Photographs and Information about Taiwan's Culture, Nature and People by Rich Matheson

Taiwan’s Ba Jia Jiang 八家將 or 家將團

Taiwan’s Ba Jia Jiang

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Photography and Text by Richard Matheson

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I don’t profess to be an expert on Ba Jia Jiang. Everything about them is shadowy and mysterious. In fact, I would be wary of anyone who did profess to be an expert. As with most folk-religions, Taiwan in particular, there’s a lot of grey area. Every ‘expert’ you ask has a different answer and every paper you read has a different story, but most admit to the vagueness of Ba Jia Jiang and their history. While Ba Jia Jiang may not be fully understood by most, every Taiwanese is familiar with them. Children mime their steps and it has even evolved into a popular dance called tai ke (similar to ‘line dances’ from the west). What I do know about Ba Jia Jiang is they look great and are loads of fun to photograph. So when Salvatore asked me to write a piece on “Hell’s Policemen” I jumped at the chance. This being said, the following ‘facts’ need to be taken with a grain of salt.

If you are at a temple festival and you see someone mutilating him or herself, this will be a dang-ki (spirit medium). Surrounding them will usually be fiercely painted, beautifully clothed dancers carrying spears, fans, lanterns, etc.

These people are Ba Jia Jiang. They have a very distinctive stance, one palm on their hips and the other palm (usually sporting a weapon or tool), facing away from their body, and very distinctive standard walks such as ‘the tiger’ or ‘the seven star step’.

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Roughly translated, Ba Jia Jiang means eight military generals. There are also other denominations of military general troupes; Liou Jia Jiang (six) Shi Jia Jiang (10), etc. Following this, the correct name for this article should be Jia Jiang Tuan (Military General Troupes), but they usually come in eights and if there are 10 they are often just referred to as Ba Jia Jiang anyway. So, for simplicity’s sake I will refer to Jia Jiang Tuan as Ba Jia Jiang.
Naturally, their origin is disputed. There are many folk tales explaining the origin of Ba Jia Jiang, often revolving around a god’s military generals and plague expulsion. It is generally accepted that they have over 100 years of history and their origin is usually associated with the God of Plague Expulsion—‘Wu Fu Da Di’ This would imply that only Wu Fu Da Di Temples would have Ba Jia Jiang, but it seems that Wu Fu Da Di is related very closely, and intricately, to the origin and evolution of other gods and temples in Taiwan.

Ba Jia Jiang are protectors. They keep the evil spirits at bay or chase them down and deal with them. It is common knowledge that they are not permitted to smile; the fans they carry with characters written on them are to protect themselves from whatever demons may be floating around. They protect both the spirit mediums and the audience from darker spirits.


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Less known among outsiders is their organization. The main four of the eight are the military generals surnamed; Gan, Liu, Hsieh and Fan. The supporting four are the Gods of the Four Seasons; Spring “Ke”, Summer “Zhang”, Fall “Shu” and Winter “Tsao”. Together these constitute the eight generals, the others are less important. They all have set roles. Some are in charge of catching evil spirits and demons (the policemen); some judge them while others mete out punishment. The instruments they carry and the clothing they wear indicate their role. For example, executioners are often hooded (though they still have face paint underneath).

As in Chinese operas, the characters can be identified by their face paint. Liu, the first in the procession, has red and black yin-yang paint.
Gan-octopus (spring) has a dragon face. Summer is a bird, fall is a tiger and winter a lotus or a turtle. Hsieh and Fan are perhaps better known as Chi Ye and Ba Ye, and as such are easily recognized. These conventions vary from temple to temple.
When Ba Jia Jiang perform, they first paint their faces. This is called ‘opening their faces’. Once their faces are open they have a code of strict taboos that they have to follow, including not eating meat; not smiling; joking around or chatting. At all times they must be very fierce and maintain their focus.
Sadly, nowadays Ba Jia Jiang are often associated with gangs, drugs and delinquent youth. Their image has been transformed from protectors of society into a menace to society. This phenomenon has been studied closely by sociologists in
Taiwan and there is a plethora of information about this on the Internet and in books.


