Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The 'Gong Zai' Collection

Promotional collections from convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven or Family Mart are extremely popular in Taiwan. So as to participate in the local custom, we jumped on the bandwagon and accumulated the entire traditional Chinese gods 'Gong Zai' (figurine) set offered at Family Mart this past spring.

This particular collection was interesting to us, for its cultural and educational value, as it allowed us to learn more about common religious customs and beliefs that are so integral to the daily lives of many Taiwanese families.

The mere fact that gods are used as a promotional mechanism is intriguing, and perhaps even a completely foreign concept to us Westerners. Imagine the sacrilege of 'collecting all Twelve Apostles, for a limited time only!' It kind of reminds me of 'Buddy Christ' from the Kevin Smith film, Dogma, where the traditional image of Jesus being crucified on a cross is reworked to appear more uplifting and friendly to the modern masses. In the latter rendition, Jesus is 'one of us'.

This is essentially the Taiwanese perception of their Chinese gods. It seems that Chinese gods are prayed to with respect, but are regarded as peers. Just think of the relationship between Greek Gods and the Ancient Greeks, and you'll get the picture. Chinese gods, however, are said to have been mortals at one time on earth, just as the Catholic Patron Saints were.

I was told by my Taiwanese friend, Nancy, that Chinese gods are generally prayed to in order to reap personal benefits, rather than to bless other people outside of personal or family circles. During a lunch with Nancy, she explained to me the meaning and powers of the various Chinese gods in my 'Gong Zai' collection.

First of all, I should emphasize that temples abound in the various regions of Taiwan. Worshiping to multiple gods is efficient and convenient as each temple holds a variety of idols to meet all of your prayer/worshiping needs. Though each temple displays a number of different shrines, one god is generally featured in each, reflecting the primary needs found within a particular geographic region. For example, because Taiwan is an island, many coastal regions in the country have temples featuring 'Ma dzoh' (the woman figurine with the hanging jewel hat, third from the left in the above 'Gong Zai' collage). This goddess is often prayed to by fishermen and their families. From lighthouses, she guides ships safely home and protects their communities. At one time in history, she was a real woman who lived in a coastal fishing village and she did some great things that lead to her eventual transition to goddess sometime after her death.

In the top left corner of the above Chinese gods picture is 'Nwah jah san taie dzuh' ('Nwah jah' the Third -- a prince). Though the figurine looks like a girl, it is actually a little boy. Nancy explained that because little boys don't like it when things are unfair, it follows that this little god helps people to escape situations of injustice.

Beside him is a goddess (in blue clothes) who I think resembles a would-be wife to Spock (Star Trek Spock, that is). Her name is 'Gwan een'. Idols of her can be found in the homes of Buddhists who worship her daily. As a mortal, she was very much like Mother Theresa in her generosity, kindness and love, as she would help people in need. She was also very spiritual. For these reasons, it is now said that if you worship her she will bless you and bring you luck, etc.

The little bald guy in the top row of 'Gong Zai's is the Eastern equivalent of Cupid. His name is 'Yueh sha laow ren' (old man under the moon). He is basically a matchmaker who can help you find a suitable mate. If you want to get into a good relationship or marriage, this is the guy to talk to. He unites couples using an invisible 'red line' (oxymoron?), as they say in Chinese.

Next, is 'Tooh dee gong', the little Elfic fellow dressed in green. In the land of the afterlife, he acts as a mayor/public servant. Each region/jurisdiction in Tawain has its own public servant to pray to, so this type of god is quite common. Temples built to house 'Tooh dee gong' shrines are often quite small and gazebo-like and can be found on street sides. However, this god appears in temples of all sizes. People pray to 'Too dee gong' for security and safety in their neighbourhood/community, to prevent burglary, or to make money while doing business in a specific area. When visiting or moving to a new location it is always a good idea to pay a respectful visit to your local 'Too dee gong' to avoid being smited during your stay.

And in the bottom row is a bearded character bearing a striking resemblance to James' brother, John. This god's name is 'Jong Quai' and his job is to force evil spirits back into the afterworld. Think of him as a Ghost Buster. If you worship him, he will protect you throughout your life, so he is the god to pray to when you want to ensure safe travel.

The red-faced one is called 'Gwan Gong', the warrior god. Statues of Gwan Gong abound in local businesses in pursuit of riches. Policemen, judges, politicians, and employees seeking promotions often worship this powerful and noble god. Mr. Lou's real estate agency, which helped us find our first apartment, boasts an imposing wooden statue of Gwan Gong. With it's long, flowing beard and staff, this monument is the reason that expats call Mr. Lou's business 'Gangster Realty' (well, that and the owners look really tough and shady).

Now for my favorite of the 'Gong Zai' collection! His name is 'Tchai Soun Yueh' and his powers lie in his ability to fill pockets with riches. The robust golden brick that he holds says it all.

Next to 'Tchai Soun Yueh' is the scholarly god, 'Hwun Chang'. Given the Taiwanese 24-7 addiction to cram schools, I would assume that Hwun Chang is the most worshiped of the Chinese gods. Students will pray to him for wisdom in their studies and successful grades in examinations. The examination registration centre in Taiwan (where high school and university students must go to pay and register for all of their exams) provides copy registration forms that students may bring to the temple during this ritual.

Finally, there is 'Mee luh foh' whose job is, above all, to make you smile and laugh. He brings happiness and positive 'chi' into your life. People worship him for luck and smooth sailing, and to receive help through difficult times.

Now, for a test to see what you learned from this blog entry...
Which Chinese god does the following picture resemble?