Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple 台北霞海城隍廟
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Like many temples in Taiwan, the Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟) has a fascinating history. Though the 1859 temple is considered “new" compared to its more famous Wanhua District counterpart, Longshan Temple, it is unique in part because its original structure has not changed since it was built to house the Xia-Hai City God (霞海城隍爺). But it’s not just the structure that has a story to tell. The City God himself has his own complicated tale.
The City God 城隍爺
The Xia-Hai City God is not a Formosa native, but was brought to Taiwan in 1821 from Fujian Province in China. In Taiwan, his first home was in Monga (艋舺), but the infighting that in 1853 drove many Fujianese out of Monga and into Dadaocheng also meant a change of address for the City God. He migrated north with his worshippers and was initially housed in a bakery until his new accommodations were completed.
Old Man Under the Moon 月下老人
These days, although older locals visit the temple regularly to pay their respects to the City God and hold an annual birthday celebration for him, most people come to receive the blessings of 月下老人, the Old Man Under the Moon. Yue Lao (月老) is not an original inhabitant of the Xia-Hai City God Temple, however. He was gifted to the temple in 1971 by a local resident who wished to thank the City God for his blessings, and has since become the temple's main attraction.
Yue Lao is often referred to as the Love God, or the Matchmaking God, which explains why people flock to the temples where he resides, praying to find a suitable mate. A common legend throughout East Asia is that each person has a red string around his or her wrist, at the end of which is a soul mate. Yue Lao’s role is to find that mate, but you can make his job easier by following the official prayer procedure (拜拜的方法).
For those who cannot read Chinese, fortunately the temple has both English-speaking and Japanese-speaking guides on hand to walk you through the process. All of the guides at the temple are quite friendly and welcoming, and can answer any other questions you might have about the temple, including the temple’s history and the various deities on display.
When you come to pray to Yue Lao for the first time, you’ll need to bring a little money — NT $50, to be precise.
Your NT $50 will get you a packet of “God money” and incense (金紙和香), which you’ll be asked to take to the counter inside the main hall, behind the offering table. Your offering will be prepared by the temple’s workers while you complete the next steps, and the money will later be burned as an offering to the gods. (In past years, this would be done immediately, but new environmental regulations in Taipei City outlawed the use of the large furnaces found at temples, so the money is now taken outside the city for burning.)
For foreign visitors, you’ll also be presented with a special pouch containing a small card from the temple and a red string, which you’ll be told to keep on your person at all times, in your wallet or bag. You’ll use the pouch at the end of the prayer session, and when you come back in the future, you should also bring it with you to be used in prayers to Yue Lao. (Hot tip: You can also use it other temples where Yue Lao resides!)
After lighting your incense, you’ll be directed to the 天公爐 at the entrance of the temple’s courtyard. Here is where you will introduce yourself to 天公, known in English as the Sky God or Lord of the Heavens. You’ll (silently) state your name, age, and address and ask the Sky God to bless you, and thank him with a sort of nodding bow while holding the incense in front of you. (A note on language here: depending on who’s giving the explanation, the gods are either omnilingual or have translators, so using your native language is perfectly fine.)
At this point, you will be brought to the main shrine to introduce yourself to the City God, Yue Lao, and the dozens of other deities in the room. (Inside the temple, stay alert! Crossing paths with burning incense or falling ashes might not be taken as an omen, but it sure can be painful.) Just as before, you’ll need to state some personal information, but this time is your chance to express to Yue Lao the qualities you’re looking for in a mate. Although some advise against it, you can name a specific person if you’d like, but most people list off personality traits and physical characteristics, and some even write down a list in advance so as not to forget anything.
Although you won’t have time while you’re praying to Yue Lao, be sure to come back to this room later to survey the various deities. One worth noting here is 嫘祖, spelled Leizu, but typically pronounced Luo Zu by Taiwanese. She was the first wife of 黃帝, the Yellow Emperor, and is credited with the discovery and first cultivation of silkworms. Her presence in the temple is significant to Dadaocheng because of the neighborhood’s thriving fabrics industry, particularly in the Yong-le Fabric Market just next door to the temple.
The temple only has one more room for deities, to which your guide will lead you when you are ready. When you first enter, you’ll notice a wall to your left that is filled with lighted figured, underneath each of which is a printed name. These are referred to as fortune lamps (祈福點燈), and are found at most temples. The names on the fortune lamps are added by request and changed annually, and have four types: 平安燈 (for peace and happiness), 光明燈 (for success in studies or work), 財利燈 (for wealth), or 元辰燈 (for health and long life).
If you look closely, you’ll see that each fortune lamp contains a miniature of the City God. A name placard is placed directly underneath, the bottom of which contains a special code that indicates in which month the placard should be changed. You won’t be able to spend too much time looking at fortune lamps, however, since there’s more praying to be done.
There are red placards written in Chinese, English, and Japanese at each station, so you’ll be able to understand the overall meaning of the remaining shrines. However, some statues deserve special attention, like Liao Tian-ding (廖添丁), the so-called Robin Hood of Taiwan, perched rather jauntily here in the center.
The City God's Wife 城隍夫人
The City God’s Wife (城隍夫人) is next. Be sure to ask your guide about the “fortune shoes” (城隍夫人鞋), several pairs of which are placed prominently at the front of the shrine amidst beauty products gifted to the City God’s Wife. A careful observer is likely to notice that the City God’s Wife is also surrounded by numerous City Gods, and she herself appears several times in the same shrine. You might guess that this has special significance, but in fact the reason is a practical one: the temple is rather small, and doesn’t have much storage space. City Gods are lent to other temples throughout the year, and when they are not in use, they need somewhere to rest.
The final shrine contains numerous figures that westerners may recognize as Buddhist (佛教). Like most temples in Taiwan, the Xia-Hai City God Temple recognizes a mix of beliefs, and this shrine pays homage to various Buddhas and other Buddhist deities like Bodhidharma (達摩). Be sure to check out the painting on the wall to the right of the shrine, which tells the story of Zhong Kui (鍾馗), a fascinating figure in Chinese mythology.
After another visit to the 天公爐 to place your incense in the burner and “charge” the luck of the red string within your pouch, it’s a good idea to come back inside to wash your hands, which will likely be turned pink by the ends of the incense. Then you can complete the final steps.
A blessed ending
Typically, foreign visitors will be brought inside for 平安茶 (Blessed Tea) because temple workers fear visitors will be wary of drinking from a public urn. However, you are also welcome to help yourself at the table outside. This should be finished with a piece of wedding candy (喜糖) and wedding cookies (喜餅) provided by the temple. The sweets are supplied by couples who became engaged after receiving Yue Lao’s blessing, and if you become engaged after praying to Yue Lao, you will be expected to return with wedding cookies to give thanks.
Temple officials say that roughly 70% of those praying to Yue Lao are women, most of them young. These worshippers may come twice a year or as often as every week, though no statistics are kept on this. (The temple only tracks successful marriages, the annual totals of which are often proudly displayed in the courtyard.) Some mothers may also come to pray for spouses for their children, often without their children’s knowledge. According to one guide, it is very rare for westerners to pray to Yue Lao, as most western visitors simply browse the temple without interacting with anyone. He says that this may be because of conflicting religious beliefs, but is just as likely because of the language barrier or visitors’ not knowing they may take part in the ritual. However, all are welcome to enjoy the blessings of the City God, his wife, Yue Lao, and each of the deities of the temple.