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Perhaps the most important thing to remember when watching Ba Jia Jiang is to “never break their line”. I’m personally cynical of the effectiveness of a lot of the folk-religion and fortune telling, and as my years in Taiwan turn into decades, my cynicism increases. However I believe it is of paramount importance to respect others beliefs, especially when photographing them. Several years ago I was so intent on photographing a dang-ki (he was throwing a heavenly tangerine—red ball with spikes– into the air and trying to catch it on his head as if he was heading a soccer ball. Naturally I wanted to capture that glorious moment when the ball made contact with his skull), that I inadvertently stepped into the arena and through the protective line of Ba Jia Jiang. Taking my eye off my camera I met the gaze of a Ba Jia Jiang. Although I had been numbed by a day of blood, mayhem, firecrackers and stifling heat, a powerful shock coursed through my body. Now, to me, this rule is sacrosanct.

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The encounter shook me up and ended my photography for the day. I really should have gone to a temple for a dose of shou jing at this point, but opted for the quicker beer-remedy instead. It took a lot of beer to calm me down and for the first time in a long time I seriously questioned my assumptions on the forces behind this folk-religion.

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***Notes:

Article first published in Xpat Magazines Folly issue, which can be found here.

Top and bottom circle picture design done by __

links: identifying and grouping, wiki, blog, an excellent pdf (wish I had found this when I was writing this article), nice overview, and,

Photos: mine, gorgeous,

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11 responses

  1. Les

    You have pictures of ba jia jiang mixed in with guan jiang shou

    June 1, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    • Thanks, The article explains that it should be titled “Jia Jiang Tuan”(家將團). I think I am correct in saying Guan Jiang Shou(官將首) would be considered Jia Jiang Tuan?

      June 2, 2009 at 1:20 pm

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  3. Yi-ling

    Hello! Mr. Matheson,

    I’m a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, and I have been fascinated by Ba Jia Jiang because I’m half Taitungese and I have seen Ba Jia Jiang’s processions several times since I was little.

    I have to say you’ve done a great job on this specific topic, especially you are not a native and translating the concepts is quite difficult (to me). And, I’m wondering if you could share some your photos for my mid-term Flash project. I’m trying to introduce the culture of Ba Jia Jiang to my classmates with a Flash project, but I can’t find photos as good as yours on the Internet. Your photos have ‘shocking’ effects that others do have. So, I’m asking for this favor. Please contact me if you are interested. I will put your credit on my project. Besides, you can have a copy if you want.

    I only need one small photo for each jia jang’s face. It’s 100 x 75 (vertical). One large photo for each of them, 240 x 160 (vertical) or 300 x 200. The large photos show more details than a face.

    By the way, my midterm is due this coming Monday. I’m sorry for this short notice. I spent too much time searching the Internet.

    I’ll be very grateful if you can help me. Thank you.

    October 25, 2009 at 10:03 am

  4. Pingback: Ba Jia Jiang-Part 1 Origins 八家將的由來–白龍庵 « Liefintaiwan’s Weblog

  5. Les

    in no order- 官将首 guan jiang shou is not ba jia jiang. Standard ba jia jiang is 10 players, the first two are not generals, but messengers, so not counted. 12 players, orthodox, meaning the first two not counted, the eight, and the last two, civil and martial judge are added, this is (ten)什(character) shi jia jiang. There are eight peopled jia jiang formed (no seasons)of combinations of either the messengers, then fan/xie, then gan/liu/ and fan/xie again, or even gan/liu then fan/xie, and both sets repeated behind them, no messengers!. There are numerous other options. But orthodox crews think they are a total corruption, thus groups of six can be another malformation, but there are many non-jia jiang groups that appear similiar in uniform, but aren’t. Four seasons set have different names in other areas. Mind the dang童 ki乩.

    May 5, 2011 at 5:09 am

    • Les,
      Thanks, I know. This was written long ago and I should really update all the gross errors. But… Guan Jiang Shou are Jiajiang and at temple festivals all are commonly called Bajiajiang rather than Jiajiang Tuan. You are right that there are numerous other options. I usually ask what roles they are when I take pictures nowadays and they often don’t know themselves!

      May 5, 2011 at 7:34 am

  6. “Taiwans Ba Jia Jiang 八家將 or 家將團 Liefintaiwan”
    ended up being truly engaging and educational!
    Within todays world honestly, that is tricky to carry out.
    Thanks a lot, Drusilla

    February 3, 2013 at 11:19 am

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