Written by Natasha Heller.
Rising global temperature increases and predictions about sea levels can be abstract, even for adults. How can the phenomena of global warming be visualized? How can climate change and environmental degradation be made understandable by young children? The earth’s round shape, as imagined from space, lends itself to the addition of eyes and a mouth to convey unhappiness or illness on a global level. Distressed or lonely polar bears also convey the negative effects of global warming but are still quite distant from most children’s everyday lives.
Taiwanese picture books about the Earth God (tudi gong 土地公) suggest an alternative, using a deity that is intimately tied with a given place to explore what happens when land is not cared for. Each community in Taiwan has its own Earth God temple, and the various Earth Gods are charged with protecting their respective communities. Their close association with a particular locality gives them a special kind of familiarity. They are also quite low in the hierarchy of gods, and this makes them more approachable. The three recent children’s books that I will discuss here suggest how this god personifies the relationship humans have with the land.
A large-format picture book from 2006, Earth God Plays Hide and Seek (土地公捉迷藏) centres on the Earth God of a small village (cun 村) who goes missing. This worries everyone in the village: A rice farmer wonders what it will mean for his prices; a gardener wonders if her cabbage will grow, and a student wonders if he will pass his monthly test. The omniscient narrator soon reveals that the Earth God has not disappeared but rather has taken to playing hide-and-seek. The god plays the game for three days before beginning to feel homesick and reflecting on his role in the village, which leads him to return to his temple. We can note the connection between plant growth and agriculture. The Earth God must be in his proper place for the land to produce. The Earth God has other village roles, but his connection to the land’s fecundity stands out.
Li Guangfu’s Grandpa Earth God Wants to Go Home (土地公公要回家) offers a more complex view of the relationships between the Earth God, the land, and human inhabitants. An easy chapter book intended for ages seven through ten published in 2016 is amply illustrated in a cartoon-like style. The story is about a young boy, Ahua 啊華, who has to give up his summer vacation to help his grandfather at the Earth God temple. Ahua notices that the temple has two statues of the Earth God and asks his grandfather about it. He does not know the answer, but Ahua’s interest stimulates the Earth God to reach out to him in a dream. The god requests Ahua’s help in returning him to his old home—but an alarm clock cuts short the conversation before the god can tell him where this old home is. Eventually, with the aid of the village head’s father, they establish that the Earth God used to have a shrine in an area later flooded by a reservoir and that drought has exposed this old home, prompting the god’s desire to return. The Earth God is returned to his original shrine. Then the god appears to Ahua in a dream once more, thanking him but also predicting a typhoon and asking to be returned to the temple before his old shrine is once again submerged.
The typhoon restores the reservoir, and by extension, the health of the community. As a whole, the narrative puts into a child-friendly form the noting that gods and humans have a symbiotic relationship. By properly worshipping the gods, a community receives aid and benefit. Taking the Earth God as a stand-in for the land itself, proper care of the land again leads to the community’s well-being that dwells on it.
In the final book I will discuss, the Earth God is forced into a more combative role. Published in 2011, The Last Earth God (最後一名土地公) shows that not all people respect and honour the gods. The little boy who is the protagonist of the story meets the Earth God in its early pages. He has lost his shadow, and his parents and grandparents think an intervention is necessary: his parents want to take him to the hospital to be thoroughly examined, and his grandparents want him to make him go worship (baibai 拜拜).
Hiding from his family in a dark storeroom, the little boy sees a strange figure emerging from dry ice in a corner. It turns out that this is the Earth God, newly unhoused and attempting to modernize himself. His temple has been destroyed along with the rest of his village as part of gentrification by a developer. The entire village, which had been built around growing pineapples, was purchased by a single person with the intent to create the country’s biggest resort village (dujia cun 渡假村). This reflects economic modernization that substitutes service industries such as tourism for agriculture.
The nostalgia for the simple life of agricultural villages is tied to the Earth God, who later on fondly reminisces about the earth’s smell, the sound of streams, and the fact that villagers working in the fields had ample opportunities to see him. The plot is too complex to recount here, but the little boy and the Earth God engage in some questionable magic that persuades the developer to drop his plans. Life in the village returns to what it was before, although the Earth God statue has to be recreated through the villagers’ memory. The old wins out over the new in this story, as the pineapple village triumphs over the resort village.
Although Earth Gods are found in various places, we see him as the land’s personification in these three books. The Earth God supports human communities, but equally importantly, he needs human help, especially in times of crisis. Significantly, children are shown as especially attune to the Earth God and willing to help. None of these books makes an explicit argument about climate change, yet they show an environmental awareness—suggesting how we might think imaginatively about our relationship with the land.
Natasha Heller teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. This piece is part of a project looking at religion and the environment in Taiwanese picture books.