage takes place despite the oppressive heat and humidity of Taiwan’s burgeoning summer. The nine-day journey across central Taiwan is an immersive cultural experience. Well-wishers set up tables beside the road to give away free food and drinks to exhausted pilgrims, arrange lit incense offerings to the goddess, and come into the street to ritually duck beneath her palanquin.
When I joined the pilgrimage for a day in Changhua County, Mazu was delayed by four hours, and police officers were bodily dragging religious fanatics out of her path in the roadway in an effort to make up lost time. I watched the scene from afar, avoiding a close encounter with both the goddess and the police. But, others got much closer to Mazu.
One such was Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn Technology Group, who claims to have met the goddess Mazu in a dream. Foxconn is the contract manufacturer of the iPhone and Sony’s PlayStation console, among other high-end electronics. A Taiwanese company, it and its founder have benefited from close ties with mainland China, where many of its largest factories are located.
Gou says that the goddess Mazu came to him in a dream and instructed him to run for president in a January 11 election. Heeding the goddess’ call, Gou entered the presidential primary of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party of former-dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who reestablished the Republic of China on Taiwan after losing a bloody civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. The KMT, which is currently the primary opposition party after a 2016 landslide election win for Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), favors more cordial ties with the mainland People’s Republic of China and firmly supports the One China Policy—a convenient fiction under which both sides agree to the principle that there is but one China while disagreeing on which China that might be.
Despite the alleged support of Taiwan’s most famous and revered goddess, Gou lost the KMT primary to populist pro-China mayor Han Kuo-yu of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city. Han will face incumbent Tsai in the January election, which is a stark choice between two visions for Taiwan’s future.
Under the ruling DPP, Taiwan has become an example of how liberal democracy can thrive in challenging circumstances. Tsai is the country’s first female president, favors stronger global ties, and at least tacitly rejects the One China Policy. Her government has passed a law legalizing gay marriage despite conservative backlash, and she made headlines for a four-day visit to the United States in July over loud opposition from the mainland’s government.
Despite a thumping in November 2018 local elections, Tsai’s DPP has ridden a surge of anti-China energy back into the lead in polls over Han and the KMT. The shift in sentiment is partly due to unrest in Hong Kong over the mainland’s ham-fisted attempt to extend its judicial reach into the ostensibly autonomous city. The protests there, which have reportedly drawn up to one-fifth of the city’s population at times, and the Hong Kong government’s muted response has soured Taiwanese voters on the prospect of a “one country, two systems” arrangement (under which Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy”). Even Han was forced to say he would accept such a unification “over [his] dead body.”
But, Han’s strong rhetoric now does not forgive him the legacy of cosy China ties as mayor of Kaohsiung. Tsai easily dispatched a primary challenge from her former premier, William Lai, in June and has championed two multi-billion arms deals with the U.S. for new missiles, fighter jets, and tanks. The January contest between Han and Tsai will have grave implications for cross-strait relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.
As Taiwan races toward that January vote like the goddess Mazu on her palanquin from Taichung to Chiayi, its voters would do well to remember that such open displays of religious faith are all but banned on the mainland.
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