Archive for the ‘Religion in Taiwan’ Category

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


Religion in Taiwan: 2. Home of the Gods

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

Dragons and Phoenixes

    One important element of architecture is the temple roof. This is where one finds the most ornate décor and skilled craftsmanship. Indeed, temple roofs are alive with images of deities, immortals, legendary heroes and fantastic mythological animals, all of which serve to attract good fortune to and repel evil from the temple and surrounding community.

    The center ridge of a temple roof usually is crowned with one of four symbols: a pagoda, which represents a staircase to heaven; a flaming pearl, which symbolizes the beneficial yang (陽) spirit, the sun, and usually is flanked by two dragons; a magic gourd, which is said to capture and trap evil spirits; or the Three Star Gods of Posterity, Wealth, and Longevity (福祿壽三仙). These roof symbols usually reflect the role of the temple’s main deity. Often one of these symbols tops the main gate while another crowns the main hall.

    Below this central symbolic image ae the fantastic and often gaudy assortment of figures so much associated with Chinese temples. The eaves slope down, then rise again in sudden curves, with multicolored dragons and phoenixes, fish, and flowers flying from the timps. The phoexnix, a mythical bird said to appear only in times of extreme peace and prosperity, and the dragon, symbol of strength, wisdom, and good luck, are the two most auspicious symbols in Chinese mythology.

    These exterior features, however, are at first glimpse very much the same in Buddhist and folk-religion temples alike. Inside the difference is much more obvious. Buddhist temples and monasteries in general contain few images, with one to three major gilded Buddhas on a main altar. Confucian temples, severe by comparison, do not contain any images. The image of Confucius can be found on one or two of the altars of a few folk religion temples, however.

 Home of the Gods

    In the eyes of devotees, folk-religion temples are the public residences of the deities. Taiwan’s temples were originally built in the 18th and 19th centuries by Chinese craftsmen. They range in size from small, dog kennel-size shrines containing one or two images or tablets to large establishments with several main halls flanked by minor ones, each holding separate altars and murals. As a rule, a temple is named after the chief deity on the main altar. Even if the temple has a literary lable or is home to a scor of other gods, the locals still usually refer to it by the name of its principal deity.

    Once drab with age and lack of maintenance, many of these old temples have been renovated in recent years. In some cases, their colorful new ornamentation has transformed them into exotic curiosities that may appear garish to the Western eye. Modern folk-religion temples have also been built, especially in central and southern Taiwan. These are invariably large and costly buildings with only one or two images.

    The interior decoration of folk-religion temples varies considerably. Many of them contain fascinating murals depicting scenes from Chinese mythology and history. Pillars and balustrades may be intricately carved works of art. Most temples have guardians painted on the outside faces of the main doors; these pairs can vary from ferocious generals to more benigh-looking military and civil mandarins, or even young learned scholars.

    The main altar of a typical folk-religion temple bears the image of its major deity attended by minor aides, officials or servants. Fronting the principal deity is a smaller image of the same god; this miniature is borne from the temple precincts to bless devotees as they stand in their doorways, or is carried during festivals to other neighboring temples.

    In addition to the main altar, most temples also have two secondary altars flanking the main one on either side; in some larger temples, there are further altars down the side walls. Beneath the main altar, at ground level, are one of two forms of small altar. One contains a tablet dedicated to the tutelary or protective spirit of the temple itself; the other contains stone or wooden “white tigers,” the bringers or destroyers of luck. A common offering for these tigers is a slab of fatty pork.

An overview of folk religion in Taiwan

Incense and Other Offerings

    There are always five items on the table before a temple’s main altar. A large incense pot is flanked by two decorative vases and two candlesticks. The incense pot itself is a primary religious object—in some temples it is regarded as the most sacred. It is filled with ash accumulated by years of worship, and is the repository for the spirit of the venerated Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝). Ash is taken from one existing temple to start the main pot in a new temple. In some temples, the main incense pot is situated just outside or inside the main entrance; it is here that devotees begin their round of prayers and offerings. They place one or three sticks of incense in each pot throughout the temple, depending upon the seniority of the deity before whom the pot stands.

