Folk Religion Isn’t Backward, But I Walked Backward Into It

Rita Chang-Eppig, author of "Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea" on finding her spirituality in the faith of her ancestors

Photo of Mazu Temple by xiquinhosilva via Wikimedia Commons

The parade started early in the morning, before the heat could set in. The humidity in Taiwan was formidable, and heatstroke-addled marchers made for poor celebrants. The bustling streets of Taipei had been half-cordoned off; aggrieved drivers inched along single file. I waited on the sidewalk, craning my neck over the crowd, trying to catch a glimpse of the floats.

First, the loud music of brasses. Instead of gangly high schoolers, I spied a troupe of grannies huffing into their horns and banging on their drums, wearing uniforms best described as somewhere between majorette and cheerleader, with short, pleated skirts and vests pink enough to signal for help from a deserted island. Next came the standard bearers, waving red and gold banners embroidered with dragons and characters like “harmony” and “hope.” Suddenly, the tone shifted. The folksy brass music faded away, to be replaced by . . . EDM? And then I saw them. The teens and twenty-somethings were on their float, blasting a club remix of a pop song. Like the older women, they were there to celebrate Mazu, arguably one of Asia’s most beloved goddesses.

It was hard not to get swept up in the excitement, not to marvel a little at how Mazuism was thriving across generations and across the strait from Fujian, where the historical figure is said to have lived more than a thousand years ago. I surprised myself by tearing up—one of the few times I’d ever done so in response to an act of worship. Why had I never given folk religion a moment’s thought prior to this, I wondered. Why had it taken me so long to embrace a longstanding religion of my homeland as my own?

I was a happily godless child. A distant family member, deeply concerned about my immortal soul, convinced my mother to let her take me to Sunday school a few times, but either the material itself or the way it was taught didn’t connect with me. I remember sitting in an overly air-conditioned room, coloring in a picture of David and Goliath with three stubby crayons that were giving me no pigment at all. The teacher droned on and on about how faith could help one overcome all obstacles. I also remember thinking, rather blasphemously, that if God were so great, then He would have given the church some crayons that worked.

Even if the spiritual teachings had made more of an impact, my mother soon decided that she was more concerned about my inability to play the piano than about my immortal soul (“Your soul won’t get you into a good college!”), so Sunday school gave way to music lessons. I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought that a diploma from Harvard carried weight in heaven—like when I showed up at the gates, I could surreptitiously slip the document into Saint Peter’s hand the way a restaurant patron without a reservation can slip a twenty into the host’s.

Where my mother was indifferent to religion, my father was outright hostile. One of my earliest memories is passing by a famous Taoist temple in Taipei while taking a walk with my father. A service had just concluded, and plumes of worshippers were drifting from the temple courtyard like incense smoke. “Don’t be like those people,” my father said to me. “That’s how you end up getting scammed out of all your money.”  

By high school, I was feeling the lack of spirituality in my life even more than I was feeling my lack of dates. Adolescence is, after all, a time of identity formation. Watching my friends peel off after school for Bible study, catching up with them on Mondays and hearing about all the church-sponsored social activities they’d participated in over the weekend, I wondered if I was maybe missing out on something great. But did I want to go back to church? I didn’t love a lot of the ideas I was hearing from these same friends about women, premarital sex, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. And of course, there was that crayon problem.     

Like approximately sixty percent of people who grew up in the 90s (I’m approximating here), I was greatly influenced by the movie The Craft. In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so into it. It’s not that great. But I liked the idea of connecting with nature, and I really liked the idea of girls and women wielding power—which explains how I took a movie in which three of the four main characters suffer terrible fates practicing witchcraft and turned it into a plan for personal development. I was going to become spiritual or be damned trying.

Around the same time, as if in support of my terrible plan, a metaphysical store opened a block away from my high school. A hole-in-the-wall space lined with candles and oils, this store quickly became my favorite after-school (and sometimes during-school) hangout. In one corner, books with titles like The Truth About Wicca and Witchcraft for Beginners squeaked around on wire racks. I read them all and immediately threw myself into practice, drawing pentagrams on my belongings, doing rituals in the park with like-minded friends. But something nettled me, something that would take me years to properly articulate: I didn’t feel an emotional connection to any of it. I appreciated Wiccan tenets the way I did avant-garde art. Goddesses like Brigid and Freya were abstract to me, symbolizing concepts like poetry and love, but they were not “people” I could “talk” to when I felt scared or down. If my spirituality wasn’t serving as a source of comfort, I wondered, then what was the point?   

