Thousands Honor Chinese Goddess in Taiwan

Tachia, Taiwan - A furious din of trumpets, cymbals and drums whip up the excited crowd. Women on a float dance to Western rock music. High-stepping drum majorettes strut by. The annual Matsu festival celebrates the guardian goddess of fishermen, one of Taiwan's most popular deities.

During the eight-day festival that runs through Sunday, her statue is paraded on a gilded sedan chair through 15 towns on the island's west coast. Hundreds of thousands worshippers vie to get close to her, hoping proximity will bring them good luck.

Thick clouds of incense trail in her wake as the procession begins at the ocher-roofed Chen Lan Temple in the gritty industrial town of Tachia, where Matsu spends most of the year.

Taiwan is well known as a manufacturing powerhouse, where factories crank out everything from auto parts to cutting-edge computer chips. But the island of 23 million people is also a stronghold of folk Buddhist and Taoist beliefs — the main religions of the world's huge population of ethnic Chinese.

Matsu, revered by followers of both faiths, is a local favorite. Tradition says she originated in the 11th century in China's southern Fujian province, directly across from Taiwan. Once revered as a protector of mariners and a guarantor of bountiful harvests, she is now seen as an all-purpose purveyor of health, wealth and happiness.

Her two-foot-tall statue in the Chen Lan Temple wears an elaborate silk gown and fancy gold-colored head gear. Her well-sculpted face bears a sly grin, suggesting unlimited reserves of peace and contentment.

The Matsu festival came to Taiwan in the late 19th century when immigrants from Fujian copied a long-standing tradition in the Chinese mainland, parading the goddess through local temples. Over time, the festival developed into one of the island's pre-eminent religious events, drawing hundreds of thousands of worshippers along a 176-mile route.

Most of today's worshippers are Taiwanese, although residents from Chinese communities in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia also take part.

There is a parallel festival on the mainland, but critics say it has been reduced to a dry tourist event since the 1966-75 Cultural Revolution, which destroyed much of China's rich tradition of folk religion. Communist China and democratic Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.

The festival, which began on the night of March 25, is under the patronage of Chen Lan Temple president Yen Ching-piao, who is also an independent lawmaker and a political powerbroker with a shady past.

Given to wearing dark designer suits, Yen is short, squat man with owlish eyes and the piercing look of a mafia godfather. A mammoth wooden plaque in his office reads, "He of high morals is greatly esteemed."

Yen has been convicted of corruption, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms and attempting to pervert the course of justice, but is free pending an appeal.

"Tonight the Matsu goddess comes out of the temple," Yen said. "Many people will scramble under the sedan chair for Matsu to bless them. Many many more will wish they'd gotten the chance."

Outside Yen's office, hundreds of worshippers press ever closer to the temple as the moment nears when Matsu emerges into the chilly night air.

Many hold joss sticks and bow their heads in the direction of the temple, as an endless cacophony of firecrackers explodes in the air.

A steady rain is falling, but most of the worshippers seem oblivious, sustained by their spiritual belief and joy at taking part in one of Taiwan's most important religious festivals.

A giant float passes near the temple carrying two bikini-clad women dancing to Western rock music. The spectacle vies for attention with a team of drum majorettes strutting their stuff to the delight of the crowd.

"This is such a special event," said Zhih Lien-wu, a 25-year-old Tachia resident. "I really couldn't miss it."