Religion in Taiwan: 1. Introduction

Posted: 2014 年 03 月 05 日 in Religion in Taiwan

Temples & Deities: Religion in Taiwan

 The clatter of a wooden divining blocks tossed upon stone floors punctuates murmured prayers. White wisps of fragrant smoke curl from hundreds of incense sticks and disappear among the aged beams above. Offerings of fresh fruits and cakes adorn the altars under the tranquil gaze of ornate images. Little children frolic while their mothers pray for another son. Old men in T-shirts smoke cigarettes and engage in animated conversaiton. These are all part of the timeless scene one encounters upon entering a Chinese timple in Taiwan.

    Paradoxically, despite the remarkably rapid development of Taiwan from a rural agricultural society to an industrialized complex of urban enclaves, traditional religion has flourished. Indeed, the ubiquitous temples of Taiwan are as much a feature of its skylines as the factories.

    Popular Chinese folk religion consists of a blend of pracitces and beliefs that have developed out of animism (萬物有靈論), ancestor worship, Confucian custom, Taoist thought, Buddhist ideas of salvation, and various folk beliefs. In Taiwan, these forms of worship are generally similar to those still practiced by other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Macau. But despite the common thread that runs through traditional beliefs and rituals, and the fact that the island is comparatively small with good communications, local practices in Taiwan differ considerably from region to region, even within a few miles.

    Although Taiwan has separate Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples, the common man blends the practices of all three with a measure of superstition and ancestor worship. To further confuse matters, most peasant devotees refer to this religious hodgepodge by the umbrella term “Buddhism,” even as they regularly visit local folk-religion temples to worship heroes and deities unknown to Buddhism. There is little concern for logic in folk religion.

 Where Two Worlds Meet

    Many traditional temples, particularly the smaller ones, appear deserted except on festival days. Then they are alive with activity from dawn to dusk. While incense is burned, the reservoirs of the temple’s oil lamps are constantly topped up to the tolling of a bell, providing devotees with a flame to light their paper offerings. Larger temples are almost always bustling with devotees who present offerings of incense to the deities, or who seek advice through the use of divining blocks or sticks.

    Religious solemnity is not one of the earmarks of these temples. Some village temples even double as schools, stores and recreation centers. Temples are often cool spots where ladies and elderly folks meet and chat with acquaintances, relax or play cards.

    Because the supernatural and human worlds coexist in the popular folk religion of Taiwan, temples represent the place where the two worlds can meet and communicate. The living devotees provide the resident deities with incense, oil and food offerings; in exchange, they receive advice and protection against demonic influences responsible for such earthly sorrorw as plagues, disasters and illnesses.

    There are any number of requests that might be put to a deity. Devotees may ask for something as minor as assistance for a child in passing a school examination, or as dire as a cure for a terminally ill family member. An unemployed man might ask for a job, a pregnant woman may request an easy delivery. These problems can be put to “specialists” like the Goddess of Fertility (註生娘娘), or to “general practitioners” who can hear any requests. Although devotees do not always leave the altar satisfied, most do feel renewed hope and ocmfort. Even many Chinese who are skeptical about the gods’ powers perfunctorily carry out rituals, just to stay on the safe side of the mysterious heavenly powers.

    The inquisitive visitor’s first insight into the nature of Chinese folk religion comes from the architecture and décor of the temple buildings themselves.

Festivals of Taiwan



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