Tainan local women, Taiwan local religion (1)

One of wonders of Tainan is how no matter what alley you walk down, you’ll run into a temple. One day, I cut down an alley about a block away from the City God Temple and came across a mysterious (to me) little temple. Dedicated to Gu Fuma (辜婦媽) – Mother Gu, statues of three women sat on the main altar.
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The incense stained walls were decorated with faded paper images of womanly objects – pincushions, needles and scissors.
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The door guardians were women.
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Whose temple was this? The temple, off the circuit of Tainan tourist destinations, bore no immediate explanatory markers. It had no brochures. I took a few pictures and moved on.

It was only once I returned to the America that I decided to look into the temple’s inhabitants, using whatever the internet could reveal to me. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do more research while still on the ground.

Both named women honored at the temple were residents of Tainan in the 17th and 19th centuries. Both are paragons of two aspects of womanly chaste virtue. Gu Fuma died in her old age, having been widowed young but successfully raised her husband’s concubine’s sons to adulthood. Huang Baogu (黃寶姑) killed herself to prevent her parents from arranging a second betrothal after her first fiance died, adhering the idea that a woman should be joined to one man only during her life, no matter how tenuous that joining may have been.

These women, their temple and their sister deities who occupy spiritual spaces down other alleys in Tainan have stuck in my mind ever since.

They embody the highs and lows of the chastity cult in Qing China, which stipulated adherence to strict injunctions on what it meant to be chaste, promising women postmortem rewards and honors in the form of a stone arch and simple tablet at a special temple for chaste women.

Gu Fuma and Huang Baogu received far greater than these honors, but the deification of virtuous women is not female empowerment. To interpret this women-centric temple in such a way fails to recognize the realities of what’s being celebrated about these women, and the system that decided what about them was worth celebrating. At the same time, the process that brought Gu Fuma to be honored in this space expresses local, popular religious culture, a part of Tainan created by its residents for their own religious benefit, a scant hundred meters away from the City God’s official seat of imperial and heavenly authority.

Over many subsequent posts, I will take a closer look at Gu Fuma, Huang Baogu, Chen Shouniang – a neighborhood ghost, and the Five Concubines who hung themselves rather than let invading Qing troops take them captive. The lives, deaths, and afterlives of these Tainan women help us take a more personal look at traditional popular religion in Taiwan and China, and at how the national chastity cult played out on a local level.

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