Taiwanese festival lures mainland Chinese

Dajia, Taiwan - As Taiwan celebrates one of its most important religious occasions, the Mazu festival, an interesting interaction between China and the island that separated from it in 1949 is also taking place, the BBC's Cindy Sui reports.

A record number of celebrants from mainland China - more than 2,000 people from about 40 Mazu temples - are in the town of Dajia to witness the beginning of the Goddess of the Sea's 330km (205 miles) tour to bless adherents in more than 20 townships.

Centuries-old festivals such as this one organised by the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple have nearly disappeared in China. But they have been kept alive in Taiwan, which did not undergo the anti-feudal or anti-religious campaigns that China did.

Mazu originated in China, but thrives in Taiwan like nowhere else. In recent years, Chinese officials have sought help from Taiwan to help them rebuild destroyed or neglected Mazu temples.

Increasing wealth and openness have made many ordinary Chinese people curious about their cultural and religious history, with many turning to China's traditional religious faiths to help them cope with the challenges of life.

Many are now coming to Taiwan to explore their religious roots, especially after relations between the two rivals improved when Taiwan's China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou entered office in 2008.

Common heritage

Mazu, a fisherman's daughter who was widely worshipped in coastal areas of East and South-East Asia as a protector of fishermen and sailors, was born in Fujian province in China in AD 960.

For years China's communist government banned worship of her, along with other religions. Only in recent decades has Mazu worship begun to re-emerge in China.

Zheng Huan-qiang, an official from a Mazu temple in China's Fujian province, is one of the people in Taiwan this month to see how Mazu is worshipped here.

"I've believed in Mazu from a young age, along with my mom and dad. But when I was young, my parents didn't tell me much about Mazu and during the Cultural Revolution, we couldn't worship her," said Zheng.

He later rediscovered his faith in Mazu. "Taiwanese people's belief in Mazu is very strong. They put a lot of effort into the celebrations. Their ceremonies, processes, the rules they go by are all very elaborate," he said.

Even President Ma Ying-jeou joined in the ceremonies last week. Hundreds of people thronged the temple, with many eager to place incense in the burner and to see the traditional performances on the temple square.

But for China, sending its temple representatives here to join in the celebrations is not without its political motivations.

The Chinese government has placed great emphasis on reviving Mazu in China - seeing it as an important way to underscore its insistence that Taiwanese people and culture came from China - and that Taiwan is a part of China.

Beijing hopes to reunify with the island one day and has not renounced the use of force to do so.

"They're doing this to show both sides believe in Mazu and have a similar heritage," said Tsai Ming-hsien, a volunteer Mazu celebrations organiser who has had many dealings with Chinese temple officials.

Celebrants from mainland China have been instructed to not give interviews, according to their Taiwanese tour guides.

Zheng, who reluctantly gave an interview to the BBC, echoed the official line. Despite showing admiration for how Mazu festivities had been kept alive for a millennium in Taiwan, he emphasised that "the roots of Taiwan's Mazu beliefs lie in mainland China".

'Religion, not politics'

Another motivation for Chinese temples is tourism.

Taiwanese adherents over the years have given large amounts of money to help rebuild China's Mazu temples, but they have noticed that China's temple officials see Mazu differently.

"They're reviving the temples to make money. They're running the temples like enterprises, not based on faith," said Tsai. "They hold the festivals like a carnival, for tourism. They're always asking us how to make it run so that it makes money."

Some temples in mainland China charge entrance fees and the incense sold there can be expensive, Tsai said. In Taiwan, temples are open to all and there is no need to make donations.

Nevertheless, officials from both sides said the fact that both sides were stepping up cultural exchanges was a sign of improving relations.

"It's about religion, not politics. What's most important is doing things that are good for the economy of both sides' people," said the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple's vice chairman, Cheng Ming-kun.

He said that the increased number of Chinese visitors to Dajia had helped the town and nearby scenic areas.

"Mazu brings together the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and brings peoples' feelings closer," Mr Cheng said.

This year, Dajia is expecting more than seven million celebrants over the three-month festival period, with about one million over the most important nine days, he said.

Besides China, celebrants come from Australia, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore.