A decade after my previous visit, I returned to Beigang to look for an old nail. I figured it would still be there: It's a relic of sorts, and because it's embedded in stone, it'd be very difficult to remove.
Despite the comings and goings of pilgrims and tourists, plus the rebuilding work going on throughout the 314-year-old Chaotian Temple, I found the nail without difficulty. The dab of red paint that draws attention to it has faded, and the temple authorities have still to put up an English-language sign. But the nail remains lodged in the timeworn granite step where it was hammered, more than 200 years ago, by "a filial son surnamed Xiao, a native of Quanzhou in Fujian Province."
Xiao, the Chinese-language plaque continues, was desperate to know if his parents had survived a voyage across of the Taiwan Strait. He asked Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea worshipped in this and countless other temples around Taiwan and southeast China, to give him a sign they hadn't perished. When the nail penetrated the hard stone, Xiao knew his mother and father were still alive.
Chaotian Temple is a multi-chamber temple with several altars. In addition to the Mazu idols displayed for veneration, near the back of the complex you'll find a storeroom stacked full of icons donated by the faithful. Many of them are images of Mazu (recognizable by her black face, ornate headgear, and "veil" of beads); some represent Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion; there are also a few tiger-god statuettes. This room is usually locked, but it's worth peering in through the windows just to see shelf upon shelf of "shelved" deities...
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