Third Prince God, from temple fairs to international stage

Just as sports teams have mascots, so do countries. In Japan, Momotaro, a popular figure derived from folklore represents the national spirit, while Uncle Sam is often associated with the United States. In Taiwan, Nezha the Third Prince (san tai tse) has become a wholly Taiwanese icon. Over the past several years, Nezha’s popularity has steadily increased as a younger generation has brought this traditional temple god out onto the international stage, attracting a large fan base by adding lively music and dance routines.

During the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung, some 20 costumed Nezha the Third Prince mascots roared into the stadium on motorcycles and proceeded to dazzle the tens of thousands of foreign visitors during the opening ceremony. As a result, Nezha the Third Prince troupes were subsequently invited to perform at international events like the 2009 Deaflympics Taipei, Shanghai World Expo, and Taipei International Flower Expo.

Nezha’s popularity reached the American mainstream in January 2010, when Taiwan’s national airline, China Airlines, created a Nezha themed float for the Pasadena Rose Parade. They faced stiff competition from China and Mexico, but came away with first prize. Then in August that same year, the Los Angeles Dodgers invited six Nezha the Third Prince troupe members to perform to a Lady Gaga song to cheer on Taiwan-born MLB pitcher Kuo Hong-chi. And elsewhere around the globe that same month, each of the 11 members of Taiwan’s marathon team took turns wearing the heavy costumes of Nezha the Third Prince as they ran the super marathon through the Sahara Desert. They did so in order to publicize Taiwan during the week-long event.

Furthermore, this July, while receiving an audience of Taiwanese cultural performers in a cross-strait exchange program, Chinese President Hu Jintao joined in with the Nezha dancers during their performance.

Originated from India, modified in China

The Third Prince, one of the protection deities in Indian Buddhist scriptures, was originally named Nalakuvara in Sanskrit. Its Chinese name was later abbreviated to Nezha. After being incorporated into the classic novels of Journey to the West and The Creation of Gods in the Ming Dynasty, Nezha became the third son of the North King (one of the four kings of Heaven), and became known as the third prince.

Embodying the figure of a child, Nezha is considered intelligent, clever and playful. He has a strong rebellious streak, leading him to frequent fights with his austere father. As the story goes, one day Nezha fought and killed the son of the Dragon King of the East China Sea. Jade Emperor of the Heaven scolded the North King. Nezha, fearing that his parents would suffer for his actions, committed suicide to prevent his parents from being punished. Praising him for his filial piety, the Chinese people worship Nezha as a marshal or grand prince of heaven.

As such, the Third Prince god has the face of a naughty boy and looks like this. The puppet shell consists of an enlarged head and its body is about twice the size of an adult. Usually dressed in traditional Chinese theatrical costume, many of them have colorful flags on their backs, jutting out like wings. Each full-body puppet weighs about 30 pounds. When performing, individuals must wear the bulky costumes as they dance, keeping up with the music, yet still incorporating a certain rigid walk associated with Nezha.

Temple culture in Taiwan

In Taiwan, there are over 300 temples that worship Nezha. With his boy-like appearance, he is considered a god especially good for protecting children. Also given that he has Wind Fire Wheels, a special vehicle that allows him to move fast and fly, he is also sought after by professional drivers (truck, taxi, bus) for protection. They carry a small figure of Nezha in their vehicles to ensure that the roads they travel on are safe and smooth.

There are always troupe performances in front of temples at every traditional Chinese holiday and birthday celebrations for the gods. Performances include singing, dancing and martial arts shows. Mythical tales and folklores are also retold during these celebrations. Each temple stages various performances to attract more worshipers in a competition with other temples.

Directly after World War II, troupes were formed by amateur organizations, consisting of the local residents in the villages. With industrialization in late 1970s, troupe membership declined to be replaced by professional performers. Temples used to attract young dropouts and unemployed juveniles to its troupes, helping them to turn their lives around in the process.

These youthful troupes were lively and informal, departing from the temples’ old-fashioned and conservative style. As reflecting their time, these young people frequented discotheques and nightclubs, so they used elements from this world to update Nezha’s image. Until recently, these troupes had thread-like connections to the criminal world.

Nezha underwent another rebirth with the new millennium, as more young people incorporated features that they loved to this temple deity. The updated Nezha often wore sunglasses and clothing decked out in LED lights and cables. Techno music also made the atmosphere more like a rave, then a temple fair. However, it would be difficult to find the origin of the “Techno Prince” (tien yin san tai tse), since both Puzi city in Chiayi County and Beigang city in Yunlin County, southern Taiwan, lay claim to it.