    In addition to incense, offerings include food and drink, oil and objects made of paper. They type of food provided depends upon the season, the appetite of the particular deity, and the pocketbook of the devotee. Food is normally left at the temple only long enough for the deity to partake of its aroma, a period often defined as the length of time it takes for an incense stick to burn down. Afterwards, the food is taken home to the dinner table of the devotee and his or her family. Any leftovers are later “disposed of” by the temple keepers.

    In some temples, only fruit and vegetables are offered to the gods. One particular cult prohibits offerings of duck. In season, boxes of mooncakes—baked pastries stuffed with sweet bean paste—are placed on temple altars. Bowls of cold cooked rice are often left before minor deities, including underworld gods. Tea or wine, in rows of three or five small cups, is occasionally offered. Nothing is ever presented in groups of four that is regarded as the number of death.

    Another form of offering is paper money, tied in bundles and placed under the image or on the altar table. This “hell money” represents either large sums of cash drawn on the “Bank of the Underworld,” or else lumps of gold or silver taels, the currency used in Chinese imperial times.

 Hungry Ghosts

    In addition to the gods, ancestors are also commonly at the receiving end of offerings and tokens of respect in temples. Traditionally, ancestral tablets were kept in family homes, and respects were paid at a living-room altar (神明廳). Increasingly, however, families have paid temples to house the ancestral tablets (神主牌) on a special altar and asumer the responsibility for offering and prayers, especially if there is a possibility of neglect at home. These tablets bear the ancestors’ names and (in recent times) photographs. It is important that they be given regular offerings, lest they become “hungry ghosts.” (孤魂野鬼)

    According to Chinese folk religion, a soul upon death is hastened through the various courts and punishments of purgatory in order to be reborn again. At the same time, there is the contradictory belief that the underworld is remarkably similar to the human world, and that its inhabitants require food, money, clothes, and a house. Thus, when a family member dies, the living relatives do their best to see that the spirit of the deceased enters the underworld in comfort. They provide food offerings in the hope that the aroma will give sustenance. They offer spirit money and paper artifacts—elaborately designed like the real things—to represent houses, cars, clthes, and often servants. These “substitutes” are transported to the underworld by burning. Relative who fail to care for the spirit of a deceased family member set another “hungry ghost” loose in the world.

Once every year, in the seventh lunar month (August and/or September), the needs of these ghosts are met in the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. At this time, when hungry souls are released form the underworld to roam the human world in search of sustenance. Chinese families take steps to propitiate these spirits. Fearing the depradation, this rampaging band of ghosts might inflict, they burn paper money and leave food on the edges of streets just outside their homes.

Most towns in Taiwan, also hold a large parage. Images of the tutelary City God (城隍爺) and his two generals are carried around the streets, patrolling to monitor the ghosts’ behavior. At the end of the festival period, local tmeples hold banquets for the ghosts. Temporarily appeased and gratified, the spirits return to the underworld for another year.

The Chinese Pantheon

    A huge pantheon of gods and goddesses colors traditional Chinese religion. Most are the heroes and worthies of Chinese myth, legend and history, deified either by imperial order or popular choice. Some can even be equated with the saints of Christianity. Some of these deities are so well known that their images are found in many or most temples; others are unique to a single temple. Some communities have cult followings that have grown up around a particular historical figure believed to have protected or guided the town, or to have worked a miracle there. The best-known deities have proven their reputed powers to generations of Chinese over the centuries.

    Dozens of identical images may be lined up on altars beside the statues of some deities. These represent the god’s armies complete with infantry and cavalry. Such supernatural soldiers command offerings of food from temple worshipers. In return, they protect their territory from the hungry ghosts and demons which threaten with such calamities as floods, drought, accidents, sickness, and crop failure.

    The fascinating origins and legends that surround these deities go deep into Chinese history. They reach devotees through street-opera themes, tales related by professional storytellers in tea houses, or at mother’s or grandmother’s knee in much the same way as the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood have survived in the West.

    It is generally believed that the altar images of deities are temporary residences for those gods, and that the spirit is only present in the image when required. Many devotees consider incense to be a lure to entice a spirit into an image. Others maintain that a deity’s spirit is omniscient, and is contained within each and every image portraying him (or her) from the time the statue is consecrated until it is retired.

    Some devotees believe that the power of a deity in any particular statue deteriorates with increasing age and eventually loses its efficacy completely. When this happens, the temple’s following must either obtain a new image or have the old one recharged at another temple whose deity is still powerful. The Chinese, being pragmatists, will only pray to those deities whose supernatural power has been proven by answered petitions.

