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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 209-238



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Goddess across the Taiwan Strait:

Matrifocal Ritual Space, Nation-State, and Satellite Television Footprints


The said "return of the religious," . . . is not a simple return, for its globality and its figures (tele-techno-media-scientific, capitalistic and politico-economic) remain original and unprecedented.
Jacques Derrida, "Faith and Knowledge"

This essay examines complex interactions among the nation-state, popular religion, media capitalism, and gendered territorialization as these are inflected across the Taiwan Strait. Relations across the strait have been fraught with political tension and military preparations over the question of whether Taiwan is part [End Page 209] of China or an independent state. Since the 1999 presidential elections in Taiwan, the new government there has been more vociferous about Taiwan independence, and mainland China's Communist Party has responded with more vigorous claims on Taiwan, including the launching of a warning missile over the island. Under these conditions, it is all the more remarkable that in recent years there has been an increasing number of religious pilgrimages and exchanges across the strait, and that, in 2000, one such pilgrimage by Taiwanese worshippers of the maritime goddess Mazu to her natal home in Fujian Province was broadcast live from China back to Taiwan via satellite television.


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Figure 1
Map of Mazu Pilgrimage from Dajia, Taiwan, to Meizhou Island, Fujian Province, July 2000

I conducted fieldwork on popular religion and media development in Taiwan for four months in 2000 and 2001 and traveled with Dongsen Television News Station (ETTV News) from Taiwan to China in July 2000, observing their reporters and technicians deliver live satellite television coverage of the historic [End Page 210] religious pilgrimage.1 In contemporary Taiwan, Mazu is the most popular cult deity: her temples are the most numerous, and it is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of Taiwanese worship her in some form. The pilgrimage in 2000 was organized by one of Taiwan's most prominent Mazu temples, Zhenlangong (Zhenlan Temple) in the central Taiwanese town of Dajia. This mediatized pilgrimage to a female deity propelled a record number of worshippers—most of them lower-middle-class and rural women—across the politically tense Taiwan Strait to the Mazu goddess cult's ritual center on Meizhou Island, part of mainland China's Fujian Province. It was a historic occasion and "media event" (Dayan and Katz 1992), in which the forces of popular religion engaged the largest ever contingent of Taiwanese media crews in order to solidify their national position and engage with the grassroots religious revival in China.

This mutual deployment of religion and the media took place against the larger historical backdrop of the emergence of the modern nation-state in China and Taiwan. It has often been observed that modern states are predicated on territoriality, the fixing and monitoring of populations, and the patrol of state borders (Anderson 1991).2 Anthony Giddens draws a useful distinction between frontiers and borders when he writes that the frontiers of archaic empires or premodern states were marginal areas at the periphery, where "the political authority of the centre [was] diffuse or thinly spread," areas occupied by tribal communities not fully colonized by archaic states. Borders, however, are found only with the rise of modern nation-states and the global state system. They are sharply and clearly demarcated and, despite their location at the edges of the nation-state, convey a state presence (through border patrols, custom checkpoints, and media messages) equal to that of the political capital (Giddens 1987: 50).3 Modern state territorialities in both Taiwan and China have developed ways of excluding, containing, or rechanneling deterritorializing forces such as capitalism (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), [End Page 211] migration (Scott 1998), the transnational media, and, more recently, religious pilgrimage.

Television's power to promote cultural integration (Ang 1996: 5) has not been lost on nation-states, which have established or guided national broadcast systems and control media access, media importation, and programming to varying degrees. Whereas nineteenth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8018
Print ISSN
0899-2363
Pages
pp. 209-238
Launched on MUSE
2004-06-10
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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