RELIGION IN TAIWAN

RELIGION IN TAIWAN

Spiritual beliefs and superstitions still abound in Taiwan. The Chinese worship both Buddhist and Taoist deities as well as their ancestors spirits in hope of pacifying everyone and thus ensuring good fortune. Taiwan is one the best places in the world to see Chinese temples (many temples in mainland China were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution). Confucianism (incorporating ancestor worship) is the prevalent ethical code. It is not really a religion but a philosophy and way of life that has a strong influence on Taiwanese thought, relationships and family rituals. Shamanism is still practiced in some parts of Taiwan. There are around 600,000 Christians (about 3 percent of the population) and some Muslims. Most Christians are Protestants. Most of the Muslims are from families that came from the mainland in 1949.

Religions: mixture of Buddhist and Taoist 93 percent, Christian 4.5 percent, other 2.5 percent. In the early 2000s, of Taiwan’s 12.7 million temple, church, and mosque members, 42.9 percent were Buddhists, 35.6 percent were adherents of Daoism (Taoism), 6.6 percent were believers in I-kuan Tao (Yiguan Dao, Religion of One Unity, a modern syncretic faith), 4.7 percent were Protestants, and 2.3 percent were Roman Catholics. The 16 other religions tabulated by the Ministry of Interior include Islam (4.1 percent) and Confucianism, described as “a philosophy with a religious function” (1 percent). Taiwan has 23,201 temples and churches, and most are Daoist temples (37 percent), Buddhist temples (17.4 percent), or Protestant churches (15.5 percent). [Source: Library of Congress, March 2005 *]

Taiwan, with its free-wheeling democracy, is very tolerant to different beliefs and is home to a number of religions and sects. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Article 13 of the Republic of China constitution. Among the general population, religious beliefs are often eclectic rather than exclusive, such as Christianity and Islam. Many people in Taiwan belong to a particular temple or specific religious sect but engage regularly in religious practices based on one or more religious traditions. Thus, small shrines are seen throughout Taiwan honoring a deity, a hero, or an ancestor. The goddess Mazu, to whom are attributed seeing the future, curing the ill, and rescuing people imperiled on the sea, is extremely popular in Taiwan, and more than 400 temples honor her. While many aborigines are animists whose beliefs center around deities in nature, spirits of dead people, living creatures, and ghosts, more than 70 percent are said to be Christians. *

Taiwan is highly diversified in terms of religious belief. There are followers and practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Mormonism, the Unification Church, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as native sects such as Yiguandao. The country not only respects traditional faiths but also opens its arms to other types of religious thought from the outside. According to one survey, there are more than 11,000 different religious organizations in Taiwan, employing about 2,000 clergy, shamans and masters.

For the most part, the traditional religions practiced in Taiwan are Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions; except for a small number of purely Buddhist temples, however, most of the island's traditional places of worship combine all three traditions. Many Chinese temples serve both Taoists and Buddhists with the "mystical rituals of Taoism , literally sprinkled with the philosophy of Confucius. The goddess of mercy, the goddess of the sea and the god of heaven are all important deities in Chinese religion.

History of Religion in China

The first immigrants from China, especially the Fukienese (China from Fujian Province), built temples to pay tribute to the gods that provided them with safe passage from the mainland. Taoism is China's native religion, and many of its gods are deified persons who actually lived in the past and made important contributions to society. Guan Gong, the God of War, is a classic example of this; in history he was Guan Yu, a famous general of the Three Kingdoms period. Taoism came to Taiwan in the 17th century, but it was suppressed during the period of Japanese occupation (1895-1945) because of its embodiment of the spirit of Chinese culture. During those years the adherents of Taoism had to worship their gods surreptitiously in Buddhist temples, and after the country was returned to Chinese rule, the convergence of these two religions continued. Today all sorts of deities are worshipped in the same temple, forming one of the unique features of religion in Taiwan.

Confucius is another important part of religious thinking in Taiwan. Confucius was China's most famous and beloved teacher, advocating the practice of rituals and the worship of ancestors. Emperor Yuan of the Western Han Dynasty (207 B.C. - A.D. 24) built the first shrine dedicated to Confucius, and after that many more temples were constructed as a mark of respect to the sage.

External religions first arrived on Taiwan in the early part of the 17th century when Catholicism and Protestantism were introduced by Spanish and Dutch missionaries. Presbyterianism is perhaps the Protestant branch of Christianity that has played the most prominent role in Taiwan's history.

