Above the entrance of Taizhong City’s Lecheng Temple, there hangs a blessing on painted lanterns: “The wind harmonious, the rain soothful—the country prosperous, the people peaceful.” This blessing greets the thousands of visitors who come to the temple to worship Mazu—a goddess who protects sea travelers and fishermen, as well as being an important figure in the traditional folk religion of southern China’s coastal areas. The Lecheng Temple, constructed in 1791, is one of the oldest temples in central Taiwan—with parts of the temple shimmering in Qing Dynasty architecture.

The temple’s plaza typically has a few vendors, but during the days surrounding both the Chinese New Year (usually in February) and the date of Mazu’s birth on the lunar calendar (usually in early May) the plaza is filled with people celebrating and vendors selling musical instruments, jewelry, and snacks. Temples such as Lecheng are not only places of worship, but locations of social gathering.

Such temples dedicated to Mazu are located throughout the island of Taiwan. Lecheng Temple is just one example of these cultural centers. Many of these temples date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the Tianhou Temple in Gaoxiong was built in 1673, the Chaotian Temple in Yunlin was built in 1700, the Guandu Temple in Taibei was built in 1712, and the Da Tianhou Temple in Tainan was built in 1664 as a palace for an exiled prince of the Ming Dynasty.

Other traditions have their own temples, such as the quaintly walled gardens of the Confucius Temple in Tainan City. In a more rustic location in Gaoxiong, the monastic campus of Buddha Light Mountain boasts statue-anointed hilltops. These monasteries remain as popular local tourist locations, as well as housing several hundred Buddhist monks and nuns. Many of the locals will gather to such temples to worship—sacrificing food and using incense to pray. Other visitors—believers or not—are welcome to reverently move throughout the halls of these temples.

Alex Turner