Taiwan’s religious environment is characterised by tremendous diversity and tolerance. There’s some competition between sects, but almost no friction. Some observers have likened the mix of religions to threads which together create a beautiful cultural tapestry.
In Taiwan, some people practice ‘pure’ Buddhism and some follow ‘pure’ Taoism. Far more, however, follow one, or both, blended with folk beliefs. For anyone who grew up in the West or the Middle East, where monotheistic faiths require exclusive loyalty, the pick-and-mix approach of many Taiwanese to religion is initially bewildering but always intriguing.
The gods and goddesses revered by most Taiwanese are Chinese in origin, although a few are entirely local. Christians are a small minority, and Muslims an even smaller one. Despite Japan’s huge impact on Taiwan in fields as varied as architecture and cuisine, very few Taiwanese follow Japanese religions.
Some say there’s no such thing as folk religion, rather a motley collection of beliefs and superstitions which adherents hope will bring them health, longevity and prosperity. Rather than uplift people’s thoughts and refine their behaviour, a lot of folk rituals are designed to bring immediate personal benefit, such as protection from disease-spreading demons or success in school examinations.
The majority of Taiwan’s temples are classed as folk shrines. In a typical house of worship you’ll see several – possibly over a hundred – effigies of Taoist, Buddhist and folk deities. Some are no bigger than dolls; others are fearsome statutes twice the size of a man. Most are elaborately carved from wood, although some are clay or even solid gold. Incense is left to burn before these icons all day, every day; offerings of fruit, cookies, joss paper and tiny cups of rice wine are frequently made.
If you spend any time in a temple, you’re sure to see someone bua buay, as one particular rite is called in the Taiwanese language. This can be translated into English as ‘casting moon blocks’ or ‘throwing divination boards’. The boards or blocks are typically battered-looking crescent-shaped blocks of wood that have been painted red. These are used to ask deities questions: The worshipper frames the question in his or her mind, and then casts a pair of blocks three times. One block coming to rest flat-side up and the other flat-side down means the answer is yes; if both land rounded-side up, the god’s response is negative; both landing rounded-side down means the deity feels the question is frivolous.
Taoism (Daoism) in Taiwan
Unlike Buddhism, Taoism is a homegrown Chinese religion and philosophy. The founder, Laozi (meaning ‘the old one’), is said to have lived at least 2,400 years ago, although some historians doubt he existed. Laozi is believed to have written the Tao Te Ching, the most important Taoist text.
It’s a collection of 81 poems which provide advice on various topics, but because the wording is so ambiguous, passages can be interpreted in many different ways. Consistent themes include urging the reader to be kind, modest and frugal; the term ‘Tao’ (also spelled Dao) is often translated as ‘the way’, but the meaning is somewhat closer to ‘the unstoppability and inevitability of nature’.
Taoist priests wear black robes and distinctive headgear; during rites they chant, crack whips and blow horns. They can be seen in action during funeral ceremonies as well as temple parades. The Jade Emperor and Guan Gong are among the gods especially revered by Taoists.
Like practitioners of folk religion and those engaged in ancestor worship, Taoists burn considerable quantities of what English-speakers call ‘joss paper’, ‘ghost money’ or ‘votive currency’. This fake paper money is usually yellow or silver. Many business owners order their workers to lug portable braziers outside and set out tables of offerings, including joss paper which is later burned, on the first and 15th day of each lunar month.
Buddhism in Taiwan
There have been times in China’s history when Buddhists were persecuted, yet Buddhism is now far stronger in China and Taiwan than in India, where it was established by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha around 500 BC.
Buddhism appeared in China around 2,200 years ago. In the centuries that followed, hundreds of pious Chinese tried to reach India in order to study Buddhism and bring back scriptures. Very few succeeded; one who did is venerated in a pair of shrines at Sun Moon Lake.
The faith was carried to Taiwan around 400 years ago by the earliest waves of Han Chinese settlers. Appropriately, what’s thought to be Taiwan’s oldest Buddhist house of worship is in Lugang, one of the most ancient towns on the island.
In the past two decades, Buddhism has been Taiwan’s fastest growing major religion, and continues to attract a significant number of young, well-educated people. Aspects of Buddhism – part-time vegetarianism and a reverence for Guanyin – have been embraced by followers of folk religion. In recent years, many Buddhist groups have emphasised environmental protection, minimising or halting entirely the burning of joss paper.
Excellent places to learn about Taiwanese Buddhism include Foguangshan in Kaohsiung and Dharma Drum Mountain near Taipei. Both attract large numbers of non-Buddhist Taiwanese visitors, as does the headquarters of Tzu Chi in Hualien City.
Christianity in Taiwan
Christians played a leading role in the 20th-century history of China and Taiwan. Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek became Christians in early adulthood, as did Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first native-born president.
However, even though proselytising efforts began soon after the Dutch arrived in 1624, no more than one in 12 Taiwanese is Protestant or Catholic. Among aborigines, however, the proportion of Christians is much higher, likely more than nine out of ten. The Presbyterian Church is single most influential sect, having entered Taiwan in the 1860s via Qijin Island and Danshui.
Churches are prominent in both mountain villages and major cities. The majority of Protestant places of worship resemble churches in Western countries, while many Roman Catholic chapels and cathedrals imitate classical Chinese architecture. In addition to sects introduced from the West, such as the Wesleyans, Baptists and Mormons, Taiwan has a number of homegrown Christian sects.
Other sects and religions
One of Taiwan’s most intriguing faiths (and, by official statistics, the island’s third-largest religion) is I-Kuan Tao. Founded on the Chinese mainland in the 1930s – where it has been banned by the Communist authorities – it claims to reconcile Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Various religions are accepted as valid equals; for this reason, depictions of Jesus and Mohammed sometimes appear in I-Kuan Tao temples, which externally don’t differ much from folk shrines except they tend to be much bigger.
Just as there are non-mainstream sects linked to Buddhism, there are some unusual brands of Christianity. The True Jesus Church, which like I-Kuan Tao started in mainland China between the world wars, is a pentecostal movement which recognises neither Christmas nor Halloween. The New Testament Church is far smaller and, some say, more akin to a cult. Many of its members live in a commune in a mountainous part of Kaohsiung, where they grow mushrooms and raise rabbits.
Life of Taiwan specializes in tailoring private tours for international travellers. All of our tours are curated to your specific requirements by our itinerary builders, so you and your loved ones have the best possible time while travelling.