The Jade Emperor and his Incense Censer: Tian Gong Censer (天公爐)
The Jade Emperor is the highest ranking god in Taiwan’s pantheon* but, owing to his exalted position, Jade Emperor temples in Taiwan are few in number primarily because only the emperor of China was allowed to worship the Jade Emperor.Fear not however, the Jade Emperor is far from neglected. Nowadays anyone is permitted to worship the Jade Emperor, but most prayer to the Jade Emperor is done in doorways or at home altars on the first and fifth of every lunar month. Furthermore all Daoist, Folk and many Buddhist Temples in Taiwan have a Tian Gong Censer (天公爐). Tian Gong is a common name for the Jade Emperor and these censers are used to worship him. Believers insert sticks of incense (usually three for the Jade Emperor) into the censer and the rising smoke communicates their reverence.
Yanshui Martial Temple's Tian Gong Censer, Tainan
Queen of Heaven Temple's Tian Gong Censer in front courtyard, Lugang
Tian Gong Censer Placement and Form
Tian Gong Censers have no definite placement in a temple but are dependent on each temple’s particular layout. All are found in a place of honor, often in front of the main door or in the main courtyard. The only definite rule to be observed is the smoke must have unhindered access to the heavens.
Guan Di Miao Temple's Tian Gong Censer under the night sky, Guan Miao, Tainan
The size and shape of the censer also has no set standard, rather is dependent on each temple. Tian Gong incense censers have three feet; two feet face inside while the single foot faces out. Some say the feet represent people, heaven and earth and some say they represent the third, seventh and eleventh earthly branches (寅午戌 — I don’t get this. Something about the Jade Emperor’s taisui or batz?).
Method of Worship
In all temples, the Jade Emperor is first addressed at the Tian Gong Censer before moving inside to the temple’s main god and then any additional gods’ censers are worshiped. There are often notices showing recommended numbers of sticks for a particular temple. Tainan’s Jade Emperor Temple, Tian Tan, suggests three sticks for the main censer and one each for the other three devoted to other gods. Jade Emperor temples are the only temples where it is not necessary to first worship outside (representing the heavens, or Jade Emperor) as the Jade Emperor is the main deity being worshiped, and he is inside.
Tian Tan Temple, Tainan City
While reverently clasping incense sticks with both hands, the worshiper states their name, address and any matter needing attention. Then the sticks are inserted upright into the fine ash in the incense censer; first in the center, next on the right side and then on left side.
Tainan Martial Rites temple's Tian Gong Censer
The way the sticks burn in relation to each other can be read. For example if the left and right sticks burn evenly and faster than the central one, forming a mountain shape, this may indicate that many gods’ are taking note of your prayers (some farmer’s almanacs have simple diagrams showing how this divination is done). In practice, the censer’s of larger temples can get so hot with flames that the believers simply toss their sticks into the inferno. Wishes, queries or prayers are believed to be carried to the heavens on the smoke.
Wan Shan Tang's Tian Gong Censer, Nankunshen, Tainan
Tian Gong Censer Worship in the Home
Further, traditional Taiwanese homes have Tian Gong Censers which hang from the central beam of the central wing where the Jade Emperor is worshiped twice daily, morning and night. The occupants must first face the censer looking out of the house to worship the Jade Emperor before facing the censer looking into the house and paying respects to their household gods and ancestors (敬天法祖). Household altars are becoming increasingly rare in cities and this writer doubts many people worship twice daily, but most Taiwanese continue to pay their respects on the first and fifteenth lunar months.
Tian Gong censer hangs from central ceiling beam, Xigang, Tainan
*Pure Daoists perceive the Three Pure ones as higher than the Jade Emperor and, in folk belief, Yuan Shi Tianjun, one of the Pure Ones, abdicated his throne in favor of his underling — The Jade Emperor
Detail of Tai tz Temple's Tian Gong Censer
Writing based on The Encyclopedia of Taiwan’s 天公爐 by 楊淨惠
Bei Ji Dian's Tian Gong Censer in central courtyard, Yujing, Tainan
Yunshan Buddhist Monasteries Tian Gong Censer, Nanhua, Tainan
San Feng temple's Tian Gong Censer inside the main courtyard is visible through the Main door
Wooden censer in Tainan's Confucius Temple
Xi Long Dian's Tian Gong Censer, Anping, Tainan
Qiming Temple's Tian Gong Censer, Lotus Pond, Zuoying, Kaohsiung
Incense is placed in Tian Gong Censer in Yanshui's Martial Temple, Tainan
Hsing An Gong's Tian Gong Censer, Rende, Tainan