Sunday, December 31, 2006

Taiwan Folk Beliefs Essay

December 31, 2006


Dear Friend,

I am happy to hear that you are planning to visit Taiwan for the first time. I am sure that you will find it to be a fascinating and vibrant place, with many exciting and interesting sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. Before you arrive, I want to describe some of the folk beliefs of the Taiwanese people. They may not strictly logical, but by knowing about them, you will understand more about the Taiwanese people’s religious outlook, which is marked by tolerance of different faiths and the ability to accommodate contradictory beliefs.

One aspect of Taiwanese folk belief that sets it apart from Western ideas of religion is that it is much more inclusive and flexible than what we are accustomed to. While our Western belief system is predominately shaped by the Judeo-Christian ethic, which, in whatever form it takes, is fundamentally exclusive of other belief systems, the Taiwanese folk belief system incorporates elements of Buddhism and Taoism, as well as less well-defined folk practices and beliefs that vary from region to region. Confucianism, though strictly speaking not a religion, also has an important role to play. All of these elements combine to create a unique system of beliefs. For example, it is not uncommon to find both Buddhist and Taoist icons in a local temple, along with other figures or artifacts representing local spiritual elements that fall into neither of the former categories. In a way, you could say that Taiwanese folk beliefs are very pragmatic; whatever practice or belief that seems to work for the local people can be adopted and absorbed into their spiritual and ritual life.

Something that you will find closely linked to spirituality in Taiwan is the burning of incense. Aside from its pleasing aroma, the burning of an incense stick has a practical spiritual purpose. By transfiguring a solid object into smoke, the worshiper is making an analogous transformation from the earthly into the ethereal, much in the way that bread is transformed into the body of Christ in a Catholic mass. This practice has a cathartic effect, as a result of which the tension between the earthly and the spiritual is mitigated. In every temple you will find a number of incense burners, one at the entrance of the temple and then others inside for each of the gods that reside in the temple. People can be seen walking from one god to the next, holding incense sticks between their palms as they bow and pray to the gods.

You may be surprised that I refer to “gods” and not “god.” Unlike our Western, monotheistic practices, in Taiwan there are many gods, and multiple gods can reside in a single temple. There is usually one main god to whom the temple is dedicated and who is accompanied by his or her retinue of supporting gods, and then any number of associate gods, sometimes accompanied by their spouses. It is important to keep in mind that, although each temple has a specific patron god, there is no hierarchy of gods, as you might find in the ancient Greek pantheon. Gods perform different tasks as needed, and therefore sometimes assume a higher position for that purpose, but otherwise all gods are equal and respect each other. In addition to gods, Taiwanese recognize the importance of the spirits of ancestors, as well as ghosts.

Although I differentiate between gods, ghosts, and ancestors, in reality the boundaries between the three are not fixed, but rather they exist in a state of shifting continuity. The usual order of worship at a temple is first to the patron or main god of the temple, which reflects an introspective attitude, then to the sky god, which reflects an outward attitude. After that, ancestors are worshipped. Finally, some tribute can also be paid to ghosts, which are usually ancestor spirits who either have no living descendants, or whose living descendants for some reason or other have been unable to support them sufficiently. Since ancestors depend on the living to provide them with offerings in order to live comfortably in the afterlife, those who don’t receive adequate offerings become hungry ghosts, who often cause trouble for the living if not appeased through the burning of “ghost money” or other offerings.

Offerings are not the only way in which the living can be in contact with spiritual beings. In Taiwan there are also spirit mediums. These are people who, through no action of their own, have the ability to become possessed by gods in order to communicate with the living. Often people who are experiencing some kind of misfortune call upon these mediums to intercede for them, or to obtain information from the gods on what course of action they should pursue in order to overcome the misfortune. The rituals themselves may seem strange to us, as they involve mortification of the flesh in which the mediums strike themselves with swords or spiked clubs, as well as speaking in strange languages and voices. There are other forms of mediation as well, such as using a god’s sedan chair to “write” answers to questions.

Individuals can also communicate with the gods without employing a spirit medium. This is done with use of divination blocks, or sometimes coins. The individual asks the god a question, and then drops two blocks. The way they land determines the answer to the question. If the individual doesn’t like the answer, he or she is free to continue asking—sometimes changing the question in the process—until he or she receives the desired answer. The blocks themselves are crescent-moon shaped, and are rounded on one side and flat on the other. If they land either both flat or both rounded sides up, the answer is no. If they land with one of each, the answer is yes.

