The Chinese sea goddess Mazu is big business in Taiwan and the blockchain could make it even bigger.
The Mazu deity, known as a protector of seafarers and worshipped by Chinese communities around the world for centuries, is especially popular in Taiwan. The Dajia Jenn Lann Temple in Taichung city organises an annual 300-kilometre nine-day pilgrimage with a statue of the goddess that draws hundreds of thousands of followers.
The pilgrimages and related festivals have formed what is known as the "Mazu economy," referring to donations and spending on Mazu-themed merchandise and business opportunities surrounding the religion.
Dajia Jenn Lann Temple, which dates to the Qing dynasty in the 1700s, has decided to add a Web 3.0 element to its activities. It is minting and selling sea goddess non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that act as a priority pass for the pilgrimage that usually happens in the Spring.
The MazuDAO NFTs went on sale in August at NT$18,880 (US$615) through the temple's e-commerce platform MazuBuyBuy and elsewhere. So far, the temple has minted and sold more than 2,800 NFTs.
"According to estimates the nine-day pilgrimage can generate more than NT$5 billion (US$163 million) in spending. On the day when Mazu returned to the home temple, we saw about 500,000 people joining the pilgrimage," Mingkun Cheng, vice chairman of the board of the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple, told Forkast.
More younger people are joining the pilgrimage so the MazuDAO NFTs appeal to them, said Cheng.
Facebook banner of Mazudao 媽祖NFT
Many traditional cultural activities are adapting to digital and technological innovation, said Mao-Hsien Lin, an associate professor of National Taichung University of Education's Taiwanese languages and literature department.
However, Lin, who researches Mazu religion, said many elder followers are not so sure about the developments.
"They prefer the physical touch and the direct contact with the statue of the deities," Lin said. They are not so sure that if they worship online that the deities are also online to hear their prayers.
However, Lin said the pilgrimage priority perk for NFT holders might not be too attractive for traditional believers.
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"Typically when we pray, the distance between you and the statue doesn't really matter. It's not like you'd get special treatment if you're closer," he added. "It's becoming a bit too commercialised."
To tap into the market of traditional believers, the NFT project team organised offline marketing campaigns - an approach different from most NFT projects that prioritise online marketing channels.
Jerry Yan, project lead of MazuDAO, said that many elder followers did not even have a smartphone and "very much live in a Web 0.0 world".
"We had to set up promotional booths in front of the temple to introduce MazuDAO NFTs to those Web0 believers," Yan said, adding they also needed a landline customer service team because it was the only way to reach older temple followers.
"Often on the phone, we'd ask them to call for their grandchildren to help out and set up crypto wallets on their behalf."
MazuDAO NFT project team set up promotional booths at the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple in August.
Cheng said that the temple has authorised some online vendors to use its Mazu intellectual property to make merchandise for sale on its e-commerce platform MazuBuyBuy.
Lin the researcher said Mazu has become a highly-commercialised intellectual property in Taiwan, with Mazu-themed merchandise in convenience stores and on major online shopping sites.
"Again, I think a large part of the essence of religion lies in offering that mental comfort for believers. It's not necessarily a good thing if it gets too commercialised," Lin said. "If we see the deity as a business generator, it would lose a sense of divinity."
Still, Cheng of the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple said the temple's annual pilgrimages have attracted an increasing number of younger people and many post videos of the festival and the pilgrimage on social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube.
Taoists pray in the inner hall of the Yimin Temple in Pingchen, northern Taoyuan city, on Dec 15, 2022. (Photo: AFP)