The God pigs of Taiwan

<Update: October 5, 2010 >I just noticed a surge of visitors to this post, so I thought I’d add a link to a Flickr photo set I took of the god pig sacrifice at a small temple next to the apartment where I was living in Taipei at the time.

Doesn’t that sound like the title of a pulp story or B movie?

The Ghost Month is nearing it’s end here in Taiwan, and all through the past few weeks festivals and offerings have been visible in temples and shrines and in front of homes and businesses throughout Taipei. While most people reading this may know that Chinese religion involves the offering of food, drink, and burned fake paper money (which looks nothing like real money) to ancestor and god spirits, the continues existence of ritual animal sacrifice may surprise some.

Danny Bloom had a short post on Japundit about two weeks ago, the day after I saw my first pig offering at a small corner temple I pass everyday on the way to class.

Taiwan’s Hakka ethnic group holds an annual festival during the seventh lunar month, where a unique custom of sacrificing “spirit pigs,” which are traditionally grown to a huge size — and we mean HUGE — before being slaughtered.

However, in keeping with the principles of the ethical treatment of animals, today’s ceremonies often use likenesses of pigs instead of the real thing.

In this photo from the Taipei Times, a sculpture of a ‘divine pig’ can be seen outside Taipei City Hall, where the annual Taipei Hakka Memorial Ceremony was taking place recently.


The August 13th Taipei Times had a rather hilarious photo of a pig stand-in made out of fruits.

They also have two interesting articles about the tradition of pig sacrifice in Taiwan.

Sacrificial swine prompt backlash
The belief that “the bigger the sacrificed pig, the more luck a person will have for the rest of the year” has resulted in a lifetime of agony for hundreds of pigs, bred by farmers to become abnormally overweight before slaughter, animal-rights activists said yesterday.

Dozens of activists from several animal-rights groups yesterday gathered in front of the Council of Agriculture (COA) to protest traditional pig contests, saying the government has failed to regulate abusive practices toward animals.

Showing a documentary about pigs selected for the contest, activists said that 15 to 18 months before the overweight pigs are killed as sacrificial offerings, they are deprived of fluids, exercise and even turning over freely. The pigs undergo these cruel farming practices until their weight reaches upwards of five to six times their normal weight, activists said.

The accompanying photo truly must be seen to be believed. Yes, those are the pig’s ears at the bottom.

Three days ago the same publication had a good article giving a roundup of various traditions of the Ghost Festival. Of interst here is the final anecdote, concerning a rural pig farmer who raises animals for sacrifice, which gives a much more accepting description of the practice than the earlier story focusing on animal rights protesters.

About 10km away from the Yonglian Temple, a different type of religious tradition is taking place. The Ghost Festival had attracted about a dozen pig farmers carrying truckloads of sacrificial pigs to the Tachong Temple in Pali (八里) Township, Taipei County, one of three local temples taking turns to host the annual event.

The 210-year-old Tachong Temple has just been designated as having historically significant architecture, and temple managers hope to begin a renovation project by the end of next month to give the building a face-lift.

Chou Chin-tiao (周金條) won this year’s pig-raising contest with an animal that weighed 890kg. The first runner-up came in far behind, at under 500kg, with the second runner-up weighing about 400kg.

This was the fifth time Chou won the contest. The secret of growing such a big pig, Chou said, lies in the fodder. The feed he uses contains grain shells, rice porridge, canned fish, pig oil, milk powder and raw oysters.

The animal is fed twice a day, with 14kg of fodder each meal, and is given water every three hours. The cost for the fodder alone is about NT$30,000 a month.

During the summer, he has seven fans blowing on the animal to keep it cool and comfortable.

During his some 30 years of pig farming, Chou said that only three pigs died under his care. Although he spends more time and effort taking care of the animals than his wife and four children, Chou said that it pays off when he wins the highest honor.

“I don’t raise the pigs for the gold plate or certificate of merit,” he said. “I do it to fulfill a promise I made to the Buddha when I was poor that I would offer big sacrifices if I could have food to eat and clothes to wear.”

Japan’s Arlington

Defenders of Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine inevitably compare the shrine with America’s Arlington National Cemetary.

Yasukuni enshrines the spirits of all of Japan’s war dead. Reporters tend to misunderstand what that means. Yasukuni does not contain the actual remains of these people, instead it contains a number of large scrolls on which the names of the dead are ritually inscribed, allowing the shrine to be a vehicle through which prayers and offerings can be given to the spirits of the dead.

While Yasukuni’s rolls contain the names of over 2.5 million deceased soldiers, the controversy stems from the 1068 convicted war criminals honored in the shrine, particularly the 14 class A war criminals whose names were secretly added to the list of souls honored by the shrine in 1978. Clearly, Yasukuni’s official policy is to allow the enshrinement of any former soldier or military official, regardless of the crimes that they have committed.

How does this actually compare with Arlington’s policy?

A recent and ongoing stink over Arlington’s acceptance of a convicted murder reminds me of the Yasukuni controversy. This Washington Post article on the Arlington scandal gives us some insight into their policy. The most important bits are highlighted.

