Sunday, June 19, 2011

"May We Have a Word With You?" -- a Taiwanese Legend From the Cold War

This is a story I heard from my late friend Richard, a family friend and visitor from Taiwan. He told me this story as I drove him, his wife, my family and family friends from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the summer of 1982 or 1983.

This story has been in my mind all these years. It takes place during a less happier time, a time when residents of Taiwan and China were not allowed to communicate with each other or visit each other, a time of great political and military tensions.

"The Chinese secret intelligence service is second to none," I remember hearing Richard say as he began his story. Only one thing--he didn't specify whose intelligence service, China's or Taiwan's. What follows is his story to the best of my memory.

It seems that Mr. Tom H. (pseudonym), a government civil servant in some department, applied to the appropriate government agency for permission to visit Hong Kong. Permission was granted, so off he went.

There was a slight detail he did not bother to tell the government agent responsible for looking into his trip: Tom was not intending to make Hong Kong the focal point of his trip. No, instead he was planning to land in Hong Kong and then cross the border into the People's Republic of China, where he would travel up to his home province, let's say Anhui, a place he had left as a child with relatives who had fled to Taiwan. There, in his hometown, he planned to reunite with his mother, whom he hadn't seen since 1948, nearly thirty years before.

He landed in Hong Kong. The next day he arrived at the Lok Ma Chau border station to cross over into China. He did so, without incident, his passport left unstamped. From Guangdong Province, he traveled by bus or train to Anhui Province and then onto his hometown, the place of his birth. He was joyfully reunited with his mother and other relatives.

During his visit, he was paid a visit by PRC security agents, who politely asked Tom to visit their office. Tom, of course, went immediately. He was ushered into a room and was asked to sit in front of a desk behind which sat a high-ranking security officer. Offered tea, Tom was given a brief interview.

He was asked his impression of modern China. Did everything look fine? Did the local people appear well fed, happy, prosperous? Was he enjoying himself? and so on.

Tom responded affirmatively and positively to everything he was asked. Yes, he was very impressed by the People's Republic, and, yes, everything appeared modern. The citizens, too, looked content, happy and well-fed.

Fine. Tom was allowed to return back to his mother's apartment. He continued to visit for a few more days and then returned to Hong Kong. He might have spent a day or two in Hong Kong, for after all, the then-British Crown Colony had been his ostensible destination. He'd be expected to bring back souvenirs of his stay.

He returned to Taipei and then back to his apartment.

A few days later, as he was getting ready to go to work in the morning, he heard a knock at the door. Opening the door, he came face-to-face with two polite strangers in business suits. One of them smiled and flashed his I.D. at Tom: Agent X, the National Security Bureau of the Republic of China.

"May we have a word with you at our office regarding your recent trip to Hong Kong?" the NSB agent asked. "Our car is waiting downstairs."

A million things must have run through Tom's head as he sat in the backseat of the car headed to NSB headquarters. Did they know he had gone to the Mainland, which at that time would have been a huge crime? Had he been sloppy in keeping his tracks clean? He had been careful not to bring back any memento from Anhui. So did they know?

Tom and his government escorts arrived at their destination. Tom was led into an office. Behind the desk sat a senior agent. On the desk was a tape recorder or tape deck. With a wave of the hand, the senior agent dismissed the pair that had brought Tom in.

"Now, may I ask where you went on your recent overseas vacation?" the senior agent asked.

"Hong Kong."

"Just Hong Kong? Not, perhaps, Macao as well?"

"No. Just Hong Kong."

"I see."

The senior agent smiled. He turned on the recorder. The tape then repeated the exact conversation Tom had had with the security officer in Anhui--the exact words and the same voices. Tom heard once again the questions asked of him while in China, and again he heard the replies he himself had given.

He slumped into his chair. What could he say? There was nothing he could say . . .

Tom was punished. He was very fortunately not sent to Green Island. Back in those martial-law days, his punishment could have been very heavy. Instead, he was given five to ten years restricted travel, prohibited from leaving Taiwan. I don't recall how his legal problems impacted his job as civil servant. Difficulties such as his tended to have a negative effect on job promotion and tenure.