 Local Heroes Deified

There are hundreds of additional deities. Among them are unique local heroes, like the Japanese policeman who saved members of one local Chinese community, and earned deification. Another temple is dedicated to the spirit of a buffalo.

There are some extremely popular deities. One of them is the so-called Monkey God—Sun, the Great Saint (齊天大聖孫悟空)—about whom legends abound and whose mischievous acts are retold with great glee. Another is Chi Kung (濟公), Buddhist monk well known to folk religion, whose ribald exploits were said to include frolics in nunneries and a love for dog meat despite his vegetarian vows. There is also a small group of temples in Taiwan that contain wooden memorial tablets to the spirits of those killed while resisting bandits or who died for the common good in clan wars. With the multitude of deities to be found in Taiwan, it should perhaps not be surprising that many devotees know neither the name nor the function of the local deity to whom they pay reverence. In a majority of temples, there are individual altars dedicated to a theme—fertility, health, agriculture, crafts and trades, or the like—rather than to a particular deity. Buddhist images also occasionally turn up on the altars of folk-religion temples. In addition to Kuan Yin, these include the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni or Gautama (如來佛); the Buddha of the future, known as Milofu (彌勒佛) or Maitreya; and Northern Buddhism’s, Omitofu (阿彌陀佛). Others might include Wei To, the guardian of the Buddhist law (Dharma), and Ti Tsang Wang (地藏王), the savior of souls. The 18 Lohan (十八羅漢), disciples of the Buddha, are often represented in temple murals for convention rather than for worship.

1. Kuan Yin (觀音) is a shortened form of a title which means “One Who Sees and Hears the Cry from the Human World.” Worshipped especially by women, this goddess comforts the troubled, the sick, the lost, the senile and the unfortunate. Her popularity has grown through the centuries so that she is now also regarded as the protector of seafarers, farmers and travelers. She cares for souls in the underworld, and is invoked during post-burial rituals to free the soul of the deceased from the anguished torments of purgatory. According to Chinese legend, Kuan Yin was originally a princess in the southwest of China. She ignored her father’s plans to marry her into a noble family, choosing instead to meditate and study Buddhist scriptures. Eventually the Jade Emperor elevated her to a goddess. But rather than enjoying life in the land of immortals, Juan Yin chose to alleviate suffering on earth. No other figure in the Chinese pantheon appears in a greater variety of images. Kuan Yin’s standard image depicts her depicts her as a bare-foot woman carrying a small upturned vase of holy dew. She may be seated on an elephant, standing on a fish, nursing a baby, holding a basket, with six arms or a thousand, one head or eight, one atop the next. The main identifying factor is her bare feet. On public altars, Kuan Yin is frequently flanked by two aides: a barefoot, shirtless youth with his hands clasped in prayer, and a maid demurely holding her hands together inside her sleeves. Her principal feast occurs yearly on the 19th day of the second lunar month. Actually, Kuan Yin originated not in China, but India. Still, in the last ten centuries Kuan Yin has been China’s most highly worshipped deity. In Taiwan, there are more than 450 Kuan Yin temples, and her statue rests on altars of thousands more.

2. Kuan Kung (關公) is the second most popular of deities in Taiwan. A historical soldier of the 3rd century A.D., he fought with two sworn companions to try to save a disintegrating dynasty. When captured by the enemy in 220 A.D., he refused an offer to defect and was decapitated, proving his loyalty. The courage of the three heroes has been chronicled in one of China’s most famous novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義). Portrayed on the Peking opera stage, he is the only character who has an all-red painted face, representing his courage and loyalty. Today, Kuan Kung is the patron deity of such disciplined groups as soldiers and policemen and of merchants and businessmen but he is often incorrectly referred to as the God of War. In Buddhist temples, he is one of two guardians on the main altar. Also known as Kuan Ti and by a score of other titles, his image is easily recognized by the severe puce or red face. Often he is accompanied by his two cohorts—Chou Tsang (周倉), a tall, black-faced sword bearer, and Kuan Ping (關平), his scholarly adopted son. Kuan Kung may be standing or seated, astride a red horse or holding his black beard in one hand and a book in the other. His festival is held on the 13th day of the fifth lunar month.

