This morning, between about 10am and 12am outside my 5th floor apartment, was a never ending parade of drum, bad karoake and high pitched squeaking clarinets played by people with no training – all blasted from portable megaphones charged with a portable battery. It made me wonder where that old phrase, “everyone loves a parade” comes from. While the noise pollution, pierced sporadically by firecrackers, may seem quaint and exotic, after 8 years living in Taiwan it’s hard to excuse the distraction and invasion into my home office, where I’m trying to concentrate on editing some documents.
But it’s a special occasion – it’s the birthday of the Earth God (Tudigong). You might assume that this would be akin to Western “Earth Day”, where we all gather to make empty vows about recycling and healing our planet. You’d be wrong – Earth God’s birthday has principally become (at least in Taiwan) the day to go and give money to the temple, for your own financial benefit. Hence, all the parades may be seen as a form of power advertising: it’s Earth God’s birthday! Don’t forget to go give him some money, to bless and ensure your own prosperity!
Although this may seem jaded, let me give you the details: Worship of Tudigong, pictured as a kindly old man with a long beard, evolved a special tradition of “changing small money for big money”. There are bronze-statue vending machines of Tudigong where you put in a 10nt coin and receive a 1nt coin. This willing sacrifice is fun and harmless; a nice touristy activity for foreigners and locals alike – spiritually it is similar to the tradition of tithing *(even in the exact percentage – 10%; although with Tudigong you’re really giving 90% and receiving 10% back). The ritual is expected to “bring peace and big fortune”. One temple official reported “the NT$10 coin looks like silver and the NT$1 coin looks like gold… so it’s like changing silver into gold!”
Here a cynic would laugh out loud – coming from a believer, this statement may sound genuine; coming from a community insider, it sounds like a ridiculous scam/sales tactic. Imagine building a machine that took 90% of your money and returned 10% to you, and convincing people that it was a good trade because they were ‘buying luck’. Imagine building a chain of temples with these machines, so that people could line up, eager to give away their money, hopeful for the chance at financial gain.
You can’t really call it a scam, because all you’re selling is hope. And if your customers go away feeling more hopeful or confident about their financial situation, then they’ve got what they paid you for. It doesn’t really matter whether or not it works.
But the temple also serves as a kind of bank, offering loans for business and investment purposes. Most people who borrow from the temple give back twice as much as they received! In this way, the Tudigong temple has grown considerably large and powerful (no wonder they can organize such long parades).
To find out more about Tudigong temple and Taiwanese religion, watch the video: