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Taiwan: Underworld justice

A surprising number of Taiwanese still take disputes to the gods.

HSINCHUANG, Taiwan — In his small, fluorescent-lit office, the portly temple scribe Lai Ming-hsien faces a middle-aged man in a dark blue jacket.

Lai asks the man's name, age and address, then begins jotting Chinese characters with a ball-point pen on a fresh piece of bright yellow paper, as the man looks on intently.

The matter that brought the man here is working its way through Taiwan's criminal justice system in nearby courts. But like many Taiwanese in such situations, he's also seeking an otherworldly remedy.

Lai is writing out the man's formal complaint to deliver to the "Lord of the Hordes" (Da Zheng Ye), an underworld dispenser of justice in Chinese Daoist and folk belief. (The man did not want his name or the nature of his case published.)

Here, in a side wing attached to Dizang Temple in a working-class Taipei suburb, Taiwanese come to air their grievances, at about $13 per complaint. Dizang is just one of scores of Taiwan temples offering such services, but it's among the most well-known.

In fact, business has boomed in recent years, says the 53-year-old Lai, so much so that the temple now employs three full-time scribes, who record and transmit to the gods more than 100 petitions per day. That's double or triple the number just a few years ago, when Lai was a one-man show.

Taiwan may have rapidly modernized and boosted educational levels in the past few decades, and its flagship high-tech industries embrace scientific rationalism. Yet many centuries-old, Chinese folk beliefs and practices show no signs of dying out.

Some practices have merely taken new, urban forms as Taiwan's old rural ways fade. Others — like underworld petitions — have survived into the 21st century intact, and might even be more prevalent than before. Such appeals can also be made by the dead against the living, says Paul Katz, an expert on Chinese religious and judicial traditions at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, at a recent talk in Taipei.

"There are people indicting people, ghosts indicting people, people indicting ghosts, and all sorts of other things." said Katz, who did field work at Dizang Temple. "This whole underworld indictment thing is busier than L.A. Law."

According to Katz, approximately 3,500 people file underworld petitions at the Dizang Temple every year.

The Chinese custom of underworld indictments dates back to sometime after the emergence of religious Daoism around the 2nd century A.D., with its emphasis on the bureaucratic order of the underworld.

"There's always been an idea that justice was being administered by officials in this world and the other world," Katz said.

At the Dizang Temple, the custom persists in modern packaging. Just like in a Taipei bank or clinic, petitioners file into a lobby off to the side of the main temple, take a number from a machine and wait their turn on rows of plastic chairs. When an automated voice calls out their number and shows it on a red L.E.D. screen, they step into the scribe's office.

Their complaints involve stolen vehicles, workplace troubles, extramarital affairs, even intellectual property rights disputes between technology firms.

"If they have situations they can't resolve, they come to us," Lai said. "We consider ourselves a bridge to the gods."

Katz' field work found only one change in the nature of such appeals from the late 1990s to 2006: An increase in missing pets cases. More recently, financial disputes have increased with Taiwan's high unemployment and recession-battered economy, Lai said.

The scribes also handle appeals for good health, better karma and getting rid of troublesome ghosts. Such petitions are directed toward the Buddhist deity Ksitigarbha ("Dizang Wang Pu Sa," in Chinese), Lai said. Both Ksitigarbha and the Lord of the Hordes are worshipped side by side at the temple, a common practice in Taiwan's blend of Daoist, Buddhist and folk practices.