When describing the folk beliefs of the Taiwanese people, it is necessary to also talk about the relationships of the people to the gods and other spiritual beings, as well as their relationships to each other and to their communities. Every neighborhood has its own “corner” temple where that particular community’s patron god is worshipped. As I mentioned before, there is no fixed hierarchy for the gods. Because each community of worshippers has a particular god that it adopts as its patron, and because these gods have an egalitarian relationship with one another, this means that the temples are considered to be equal in importance to each other. This extends to the relationship between these small, local temples—which are only attended by people from the neighborhood—, and the larger temples that serve the greater community. Because of this relationship of equality between temples, social boundaries—such as those between rich and poor—between the various groups of worshippers are flexible. The boundaries between temples and worshippers exist, maintaining each group’s identity, but because they are permeable, they can be crossed to maintain a social balance.

Finally, it is this social balance that I want to try to explain to you. Because the folk beliefs of the Taiwanese people are flexible, the followers of this religious tradition experience more liberty and personal freedom compared to followers of more strict religious frameworks. Since the emphasis is on wholeness and on the relationship between individuals, their community, the spirit world, and the earth, and because the boundaries between these realms is permeable, there is a place in folk society for everyone. This is reflected in the fact that even opportunistic behavior and attitudes of individuals can be accommodated. The flexibility of the belief system allows room for people to do what they want while still fulfilling religious obligations. This may seem odd to our Western sensibilities, and especially to those of us from the United States, where the ultimate authority in determining appropriate behavior is the law. In the Taiwanese folk belief system, however, the relation of individual to the state is indirect at best. The important relationships go from self to family, then to the local community, then to one’s ethnicity. The function of religion in this system is to transcend the tension between the individual and the collective, and thereby to establish a sense of social harmony.

I hope that this information will be helpful to you on your visit. I understand that it can seem confusing to those of us who grew up in a different tradition. In fact, I can’t say that I really understand it all myself. Still, by learning what I have about the folk beliefs of Taiwanese people, I feel that things that once seemed deeply mysterious to me are a bit clearer. Maybe armed with this knowledge you will experience less bewilderment and have a greater level of enjoyment of your time in Taiwan.

Your friend,

Mike

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Brazil

By the way, no one from Brazil has looked at my blog, which really hurts because Eu falo portugues muito bem.

Yickem Esuom? What the ... ?

Here's another example of a Taiwanese misspelling.
I'm wondering if maybe the perpetrators thought they were circumventing copywrite laws by scrambling the letters. Who knows? I guess someone ought to tell these folks that the images are copywrited, as well as the names.

In any case, I really doubt that a rodent named Yickem will ever be as popular as one named Mickey, even if he does live on a sweater that is tightly wrapped around a ... lovely bosom.

Sorry to wax pornographic, but the sight of such a shapely mannequin drives me wild with desire.

Hey, didn't Yickem Esoum run for Prime Minister of Israel under the Yensid party?

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Noisiest Place on Earth

Most buildings in Taiwan are made out of concrete. This means that when a house or apartment is remodeled, it involves the use of extremely noisy tools, like jackhammers. Also, because most apartments are individually owned (rather than having one landlord for a whole building), each apartment owner can remodel his or her unit whenever he or she wants. In my building, four of the apartments around mine have undergone renovations since I've lived here. For each renovation, I've had to suffer through up to three weeks of bone-jarring noise (as have all the other tenants). In addition, two units across the street have been renovated, also causing painful noise levels. The noise usually starts at eight in the morning and continues until five or six in the evening, including Saturdays and Sundays.

Here are a few videos from recent renovations. Currently there is another apartment being renovated just below me, but I haven't had the energy to document it.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I used to be a pretty girl.

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Playing Bass


Patrick and I on stage.

In April I got a gig playing bass in a classic-rock cover band. I'd never played bass before, so I wasn't very good and made a lot of mistakes. Still, I thought it was the beginning of my new music career. Unfortunately, a few months later, my friend Patrick returned to Canada to have twins with his wife, and my connection to the music world disappeared.

Here's me being introduced.