Nowadays Chinese from both sides of the Straits can visit each other. Many Mainland visitors have flocked to Taiwan, and thousands of citizens of Taiwan live and work on the Mainland. Indeed, Richard's ex-wife herself now lives in Shanghai. Thus, this story is a relic of a bygone era.

Green Island, now a popular resort off the southeast coast of Taiwan, was once a penal colony housing those convicted of political offenses.

This story has some of the hallmarks we associate with urban legends: the lack of a firmly identified protagonist; "Tom," to the best of my recollection, was explained away as a "friend of a friend"; and a "comeuppance" effect, poetic justice or an otherwise very negative result for involving oneself in deception.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Two Legends About the Sea Goddess Mazu (Fujian & Taiwan)

(1) Mazu and General Sees All and General Hears All

It is said that General Sees All and General Hears All had been brothers in life. The older brother, the one who could see vast distances, was named Gaoming; his brother, the one whose ears could pick up the faintest sounds for thousands of li, was named Gaojue.

These two brothers were generals, and in their final battle, they fought fiercely together before sacrificing their lives. Their spirits then floated up to Peach Blossom Mountain, where they became resident noxious demons that threatened any humans passing by.

When the goddess Mazu happened to travel through the area, the two demons appeared to her and demanded that she marry them. The goddess, of course, refused this outrageous command. Would she battle them? they asked. The loser would do the other's bidding; in this case, if Mazu lost, she would have to marry the pair. Mazu agreed and countered that if they, the demons, lost, they would become her attendants.

Both sides agreed to the terms and the duel was on!

With her matchless powers, Mazu trounced both fierce warrior demons in no time.

The demons had no choice but to keep their word. Thus, this how the green-faced demon Sees All and his red-faced brother Hears All came to be the goddess companions and servants!


from Shi Siwei, Taiwan minjian gushixuan, pp. 59-60.

Mazu (Matsu) ("Ancestress Mother") is the Southeastern Chinese patron goddess of mariners and is also known as the "Holy Mother of Heaven" or "the Heavenly Empress." According to Lin Daoyuan, who classifies Mazu as a "folk religion deity," there are from 500 to 600 temples and shrines on Taiwan alone dedicated to her (Taiwan minjian xinyang shenming datu, 294.). Perhaps the most famous Mazu temple on Taiwan is the one located in Pei-kang (Beigang), which attracts many pilgrims. The Taiwan-administered island chain, the Matsu Islands north of Taiwan, though written with a slightly different character, is named for her, and a temple on one of the islets is believed to house her tomb. It also remains a destination for pilgrims. The major focus of pilgrims, however, remains the goddess's birthplace, Meizhou, Fujian Province, where she was born in circa 960 A.D., right at the inauguration of the Song Dynasty. She was named "Mo" ("silent") or "Moniang" ("Silent maiden") because in the first month of life she did not utter a cry. When Lin Moniang reached her twenty-third year (Liao Yuwen, Taiwan shenhua, 73), she ascended into heaven from a cloud-encased mountain peak and into the company of welcoming celestial and immortal children. Other sources place her age at twenty eight (Cang Dewu, Taiwan minjian gushi, 133; Shi Siwei, Taiwan minjian gushixuan, 55), while Lin Daoyuan states she perished in a typhoon at the age of twenty seven (295). In any case, she would later appear on the seas during storms, aiding those in distress.

Another legend about Mazu, "The Story of Yishan Island," can be found at 3/28/08.

I didn't attempt to translate literally the Chinese names for "General Sees All" and "General Hears All"; instead, I freely translated their respective names (Qianliyan, "Eyes that see for a thousand li," and Shunfeng'er, "Ears that hear with the flow of the wind") to capture what the original names in Chinese imply. Their names have come down into modern parlance to mean "foresighted," "shrewd," or even "telepathic" (qianliyan) and "illuminated" or "enlightened" (shunfeng'er). Two excellent wooden images of the generals can be found inside Tainan's Heavenly Empress Palace (Daitian hougong), also known as the Tainan Mazu Temple; here, the Qianliyan statue is green-skinned, while Shunfeng'er is red, as are other statues of the generals elsewhere on Taiwan. (Shi Cuifeng reverses their colors; Taiwan minjian gushixuan, 53.) These two beings first come into history by appearing in the well-known Ming Dynasty epic Journey to the West, where they are depicted as the "eyes" and "ears" of the Jade Emperor, informing him of what is going on in the world (Chou Hongwei, Zhongguo minjian xinyan fengsu cidian, 127). Probably not coincidentally, "Gaoming" means "high brilliance," "great wisdom," and/or "profound brightness (of the eyes)," while "Gaojue" means "great perception" and/or "great sensitivity."

