Guest writer and professional photographer Rich Matheson explores one of Taiwan’s most popular folk religion troupes: Guanjiang Shou. Rich has lived and worked in Taiwan for many years. A professional photographer since 1998, Rich currently lives in Tainan and Namasiya Township in Taiwan. His images have been published in a number of different print publications including CNN Traveler, Taiwan Fun, Xpat, and Eva Air inflight magazine among others. To view more of Rich’s work, please visit his professional photography portfolio at Lief in Taiwan, or visit his blog.
Guanjiang Shou troupes are one of Taiwan’s most popular zhentou*(1) that may be seen all over Taiwan at traditional folk religion (Daoist) gatherings. With their fiercely painted faces, protruding fangs and powerful, choreographed performances, they are easily recognized but commonly mistaken for Bajiajiang who, although both Jiajiang troupes, are of different origins. They may be described as underworld police or gods’ bodyguards.
Guangjiang Shou are underworld military leaders with the added responsibilities of protecting the gods in their charge, expelling demons and chasing away plagues. They commonly protect gods in charge of punishing criminals, such as: Kitsbargha, the City God, Emperor Dong Yue, Qingshan Wang, etc.
Guanjiang Shou conventionally have large protruding eyebrows, long sideburns, and fiercely painted faces. Protruding canines have become their hallmark, and are worn to reveal their aggressive nature. Their clothing is based on the uniforms of ancient generals; Erlang helmets*(2), shoulder armor, protective clothing and protective skirt, all decorated with imperial decorations. Straw sandals are an important part of their attire as they have the ability to repel evil. They carry instruments used for punishing criminals.
Troupes vary from three to nine members, with five being the most common. General Sun is the green faced Guangjiang Shou who carries a trident and is the zhentou leader. Standing to his left and right are two red faced General Zeng’s (or one red one blue); one grasping a fire stick and the other a tiger placard in his hands. A different version is Demon King in the center flanked by General’s Zeng carrying a fire stick and stocks and chains, and Sun holding a tiger placard and manacles. A five member zhentou often adds Guide Boy, Crane Boy carrying a gourd or Tiger General. Over five often add Bajiajiang roles, commonly: Chayi and Lords Seven and Eight, among others.
Guanjiang Shou are from Northern Taiwan and of relatively recent origin. They can be traced to Xinzhuang City’s Dizhang Wang Temple and its principal deity Dizhang Wang’s (Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva) early inspection tour customs. Worshippers walked in front of Dizhang Wang’s palanquin for religious kudos on his yearly inspection tour, in a custom called kailu*(4). In those days the procession of worshippers were called Bajiangjue (a god’s personal bodyguards) or Xiangjue (religious pilgrims).
However, these early practitioners were a bit of a rabble, they had no fixed appearance, formations or procedures.
The xiangjue took definite form after Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government relocated to Taiwan in 1945. Major-General Zhou Han-Yi befriended Mr. Huang Qiu-Shui, proprietor of a cosmetic shop on Xinzhuang’s old street. The general discovered the Bajiangjue and taught Mr. Huang of China’s belief and rites of generals Sun and Zeng.
Legend has it that Generals Zeng and Sun were originally trouble-making demons that were subdued by Dizang Wang, thus becoming his personal guards. The generals have the ability to discern mortals’ virtue and vice. If red faced General Zeng (increase) finds a virtuous person he will increase his lifespan whereas green faced General Sun (decrease) decreases the lifespan of wicked people.
In 1949 Mr. Huang led the Dizhang pilgrims as the first ever Guanjiang Shou leader. In this early incarnation, Generals Zeng and Sun walked in front of Dizang Wang’s palanquin and led the pilgrims during the inspection tour. In 1950, General Zeng became two generals to make the performance more pleasing. In 1996, Guide Boy and Tiger General were added to the troupe.
