The Way of the Gods – Folk Religion in Taiwan

Worshipers send their prayers to the gods on the smoke of burning incense. (Photo: Tourism Bureau).

Beneath Taiwan’s modern façade is a body of beliefs that stretch back for millennia. For an insight into how people really think, you need to know about folk religion.

In Taiwan, temples seem to be everywhere, ancestral shrines take pride of place in many homes, and altars can be found in numerous offices and restaurants. On various devotional days throughout the year, storeowners load tables with offerings to appease ghosts and the streets are filled with the smell of votive incense and “ghost money” burnt for delivery to ancestors. Feng shui aimed at directing the flow of energy, or “chi,” determines where graves are situated and buildings constructed, while politicians strive to ensure the favor of the gods at election time.

Up to 80% of the population believes in some form of folk religion, including shamanism, animism, and ancestor worship.

Religion sets the clock for living in Taiwan, regulates holidays, and determines the rhythm for both business and family. But while the population is officially 34% Buddhist and 33% Daoist, Chinese “folk religion” has an even greater influence. Its ancient myths, rites, and deities hold sway over the imagination and provide a sense of identity that is both powerful and real.

According to the 2014 International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, up to 80% of the population believes in some form of folk religion, including shamanism (the belief that certain practitioners can access the spirit world), animism (the belief that non-human entities can have powerful, spiritual essences) and ancestor worship (the belief that the dead continue to exert influence over the living).

As the report also notes: “Many adherents consider themselves to be both Buddhist and Daoist, and many others incorporate the religious practices of other faiths.”

A Matsu effigy is passed through a crowd of worshippers during a ceremony. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)
A Matsu effigy is passed through a crowd of worshippers during a ceremony. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)

“Most people in Taiwan mix and match religions according to their needs,” anthropology professor Marc Moskowitz of the University of South Carolina, who has written several books on Taiwan and its culture, noted by email. “They might go to a Buddhist temple for a funeral, a Confucian temple to pray for their child’s success in the university entrance exam, and a Daoist temple to pray for better health.”

This syncretic and fluid attitude toward faith is supported by the constitution, which promises free exercise of religion and equal treatment under the law. Writes Moskowitz: “The government’s main concern seems to be that people are not exploited financially or, as in the case of funeral strippers, that public decorum is being upheld. Taiwan is remarkably permissive to folk religion as a whole.”

To an outsider, this religious practice might seem at odds with Taiwan’s status as a decidedly modern and technologically advanced society. Yet the past and present coexist without contradiction in the minds of most of its citizens. The reason is partly historical. While the Communist Party repressed traditional culture, including folk religion, following its takeover of China in 1949, these practices thrived under the Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taiwan.

It is generally accepted that Chinese religious practice was codified during the Song dynasty (960-1279) when the philosophical tenets of Confucianism and the traditional worship of gods and ancestors through rites were entwined with the cosmology of Daoism and then integrated with Indian Buddhism to form the “three teachings” (三教).

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The result is a huge constellation of colorful gods such as the Yellow Emperor (the purported founder of Chinese civilization 5,000-odd years ago) and beliefs that over time became part of a unifying Chinese tradition, legitimizing rulers, and providing a religious identity. This ethos manifested itself in rites and celebrations that are still held today, like the Dragon Boat Festival, Ghost Month, Lantern Festival, and even Chinese New Year.

Matsu: Taiwan’s Patron Goddess

An important deity to many Taiwanese is Matsu. Said to be a real person, Lin Moniang (林默娘) was born in 960 AD on the Fujian province island of Meizhou. She is typically remembered as a young lady in a red dress who was a great swimmer and had magical powers. Tragically, she died young and a virgin.

When Chinese started emigrating en masse to Taiwan in the 16th century, they were so grateful to the “Goddess of the Sea” for helping them make a successful crossing of the Strait that the first thing they did was to thank her by building a temple. Penghu’s Tianhou Temple in Magong is the country’s oldest and was built in 1593.

Worshippers continued to give thanks, and Matsu gradually morphed from goddess of the sea to being associated with the Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy,” Guanyin. She was prayed to for good crops, successful marriages, and just about everything else. She became a virtual patron saint of Taiwan, with at least 1,000 temples dedicated to her around the country.

One of Taiwan’s liveliest festivals is the Matsu Holy Pilgrimage, which recreates the journey of 19th century devotees who traveled every 12 years from Taiwan to the goddess’ temple in Meizhou Island, off the coast of Fujian in China. The now eight-day pilgrimage from Zhenlan Temple in Taichung to Fengtian Temple in Chiayi is internationally famous and recognized by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage.

An estimated 200,000 pilgrims follow in the wake of Matsu’s statue carried in a palanquin, through the streets and up the mountains, visiting smoky temples along the 300-kilometer route.

Temple parades are lively affairs and often feature performers in costume and huge firework displays. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)
Temple parades are lively affairs and often feature performers in costume and huge firework displays. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)

It’s grueling, explosively loud, and fueled by fervor. Those taking part are often the needy and deprived, in search of salvation.

