A bit of Taiwanese folk religion/magic

I was talking to one of my students, an engineer in his fifties, and he told me about a local (Yuanlin, Taiwan) magical or religious custom I’d never heard of or read about before, so here I am documenting it for the benefit of whoever may be interested.

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There is in his town a centuries-old maple tree which has become a god (as, according to Chinese folk belief, various plants and animals are sometimes able to do, given enough time) and has a small shrine.

When he was young, my student says, the local men would go to this shrine and consult the divine tree on the question of which lottery numbers to pick. (This was before the introduction of state-sponsored gambling in Taiwan, so they were playing an underground lottery run by gangsters and tied to the results of the state-run lottery in Hong Kong.)

The tree was consulted in the following way. The querent would fill a bowl with flour, packing it down and scraping the top surface smooth, set the bowl out in front of the tree, and leave it there overnight. In the morning, lo and behold, there would be strange scrawling patterns on the surface of the flour — made, in my informant’s opinion, by ants come to truck away the flour, but popularly believed to be the work of the tree itself.

The querent and his partners in crime would then break out magnifying glasses and pore over the scrawlings, trying to read numerals in them — the winning lottery numbers which, they were sure, were hidden somewhere in the ant-doodles. (“If ten people looked at the flour,” my informant says, “they would come up with ten different numbers — so usually at least one of them would be right.”)

Once they were satisfied that they had decoded the tree’s message, they would buy lottery tickets with those numbers. If they didn’t win anything, well, they must have misread the doodles. (In hindsight, that was clearly a three, not a two! Well, next time….) But if they did win something, then they would donate a sizable percentage of it to the tree’s shrine, the local rag would run a front-page what-hath-the-tree-wrought story, and more worshiper-gamblers would flow in. My informant remembers that a shockingly large number of local men opted to forgo gainful employment and spend all their time at the shrine trying to crack the lottery code.

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The flour-bowl ritual has apparently fallen out of practice, but the strange god-and-mammon sandwich of Taiwanese folk religion is still going strong. Some time ago I had a dream that brought the number 7,381 to my attention, and when I told a few Taiwanese acquaintances about it, their reaction was always the same: “I think God’s trying to tell you something.” What? “You should buy a lottery ticket with those numbers.”

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