Shaman in Taiwan

Jonathan Adams of New York Times met with Chang Tin a jitong, or Taiwanese shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station. In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits. [Source:Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man seek help from Chang told the New York Times,”The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.” [Ibid]

Most often, Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk. Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the third prince), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy. But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her. [Ibid]

“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples” questions, she said. When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.” She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.” My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said. [Ibid]

In an interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it. “When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds, she said. They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.” When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did. [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual in Taiwan

Taoist demons at Dongyue Temple One Sunday a month Chang invites those contacts to her office for an openspirit medium session. The day that Adams visited she answered petitioners’ questions as several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts. Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway. As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Describing a shaman ritual, Adams wrote in New York Times, “After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left...Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.” [Ibid]

“A visibly relaxed Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease. [Ibid]

The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking. i Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on the other side. Give me your heart, and I’ll open it, Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman..”That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously. “I was just kidding; only you can open your heart, Ji Gong said. If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.” [Ibid]

Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual, and gently upbraided the man.” Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.) [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual Adapted to 21st Century

Taoist demon at Dongyue Temple Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, told the New York Times that forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to private practice, often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

In the southern Taiwanese village that Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none. Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service, Ting said. But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized. But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks. [Ibid]

Chang is one of a small number of people who aremaintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters. To keep her clients abreast of what is happening she regularly sends out text messages to about 300 people. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old. [Ibid]

Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted. She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness. So now they give a different type of guidance, she said. The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Important Deities in Taiwan

Many Taiwanese temples feature parades of Taoist deities. Certain gods are worshiped by certain groups in the same way that trades people in Europe pay homage to a patron saint. Individual gods usually have specific powers and the abilities to grant wishes in particular areas of expertise.

Matsu (Goddess of the Sea) is highly revered in Taiwan as she is in coastal areas of the mainland. Taiwanese look to her for protection from typhoons, stormy seas, economic down turns and other hardships.

One of the most important deities in Taiwan is Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. It is believed that Kuanyin was once a real person who lived in southwestern China around 300 B.C. Her father was a king who wanted to her to marry a man she didn't like. The father was so angry he had her killed. After she died she transformed hell into paradise and was permitted by the God of the Underworld to return to earth. During her nine year stay she saved her father.

Kuanyin is usually represented sitting on a lotus blossom. The lotus symbolizes purity because it grows from dirty water without getting dirty. Kuanyin is associated with both purity and compassion. There are over 550 temples in Taiwan dedicated to Kuanyin.

The God Fachu is worshiped by people who are recovering from an illness or who want to succeed in business. The god is revered especially by tea merchants. On the god’s birthday worshipers present the image of the god with two red "turtle" rice cakes that represents payment plus interest for a wish granted in the previous year. One turtle is in return for the wish, the other is the interest payment.

In Taiwan you can find temples dedicated to the Divine Progenitor Chingsui, a deified Sung dynasty high monk who brought rain in times of drought and provided medical care to the poor. There are also temples with shrines honoring Matsu and and Kuan Kung (God of War), local magistrates of the underworld.

Monks, Nuns and Pilgrims in Taiwan

Monks and nuns in some Buddhist sects in Taiwan have five scars on their arms made with burning incense to remind them of the five vices which the vowed to avoid: killing, lying, stealing, adultery and drinking alcohol. After the marks are made the burns are cooled with watermelon rind. Nuns of some sects have shaved head and grey clothes. Pilgrims visiting Hualin temple stop every steps and bow during their long procession. They are led by volunteers who direct traffic around them.

Chin Hang was a Buddhist monk with a great many followers in Taiwan. Shortly before his death he asked his followers to place his body in an urn after he died to test his holiness. He said if his body had not decayed he wanted to be painted with pure gold. After five years, when enough money for gold had been collected, the urn was opened and the body was still intact. Today Chin Hang's gilded body can be seen at a display at a Taipei pagoda.

"Whatever I do is meant to create a society full of love," said Buddhist nun Cheng yen who started at charitable foundation in 1966 that had three million members in the early 1990s and raised $12 million dollars a year for domestic and international relief. [Source: Arthur Zich, National Geographic, November 1993]

Master Hsing Yun

One of the most well-known Buddhist monks in the United States is Master Hsing Yun, the founder of the Taiwan-based Fo Guang Shan Monastery and head of a Buddhist order with millions of followers in 100 countries. In April, 1996, he welcomed 100 people and Vice President Gore to Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles to raise $140,000 for the U.S. Democratic Party. Hsing Yun visited the White House on a "courtesy call" and his organizations' later featured a picture of President Clinton shaking hands with the abbots of Hsi Lai temple.

