Taitung was making headlines in mid-September: “Taitung Prays and Goes Vegetarian for Three Days!” Why? Simple. The Daoist Jiao Celebration, no less.
To surmise the Chinese Rite of Cosmic Renewal into the confines of a single online news article, yet alone a single paragraph, would be an impossible feat. The Jiao (also romanlized as Chiao), is not very understood even by the few laymen who bear witness to it. The ritual is extremely esoteric, making a deep-dive into its semantics exclusive to only the most privileged Daoist priests.
What is generally understood, however, is the Jiao rite has been performed in Taitung for 130 years, predating the founding of Taiwan. The Taitung Jiao, specifically, is performed once every 12 years. Temporary altars, usually made from bamboo, plywood and/or metal rods, are built in a general area with somewhat proximity to each other. Altogether, 7 temples were built within Taitung City’s administrative area.
The grander, the more embellished the altar is, reflects the overall scale of the Jiao celebration. This year’s largest alter was situated at Tianhougong, known in English as The Temple of Mazu, The Sea Goddess. This particular altar has statues of Gods, and manikins littered throughout its several stories demonstrating the magnitude and scale of this year’s Jiao and its spirituality—everyone is praying a COVID-less tomorrow.
Traditionally the rite would span over the course of a week filled with fasting and abstaining from participation in numerous activities, namely slaughtering of animals, to purify one’s mind and body. Since then, however, it has been reduced to three days to accommodate modern eating and drinking habits.
Abstinence of meat is at the heart of the rite for the public. The ritual includes praying for local harmony and peace, gratitude to the deities for their kindness and giving offerings to pay respects; a ceremony of thanks to the ethereal, as means to cleanse one’s soul. Eating meat is in blatant objection to cleansing of the soul during the Jiao, as the Taoist believe.
Despite the rite’s esoteric nature, locals, for the most part, abided by the abstinence and other beliefs as to not interfere with the cleansing of the soul. It should be noted here that it was not mandated to abide by the Taoist guidelines; yet, many restaurants, night market stalls, even the tourist-favorite fried chicken joint, Blue Dragonfly, closed up shop for three days out of respect for this once-per-decade ritual. Butchers did one better and closed shop for an entire week before the rite began. September 22 to September 24, for three days it was a common sight to see a notice plastered on the front doors of many food operators citing the ceremony as reason to temporarily suspend business operations.
What then for Taitung’s carnivores? Thanks to the selfless actions of several local temples, businesses and associations with their volunteers, several vegetarian friendly pop-up stall locations were made available over the weekend serving vegetable curry noodles to fried rice. The lines created were so long that Taiwanese media was quick to cover it. Such long lines in Taitung are unprecedented and unexpected, especially for those who were visiting out-of-town. Restaurants and convenience stores were also reported to have temporarily changed their menu to compensate for temporary city-wide meat abstinence.
Leading up to the ceremony, Taitung was hit by two consecutive days of catastrophic earthquakes on September 18 and 19. One of which, 7.2 in magnitude, was the biggest earthquake to hit Taitung in the last 60 years—and this is just happening right as a 3-year global pandemic starts to wind down. Fortunately, there was no massive casualties, but we cannot let our guard down. Events like these soften people's hearts and give them the strength to move forward into the future in a more positive way. Now, let's pray for peace and stability in Taitung and around the world—pray to the Gods together.