Let’s begin with Gu Fuma’s story, since she’s the center of a number of stories to follow.
Surnamed Lin (林) with no given name on record, her husband Gu Tangchun (辜湯純) died when she was twenty two. Lin was left to manage his meager estate, consisting of his aged mother, concubine, and the concubine’s two children and very little property. When her mother in law was sick with a life-threatening illness, Lin cut a piece of flesh from her thigh and made it into a nourishing soup for the woman, who then lived for five more years. This kind of self sacrifice (alternately, one could cut out a piece of one’s own liver) was considered one of the heights of filial piety, and was frequently illustrated in morality books, like so:
Official local gazetteers from the 18th and 19th centuries relate little more than this, only to note that during the Yongzheng era (1722-1735), she was officially honored along with a few other Tainan women as paragons of chastity.
My preliminary research finds no early record of the personal, local version of her story (and reason for the founding of the temple) that can be found on a number of 21st century blogs and articles online. The earliest source I’ve seen for the expanded story comes from 1976, thanks to a temple flyer posted on the Gu Fuma Temple restoration blog. Given that the flyer circulated a year before the temple was “restored” (for before (circa 1948) and after (1977) pictures, see this post at the temple blog), it’s likely it was part of a restoration fundraising effort around the neighborhood.
The temple’s own narrative about its goddess is that Mother Gu was so beloved in life that her community wouldn’t let her leave them in death. Not only was she the perfect wife, she was also an adviser to the women of the city and helped them achieve familial harmony. When she died, the flyer reads, “Tainan’s women lost a their beacon lamp.” Though in Yongzheng 5 (1727) she was granted a tablet in Taiwan’s temple to the chaste and filial, the temple was all the way in Changhua (彰化). Since this was too far away, locals raised funds and built a small temple, dedicated entirely to her, near where she used to live. The flyer goes on to say that she is a perfect paragon, combining all of the virtuous roles for “our nation’s (我國)” women – filial daughter in law, a virtuous wife, and loving mother – and it all can be attested to have happened right here in Tainan.
In Qing society, widows such as Lin were honored, in life and in death, provided they remained chaste and faithful to their husbands’ memories. Honoring such women was the direct decree of a number of Qing emperors, who hoped that by doing so, the common people would be influenced in two ways: 1) That the loyalty of wives to their husbands would inspire people to heights of loyalty reaching all the way back up to the emperor, and 2) That widows, seeing the prestige granted to other widows, would neither remarry nor kill themselves after their husbands’ deaths. The ideal widow denied her desires (for love or death) for the interests of her late husband’s family, just as the ideal subject denied himself and was willing to suffer in service to his emperor.
In frontier regions, such as Taiwan was in the early 18th century, canonizing chaste widows was an intentional imperial strategy of teaching ignorant subjects the values of the empire. According to the temple blog, Lin died in 1695. From 1624 to 1661, Tainan was a Dutch colony. From 1661 to 1681, it was under the jurisdiction of the pirate Koxinga (鄭成功) and his family, along with fragments of the Ming imperial family in exile. For a brief 14 years, Lin was a subject of the Qing empire. The fact that she, for whatever her own reasons may have been, did not remarry, was incredibly useful to the new Qing authorities. The kind of virtuous loyalty Tainan’s residents should have for their new occupiers already exhibited by one of their own!
But for Mother Gu’s admirers, her inclusion in the official temple to the chaste and filial was not enough. She received her own temple, in her old neighborhood, in 1789. The motives of the 18th century temple founders are lost to time. Why did they wait nearly 100 years before honoring Mother Gu, the widow Lin, in their own way? How does the story patrons of the temple now tell about their goddess differ from the official, bare bones narrative of her extreme filiality? Is it about familial closeness (we want our mother near us, not far away in Changhua!) or about control (we want to honor our woman in our way, not yours)?
1. Thanks to an extremely detailed but long defunct blog that appears to catalog the Liu (劉) family’s involvement in the 2008 restoration of Gu Fuma temple, I have been able to piece together basic information on the women the temple honors without too much trouble.
2. For more on widows and property, see Sommer, Matthew H. “The Uses of Chastity: Sex, Law, and the Property of Widows in Qing China” in Late Imperial China 17.2 (1996) 77-130
3. For more on the practice of canonizing widows in frontier regions, see Theiss, Janet M. Disgraceful Matters: The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.