Although Wagner’s criminal history came as a surprise to the cemetery, his crimes do not necessarily exclude him from an Arlington burial.

“A capital crime and being sentenced to life in prison without parole, or a death sentence, would preclude him from being buried in Arlington,” Calvillo said. Anything lesser would not.

According to a spokeswoman at the Washington County judiciary, Wagner was eligible for parole.

Furthermore, as someone who served on active duty in the armed forces and was honorably discharged, he was eligible for a “standard” burial there
(for “full” honors — including a band, a caisson and a military escort — more stringent requirements have to be met). For an Army private first class, as Wagner was, pallbearers for his service would have been provided by the 3rd Infantry at Fort Myer.

The cemetery does not do background checks on those buried there, Calvillo said, adding that it is up to their families to share such information. Wagner’s sister could not be located for comment.

In the 1960s, the Department of Defense denied an Arlington burial to a decorated World War II veteran who had been chairman of the New York State Communist Party and had been convicted for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government.

After a three-year legal fight by his family, he was buried at Arlington.

In 1997, Congress passed legislation barring those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in a national cemetery. The law was enacted to preclude any possibility that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, a Persian Gulf War veteran, would be buried at Arlington.

For most convicted criminals, however, there are no restrictions.

So does this mean that others among the 290,000 people buried in the cemetery could be convicted killers?

“It is definitely a possibility,” Calvillo said. “If you’re eligible, you’re eligible.”

Of the 14 Class A war criminals, 7 of them were executed by hanging and 4 were sentenced to life imprisonment. One was sentenced to a term of 20 years, and two died of natural causes before sentencing.

It would seem that even if Yasukuni operated under Arlington’s rules, 3 of the 14 Class A war criminals would still be eligible for honors. It is also worth noting that Arlington’s rules became significantly more stringent in 1997. In 1978, when the 14 were enshrined in Yasukuni, there were no comparable rules in place, and it seems none of the 1068 war criminals would have been turned away. Of course, this is based on civilian convictions. Does anybody know how convictions by military courts affect a soldier’s right to burial at Arlington?

Tibet and Taiwan

Taipei Times reports:

President praises Dalai Lama as the `world’s greatest’
By Huang Tai-lin
Thursday, Jul 07, 2005,Page 1

Two Tibetan monks from Gyutod Tantric Monastery in Dharamsala create a sand mandala yesterday at an exhibition featuring photos of the Dalai Lama and other exhibits presenting Tibetan culture. The exhibition was sponsored by the Tibetan Religious Foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and is a part of events celebrating the 70th birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama.
President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday joined dignitaries and celebrities from around the world in sending a birthday greeting to the Dalai Lama, who turned 70 yesterday.

Chen praised the Tibetan spiritual leader as “the world’s greatest religious leader” and expressed hope that the Buddhist icon would make a third visit to Taiwan to “allow an opportunity for believers in Taiwan to be showered in his wisdom and cheerful presence.”

Noting Taiwan and Tibet’s similar predicaments, in which both have suffered due to Chinese military expansionism, the president said “Taiwan can identify with Tibet’s experience, and is willing to step up efforts enhancing exchanges and cooperation between Taiwan and Tibet.”

[Read the rest of the article on the original site]

For some reason this article neglects to mention the rather interesting fact that the aforementioned exhibition is actually taking place inside Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall! As chance has it, I had lunch after class yesterday with two friends, and we decided to try the Tibetan restaurant near campus, where a non-Chinese English speaking Tibetan fellow patron told me about this exhibition, which started yesterday and will run for about one month. I decided to stop by, but I got there a bit too early and it was really in the process of being set up. Still, there were several lamas (Tibetan Buddhist priests around) and I spent a few minutes chatting with a couple of them.

Of course, while all of the visiting priests are Tibetan, none of them are actually residents of Tibet, but of Tibet’s government in exile, located in the Indian city of Dharamsala. Of the two I spoke to, one had actually been born and raised in Tibet, and only left for India at the age of twenty five, whereas the other had actually been born outside of Tibet. There is no actual Tibetan community in Tibet, and no real Lama Buddhist temples, but there is a “Tibetan Religious Foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” where they are based for their stay in Taiwan. I asked if they expected the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan again soon, but they seemed to think that he would be keeping away for the time being to avoid political friction, although considering he has visited twice in the past, and even visited Mongolia quite recently over extreme objections from China, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall main entrance
For those of you who don’t know, here is a picture of the hall, built in the style of the Ming Imperial Tombs, so that everybody knew exactly how humble Chiang was.

Dalai Lama bday poster
The poster advertising the exhibition.

Lama in CKS Hall
The two lama priests.


AP brings good tidings:

Japan’s ‘Family Mart’ to Open in U.S.
06.21.2005, 09:14 AM

AWESOME Japanese convenience store operator FamilyMart Co. said Tuesday it plans to open 200 stores in the U.S. over the next four years, the first in California.

The inaugural U.S. store will open July 20 in West Hollywood, California, under the name “Famima,” the nickname widely used by Japanese.