Dizang Wang temple’s Guangjiang Shou troupe was the first troupe. Different temples developed different roles, but most had Generals Zeng and Sun. Xinzhuang’s Guanjiang Shou first spread northwards, then southwards, until they became common zhentou at temple festivals and processions all around the island. Such rapid and expansive proliferation may be due to the poor image Bajiajiang had, and to some extent still carry today. News reports blackened the name of Bajiajiang, linking troupes to gangs and crime, some undoubtedly true, but many sensationalist.
In the past, as with all of Taiwan’s zhentou, agricultural society provided a fertile field for folk performance development. Hard working farmers would meet in temples and form troupes to show respect to the gods, for entertainment and for martial training. With Taiwan’s fast-paced industrialization and modern pressures, many contemporary troupes are professional and the ritual aspect of Guanjiang Shou is often neglected. Historically, troupes had to adhere to many rites and taboos. These days, some troupes faithfully follow tradition but many do not.
For the most part, Guanjiang Shou’s taboos are the same as any religious zhentou, namely; staying in the temple three days prior to performing and staying away from anything ‘unclean.’ They are not to be exposed to anything like funerals, sickness, menstruating women, or births. Such things were considered ‘unclean’ and disrespectful to the gods. Now many of these customs are gradually being overlooked, as most people are unable to spend three days sequestered in a temple and modern medicine explains away other superstitions.
Before leaving the temple, a priest performs a cleansing ritual, protective gods are invited and General Sun receives his orders from Yinyangci Gong*(5). Generals Zeng and Sun must first perform the sanjin sanchu troop inspection ritual and guohuo*(5) before leaving on inspection tour. Similar rituals are carried out after the tour, the banner is returned signify the god’s exit, and then the troupe may disband.
Differentiating Bajiajiang and Guanjiang Shou
Bajianjiang and Guanjiang Shou are both Jiajiang troupes (personal bodyguards for gods), but they are quite different zhentou and, for the most part, protect different gods. With their similar roles and appearance, they are often confused but, for the most part, can be easily to differentiated.
Bajiajiang are said to be yin with soft and graceful actions, whereas Guanjiang Shou are yang, possessing strong, powerful movements. Guanjiang Shou display two (sometimes four) large canine fangs protruding from their mouth and exaggerated sideburns, their face paint is not a particular set design, whereas Bajiajiang’s face paint has set designs for each role and they do not don fake teeth or sideburns. Further, tools held in the hands have differences, for example, Bajiajiang have fans, Guanjiang Shou do not.
In reality, Guanjiang Shou are not so easily categorized or explained. With the large number of troupes spread throughout Taiwan and no ‘rule book,’ there are naturally many variations. Many contemporary performers often have no idea what traditional role they are playing and that there even are special roles. If one asks them if they are General Sun (as this writer frequently does), the most likely result is a questioning stare. A troupe leader or face painter may know the traditional roles, but most of this writer’s information is from books. In the end, Guanjiang Shou are part of a complex, highly syncretic folk religion with no creed or canon, so each troupe is defined by their own individual cultural, geographic and historic influences.
*(1), Traditional folk performing troupes.
*(2), Erlang helmet The so called Erlang Helmet is an ornate helmet once worn by Chinese generals and nowadays worn by puppets, opera actors and traditional folk performers. It is called the Erlang Helmet as it is the helmet that Lord Erlang (二郎神).
*(3), For the most part according to Dizhang Temple literature, as this seems the most often quoted.
*(4) Kailu (lit. open the road) This means clearing the road of any evil or dangers.
*(5) Yinyangci Gong The City God’s direct underling in charge of rewarding good and punishing bad. A god often characterized by a face and clothing half black and half white.
*(5) Guohuo Fire walking. Sometimes walking on hot coals sometimes a symbolic passing over burning paper.
Guanjiang Shou- also called Chief Officers, Guan Jiang Shou, Guanjiangshou
Bajiajiang- also called Ba Jia Jiang, Eight Generals, Infernal Generals, and Hell’s Policemen and is a blanket term for Jiajiang Troupes, Shenjiajiang.
Zhentou- a traditional folk performance troupe