3.  Yu Huang Shang Ti (玉皇上帝), “the Jade Emperor.” Also known as Tien Kung (天公), he is the supreme deity of folk religion. His rule was traditionally conceived of as equal to that of the reigning emperor of China. His special concern is meting out justice to men through his subordinate deities. He is ultimately responsible for the deification of other gods, or for their dismissal from the pantheon as and when necessary. On the Jade Emperor’s birthday (the ninth day of the first lunar month), special sacrifices of pork, chicken, duck, and occasionally goat are placed before his image. Although the emperor himself is considered a vegetarian, he is believed to feast with meat-eating friends. The emperor is usually depicted with two servants who hold fans above his head. In a few temples, he is flanked by civil and military aides. Tien Jung’s wife is rarely depicted on the altar. Images of the Jade Emperor normally show him seated in imperial robes, his flat-topped crown notable for the short strings of pearls that dangle from the front. He holds a short, flat tablet in both hands before his chest. Historically, he did not come into prominence until the 9th century A.D., considered fairly late by Chinese historical standards.

4. The San Kuan Ta Ti (三官大帝), “Three Great Rulers.” This trinity rules Heaven, Earth, and the Waters, and is regarded as second only to the Jade Emperor in the pantheon’s hierarchy, which bears important similarity to the imperial Chinese bureaucratic structure. Devotees look to the San Kuan to deliver them from evil and calamity. Originally worshipped throughout China, they are the main deities at about 60 temples in Taiwan, especially in Taoyuan and Hsinchu counties. They are depicted as a trio of identical images who sit on side-by-side thrones, three bearded mandarins with scholars’ bonnets, each holding a tablet in front of his chest.

5.  Hsuan Tien Shang Ti (玄天上帝), “Supreme Lord of the Dark Heavens.” He is also known as Shang Ti Kung and to foreigners as the Northern Emperor. Hsuan Tien, a famous exorcist and slayer of demons, is depicted on altars as a fierce soldier, dressed in armor and usually seated. He has bare feet that rest on a tortoise and snake, makes a magical sign with the fingers of his left hand, has unkempt hair, and is often accompanied by two aides, General Kang and General Tien. He is also the patron deity of butchers and of people setting up businesses.

6.  Pao Sheng Ta Ti (保生大帝), the “God of Medicine,” the “Great Emperor Who Protects Life.” Also called Ta Tao Kung,  he is revered for his ability to cure the sick. Regarded by the people of Taiwan as the patron deity of native medicine, Pao Sheng was a legendary physician of the 10th century A.D. his fame spread after he healed an ailing empress. Pao Sheng’s image, easily confused with that of other deities, usually depicts him as a seated, benign, bearded mandarin accompanied by two of his 36 warrior aides, or occasionally by youths each carrying a box of medicinal herbs. Pao Sheng is the main deity in about 140 of Taiwan’s temples, chiefly in Fukienese communities around Yunlin and Tainan. He does not appear in temples of the Cantonese ethnic minority. His birthday is celebrated on the 15th day of the third lunar month. In addition, the tiger has been a powerful symbol in Chinese culture since ancient times. The tiger spirit eventually became a part of religious worship. According to legend, there was once a black tiger which ate a woman. However, she became stuck in his throat. The tiger could neither swallow the woman, nor spit her up. The God of Medicine saw the tiger’s predicament, and took pity on him. He helped the tiger get the woman out of his throat, but made the tiger promise to follow him, and not commit any more evil deeds. Later, the tiger is known as General Black Tiger (虎爺). It is believed that he can help cure the mumps. The parent of a child suffering from mumps is supposed to rub a piece of spirit money under the neck of the tiger spirit. Bandaging this to the neck of the child is supposed to bring a complete cure.

