Folk religion, that is. China has never been much of a centralized religious country in the traditional sense. A nature deity here, a demigod there, the occasional exorcism of harmful forces and a smattering of the rational natural order. Religious practices and beliefs run wide and varied from head to toe, literally. In that very same sense, swinging street styles in contemporary China vary across the drawing board. The question then arises… When it comes to fashion, folks: Do we have faith or are we atheists?
Taiwan’s Guanjiang Shou are the stars of “Gods of the Underworld”, a faddy film where fashion and folk collide in the neon-lit streets of Taipei.
Parallel to the more conspicuous figures throughout China and affiliates — think Confucius and (all “factual or fictional” conspiracy theories aside) Laozi — thousands of local deities have their praises sung across the vast Chinese lands. A range of different ideologies and historical figures have shaken and stirred China’s spiritual beliefs to their core and what sticks around is a melting hotpot stacked with bits and pieces of both regional and national notions: Folk religion equals fusion kitchen. Very camp, one might say. Please do dutifully note that the Chinese Communist Party to date remains “an atheist organization which formally recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism”. Though the Chinese Catholic Church has been separated from the Roman Catholic Church for political reasons — what else.
With all that being mighty fine and dandy, the lens in this piece frames one of Taiwan’s most (in)famous folk religion groups: the Guanjiang Shou (官将首), also known as the inspiration for Seoul-based photographer and creative director Au Matt’s latest travail a la mode. These so-called underworld ceremonial military leaders act as a secret service of sorts who, when a god is said to have left its temple, set out to scare off the bad juju with some Tyra-and-beyond fierce makeup, Alice&Olivia-2014-elaborate costumes and Siriano-fiery firecrackers.
Known for his work with publications including Vogue Korea and Mother magazine, Au talks about the inspiration behind his newly released natty Nowness fashion film “Gods of the Underworld”, where fashion and ceremony collide in the neon-lit streets of Taipei. The Guanjiang Shou troupes are traditional performance troupes who can be seen all over Taiwan at traditional folk religion gatherings. A handful of responsibilities includes protecting the gods in their charge, expelling demons and repelling ravages. They commonly protect those gods in charge of punishing criminals, including the divine underworld likes of Kitsbargha (地藏王) and the City God (城隍).
Most temples are operated by cash donations and remain tax-exempt. Many of the boys who perform the Guanjiang Shou ritual are debt collectors, bouncers or bodyguards in daily life.
The Guanjiang Shou traditionally sport pretty pouchy eyebrows, long sideburns, and fiercely painted faces to perform their choreographed dances.Protruding canines have become their trademark and are worn to reveal their aggressive nature. Instruments are thrown into the mix to punish criminals and their straw sandals have the ability to ward off evil.Their attire is based on the hefty uniforms of ancient generals: Overflowing shoulder armor and substantial skirts, all proudly bearing the imperial decorational labels. Nevertheless, in front of Au’s camera, they bear the Chanel tag. Behold and be mesmerized:
Au himself had the following to say about the film’s scenery and underlying mood: “Taipei was my first home in Asia after leaving Europe. We went back to my old neighborhood and shot the film over 25 hours, completely guerrilla style. We used all the bars, shops and markets I was familiar with. Most temples are operated by cash donations and remain tax-exempt. Many of the boys who perform the Guanjiang Shou ritual are debt collectors, bouncers or bodyguards in daily life. We hung out with one of the groups of boys, putting together clothes from Céline, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Loewe in the Guanjiang Shou style.”
This remarkable Nowness fashion film surely strengthens the belief in a sprouting, soon to be flourishing, fashion scene across the Middle Kingdom and associates. The, in this instance, clash between traditional folk religion and firmly established fashion leads to fresh levels of fusion inspiration. One that can leave mere mortals hypnotized and lusting after another taste of that novel recipe. China’s emerging creative minds have their work cut out for them, but surely they will not bite off more than they can chew. With the abundance of distinctive minorities, religions and talent floating around the country, creative fusion is set to spill over. Sounds like a recipe for success, yet only the gods know what’s next!
On that final and faithful note, I for one do not believe in a uniform style and maintain a fashionable faith in fusing all the elements on that stylistic moodboard.
Photos: Rich J. Matheson.
Video: Directed by Au Matt and styled by Taiwanese Lin Xiuwei for Nowness.