CHANGHUA, Taiwan — Catching up with the sea goddess has never been easier.
Every year, Matsu — goddess of the sea — goes on an eight-day temple-hopping tour of central Taiwan. This year's tour kicked off on March 21.
Her procession takes a highly circuitous route, and doesn't exactly stick to a strict timetable. That used to make her hard for believers and tourists to track down.
But now, a GPS chip attached to her sedan chair beams her location to a website that shows it in real-time — down to the exact lane or alley — on a detailed map of the island.
"People tell us it's very convenient," said Chen Chong-fen, a local government cultural official who helps organize the event. "Before, because Matsu goes to 21 towns and many temples, finding her could be a headache. But now, using GPS, it's easier to know where Matsu is."
The virtual Matsu-finder is just one example of how tech-savvy Taiwan is updating millennia-old folk traditions for the internet age. It's using the web to make life easier for adherents and to promote festivals to tourists.
Taiwan is rich with temple and folk customs, most brought here in the 17th through 19th centuries by settlers from the southeast Chinese coast.
Matsu-worship is one example. Like most Chinese deities, she dates back to a real woman who lived on the southeast Chinese coast in the 10th century. According to legend she had supernatural powers, and after her death, she became immortalized as a protector of fishermen and other seafarers.
Now, she's worshipped throughout the ethnic Chinese world, but especially on the southeast Chinese coast, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where settlers had to brave a perilous sea journey across the Taiwan Strait to get to their new homes.
Every spring, Taiwan sees its own version of the Muslim hajj. Thousands of believers trek along with icons of the goddess as it tours through the countryside. The most well-known is an eight-day, seven-night tour by the Matsu icon from Jenn Lann Temple.
I caught up with the procession March 22, about 12 hours after Matsu had left her home temple. Finding the goddess was a breeze, thanks to the website. I sped to central Taiwan on a bullet train, had the information desk helpers look up the website, and wrote down a street to give to a cabdriver. What would the 10th century Matsu have thought?
The procession is far from austere. Matsu is greeted by a deafening roar of fireworks wherever she goes, along with the occasional possessed Taoist shaman and gaudily dressed temple guardians.
Her procession is something of a carnival, with ritual figures (an "informer" wearing oversized black glasses at the front, followed by two guardian gods) joined by scantily clad female singers on truck flatbeds, horn-blowing and gong-beating musicians, and mobile advertisements for car tires and herbal remedies.
Hard-core adherents walk with Matsu the entire way, some 300 kilometers (186 miles), sleeping on storefront sidewalks or sardine-like on transport trucks. They also abstain from eating meat for the first three days.
"After eight days you'll know what the meaning of pain is," said John Hu, 32, who helps market merchandise for the Jenn Lann temple. "They want you to be reborn — it's just like in other religions."
One 46-year-old said he's done the entire eight-day walk every year since the 1990s. "It's an expression of our faith," he said. A trader in Taipei, he only gave his name as "Jeffy" because he's afraid of too much publicity.
"I don't want to tell you my last name because then all my friends and family will ask me too many questions — just like you're doing now," Jeffy said, with a laugh. "They don't know I'm here, every year I just tell them I'm taking a vacation."
Most Taiwanese Matsu-worshippers are too busy with work or studies — or too casual in their belief — to take eight days off to chase the goddess around central Taiwan's back-alleys and rice paddies.
For them, touching Matsu's sedan chair for luck as it passes is enough. Or better yet, crouching down on the road and letting the divine sedan chair pass over you.
Problem was, in the past, it wasn't always easy to find the sea goddess' procession.
Enter the website. Chen, the local government official, said organizers hired a company to set up the site, and first offered it last year.
This year, they also offered PDA updates to the growing number of people who followed Matsu on bicycles (a consequence of the island's bike fad, which I wrote about here.)
Such services also reflect the shifting appeal of the sea goddess festival.
"The Matsu pilgrimage is changing rapidly," said Hsun Chang, an expert on folk religion at Taiwan's Academia Sinica. "It's becoming more and more tourist-oriented, and relying on mass media more than before."
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