It might not be the first thought that comes to mind, but Tigers are a ubiquitous sight in Taiwan, the small island nation across China’s Southeastern Fujian province north of the Philippines and the world’s largest producer of semi-conductors, the stuff that makes modern electronic communication possible. Unexpected, because Tigers are not known to have inhabited the island, and the last wildcat to have roamed the lush hills of Taiwan’s central mountain range was a clouded leopard in 1983. But these tigers are far from the fearsome, man-eating creatures of Siberia or Bengal. Rather, they come in the form of little deity statues and are found in most temples in little alcoves under the tables upon which people place their sacrificial offerings. Sure, they look like small versions of real tigers, striped and showing their teeth, but in fact, they are little helper deities to the temple’s main gods. They are almost as prevalent as the iconic stone lions found in front of the entrance of every public temple in Taiwan. They are a most common feature of what constitutes so-called popular Chinese religion in Taiwan. The term popular religion refers to religious institutions and practices that are not part of the hierarchically organized, state-recognized official religions such as Buddhism and Daoism. The temples are run by boards of local notables or businessmen and remain community centers for spiritual and secular affairs in contemporary rural Taiwan.
Hsinkang village (新港鄉), located in Chiayi county (嘉義縣) in Western Taiwan’s Chia-Nan plains (嘉南平地), is one such rural place. Its famous Fengtiangong (奉天宮) temple is the center of the main settlement (Zhongshan lu 中山路, the most central street in each Taiwanese village or city, leads straight toward the temple), and it is also the place of my on-site fieldwork this year. This awe-inspiring temple with its beautiful swallow-tail roofs and refined Koji pottery (交趾陶) is dedicated to the goddess Mazu – as many would say, the single most encompassing and important deity in Taiwan today. Hsinkang Fengtiangong is also the destination of the biggest of the annual Mazu pilgrimages, the topic of another blog post yet to be written.
But besides its grand Mazu temple, Hsinkang has another interesting figure to offer: A tiger god (虎爺) that is actually allowed to sit on the table, instead of being confined to the smallest niche under it. This tiger god is in fact a general (將軍, a position in the pantheon of Chinese deities) and even has its own altar in the temple dedicated to it (虎爺殿). This essay will introduce us to this particular deity – worldwide the only of its kind, as temple brochures proudly report – and his story. In a separate essay, I will take up a specific new form of this tiger god, which has become increasingly popular in recent years – a ‘re-invention’ of tradition as first discussed by Hobsbawm and Ranger in 1983.
Let us take a look at the ‘Tiger General’ (虎爺將軍) first.
The oldest figurine of that deity strikes surprisingly little resemblance with the later depictions of the deity, and in my opinion looks less like a tiger than an owl. More recent images of the tiger are painted with stripes and baring their teeth. In line with more general trends to “cutify” certain deities in popular religion, there are even cute (Q-版) key chains and comic figures of the tiger. One interesting detail on the images is that the tiger is usually crowned with two golden flowering branches – which are said to have been awarded to him by the emperor himself (more on that later). Tiger statues come in different sizes. The cuter ones can easily fit into a pocket, but most of the statues that are actually used as ‘god objects’ are around 15 cm in height, made from wood, and painted. In Hsinkang, I witnessed three stashes of different size. The largest ones, of which there were only very few, were more than half a meter tall and had rolling, dark green eyes that gave them a fearsome appearance. There was also a ‘medium’ size of about 25 cm high figures, but the most numerous were the small ones. They were also painted in different ways, but most were only striped in black and yellow.
As mentioned above, tiger gods are helping deities, but Hsinkang’s Tiger General has quite specific functions. These are mostly of a community-protective nature, especially of the temple in which it is placed. Whenever Mazu rides out on inspection tours (出巡) around her territory – the 18 settlement units (村) that make up Hsinkang 鄉 – the tiger serves as a vanguard to scout her path. The tiger god also protects the community against diseases and evil spirits. It takes especial care of children and guards them against serious illnesses such as mumps. In addition, there is a local saying according to which the deity attracts wealth by snapping it with its mouth (招財咬錢). I suspect this to be a newer development, but will focus on this aspect in the other essay.
