PhD Student Attends Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage
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PhD Student Attends Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage

One PhD Student from CSS’ IDAS program attends the Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage to understand Taiwanese culture

J
ames Morris is a PhD student in the College of Social Sciences’ International Doctorate in Asia-Pacific Studies (IDAS) program. He recently participated in the first leg of Taiwan’s Dajia Matsu Pilgrimage, a nine day trek from Dajia District’s Zhenlan Temple in Taichung County to Chiayi County and back.

Along the way participants witness Taiwan’s largest “renao” (hot and noisy) style celebrations.

“From the very start you see tiger dancers, gymnasts, marching bands, drum corps, color guards, scantily-dressed girls dancing on cars, and mobile temples pulled on floats. Food and water are handed out left and right, the vanguards sent out by participating temples maintain their energy with a steady supply of beer, and the supply trucks for each troupe that marches choke the streets. It’s chaotic, and that’s just the first night” he says.

James is following IDAS’ Society and Culture track, one of four that students in IDAS can choose, with a focus on networks expressed between community shrines across Taiwan, a topic not necessarily related to Matsu, the goddess of the sea and heaven.

“I think it’s tangently related” he states. “Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese are participating in this event. Whether they walk, leave out offerings, provide food and water for the pilgrims, or rush out to kneel beneath the passing palanquin, they’re all participating in one event that unifies thousands of strangers. By participating in a shared experience the Taiwanese are further developing their identity. It’s an element of Taiwanese culture that you miss out on if you don’t join in.”

As the parade route passes by community shrines James takes breaks to check them out for his research.

“The shrines are perfect for taking a rest. There are usually benches, some shade, and the larger ones have water fountains and toilets” he says.

2018 was the third year James has participated in the Matsu pilgrimage. He first heard about the pilgrimage when he was in the college’s IMAS (International Master’s in Asia-Pacific Studies) program.

“I’m naturally drawn to big festivals and events such as this. I started attending the pilgrimage in 2016 because I knew some friends in Taichung and suggested that we try it. Three years later it’s become a tradition. We first started as a group of four, but this year there were more than ten of us walking. It’s tiring. I can only do a little bit each year. I have no clue how people can do it for nine days straight! People use as many shortcuts as possible to avoid walking if they can. I’ve seen many people with bicycles, scooters, or even hailing taxis” he says about the pilgrimage.

Tired pilgrims and stragglers are often shuttled from the back of the procession to the next temple along the route by volunteers and community associations in the back of small pickup trucks. Some pilgrims will use the commuter train to get ahead of the pack if they are tired or fall too far behind.

Dajia Matsu is an intangible heritage treasure for Taiwan, and is among the world’s largest pilgrimages. Participants join for different legs of the journey, although the truly dedicated will walk with the carriage bearing Matsu the entire nine days.

James says he and his friends are eager to go again next year. “Maybe we’ll go more than the first 36 hours next time!” he laughs.

The first steps. At midnight pilgrims carrying guardian flags and incense sticks start marching from Zhenlan Temple in Dajia following Matsu’s palanquin.

Matsu arrives. Followed by thousands of pilgrims, Matsu’s palanquin and vanguard arrive at Wanxing Temple in Dadu District.

On the move. Matsu’s palanquin stops only briefly when reaching a temple, those who carry her palanquin are expected to walk for hours on end before taking a break.

April 27, 2018

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James Morris