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,


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