Here we are playing "Shame on You."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Push the Alarm Bottom


Here is another Taiwanese spelling error that I found in the Matsu Hotel in Lugang. On the fire extinguisher box, the instructions call for pushing an alarm "bottom." Now, I'm all for pushing bottoms, but will it help to put out a fire?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tohams the Tank Engine



In yet another classic case of Taiwanese misspelling--not to mention trademark piracy--we meet Tohams, the lovable tank engine, and, well, frankly a group of letters and one nonsense character that might be intended to imitate the words "& friends," but actually comes nowhere near its mark.

Intellectual property protections are often cited as a major stumbling block between countries like the US and Taiwan (though not so much as between the US and less developed Asian nations). Despite assurances by governments to protect intellectual property, piracy is rampant. In Taiwan, unauthorized use of cartoon characters on clothing is a prime example (as well as in advertising, on store fronts, and on all kinds of household goods, office supplies, stationery, etc.). Almost every child in my kindergarten wears clothing with suspect trademarked images on it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wu Duan-hou: Lugang's Lantern Master

When I was in Lugang recently, our tour group stopped at the lantern shop of Wu Duan-hou. He is a very famous lantern craftsman.

That's Wu Duan-hou in the background. He's the older man with the beard.

These next three pictures were intended to show how windy it was




Here's a short video clip outside the shop.


I got this information from the Chunghua County government's website that deals with master artisans in Lugang (also spelled Lukang).

Wu Duan-hou – Inheritor of Folk Lantern Art Skill
Residing in Jhungshan Road, Lugang Township, Changhua County, Wu Duan-hou is famous for his folk lantern art skill. His fame even spreads as far as USA, Japan, France, Netherlands, German, Korea, to just name a few. Wu’s family has lived in Lugang Township for generations. He opens a shop of his own, whose name is called “Wu Duan-hou’s Lantern Shop”. Wu won Traditional Art & Craft Award. He learned lantern art skill from master Wang since his childhood. He was taught to make Family-blessing Lantern in the shape of cylinder with names stereotyped by single color. Although he was struck with deafness in the year of 13, fortunately, he was not frustrated but remained his interest in making lanterns. At age 72, Wu has made lanterns for more than 50 years. His works have received high reputation for their delicacy and magnificence home and abroad. For the recent ten years, Wu is dedicated to teaching lantern-making art skills in Taiwan’s Municipal Social Education Halls and Culture Centers all around Taiwan. He also shows up in folk activities, elementary and high schools, wishing to make the intangible culture continue active.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Lugang, Taiwan


Last weekend I went on a field trip to Lugang. It is a historic city in Taiwan. There are a lot of temples and other interesting historic and cultural sites. I have a lot of pictures from the trip, but at the moment I don't have time to post them all. You can see them at my yahoo photos.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis


The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis

Virgil’s account of the suicide of Dido in his Aeneid describes one of the most ironic tragedies in literary history. It is the story of a woman who is content and secure in her position, yet is drawn irresistibly into the world of intrigue between gods and men, a world that ultimately leads to her destruction. Unlike many tragically flawed characters in mythology, Dido does not bring disaster on herself by defying the gods. She is quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A perfect tool for Juno’s plan, used to perfection by Venus, Dido succeeds in distracting Aeneas from his destiny, but only temporarily. A message from Jupiter is all that it takes to wake Aeneas from his complacency. Before she knows what is happening Aeneas is gone and Dido plunges down a path of self-destruction.

It is easy to lay the blame for Dido’s death at the feet of Aeneas. After all, before he arrives on the scene, Dido is content with building Carthage and remaining faithful to Sychaeus, her dead husband. It could be said that her epistemological footing is based on these two pillars. Unfortunately, under the power of Cupid’s poison, Dido falls in love with the hero, and this footing undergoes a change. Aeneas is only too willing to go along with her. Though he later claims to have harbored feelings which reciprocated hers, it is fairly obvious that for him, this is a relationship of convenience. In the meantime, however, his complicity in the love affair further reinforces Dido’s view of life. Anna, her sister, is impressed with Aeneas’ valor and lineage and encourages her to follow her heart. With this advice Dido’s last inhibitions fall away and she gives herself over wholly to her love of the hero. She has grudgingly let go of her past and is now dedicated to her new life with Aeneas, even to the detriment of her civic duties. Dido’s belief system, or epistemology, is now resting solely on what her relationship with Aeneas seems to be: a complete and permanent union. Her new base of understanding is firmly cemented. That is, as firmly cemented as is possible when the gods are involved.