A few years ago, I began doing research for my novel about the legendary pirate queen of Qing-dynasty China. I wanted to accurately represent not only the worldly lives of these pirates, but also their spiritual lives. Chinese pirates of that era were often extremely religious, particularly when it came to Mazu, the goddess of the sea. They had to be—their lives were contingent on the whims of nature. A freak storm could ruin everything. My research on Mazu brought back memories of those gilded gods and goddesses my father had warned me about when I was a child. I recalled the fruit-laden ancestral altars found in almost every home and shop, the pungent smoke of burning “ghost money” on festival days, the thin fortune sticks that made a sound like rushing water when you shook them in their containers. My memories were vivid, but I still didn’t consider making those spiritual practices my own.

Then, shortly after I started working on the novel, everything in my life went terribly wrong. It started when a massive tree outside my front door fell over at 4 AM. My partner and I woke to the smell of gas filling our house—the tree had pulled up a gas line. We grabbed our important belongings, stuffed our cat into her carrier while she clawed up our forearms, and evacuated. Once outside, we saw that the tree had fallen . . . onto our car . . . and the power lines. Sparks leapt and gas spewed into the air. Waiting in the cold for the fire department to arrive, I had the half-dissociated thought that this could be it. Everything that we had built together could just disappear.

Thank goddess it didn’t. The gas company and fire department arrived, and, all things considered, the damage wasn’t too bad. We chalked the experience up to chance, or perhaps some trickster god passing through the area. We figured we were done with freak accidents. But the weirdness clearly wasn’t done with us. Over the course of that month, financial problems cropped up, one after the other; our insurance company dropped us unexpectedly and without reason; and our cat suddenly needed very expensive dental work.

But the coup de grâce?

My mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer. I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room while her surgery took place; on every TV screen, Notre Dame, one of the finest and most expensive religious tributes to Mother Mary, was burning. For the second time that month, I found myself in a dissociative state. It felt as though something immense had shifted in the universe, like a black hole coming into being, and I, having crossed the event horizon without even realizing it, could do nothing but watch helplessly.

It felt as though something immense had shifted in the universe, like a black hole coming into being.

The wait to see if my mother’s cancer had metastasized felt like an eon, though in reality it was only a few days. At the advice of a metaphysically minded friend, I took a raw egg that was still in its shell and rolled it all over myself. Then I repeated the ritual on my mother. Not knowing what to do with the two eggs, I set them aside. By the time I came out of my room an hour later, my mother had cooked and eaten both.

“Why would you do that?!” I asked her, because it doesn’t take a curandera to know that spiritually cleansing yourself with an egg and then eating the “contaminated” egg is . . . suboptimal.

“I don’t waste food,” my mother, who grew up poor, told me. “And you can tell your friend to send all her used eggs to me because, hey, free eggs.”  

When everything had settled down and I finally had time to think, the symbols seemed undeniable: the tree, my mother’s uterine cancer, the financial problems, the burning of Mother Mary’s tribute. Whatever was happening had something to do with my roots, with motherhood. It had to do with my maternal lineage. Incidentally, the name of the Chinese goddess of the sea, Mazu, translates to “Maternal Ancestor.”

So, I found my way back, through disaster, to the folk spiritual practices of my birthplace. I visited temples, talking to the aunties who volunteered there, all of whom had very strong and completely different opinions about the “right” way to celebrate the gods. I burned incense for Mazu and my maternal ancestors, turning to them when I felt worried, or excited, or confused. I felt connected to them in a way I hadn’t with the European spiritual figures of my youth. There was something beautiful and almost inevitable about honoring my lineage—I’d grown up in a household of women presided over by my maternal grandmother. From them, I’d learned about the world, and from my grandmother in particular, my culture and family history. I never got a chance to meet my maternal great-grandmother because she and my grandmother were separated during the Communist Revolution, but my grandmother never stopped telling stories about her: a clever woman, as loving as she was sometimes punishing, who moved mountains to keep her teenage daughters from harm when the soldiers came. What a person she must have been, and what a shame it would be for me to not to get to know her, if only spiritually.     

Looking back, I wonder why I never even considered folk religion and ancestral worship in all my years of spiritual confusion. Somewhere along the way, I’d bought into the idea that the folk religion of my homeland was backwards, maybe even sinister. It might have come from my father, or from Sunday school, or simply from feeling as a child that I had to Americanize as fast as possible, to fit in, to stay safe.       

When I consider everything my ancestors survived—or at least, survived long enough to make my existence possible—I can’t help but be filled with awe. Each of us is connected, in a single unbroken line, back to the Mitochondrial Eve. I imagine a golden thread weaving through space and time, burrowing deep into the earth, shooting through the sky, and being borne along the seas.

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