Diyue Temple's Ji Sheng Troupe
Spectacular Performances by the Eight Generals
◎English translation: Hou Ya-ting
◎Photos by Guo Chen-jhih
Established in 1940, Diyue Temple, on Hechuan Street in Gushan District, honors gods and demigods associated with hell. The temple's main deity is Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng, ruler of the afterworld. Other hell deities worshipped here include Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and Judge Deity Li Dashen. (Dashen means great deity.) Popular legends about hell add a mysterious ambiance to this temple, so many approach the images of these afterworld deities with a sense of awe. Surprisingly, the temple does not seem to intimidate local residents. Rather, they engage in all kinds of social activities in the temple's courtyard.
Mount Tai in Shandong Province is known as one of China's five great mountains. It is associated with immortality. Legend has it that the emperors of old prayed for longevity at Mount Tai. In addition, Fongdu Hill, on the western side of Mount Tai, is widely believed to be where a dead spirit rests in peace. Such legends are manifestations of Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng's enormous powers and ability to reach up into heaven and down into the afterworld.
Mr. Wang Kun-can, chairman of Diyue Temple's management committee, points out that most temples have three entranceways, with the one in the center being reserved for deities. Visitors should heed a simple system of etiquette, customarily entering through the door on the right side as you approach from outside; this is called the dragon gate. They should leave by the left side (as seen from outside, the right side from the perspective of those exiting). This signifies escaping from a tiger's mouth. Those who comply with religious etiquette are believed to attract blessings and enjoy better luck. Only in Ghost Month, the seventh month of the lunar calendar, do ghosts have the privilege of traveling freely between the afterworld and the human world. For this reason, temples customarily close their central entranceways during Ghost Month. This means the deities do not have to supervise ghosts. In effect, they have a month-long vacation.
However, Mr. Wang points out, Diyue Temple does not close the central door because the temple is responsible for all matters concerning the realms of hell ruled by Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng. Interestingly, Mr. Wang says a ghost can appeal through the deities enshrined at Diyue Temple during Ghost Month if that ghost has suffered an injustice. According to Mr. Wang, because Diyue Temple is led by Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng (who was certified as a divine entity by an emperor during the Cing Dynasty, which ruled China between 1644 and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912), this place of worship serves both human beings and ghosts.
Diyue Temple has helped invigorate local religious culture through its support of Ji Sheng Troupe since 1949. The troupe, which performs at temple events as the Eight Generals (also known as Ba-Jia-Jiang, revered as gods of the underworld), is coached by Mr. Wu Sin-fu. A former performer himself, Mr. Wu says the Eight Generals patrol in front of the Judge Deity Li Dashen, clearing the way amid ghosts and demons. In 2016, the troupe was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by Kaohsiung City Government's Bureau of Cultural Affairs, in part because the troupe member's elaborate movements are strictly based on the Eight Diagram Battle Array. Furthermore, the movements will vary depending on the precise route and venue. During pilgrimages, the Eight Generals encounter devotees who beseech them to visit their homes in order to expel evil spirits.
Anecdotes about the Eight Generals abound, underscoring their popularity in folk culture. The Eight Generals wear straw sandals when embarking on a pilgrimage. When the journey is completed, they must return to Diyue Temple and inform Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng that they have accomplished their mission. The Eight Generals then leave behind the used straw sandals for pious individuals to collect. It is said these used sandals can ward off evil, so devotees customarily place them under beds.
Ji Sheng Troupe performs the Eight Generals in various villages and towns. However, unlike some other performance troupes, they never accept paid engagements. Rather, the troupe performs only when a deity has made a request.
The fierce and intimidating makeup worn by the Eight Generals during their performances is eye-catching. While working on the makeup for General Sie, played by Mr. Wang Yuan-cai, and General Fan, played by Mr. Wang Jia-hui, makeup artist Mr. Hong Wun-long explains that their appearance must be daunting, so as to scare away ghouls and evil entities.
Mr. Wu Sin-fu says that once the makeup is completed, the troupe member acting on behalf of a deity is equivalent to that deity. This position comes with holy responsibilities, and troupe members have to obey a set of strict rules. The night before starting a pilgrimage, they must sleep over at the temple, where the air is permeated with the smell of burning incense. While on duty, the Eight Generals are expected to eat vegetarian meals, abstain from sex, and remain silent. Mr. Wu says that if ghosts become aware the generals are men disguised deities, the troupe's efforts will be in vain. But behind these fierce faces, there are rich human characters.
When Mr. Wang Yuan-cai, a veteran who has served in the troupe for nearly 40 years, is in his makeup, his posture and appearance is highly convincing. But after the photographer has finished, Mr. Wang's appearance is less heroic; he walks slowly with a slight stagger, the result of a truck accident when he was 36, in which he suffered pelvis fractures, necrotic tissue, and severed nerves. Mr. Wang says he feels that if Mount Tai Emperor Ren Sheng had not rescued him, he might have died. As a result, he is devoted to serving the deity. He realizes he does not have a huge influence, but he seizes every opportunity, and give the best performances he can during pilgrimages. Ji Sheng Troupe possesses a group of skilled veterans like Mr. Wang. When recruiting new members, Mr. Wu Sin-fu emphasizes that decency is the primary criterion.
Mr. Wang Yuan-cai's son, Mr. Wang Jia-huei, is now 16. He followed in his father's footsteps by joining the troupe two years ago, becoming the youngest member. Mr. Wang Jia-huei confesses that some of his classmates at school may have the wrong impression about his participation in the Eight Generals. As a result, he works harder and is more self-disciplined than before. He now earns the respect and admiration of his peers.
Behind the imposing makeup and clothing of the Eight Generals, the members of Ji Sheng Troupe take on the weighty responsibility of acting on behalf of deities, bridging the afterworld and the human world, just as their performances are at the interface of religious tradition and local culture.