Then the blow falls. Jupiter sends a message to Aeneas that he must continue on to Italy in fulfillment of his destiny. In his essay, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science,” Alisdaire MacIntyre describes an experience like what Dido goes through when Aeneas is called away. What he calls an “Epistemological Crisis” basically means that one’s way of understanding the world, or how things seem, is suddenly shown to be out of accordance with the way things are. As he says about persons undergoing such a crisis, “. . . The relationship of seems to is becomes crucial” (MacIntyre 24). Dido has no doubt gone through such crises before and weathered them. This time, however, the crisis is too great. The queen is unable to reconcile the new evidence of how things are, namely Aeneas’ apparent willingness to throw her over in pursuit of Destiny, with how things have seemed to be up until now, namely that she and Aeneas were permanently attached. The crisis goes unresolved, with madness and suicide as a result.

But what is really behind Dido’s suicide? Certainly Aeneas’ actions seem cold-hearted in light of what the lovers have shared, but it seems naive to think that a woman as strong as Dido would fall apart so completely by a simple jilting. Not only has she gone through seeing her first husband murdered through the treachery of her own brother, but has been able to escape and found another city. Suicide is an act of utter desperation, and Dido is just not the desperate type. What is it, then, that drives such a strong woman to suicide? What prevents her from resolving her epistemological crisis?

The answer can be found in the fact that her love for Aeneas is not a natural one, but has been formulated by the gods, and is thereby beyond her control. Juno, who hates all Trojans for, among other things, Paris’ “ . . . unjust slight to her beauty . . .” (Aeneid 28), has made it her mission to destroy Aeneas. As Dido is queen of Juno’s favorite city, Carthage, it seems likely that goddess will try to use her to harm Aeneas. Sensing this, Venus comes up with the following: “I plan to forestall her [Juno] by a trick of my own and enclose the queen in such a girdle of flames that no act of divine power may divert her from submitting . . . to a fierce love for Aeneas” (Aeneid 48). Juno seizes on this opportunity to rob Aeneas of his destiny, and conspires with Venus to marry him to Dido, thereby diverting him from Italy. At this point it is clear that Dido is not in control. Once Cupid infects her with his poison, we are told that she is, “ . . . condemned now to sure destruction” (Aeneid 49).

Further evidence that Dido is not acting on a natural impulse can be seen in her own initial reaction to her sudden love for the hero. “But I could pray,” Dido says to Anna in reference to her vow of faithfulness to Sychaeus, “that the earth should yawn deep to engulf me, or the Father Almighty blast me to the Shades with a stroke of his thunder . . . before ever I violate my honor or break its laws” (Aeneid 97). Yet she does break the laws of her honor, and as a result of the conniving of Juno and Venus, consummates her desire for the hero. Further evidence that Dido’s attraction to Aeneas is beyond the ordinary can be seen in her actions after they are finally brought together in the cave, “Henceforward Dido cared no more for appearances or her good name, and ceased to take any thought for secrecy in her love” (Aeneid 102).

The deliberate meddling of the gods and Dido’s loss of self-control are indicators that Dido no longer has the means to make the adjustment from a life with Aeneas to a life without him. According to MacIntyre, in order to resolve an epistemological crisis such as this one must, “ . . . [construct] a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them” (MacIntyre 25). Dido’s condition, that of being under the direct control of the divinities, makes it impossible for her to construct such a narrative. She is basically locked into her current narrative by the power of the gods.

This is what makes Dido’s story so tragic. She had no real part in her own destruction. She was not being punished, as she was not guilty of any sin against gods or humans. Nor was she struck down for hubris as many of her contemporaries were. In fact, she never had the option of choosing her course as they did. Venus and Juno, each for their own purpose, conspired to push Dido into the path of oncoming Destiny, and Cupid tied her to the tracks. “. . . [M]adness or death,” says MacIntyre, “may always be the outcomes which prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis . . .” (p. 25). Dido’s fate is sealed. She goes mad with grief and longs for death. There can be no resolution for her among the living. Used and discarded by the divinities and by Aeneas, and stripped of her honor, she must find her peace in the underworld.


Works Cited

Virgil. The Aeneid. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.

MacIntyre, Alisdaire. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and The Philosophy of Science,” Comp. Lit. 300 Course Packet W96: 24-34.