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How to Read a Taiwanese Temple, Part 3: Conventions and Offerings

A little knowledge about the the habits and taboos of Taiwanese popular religion will help you, as much as is possible during a short visit, to grasp the ineffable nature of the faith that influences more than 90% of the island’s people. And as a thoughtful traveller, it goes without saying that you’ll wish to respect local customs and conventions when visiting places of worship.

As mentioned in the Part 1 of this series, ordinary people are expected to enter temples via the ‘dragon door’ on the right and exit through the ‘tiger door’ (on the left when you’re outside and facing the building). They should step over, but never on, the red wooden planks that lie across the bottom of each doorway. These raised lips serve two functions. One is that they block evil spirits from getting inside. The other is that, because people are forced to pause briefly before entering, they’re more likely to consider the true reason for entering a sacred building.

The pious usually come bearing fruit, flowers or other items to offer to the gods. At major temples, those who arrive empty-handed can buy what they need in terms of joss sticks (see Part 2 of this series for more about the role of incense), joss paper (often called ‘ghost money’) and suitable offerings from vendors and shops very near the shrine.

In all but the smallest temples there’s an official ‘prayer direction’, a route which the faithful are told to follow to ensure they pay their respects to the various deities in a manner which doesn’t offend the hierarchy of gods and goddesses. Not every believer does this, however. Some go directly to a specialist deity they hope will intercede on their behalf, bearing offerings tailored to that divine entity. For example, several times each day the protective deities revered as city or town gods are offered tiny cups of Chinese tea, because everyone knows that a great deal of tea is drunk by bureaucrats and the citizens who petition them.

What happens to these offerings? Oftentimes, the worshippers who placed them on the altar (or on the tables set out during festivals, as shown in the photo on the left) return after praying and take any food items home to eat. In the case of flowers, volunteers will throw them away when they begin to wilt. But if you wait near an effigy of the city god’s wife, you might witness an intriguing ritual. The good lady is typically given cosmetics or perfume, so some worshippers will bring a brand-new lipstick, offer it to her, then respectfully take home one which was presented by a previous worshipper and which they believe has been blessed by this divine eminence.

The sheer range and complexity of popular religion in Taiwan defy simple explanations, but we hope the brief description in this three-part article inspire you to join a culture-focused tour of East Asia’s most fascinating society.