(2) Mazu's Iron Horse

By the time she was nineteen, Lin Moniang had already witnessed many maritime tragedies--lives being lost in sudden storms and typhoons--and each time she saw such an occurrence, it always broke her heart. Most heart-wrenching for her was a tsunami that suddenly hit Meizhou Island one autumn day, sweeping out to sea more than ten fishing boats and over a hundred souls.

Lin Moniang continued to mourn the disaster that had hit her close-knit community. She soon fell very ill as a result and became confined to her bed.

One day, some time between afternoon and early evening, Lin Moniang was sleeping when she was suddenly awoken by whinnying. That was odd, for there were no horses on this island of fishing families. Whenever the island residents had to travel, they took to their boats and headed for the mainland. Who on this island would have any use for a horse? Lin Moniang herself had never even beheld a real horse, only the ornamental majestic iron horse placed near the village during some long ago dynasty, the iron horse which continually stood under a banyan tree.

Lin Moniang went back to sleep.

Late the next afternoon, still very ill in bed, Lin Moniang again heard the telltale whinnying of what could only be a vigorous horse. Her curiosity had now gotten the better of her, prompting her to put her illness and weakness out of her mind.

The next day, at sundown, Lin Moniang was ready. She had lain on her bed for most of the day in her clothes, preparing to get up at a moment's notice. At the first sound of neighing, she climbed out of bed and made it to the door, which she opened.

She listened.

Yes, it must be a horse; there was no other creature on the island that could make such a sound. The noise seemed to be coming from the grove of banyan trees just beyond the village. As ill as she was, she crept outside and headed for the banyan trees, in particular the tree under which stood the iron horse.

There stood the iron horse, motionless, gleaming in the moonlight.

Lin Moniang approached the horse and stroked its neck and metal mane.

She stepped back--the horse was now warm flesh, covered by a downy fuzz! Its eyes blinked as it boldly snorted a ball of warm air, its tail, gently switching.

Startled but also happily excited, Lin Moniang put her arms around the horse's neck and climbed up onto its back. She gently patted the horse. It then gave off a loud neigh, raised its head and took off like a ray of light, heading for the boundless sea!

Lin Moniang discovered she could guide the horse's direction by pointing. When she folded her five fingers, the horse would come to a stop.

The future goddess Mazu, Lin Moniang, was jubilant and filled with hope, for with this horse, she could go to any friend or family member needing rescue at sea.

Dawn was approaching. Lin Moniang guided the iron horse back to its original spot beneath the banyan tree. She dismounted the steed and gently stroked its neck, allowing its soft flesh to return instantly to a metallic state.

From that day on, Lin Moniang patrolled the ocean off the coast of the island while riding the iron horse, rescuing all--be they fishermen, traders or passengers--who found themselves struggling to survive upon the unfriendly sea.

It is said that when Lin Moniang ascended into heaven, the iron horse went with her.


from Mazude chuanshuo (Legends about Mazu), Wang Wulong, ed.; Fuzhou: Haixia Wenyi Chubanshe, pp. 27-28.

Few animals in world myths and legends can compete with the horse in abundance of symbols. Depending on the culture, horses may represent frenzy, male vitality, the underworld (as psychopomps), nobility, the sun, and flowing water (e.g., springs). Ancient Chinese myth has its share of flying horses. The Shanhaijing, composed sometime between the end of the Period of Warring States (221 B.C.) and the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.), a compendium of fabulous beasts, lists a "heavenly horse," a winged creature with the head of a dog that would fly away upon being observed by people (Yuan Ke,
Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian, 63).

Motifs: B41.2, "Flying horse"; cD1626.1, "Artificial flying horse."