7. Ma Tsu (媽祖), also known as Tien Shang Sheng Mu (天上聖母) or Tien Hou (天后). She is an exceedingly popular figure throughout Taiwan. Legend claims that she was the daughter of a 9th-century Fukien fisherman named Lin. One day, her father and two brothers were caught in a typhoon at sea. The girl, asleep at home, left her body during a dream and appeared from out of the clouds above the boat. She grasped her two brothers with her hands and her father with her teeth. Unfortunately, the mother at home kept asking the body of the sleeping girl what was happening. In desperation, Miss Lin answered, but in doing so lost her grip of her father. Miss Lin died at the early age of 20 and some believe she was deified by the Emperor of China. She became the patron deity of sailors, but evolved into a goddess to whom any problem could be put. Her image is usually that of a seated dowager wearing a flat-topped crown with a bead screen similar to that of the Jade Emperor. She normally holds a scepter in her right arm or a tablet before her chest. There are countless legends of her powers. According to one, Ching Dynasty naval commander Shih Liang landed on Taiwan during a drought. By some miracle, a dry well near a local Matsu temple suddenly turned into a bubbling fountain. There was enough water for all his troops. The Ching Dynasty emperor crowned Matsu “Empress of Heaven” for her help on that occasion. Her two assistants are demons that she subdued and turned into loyal servants: the green Chien Li Yen (千里眼), “Eyes Which See for One Thousand Li (about 300 miles),” and the red Shun Feng Erh (順風耳), “Ears Which Listen for a Favorable Wind.” There are about 375 temples in Taiwan in which Ma Tsu is the principal deity. Among the most important are those at Lukang and Tainan. Her birthday is celebrated on the 23rd day of the third lunar month. There are large parades in all the major ancient port towns, with special theater performances in Peikang and Lukang.

8.  Cheng Huang (城隍), the City God appointed by the Jade Emperor to protect a specific town and its inhabitants. In some cities, there might be two or even three City God temples—one each for the city, the county and the prefecture. The City God is the final judge on what should be recorded in the report on each soul of those who die within his parish. He also acts as a link between mankind and the higher gods. In some City God temples, a large abacus is suspended from a ceiling or wall with the inscription: “Beyond human calculations.” In other words, man’s life is ordained by fate. Among the City God’s retinue are two generals known as the “harbingers of death,” Hsieh and Fan (謝范將軍). Legend says they were friends on a military campaign. Fan was drowned during torrential rain by a flash flood when Hsieh had gone for an umbrella. Filled with remorse, Hsieh hanged himself. They are also known as the Bai Mian Jun (白面郎君) and Hei Mian Jun (黑面郎君)—the white-faced general and the black-faced general. Their images now tell the story: Hsieh wears white sackcloth for mourning, carries an umbrella, depicted with his towering height, tall minister’s hat, waving hands, bulbous eyes, and bright-red tongue hanging out. He is a kind spirit who hands out coins and protective amulets to the children during festival parades. Fan, the shorter of the two but much more dangerous than his taller, white-faced counterpart, has a black face indicative of drowning. Short and squat with a large black hat and a long protruding tongue, the Hei Mian Jun is accompanied by a crew of gruesome devils. These hellish demons represent the various wicked passions and they are the charges of the City God, local judge of good and evil. In City God temples, they can be seen with black smeared around their mouths. This is said by some to be opium, by others sweets; either way, it is a bribe to beseech them to be light on punishments. The image of the City God himself is almost identical with that of the Jade Emperor. It is best differentiated by the images of the attendants around him, like Hsieh and Fan.

9. Chu Sheng Niangniang (註生娘娘), the “Matron Who Registers Births” and the Goddess of Fertility. She receives the souls of the deceased after they have been purified in purgatory, and decides into which human body the soul will be reborn. Her image characteristically holds an open book in one hand and a writing brush in the other. Continuing the family line has always been very important in Chinese society. Often the gods were asked to help when couples had trouble on their own. One tradition was to leave a borrowed baby shoe at the feet of a statue of the Goddess of Mercy (觀音菩薩). Another god which childless couples turn to is the Goddess of Fertility. Women who pray to her for a child can take a hairpin from the altar and stick it in their braid. This is supposed to make it easier to conceive. The Goddess of Fertility is also believed to help sick newborns. With the goddess’s permission, the mother can borrow one of the small embroidered shoes from in front of the altar to hang around the child’s neck. When the child is cured, the mother returns not one shoe, but two. Many of Taiwan’s major temples, such as Taipei Lungshan Temple, have a wing devoted just to the goddess of fertility.

10.  Kai Tai Sheng Wang (開台聖王), the “Saintly King Who Settled Taiwan,” better known to history as Koxinga. His story is told elsewhere in this volume. His image is approached by devotees for advice and guidance; his festival is celebrated on the 16th day of the first lunar month.