Gods of Democracy: Divination and Epidemic Prevention in Taiwan, 2020

Written by En-Chieh Chao.

Image credit: 大甲鎮瀾宮 by Scott Lin/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is the story of a struggle, an unlikely yet successful survival story composed of 366 days. It tells how a democratic country became an anomaly in the world in 2020, not to mention that it has always been so since 1949. It’s the story of how a particular religious tradition became another tradition, the antithesis of secularist notions of democracy and religion. It’s a story about an unbelievable collaboration between civil society and deities. Indeed, along with scientific governance and public health measures, divinatory culture has quietly played a critical, though internationally overlooked role in Taiwan’s pandemic prevention.

The story began on February 16th, when the first death and first community-acquired case was confirmed of Covid-19 in Taiwan. However, the famous Mazu Pilgrimage had been announced on February 8th to go ahead on March 19th. The procession to celebrate the birthday of the sea goddess, the pre-eminent goddess of Taiwan, starts typically in Taichung’s Dajia District. Her statue from Jenn Lann Temple is carried on a palanquin through central Taiwan over nine days. Since the year 2000, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walk along the more than 340km route from Taichung to Chiayi. Each day, thousands kneel down or even crawl through Mazu’s palanquin to receive blessings. Due to the sheer scale of the procession, billions of NT dollars in spending are at stake during the procession, involving hostels, restaurants, shows, donations, souvenirs, grocery shopping, and so on. A further political complication: Jenn Lann Temple has had significant weight in local elections. Due to this influence, the former Chairman of the temple, Mr. Yen, has been nicknamed “Mayor Yen” by citizens even though he was never the mayor of Taichung, the country’s second largest city after New Taipei City. In a word, Jenn Lann Temple is not some organization you want to mess around with, and the Mazu pilgrimage is the biggest deal of all the religious festivals of Taiwan.

The news of the first Covid-19 death on February 16th, however, shocked the entire nation. The origin of the virus was obscure, and the public suspicion of the involvement of Chinese biochemical warfare was in the air. Unlike most parts of Europe and the USA at the time, many Taiwanese regarded this virus as a potentially lethal threat from China. It was a matter of life and death, not only biologically, but also politically. The government thereby started to launch even stricter measures to curb the outbreak. In the following days, media outlets of opposing political stances conducted various polls regarding the Mazu pilgrimage. The results were unanimous: the pilgrimage must be postponed. The question was: who should make the call?

Neither the government nor the temple wished to take the initiative. Under the special law governing epidemic control instituted after the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, the Central Epidemic Command Center could ban the pilgrimage. Nevertheless, such a gesture would be politically unwise. The Tsai Administration, internationally known for promoting freedom but domestically scolded for its draconian decision to forbid medical workers to travel abroad in mid-February, was reluctant to tarnish its reputation further. Meanwhile, the Jenn Lann Temple insistently refused to postpone the event. Some suspected it meant losing a lucrative business. However, most importantly, Mazu herself had, through divination, declared that the pilgrimage must go ahead. It was the most powerful goddess in Taiwan, higher than any government and any political scheme. Who dared to challenge her?

Well, perhaps only the divine can challenge the divine. Or better yet, we can change the dilemma and avoid the challenge. Since February 16th, individual doctors and other civil society parts have painstakingly called for a delay of the pilgrimage. Without exception, they did so by sharing their detailed understanding of the pilgrimage or showing deep respect for Mazu. On February 24th, two prominent female legislators (parliament members), Lin Shu-Fen and Hung Tzu-yung, recommended that people “request a leave of absence” from Mazu by delivering offerings and prayers privately and not joining the procession. Mazu was the most merciful, they said, and hence she would understand. In the following two days, thousands shared the message on social media. 

The next day, news outlets cleverly recycled a February-13th-news that was largely overlooked: the Buddha of the 370-year-old Great Pavilion of Guan-yin in Tainan called off their annual feast typically attended by 2 to 3 thousand believers. The Buddha made this decision through the means of an oracle device known as “wooden-block-casting.” Normally, there are four kinds of patterns, with two patterns leading to further casting and the other two meaning “yes.” The logic is to provide a series of statements to better approach the divine will. When the temple managers asked Buddha about the total number of participants who would attend the festival, an hour of block-casting passed without any conclusive answer. Then, the managers changed the question to “is the feast to be cancelled?” As soon as they switched the statement, Buddha replied “yes” by three consecutive divine patterns. This amazing event recycled on February 25th gave people a sense of reassurance. From then on, there was an atmosphere in the air, a feeling that it was “officially” okay to cancel religious festivals. 