At the same time, it’s the journey of a lifetime, with participants sure to experience the goodwill of total strangers and witness totally unexpected events. For example, the pilgrimage is the scene of occasional self-mutilation performances – blood rites, called jitong (乩童), that are a form of shamanism. Viewing it is like being transported back into another era.

The mediums are encouraged, with liberal libations of alcohol and betel nut, to enter a trancelike state that allows spirits to enter the body and answer questions from believers. By skewering their mouths, self-flagellating with whips, or cutting themselves repeatedly with knives and spikes, they satisfy the audience that they have been possessed and are no longer in control of their senses.

It should also be mentioned, however, that shamans are not necessarily male nor do they always mutilate themselves. They are just as likely to be women sending out email responses to clients, after being possessed in the comfort of their own home by the spirit of Ji Gong – an alcoholic 12th century Buddhist monk.

Tradition and modernity

Henry Huang, a newspaper editor and ethnology master’s graduate from National Chengchi University, is well known for his colorful blogs about Taiwan’s religious festivals. One of his favorite events is the Liu Fang Ma Guolu (六房媽過爐), which celebrates the legend of Lin Meiyun (林美雲).

A “barefoot doctor” or healer, she was murdered at a young age and then canonized as “Heavenly Holy Mother.” Her six “brothers” (actually five brothers and one cousin) migrated to Taiwan and formed their own clans across Yunlin County, but never forgot their sister. In addition to giving thanks to her hallowed image for good harvests and other blessings, they organized an annual festival at which they would take turns to parade her image across the county and offer sacrifices.

Several hundred thousand people take part in the 360-year old festival. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)
Several hundred thousand people take part in the 360-year old festival. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)

Several hundred thousand people now take part in the 360-year-old festival, which is unique to Yunlin and is intended to drive away malevolent spirits and bring good luck. Huang says the secret of the rite’s longevity is that it has maintained tradition while constantly updating itself for new generations.

“People are devoted to the goddess and come up with great new ideas to prove their dedication,” Huang says. “They put tech devices on the holy palanquin, like geographic information systems or GPS. This helps people follow the route of the march. You will also see hot dancers gyrating on cars to electronic music. Young people love to post news about the event on Facebook or Instagram.”

The festival focuses attention on Yunlin’s cultural traditions, Huang says. In this way people can participate and “pass on this heritage from generation to generation. For me, Liu Fang Ma is a key to opening my mind, pointing the way forward so that I can follow and do something.”

Huang says he has no doubt Matsu and the Heavenly Holy Mother are living gods. “Even though I can’t see her, I believe she is everywhere,” he asserts.

Marc Moskowitz says that Taiwan’s folk religion combines faith and ritual with material pragmatism. “People do tend to go to temples and ask for very specific things, which can be seen as pragmatic,” he noted in an email. “But it is thought that for this to work they need to be sincerely devotional to the gods and offer something in return. This ranges from giving up meat for a certain period of time, to building a temple in thanks if they have the funds to do so.”

Rather than dying out, folk religion is actually getting stronger in Taiwan. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)
Rather than dying out, folk religion is actually getting stronger in Taiwan. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)

Lim Tai Wei, a senior lecturer at Singapore Institute of Management and a research fellow at National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, makes the point that folk religion is not just for the devoutly religious. “Taiwanese sometimes observe folkish practice when they feel a sense of personal crisis, or are affected by a life event,” he says. “The non-religious may sometimes use folkish religion as a form of emotive relief.”

It would appear that far from dying out, folk religion is actually getting stronger. While lay practitioners like funeral directors incorporate folk religion in their rites, relatively new religions and religious organizations such as Yi Guan Dao, Tzu Chi and Falun Gong actively spread the old traditions. “Folkish elements may actually be increasing or proliferating through such religious organizations,” Lim wrote in an email from Singapore.

Folk religion and politics

A possibly surprising example of the influence of folk religion on Taiwanese culture is politics. Before the recent election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president, for example, Fo Guang Shan Buddhist master Hsing Yun compared the candidate to the goddess Matsu. This backing was all the more striking, since Hsing Yun is generally regarded as a loyal KMT supporter.

“Religious appeal still seems to have some form of influence, as seen in the examples of political candidates visiting shrines and temples or making subtle references to religions in an attempt to boost their votes,” Lim comments.

Tech devices are put on the holy palanquin to help people follow the route of the march. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)
Tech devices are put on the holy palanquin to help people follow the route of the march. (Photo: Tourism Bureau)

“Given that Buddhism, Daoism, as well as hybrid religious groups that incorporate folkish elements…have vast resources in terms of manpower, as well as monetary resources through donations (such as Tzu Chi), they inevitably attract political elites to socialize and canvas for votes on their behalf,” Lim noted. “Through open support and resource allocation, the leadership of such religious organizations has an indirect say in Taiwan’s politics.”

The appeal of folk religion is a powerful and unifying one. It has been the case in China for millennia and in Taiwan for many hundreds of years. Folk religion is now being revived to some extent in China, where traditional beliefs and morality are seen by party leaders as a natural corrective to corruption and a boon for social stability.

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