Hsing Yun, born Lee Kuo Shen in mainland China in 1927, became a monk at the age of 11 after his was father killed during the Japanese massacre of thousands of civilians in Nanking in 1937. To escape the Communist take over of China he fled to Taiwan in 1949. Later he became abbot of the Buddha Light Mountain temple in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, where he is based.

Hsing Yun controls Fo Kuang Shan, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the world, with an estimated worth of more than $400 million. Hsing Yun has has filled stadiums in such far flung places as South Africa and Malaysia and earned $780,000 for tape 20 hours of his speeches. Bookstores and a mail order business for his organization sell books, CDs, videos, magazines, children's educational comic books and other materials. Members of the Fo Kuang Shan have opened clinics and dental practices in the countryside and brought clean drinking water and blood supplies to villages. It also contributes to disaster relief programs around the world.

In 2008, at time Tibet was recovering from riots that left thousands dead, Hsing Yun urged China to turn the Dalai Lama, "from an enemy into a friend." Asked what he thought of the Dalai Lama, Hsing Yun said they have met several times and he found him to be "optimistic, bright and cheerful, always wearing a smile and easy to get along with". Reuters reported: “Hsing Yun urged China to take the Dalai Lama seriously, saying the Tibetan god-king is "very sincere" when he says he wants autonomy, not independence, for his homeland, albeit China does not believe him. Hsing Yun's comments were unlikely to rile China, which has sought to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese in a policy change since 2005, analysts said. [Source: Benjamin Kang Lim, Reuters. May 3. 2008]

In May 2010, China’s Taiwan affairs chief Wang Yi met with Master Hsing Yun, Xinhua reported: Master Hsing Yun has played a "special and positive role" in promoting exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, said Wang, director of the Taiwan Work Office of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office. Wang hoped the mainland and Taiwan could continue to work together to push forward the peaceful development of cross-Strait ties, promote Chinese culture, and work for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Master Hsing Yun, one of the island's most influential Buddhist masters, said during the meeting that people across the Strait are a family and are all Chinese. The two sides should enhance exchanges, narrow differences gradually, and carry forward the Chinese culture so as to create a bright future for the Chinese nation, he said. [Source: Xinhua, May 14, 2010]

Taoist Con Men and Tibetan Buddhist Magical Powers

Sung Chi-li, the head of Taoist cult that bilked its followers out of millions of dollars, admitted to police that he lied about possessing supernatural powers and confessed he retouched photographs that showed his image being projected over the Great Wall of China. Sung Chi-li claimed could make himself appear anywhere at anytime. Photographs of him with glowing eyes, floating above galaxies, sold for $2,500. It is estimated that he stole $100 million from his followers. He reportedly had ties with a crime gang known as the Four Sea triad.

In Taiwan, parents of novices to Buddhist temples have staged hunger strikes to protest the brainwashing of their children. Huang Chi-hsiung, a self-professed psychic who claimed to be Buddha incarnate, was accused of cheating his followers out of millions of dollars in fraudulent land deals in Belize. Followers of the Zen master Miao Tian demanded refunds for $5,500 "lotus seats" they never received.

In Taiwan, Tibetan Buddhism is known as the Secret Sect. Senior monks known as lamas are believed to have the ability to see into the future and the power to change a person’s destiny using items such as crystal balls, mirrors, flutes, wind chimes, swords and colored thread. Taiwanese who believe that Dalai Lama has magical powers have offered to pay tens of thousands of dollars for him perform an initiation ritual on them. In Taiwan, Tibetan monks also perform geomacy—the auspicious positioning of structures and furniture—on their homes and offices. In 1997, police arrested a 35-year-old man who posed as a Tibetan monk and swindled people out of millions of dollars performing fake rituals, exorcisms and blessings.

Tzu Chi, Taiwan’s Buddhist Charity

The Taiwanese Buddhist charity Tzu Chi Foundation is well-regarded in Taiwan. It was founded in 1966 by Buddhist nun Cheng Yen, known as Taiwan’s Mother Teresa and has a reputation for staying clear of politics and devoting its energy to good works.