The Tiger General’s popularity is projected into history by a number of local proverbs (俗語), the most well-known of which is笨港媽祖，麻園寮老虎 (roughly translated: „In Bengang Mazu, in Mayuanliao the Tiger”). Mayuanliao is the old name for what today is Hsinkang, and the place where the tiger was first hosted in the local earth god shrine; Bengang was the name of the principal settlement in the area until it was destroyed by floods in the 18th century, when its residents founded two different settlements (Beigang 北港 with probably Taiwan’s premier Mazu temple, Chaotiangong 朝天宮, and Hsinkang, both of which claim to possess the original Mazu image from Bengang – the older an image, the more efficacious it is). Sometimes, this saying is rendered as北港媽祖，新港老虎 („In Beigang there is Mazu, in Hsinkang the Tiger“), which because of this rivalry is a more controversial reading. Be that as it may, Hsinkang’s Tiger General is intricately tied with the local Mazu cult. Today, it has become the second most important deity worshipped in Fengtiangong (public temples normally host several deities, in the Mazu cult the main deity Mazu is usually accompanied by the Buddhist bodhisattva Koan-im 觀音, a goddess to help with childbirth 注生娘娘, and less frequently by more Confucian deities such as Guangong 關聖帝君 and Wenchang 文昌帝君). This elevated status is, again, given popular justification through a local idiom: “Mazu is celebrated with Taiwanese Opera performances, the Tiger is celebrated with Pili glove puppetry” (大戲敬媽祖；小戲敬虎爺). Performances are especially splendid during the celebrations of the gods’ birthdays – for Mazu, on the 23rd of the 3rd lunar month, for the Tiger General on the 6th of the 6th month (in 2015, these are May 11 and July 21, respectively – Hsinkang is worth a visit if you have the chance!).
When they worship the tiger, people generally bring him the products of the “three small domestic animals” (小三牲) – a strip of uncooked pork meat, a raw egg, and one raw fish. The tiger is reputed to be an avid aficionado of eggs, which is why knowledgeable older people usually bring him some to gain his favor.
But the single most outstanding feature of Hsinkang’s Tiger General is the fact that he may be worshipped sitting on a table. What is the reason for that? People tell two different stories explaining this curious phenomenon. Both are tied to local history and the Tiger General’s importance for it. According to the more sober version, the tiger was allowed to move into Fengtiangong out of gratitude. Between 1796 and 1799, Hsinkang endured four consecutive years of severe flooding of the nearby river, which destroyed parts of the Mazu temple. During this period and until the rebuilding of the temple, its Mazu images and documents were invited by the local Earth God to reside in his shrine. That same Earth God shrine was later converted into a police station during the Japanese colonial period. To repay the favor, Mazu accommodated not only the Earth God in her temple, but also the Tiger General, who had been housed in the latter’s shrine. As a show of respect for their previous generosity, the tiger was henceforth allowed to be worshiped on an altar.
The second story is far more sublime, and I heard that story far more often. This story makes reference to a popular collection of tales named “The lord Jiaqing is travelling Taiwan” (嘉慶君遊台灣). Many a local proverb originate from this collection, and it was even made a TV show with at least four seasons in 2009. According to the tales, the later emperor of the Qing dynasty, Jiaqing (gov. 1796-1820), was in his youth travelling through Taiwan anonymously in plain clothes. One day, as the sedan chair was carried through the old town of Bengang, the young lord was haunted by nightmares of horrible demons. Suddenly, however, a creature unknown to Jiaqing appeared and drove the demons away. Later, when they passed Mayuanliao and came to its Earth God shrine, the lord recognized its tiger god as the wondrous being that had saved him in his dreams. He thus bestowed him with the title “most outstanding tiger” (虎狀元) and granted him to golden flower branches. Because of this imperial recognition, the Tiger General was subsequently to be placed on a table for worship.
The stories in this collection are fictitious, as the later emperor never visited Taiwan. But that of course does not keep people from referring to these already widely-disseminated stories and use them as proof of local authenticity. After all, the Tiger God has a long history of using his powers to help the local people, as attested to by his continued worship, so there must be a reason for him being seated on the table. Explained in the words of the anthropologist of Chinese religion, Steven Sangren (1987, History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community), the deity’s power and efficacy (顯靈) is self-evident (and following a circular logic) in the sense that it finds expression in the popularity of people worshiping the deity. Efficacious gods are worshiped by the people. Continued worship is the only means of inter-subjectively ascertaining a deity’s power.
As expressed by the above saying – “Bengang worships Mazu, in Mayuanliao there is the tiger” – the Tiger General transports communal pride, a sense of local attachment and identity. This has started to change recently, when efforts to create a more generally appealing depiction of the deity have opened up and vulgarized his meaning as a wealth-generating agent similar to other gods. All the while, the temple is still trying to retain a specific sense of particularity for the deity, making use of the Tiger General’s specific image (an animal of prey after all) and references to local articulations of divine efficacy. Borrowing language from the realm of economics, such processes may fall under the category of “branding” a product, which in this case is a locally-owned icon of cultural authenticity. But more on this in the next article. Here, my purpose was to show the legendary and material sources underlying the deity’s modern transformation.