Association for the Study of Spirit Generals Folk-art Performance, National Taitung University: "The Military Retainers”

The Military Retainers (Jia Jiang) is one of the many “spirit soldier” ritual procession troupes characteristic of Taiwanese folk religion. These soldiers and generals are delegated the task of exorcising baleful spirits to keep the community safe and secure. Although their origins can probably be traced back to the nuo (shamanic drama) tradition of ancient China, extant ritual procession troupes are inextricably linked to the specific historical conditions of Taiwan. At one time, besides ridding the community of baleful influences in the name of local deities and providing a sense of spiritual comfort, these troupes also played an important role in maintaining social order. In this sense, they were significant instruments of moral education. Furthermore, from individual body movements and choreographed ensembles to the characteristic costumes, accouterments, face-painting, and musical instruments of temple procession troupes, the Spirit Generals tradition comprises a significant core of traditional Taiwanese folk art.

Currently available data shows that most of the Spirit Generals troupes found in Taiwan today can ultimately be traced to the city of Tainan, more specifically the ritual procession troupes of the Bailong (White Dragon) and Xilai (Bodhidharma) temples. The process of diffusion and popularization generated a wide variety of forms and styles, among them the Ten Generals, Eight Generals, Sixteen Generals, and so on. Local forms can be quite distinct, each possessing unique characteristics. For example, the marching formations, face painting iconography, costumes, and even the taboos observed by the troupe members vary from place to place.

Despite these variations, it is generally agreed by practitioners and scholars that a standard Military Retainers troupe is comprised of the following roles:

(1) Bearer of Punishments
(2) Civil Messenger
(3) Military Messenger
(4) Master Gan
(5) Master Liu
(6) Elder Master
(7) Second Master
(8) Spring
(9) Summer
(10) Fall
(11) Winter
(12) Civil Magistrate
(13) Military Magistrate

Masters Gan and Liu, along with Elder Master and Second Master comprise the “Four Great Generals” (also called the “Vanguard Formation”); Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter make up the “Great Deities of the Four Seasons” (also called the “Rear Guard”). These eight comprise the core of the Military Retainers performance.

During ritual processions, the Military Retainers are deputized by the patron deity to perform a series of coordinated tasks: They are directed by the Bearer of Punishments; the Civil Messenger receives the orders; the Military Messenger transmits them. Elder and Second Masters capture wayward ghosts, who are punished by Masters Gan and Liu. The Great Deities of the Four Seasons interrogate the captives, the Civil Magistrate records their depositions, after which malefactors are remanded to the custody of the Military Magistrate.

Depending on the particular ritual circumstance, the Military Retainers may perform any of a series of coordinated drills which includes the Four Gates, the Five Directions, the Big Dipper Formation, Eight Trigrams Formation, and the Lotus Formation. At a typical temple festival, however, the most commonly-performed drillis the Four Gates. In the stances, gestures, and paces of such a performance one can clearly discern the traces of traditional martial arts.

On the one hand, the Military Retainers are representatives of the gods. On the other hand, if we were to transpose their official functions and organizational structure to the administrative system of the human world, we would see that they are clearly an extension of the police patrol system. Thus a number of scholars have proposed that the Military Retainers are in fact derived from the ancient system of local patrols, making them the ancestors of today’s law enforcers.

Since among the non-religious functions of all martial ritual procession troupes is to manifest a community’s martial prowess and social cohesiveness, they have the additional, practical role of protecting the community’s boundaries against the predations of bandits and thieves. For this reason, the Spirit Generals troupes tend to have a very tight organizational structure and maintain strict discipline. In the past, those who played the role of Military Retainers were the most outstanding members of a community; their conduct was expected to set the standard for the locality.

To fully appreciate a Military Retainers performance one needs first to understand the historical origins, social functions, organization, official role, as well as the characteristics of each role. Only then is it possible to grasp the real substance of the Military Retainers.

Our Association has five primary objectives:

  • Pass down and improve Taiwan’s traditional culture.
  • Rectify social customs by promoting the capacity for moral education inherent in Military Retainers practice
  • Strengthen the educational funtion of folk religion and temple festival activities.
  • Establish a digital archive of Spirit General procession troupes.
  • Foster the development of a new research community and intensify the interdisciplinary study of Spirit General procession troupes.

To properly demonstrate the positive aspects of Spirit General procession troupe practice requires orderly procedure, strict discipline, and a sense of tradition. This, however, is only first step towards our Association’s goal of transmitting traditional Taiwanese culture. Our ultimate objective is to set up a digital archive of martial procession troupes and make it available for the use of scholars as well as the general public as a way to foster research talent in the area of Taiwanese folk religion. It is our hope that by we can make a creative and worthwhile contribution to the important work of advancing the study of Taiwan’s unique culture.

English Translation by Dr. Avron Boretz(譯:白安睿)