It will offer traditional Japanese convenience store staples like “omusubi” rice balls, “bento” box lunches and sushi, as well as U.S. fare like takeaway sandwiches, the company said in a statement. < -- I've died and gone to heaven! "We would like our American customers to experience a new shopping style," it said. FUCK YEAH, I have been waiting for this for EIGHT YEARS!!! The store will also feature wireless Internet access, an ATM, a copy machine and an eat-in area, it said. COOL! The company said it plans to have three U.S. locations by the end of the year and about 200 by February 2009. OPEN ONE IN DC. I BEG YOU. FamilyMart already has about 11,500 stores, including franchises, in Japan and other Asian locations including South Korea, Thailand, China and Taiwan.

Guess what? When “Famima” opens in DC, I never have to go to Japan again! I’ll just eat lunch there every day! Haha! I never thought Forbes Magazine would make me feel like dancing on air, but then I never expected this either! Joy!

Beijing Post Publishes Posthumous Interview With Isaac Asimov

Danwei reports that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is finally being published in Chinese, and in honor of this the Beijing News has put out a special science fiction issue. In addition to articles on Chinese language SF, they have also managed to get an interview with the man himself, (English translationthe first he has given since passing away in 1992.

Isaac Asimov passed away on 6 April 1992, so to be able to conduct this interview we must thank a scientist named Vikkor Mallansohn – according to Asimov’s novel [The End of Eternity] he invents something in the 24th century that makes a “time kettle” possible.

Among the highlights of the interview is this exchange on the much discussed Al Qaeda connection. It’s worth noting here that (according, again, to Danwei), both ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘Foundation’ are translated the same in Chinese (基地)

TBN: What a terrible reader. Reportedly there are people who have examined Bin Laden’s choice to name his terrorist organization “Foundation” (Al Qaeda) and have concluded that it is perhaps because of your influence, that he was a science fiction fan in his youth. What is interesting about this is that you wrote the Foundation under upon the instigation of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and many scholars today believe that the United States is a New Roman Empire.

Asimov: I don’t know whether Bin Laden really understands English. “Foundation” (Al Qaeda) does resemble a group exiled from civilization, but they are at a lower level rather than a higher one. The US is unquestionably the most powerful country today, but I have a hard time determining whether it is in a process of decline akin to that in Foundation. This is perhaps the mystique of history; we can learn lessons and gain inspiration from similar historical situations. But I must point out that the “Empire” in my novels is not a country, but rather a description of a stage in the progression of the people of Earth. You can see that personal names are of all different types, not merely American.

The Ansible website has a good (if somewhat tongue in cheek)article on this theorized connection.

The small but alarming coincidence is that this is Asimov’s “Foundation” series (Seldon’s outfit is called the Foundation), allegedly popular among Arabic-speaking SF readers under its translated name Al Qaeda. Usually rendered into English as The Base, this also means The Foundation.

So, was Osama bin Laden inspired by Asimov’s fiction to establish his Al-Qaeda in an impoverished country, there to await and assist the fall of the West, issuing portentous videotapes the while?

Interestingly, while the Al-Qaeda/Foundation link is still a matter of controversy, it is generally accepted that the Foundation trilogy was in fact an inspiration for Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum cult responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks several years ago.
More on this later when I have time to do some checking.

From Abeno Seimei and Onmyodo

The Yomiuri newspaper has a short article on an interesting religious ceremony conducted at the ancient Kamigamo Shinto shrine in Kyoto. I’ve translated it below and due to the obscurity of the material included some additional notes.

From Abeno Seimei and Onmyodo

At the Kurabeuma horse race which has been conducted at the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto for 910 years, the Norijiri(riders) conduct certain rituals before the race. The ceremonies of self-harai(ritual Shinto purification) by onymyokuji(yin-yang divination by lots) and harai by onmyo-daiyuudai (some kind of obscure onmyodo ceremony) are known as the norikiji houhei [houhei are the hemp rope and folded paper decorations seen at Shinto shrines). In the houhei ceremony the norijiri waves the houhei and offers a prayer to the kami (gods) by taking a special step. Reseachers on religious ceremony have concluded that these rituals include rites that can be traced back to onmyodo harai..

For those who can read Japanese, more information on the Kurabeuma is avaliable here.

Onmyodo: Literally ‘the way of yin and yang.’ An ancient form of Japanese magical practice, combining imported Taoist philosophy and practices (such as ying and yang and the 5 elements) with native Japanese Shinto beliefs and rituals. Practicioners of onmyodo were known as Onmyoji.

Abeno Seimei: The most famous of all Onmyoji. There is a popular novel and manga series by the author Baku Yumemakura, which has not been translated into English. There is however a film version and sequel, which you can get as a package here. The budget may not approach Lord of the Rings, but they are recommended for anyone who wants to see what Heian era Japan actually looked like.

Kami-gamo Shrine: One of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, it actually existed long before the city was built. Named after the Kamo clan that ruled the area before the Imperial family moved the capital, Kami-gamo (upper Kamo) and Shimo-gamo (lower Kamo) shrines are a pair. The Kamo river which flows past downtown Kyoto also takes its name from this source. In Heian times, the Abe and Kamo family’s were the two preeminent onmyoji families.