Rebirth into a carnival performance

Chang Chi-yuan, chairman of the Puzi Prince Festival, said that at one temple fair in 2000, some young members of Nezha the Third Prince performers abandoned traditional gongs and drums in favor of electronic music and innovative modern dances. They were well received, so electronic music was incorporated into the performance of the Third Prince troupes at temple fairs. Chang said that since 2005, troupes have started performing outside temple fairs, branching out into year-end corporate banquets, wedding celebrations and even political campaigns.

Yu Chung-pin, president of Beigang’s Prince Fraternity Association, claims that his group was the first to bring the traditional troupe of the Third Prince into the pop culture of Taiwan. He held a press conference to announce the adoption and naming of the Techno Prince. He also created television commercials, public charity videos, and appeared on television variety shows, to promote the Third Prince boom in Taiwan.

As the opening night film at this year’s Taiwan Film Days (October 12-14, http://sffs.org/Exhibition/SF-Film-Society-Cinema/Taiwan-Film-Days.aspx), Din Tao (meaning troupe) revolves around a Nezha troupe and is called Din Tao. It focuses on the tense relationship between the president of a Third Prince troupe and his son, and serves as an analogy for the relationship between the mythical North King and his son the Third Prince.

When the troupes first began to perform to pop music at temple festivals, they were criticized by the older generations who found their performances “heinous.” However, attitudes have changed given the popularity of Nezha troupes. Yu said, “Changing the traditional performance into a carnival show can bring the performers closer to the audience to win more applause.” He estimates that there have been over a hundred Nezha the Third Prince troupes of various sizes in Taiwan, with about 20 being more well-known. Nowadays, troupe performances are considered normal activities, and are no longer connected with gangsters.

Lin Mao-hsien, professor of Taichung University of Education, said “The Third Prince troupe performing is a good example of spreading the traditional folklore by innovation.” But he also acknowledges that it is easier to change the image and style with Nezha with new clothes, music, dance and eyewear since the Third Prince is a teenage god. But it would be much more difficult to update the image of more serious and mighty adult gods.

Nezha helps increase Taiwan’s international visibility

Wu Chien-heng, a 24-year-old student from National Taipei University, has probably visited more countries than most Taiwanese diplomats. In February 2011, he traveled with a Third Prince costume decked out with a national flag in LED lights. In India, he performed shows in six cities, winning a considerable following from local residents and international tourists. Under the sponsorship of the Heavenly Temple at Beigang, Wu and his Third Prince puppet visited Egypt and Kenya to perform. In early 2012, they went to Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, in addition to participating in the Brazilian Carnival. After the trip to South America, he flew to New York on February 22 to perform at Madison Square Garden for Taiwanese-American NBA player Jeremy Lin.

During the London Olympic Games in July this year, Wu and his Third Prince puppet joined a parade of 300 overseas Taiwanese carrying Taiwan’s national flags through the streets of London. They performed street dances on the city’s famous Regent Street, where the national flags of the 206 participating countries were displayed, including the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan). However, this flag was suddenly and unexpectedly removed and replaced by the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, because Taiwan is not formally recognized by the United Nations (UN). Since the Republic of China on Taiwan lost its seat at the UN to China in 1971, Beijing has blocked the use of Taiwan’s official flag. During the Olympic Games and other international sporting events, Taiwanese athletes are required to compete under the name Chinese Taipei and fly the Chinese Taipei Olympic flag, which few Taiwanese recognize. Wu made an effort to return Taiwan’s official national flag to Regent Street.

As for his motivation in traveling overseas with an entourage of Third Prince puppets, Wu said, “Many people have no idea what Taiwan is. They consider us as Japanese or Koreans. Some even mistake Taiwan as Thailand.” He added “I did an internship at Disney when I was 19. The American manager asked a Chinese intern which group he wanted to join. The Chinese intern said he would join the Taiwanese because it is easy to communicate in the Chinese language. The manager said, ‘You’re kidding. The people of Taiwan should speak Thai.’”

Wu plans to travel to 60 countries with the Third Prince troupe by the end of 2013. He said he plays electronic music under the Third Prince body puppet in order to let more people know and understand Taiwan. He also encourages young people to choose their own way to show their love of Taiwan. He believes that he performs for himself, but is also a part of a story for others to share. He said those local residents and international tourists in each country would never have dreamt of meeting the Third Prince god from Taiwan during their life journey.

For more details of Wu’s travels around the world with the Third Prince troupe, please visit the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNDWyUsbSW8.

Like many in Taiwan, Wu feels frustrated with the island’s diplomatic isolation; however, his creative thinking has helped the national flag to be seen on the international arena once again. Nezha the Third Prince, a mythical teenage hero, represents a symbol of youth, bravery, agility and freedom from conventional bondage, a perfect mascot for grassroots diplomacy engaged by Wu.

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