As usual, rationalist critics often devalue wooden-blocks-casting as merely human manipulation. A closer look at the actual practices, however, would reveal more nuances to it. True, in an unlimited number of random castings, half of the results would be the patterns that allow practitioners to re-cast, which makes the chance of an affirmative answer eventually larger than ½ and increasingly approaching ⅔. In other words, the rationalists say, all you need is to ask the deity what you want the most, and you will have a 67% chance to get a yes. Well, in reality, block-casting does not work that way. When the issue at stake is highly controversial or when the community is divided, multiple-choice statements must be presented one by one before the deity. Is it A? Is it B? Or is it C? All the contradictory statements have equal statistical status.

This is not to say that there is never human manipulation in oracles. In fact, believers and practitioners themselves often differentiate more authentic ones from fake ones. Sometimes multiple practitioners are put to work in order to avoid fraud. Perhaps it is precisely because people know too well that the oracle is too difficult to manipulate that the Great Pavilion of Guan-yin was the only temple that tackled the issue with divination this time. The rest of the temples around the country simply followed their lead to cancel their festivals by achieving consensus among board members and reporting to the deities. As the tide of cancelations rose, Jenn Lann Temple finally gave in on February 27th. The pilgrimage was postponed. 

For me, “Mazu (and other deities) would understand” amounts to a concept of “gods of democracy.” This is not the first time that the gods in Taiwan have been associated with democracy. Legendary examples include Mazu’s role in the Anti-DuPon campaign in Lugang (1985), the anti-nuclear Mazu in Gong-Liao (1989), and the anti-Fifth Refinery protests with Pó-seng tāi-tè in Houjing (1988). More recently, there was the anti-wind turbine protest in Yuanli (2012-2014), with its much lesser-known oracles playing critical roles in determining the protests’ course. 

But none of these past manifestations of “gods of democracy” has ever been elevated to the national level like this time. In fact, the nation-wide voluntary civic movements for cancelling religious gatherings amounted to a kind of “spiritual epidemic prevention.” This remarkable collaboration between civil society and deities may reinvigorate the already rich literature on Han folklore religion and social protests. Indeed, their deities may challenge pre-existing social orders, rather than simply reflecting the imperial bureaucracy. We may say that the gods of democracy represent an actor-network, in which everything, including non-human things and beings, has agency. Here, gods are beings with a powerful agency that motivate people to take actions. 

From local perspectives, divination is highly unstable and often frustrates practitioners. As in many other places, the whole point of oracles in Taiwan is not fate, as readers may assume. Rather, divination urges people to avoid disasters and take actions to make changes so that evil can be overcome. 

Scientific epidemic prevention measures are essential and critical, but sometimes not enough. As demonstrated in Taiwan’s experience of 2020, other than an alert government, it takes a civil society and divine deities. After all, to prevent an epidemic literally requires human bodies to work together. The question is: what makes us work together? It could be democracy for some, and divination for others. Sometimes, it is both. 

En-Chieh Chao is a cultural anthropologist holding her Ph.D. from Boston University, currently Associate Professor of Sociology Department at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan. She is the author of Entangled Pieties: Muslim-Christian Relations and Gendered Socialities in Java, Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan 2017). 

One comment

  1. The Taiwanese are a practically minded people. First, divine will is binding only as long as it is convenient. Second, it is not beneficial to go against the public opinion of a large majority. So it was sensible of Jenn Lann Temple to concede to public opinion eventually and postpone the Mazu pilgrimage, thus contravening the divine will of Mazu who had declared that the pilgrimage must go ahead.

    But how declaring “Mazu (and other deities) would understand” makes them “gods of democracy” eludes my comprehension. Indeed, it is true that “scientific epidemic prevention measures are essential and critical, but sometimes not enough”. The cooperation of the people is needed and in the case of the Mazu pilgrimage the cooperation was “unanimous” as “various polls” by “media outlets of opposing political stances” demonstrated.

    Apparently, and contrary to the claims in the article, it does not take divination and deities to prevent an epidemic, at least not in Taiwan. The “cleverly recycled February-13th-news” about the divination by “the Buddha of the 370-year-old Great Pavilion of Guan-yin in Tainan” are a superfluous addition to the argument because public opinion had formed before those news broke.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s