Lifestyle & Belief

Taiwan: Underworld justice

HSINCHUANG, Taiwan — In his small, fluorescent-lit office, the portly temple scribe Lai Ming-hsien faces a middle-aged man in a dark blue jacket.

Lai asks the man's name, age and address, then begins jotting Chinese characters with a ball-point pen on a fresh piece of bright yellow paper, as the man looks on intently.

The matter that brought the man here is working its way through Taiwan's criminal justice system in nearby courts. But like many Taiwanese in such situations, he's also seeking an otherworldly remedy.

Lai is writing out the man's formal complaint to deliver to the "Lord of the Hordes" (Da Zheng Ye), an underworld dispenser of justice in Chinese Daoist and folk belief. (The man did not want his name or the nature of his case published.)

Here, in a side wing attached to Dizang Temple in a working-class Taipei suburb, Taiwanese come to air their grievances, at about $13 per complaint. Dizang is just one of scores of Taiwan temples offering such services, but it's among the most well-known.

In fact, business has boomed in recent years, says the 53-year-old Lai, so much so that the temple now employs three full-time scribes, who record and transmit to the gods more than 100 petitions per day. That's double or triple the number just a few years ago, when Lai was a one-man show.

Taiwan may have rapidly modernized and boosted educational levels in the past few decades, and its flagship high-tech industries embrace scientific rationalism. Yet many centuries-old, Chinese folk beliefs and practices show no signs of dying out.

Some practices have merely taken new, urban forms as Taiwan's old rural ways fade. Others — like underworld petitions — have survived into the 21st century intact, and might even be more prevalent than before. Such appeals can also be made by the dead against the living, says Paul Katz, an expert on Chinese religious and judicial traditions at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, at a recent talk in Taipei.

"There are people indicting people, ghosts indicting people, people indicting ghosts, and all sorts of other things." said Katz, who did field work at Dizang Temple. "This whole underworld indictment thing is busier than L.A. Law."

According to Katz, approximately 3,500 people file underworld petitions at the Dizang Temple every year.

The Chinese custom of underworld indictments dates back to sometime after the emergence of religious Daoism around the 2nd century A.D., with its emphasis on the bureaucratic order of the underworld.

"There's always been an idea that justice was being administered by officials in this world and the other world," Katz said.

At the Dizang Temple, the custom persists in modern packaging. Just like in a Taipei bank or clinic, petitioners file into a lobby off to the side of the main temple, take a number from a machine and wait their turn on rows of plastic chairs. When an automated voice calls out their number and shows it on a red L.E.D. screen, they step into the scribe's office.

Their complaints involve stolen vehicles, workplace troubles, extramarital affairs, even intellectual property rights disputes between technology firms.

"If they have situations they can't resolve, they come to us," Lai said. "We consider ourselves a bridge to the gods."

Katz' field work found only one change in the nature of such appeals from the late 1990s to 2006: An increase in missing pets cases. More recently, financial disputes have increased with Taiwan's high unemployment and recession-battered economy, Lai said.

The scribes also handle appeals for good health, better karma and getting rid of troublesome ghosts. Such petitions are directed toward the Buddhist deity Ksitigarbha ("Dizang Wang Pu Sa," in Chinese), Lai said. Both Ksitigarbha and the Lord of the Hordes are worshipped side by side at the temple, a common practice in Taiwan's blend of Daoist, Buddhist and folk practices.

On a recent Monday morning, some 30 Taiwanese visited the scribes in the space of a couple hours, mostly couples or small groups of relatives. Some of the men chewed betel nut, the mild stimulant popular with Taiwan's working class; others toted babies.

Wei, a 50-year-old man from the nearby city Shulin, padded in and out of Lai's office in old-fashioned wooden, thonged sandals, as a female companion waited outside. He said he came to ask the gods for relief from bad karma he believes he earned in a past life and is plaguing him in this one. It was his second visit; the first was three months ago for "another matter," he said, declining to elaborate.

An elderly couple asked Lai to write down their appeal for a relative's cancer treatment to go smoothly. After Lai had done so, they each pressed their left thumbs on a red ink pad and put a print on the yellow paper, which Lai then folded neatly and gave to them.

Every so often Lai refuses a case. One instance involved a third party in an adulterous love triangle, another, an inheritance dispute between brothers, he said. "You can't write just anything" and pass it on to the gods, said Lai. Sometimes he tells petitioners they should first go see a lawyer; sometimes lawyers send their clients to him.

If he's uncertain about a case, he may use a delaying tactic, such as telling a petitioner to first directly approach the gods. If the petitioner tosses wood divination blocks in front of the god's altar and three times in a row get a "yes" answer, he'll take the case.

Prices for a petition haven't gone up much — it cost $7.50 a pop when he began working as a scribe 32 years ago. But he works longer hours; he now gets only one day off a week and works eight or eight-and-a-half hour days with an hour's lunch break. Back when the temple paid him based on the number of petitions he wrote, he could earn better money than he does now (about $1,600 a month), but the income wasn't as stable, he said.

He said he mainly taught himself how to write indictments in formal Chinese, and experience tells him when a petitioner is lying. He keeps an Asustek "Eee PC" netbook on his desk, but only to listen to music. "I'm used to writing" petitions by hand, he says, though the other two scribes now tap out theirs on computers.

Katz said temple appeals have traditionally been made to win legitimacy for one's cause, or to prove one's innocence. That's an important move in a judicial culture where the burden of proof usually lies with the accused. Cops and lawyers have been known to make offerings to the gods, or even take suspects to the temple as a test of their honesty, he said.

Scribes like Lai deal with situations the courts "can't or won't deal with," Katz said. Going to a temple scribe can also be a way to "put pressure on family and friends in cases where it's difficult to work within the legal system," or to cool off a dispute.

Many Taiwanese charge into the scribes' offices in an agitated, emotional state, said Katz. But Lai then calmly writes out their complaint in formal Chinese. "By the time these people leave the temple, their facial expression has totally changed — a lot of that anger is gone," Katz said. "So it's really a great safety valve."

Taiwanese often appeal to the underworld at the same time as they pursue a case in court, Lai said. His services are especially valued since the island's judicial system is plagued by corruption, he said, citing recent high-profile cases of crooked judges.

"Judges can be bribed, but the gods cannot," Lai said.

Huang Guo-rong contributed to this report.