Religion in Taiwan: 10. Other Beliefs & Rituals

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

Other Beliefs and Rituals in Taiwan

1.          Incense. Burning incense powder and sticks in China began as part of Buddhist religious ceremonies, and eventually became part of the lifestyle of the Chinese scholar. It was customary before playing the zither or practicing calligraphy to light some incense to set the mood. Modern living has more or less done away with the romantic lifestyle of the scholar. But burning incense for religious ceremony remains an important part of Taiwan’s traditional culture. One of Taiwan’s oldest incense shops is the Shih Chin Yu incense shop in Lukang (鹿港施金玉香舖). The incense shop was founded two hundred years ago, and still sells hand-made incense sticks. Sandalwood powder is mixed with more than ten different kinds of Chinese medicine. The recipe is a family secret. Bamboo sticks are dipped in glue, and then rolled in the incense powder up to five times, and left to dry.

2.          Spirit Money (冥紙). For centuries the Chinese have been sending money up in smoke. Not real money of course, but spirit money. Burning it is believed to send it to the next world, providing for the needs of the spirits. All spirit money is made of coarse paper, with a piece of foil, on one side. But, there are dozens of different kinds. The two main categories of spirit money are gold foil and silver foil. Gold foil spirit money is burnt to spirits and gods. Silver foil is burnt to worship one’s ancestors. Within the main categories of gold and silver, there are numerous divisions. For examples, heavenly gold (天金) is burnt to the Jade Emperor, and good fortune gold (福金) is burnt to the Earth God. It’s considered highly inauspicious to burn the wrong money. In Taiwan, spirit money is burnt on days of worship in front of family altars, and at practically every temple in Taiwan, except for certain Buddhist temples.

3.          Compatibility, Ba Zi (八字). In old China, there were various tests that a prospective husband and wife could take to see if they were compatible for marriage. One of these tests was the comparison of the Ba Zi (八字)—the eight characters used to designate the year, month, day, and hour of a person’s birth. These characters can be represented in terms of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth (金木水火土五行). Comparing the elements of the prospective bride and groom was believed to suggest whether their marriage would be happy or sad. There are 25 possible combinations of elements used to determine if a marriage will bring good fortune. For example, if the man is wood and the woman is metal, the marriage will produce success for the husband because metal forces wood to be useful. But if the man is water and the woman is fire, there’s going to be trouble. Since water and fire do not mix, a marriage between these elements will be marked by poverty, sickness, and squabbling. So if you do not want to get burned or wind up all wet, avoid this combination at all costs.

4.          Swastika (卐字). 卐 is commonly seen in China to the surprise of most Westerners who associate the symbol with the German Nazi Party. Actually, the traditional meaning of the swastika in China, and indeed in many parts of the world, has nothing to do with its 20th-century connotations. The swastika was originally a sun symbol in the nature religions of the Indo-Europeans from Scandinavia to Iran to India. It is also found in ancient Mexican and Peruvian symbol systems and is associated with the worship of various sun gods like Thor, Apollo, and Siva. In China, the use of the swastika may be traced to the Buddhist applications of this symbol. It is associated with the heart and the footprint of the Buddha as well as the wheel of reincarnation. So, in Taiwan, don’t be surprised if you see the swastika in temples, vegetarian restaurants, and in ships selling religious articles. Swastikas also appear as a decorative motif derived from other more intricate symbols like the meander and the mystic knot.

5.          Geomancy, feng-shui (風水). The practice of geomancy, or feng shui, is the science of positioning buildings and furniture so that they’re in harmony with the environment. Structures placed according to the principles of feng shui are said to benefit from the energy of the earth’s breath and thereby bring luck to its inhabitants. The practice of feng shui dates back into the far reaches of Chinese antiquity. It was derived from observing the movement of the celestial bodies, by studying the earth’s magnetism and topography, and by measuring the forces of the yin and the yang. A key to the development of feng shui principles was the invention of the compass over two thousand years ago. The geomancer’s compass is called the luo pan (羅盤). It’s a disc of wood set in a square base with a magnetized needle in the center. Surrounding the central disc are a series of concentric rings, which measure different feng shui qualities including the positions of the constellations and of the eight diagrams in relation to the earth’s topography.





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