Benjamin Lim of Reuters wrote: “It has responded swiftly and sent volunteers and relief supplies to some of the world’s biggest disasters, including hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 and China’s devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. After the tremor, it built 13 schools in Sichuan. Its hospitals have organised bone marrow transplants for more than 2,000 patients in 27 countries.[Source: Benjamin Lim, Reuters, August 20, 2010 ***]

“The group, which has 10 million donors worldwide and raised T$10 billion ($314.5 million) in Taiwan alone in 2009, also recycles plastic bottles at a factory and churns out polyester blankets for disaster zones, shirts, scarves and cloth shopping bags. Tzu Chi owns a cable network in Taiwan called Great Love and operates a university and a medical college. It boasts an army of two million volunteers, who have engaged in poverty alleviation work in China’s dirt-poor Guizhou province and built water storage tanks in arid Gansu province. In Tzu Chi’s China debut in 1991, it built 3,000 houses in three flood-ravaged provinces. Volunteers, many of them investors and educated professionals, are a familiar sight in disaster areas, donning their navy blue shirts or blouse and white pants.” ***

“A Silent Revolution — the Tzu Chi Story” by Mark O’Neill

Tzu Chi Sets up Shop in Atheist China

In August 2010, Tzu Chi opened a Chinese chapter, in Suzhou, a city near Shanghai famous for its stunning gardens. Officials say Tzu Chi is the first overseas non-governmental organisation to receive the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ blessing to operate in China. Normally they have to register with the Commerce Ministry as businesses. The move was widely seen as a sign of greater tolerance towards religion by China’s Communist rulers’ and part of a drive to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. [Source: Benjamin Lim, Reuters, August 20, 2010 ***]

Benjamin Lim of Reuters wrote: “The Chinese government is generally less fearful of Buddhism with its home-grown roots, but maintains tight control especially in Tibet where monks have been jailed for supporting their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Yet Tzu Chi is barred from preaching and cannot raise funds from ordinary Chinese without government approval on an ad hoc basis. “We will not make it a point to preach when we do charity work on the mainland, but if people ask me my religion, I will say I’m Buddhist,” foundation spokesman Rey-sheng Her told Reuters. “We will use compassion to care for every suffering person and enlighten them to use love to help others,” said Her, a former Taiwan television news anchor. ***

“The opening of Tzu Chi’s China chapter was attended by Chen Yunlin, China’s top negotiator with self-ruled and democratic Taiwan. Tzu Chi steers well clear of politics, one of the reasons it is allowed to operate in China. “This policy of no-politics has served it in very good stead in China, which was initially suspicious of a Buddhist charity based in Taiwan,”Mark O’Neill, author of “A Silent Revolution — the Tzu Chi Story,” said in an email. “But, as Chinese officials saw how it operated and how it provided aid without any condition or political strings, their anxieties vanished.” ***

Confucianism and Catholicism in Taiwan

Signs of Confucianism in Taiwan include memorial arches erected across streets to commemorate filial and loyal deeds and remind passersby to revere morality and values.

Confucian respect and responsibility towards the elderly is eroding in Taiwan many say. "In early times a Chinese man told National Geographic in the 1990s "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age." The father is no longer the unquestioned leader of the family. Nor is he teacher respected unfailingly as before. "These days my son doesn't fear me," one Taiwanese man told Newsweek. "We have healthy discussions. He even socializes with his teachers."

Catholics make up 3.1 percent of the population. A Taiwanese Catholic bishop told Time, “We do mass, then we venerate the ancestors.” The Vatican and China have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1951, when the Holy See angered Mao Zedong's Communist government by recognising the Nationalist Chinese regime in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.

In 2008, AFP reported: “A Taiwanese pastor has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping 13 women in his congregation over the course of more than two years. Tang Tai-shen, 58, sexually abused the women, the youngest of whom was aged only 14 years old, under the pretext of offering them sex counseling and videotaped the crimes, the Apple Daily News said. He was also ordered by the court to undergo therapy for three years, the report said. Eight female staffers, including Tang's daughter-in-law, who were in charge of recruiting followers to his self-styled church, also received jail terms of between 12 months and seven and a half years for molesting the women, it said. The pastor was arrested last year and has been detained since. In 1999, Tang, then a pastor in the "China Holiness Church," was convicted of molesting a female follower and was sentenced to three years and two months in prison in a case that shocked Taiwan's religious community. He was released in 2005 after serving the full jail term. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 1, 2008]

Taiwan, Tibetan Buddhism and Superstition

In Taiwan, Tibetan Buddhism is known as the Secret Sect. Lamas are believed to have the ability to see into the future and have the power to change a person destiny using items such as crystal balls, mirrors, flutes, wind chimes, swords and colored threads. Monks perform feng shui---the auspicious positioning of structures and furniture---on homes and offices.

Taiwanese purchase items touched by monks for good luck. Businesses consult Tibetan monks on ways to make more money and politicians seek their advise in winning elections. Some Taiwanese believe that Dalai Lama has magical powers and have offered to pay tens of thousands of dollars for him perform initiation rituals on them.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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