IT COULD BE SAID that religion on Taiwan’s Kinmen Island is ubiquitous. Indications of spirituality are everywhere. Artistically ornate, incredibly colorful Taoist temples and shines were seemingly built wherever there was once a free space. That combined with Buddhist temples and a couple Christian churches and little Kinmen seemed like an overflowing religious melting pot. There are over 300 temples and shrines here, and for an island that only has a population of only 60,000 people, the per-capita show of religiosity is higher than I have probably ever observed before in my 13+ years of world travel.
Perhaps the only thing as common in Jincheng, the island’s largest city, as places of worship are 7-elevens. I walked through the streets of this small city of 30,000 people through a virtual gauntlet of temples, shrines, alters, and religious offerings placed on the ground outside the doorways of homes and businesses. These places of worship all seemed well attended to: the temples attracting practioners throughout the day in steady streams and the shrines and alters seemed to always have incense burning.
Taiwan is known for nothing if not its religious pluralism. It has thirteen officially registered religions — which include Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hsuan-yuan Chiao, Islam, Li-ism, Tenrikyo, Baha’i, T’ienti Teachings, Tien Te Chiao, I-Kuan Tao, and Mahikarikyo — and probably hundreds more that are not formally recognized. As it happened, Taiwan is a central meeting place of religion in East Asia, and has absorbed faiths from literally all over the globe and assembled them together into a admixture that can only be described as Taiwanese.
Historically, Kinmen Island tended to be much closer aligned with mainland China’s Xiamen Island and Fujian province than what is now considered the main island of Taiwan, and it is my impression that the religious layout here varies from the rest of the country. Kinmen Island was also not ceded to Japan at the end of the 19th century to face 50 years of Japanese occupation, during which time Taoism was persecuted. Rather, Kinmen only faced a brief period of Japanese rule during WWII when most of China was also under their control. Like so, Taoist/ Buddhist syncretism is not as pronounced here than it is on Taiwan’s big island, and the dominant faith is clearly Taoism mixed with traditional folk belief. But this in no way is meant to infer that Kinmen is not incredibly religiously pluralistic: a simple walk down a street in Jincheng is enough to get an impression of the variety of religions that are being practiced here today.
I turned down an alleyway in Jincheng and soon found myself walking into the courtyard of a temple. The place was happening. Ladies were rushing to and fro, men were standing in the doorway, and as I entered I saw that three massive, long tables full of offerings to various deities prominently took up the center of the main worshiping hall.
The offerings here were of symbolic food, rather than the real thing. Plastic and rubber replicas of what appeared to be livers and potatoes filled the tables along with massive amounts of incense, flowers, and bowls of oranges that I could not tell if real or false. Billowing clouds of smoke rose up from the incense and smaller alters that contained deities in golden framed glass boxes sat nearby.
I took a seat on a bench with some old ladies, and watched five men bowing together in a row in front of the main alter. My intrusion here did not seem to bother anybody, but I’m unsure how I could tell otherwise: in stark contrast to mainland China, the people on Taiwan’s Kinmen Island tended to shyly ignore me in sort of a Japanese fashion no matter the place or occasion. But what was going on in this temple seemed to be more along the lines of regular worship rather than any special holy day.
The mood of everyone except those actively worshiping was highly relaxed, as though they came to this temple often just to hang out. An older man walked by me, cleared his throat, and then hocked a loogie right smack on the temple’s floor. The concept of sacred ground is very different in the East than it is in the West. It is my impression that a culture that is nonchalant about its traditional practices is one that is secure in those practices.
I watched as the row of men prayed and bowed with incense clutched in their hands. A priest nonchalantly worked the main alter, setting up incense and running through selected incantations.
I did not have the opportunity to ask these men why they were worshiping, but many of the rituals that are done in these temples are for the purpose of seeking assistance from the Gods. Worshipers come and ask for a favor as they burn incense before an alter and chant their name, birthday, and where they live.
The music from the band, who arranged themselves sort of haphazardly around the alter and the front of the temple, was overpowering. Screeching horns, pounding drums, clanging cymbals, a plucky lute, and the squeaking of a huqin violin filled the room. Sometimes the music sounded more like a Western orchestra warming up than a actual song that the musicians were playing in unison. This was by design: this is what traditional Chinese temple music sounds like. It is perhaps as different from the measure and beat of Western music that you can get on this earth.
Suddenly, the screeching stopped and only the percussion continued playing. The row of worshipers got down on their knees and intensified their chanting.
“Hello, where are you from?” a voice chimed to the left of me in English. I looked over and found one of the musicians standing before me smiling. I responded in English, and he then said, “America, good.”
Taking advantage of this unexpected opportunity I dove into asking questions about what I was observing as the ceremony continued. The old musician offered me a cigarette and smiled shyly. It was clear that he really didn’t know much English, that he was just being friendly. I took his cigarette and we had a smoke together in the temple as the row of men continued praying right before us. Our cigarette smoke mixed with that of the incense as it rose up into the rafters.
Though many aspects of what was happening in the temple were informal and relaxed, the worship was real. This wasn’t a show of religion like I’ve often observed on mainland China — where it seems as if temples are being reconstructed more as tourist attractions or a way of living up a cityscape than actual places of worship. It is my impression that religion is resurging in mainland China but it is in no way as intertwined with the daily life of the people as it is here in Taiwan where the traditions have continued unabated since the Chinese first came to these islands.
The making of joss paper 金纸, which is sometimes referred to as ghost money, spirit money, shade money, or gold money, seems to be one of the main cottage industries on Kinmen. Among all the temples and shires I counted at least three or four shops that sold nothing but this paper, which is designed to be religiously burned. It is my impression that it is manufactured right on the island, I even had the opportunity to watch an old man in a workshop cut stacks upon stacks of this symbolic money by hand.
It is estimated that Taiwan burns through 90,000 to 220,000 tons of joss paper each year during celebrations, funerals, and in the process of worship, and, from what I observed, it is clear that Kinmen does its part to contribute to this total.
When the row of men finished their worship a group of women walked up to the alter with stacks of joss paper in their arms which towered over their heads. In turn, each woman held her stack out in front of her in a gesture of offering, and bowed with it three or so times. After the final woman bowed with her gigantic stacks of joss paper, a priest removed a brightly colored cardboard deity from above the main alter and walked out the door of the temple with it ceremoniously paraded in front of him. The women with the stacks of joss and everyone else in the temple followed. The band picked up the rear, still blasting music as the procession marched outside.
There was a big burning barrel set up in the street adjacent to the temple’s courtyard, and the cardboard deity and all the joss paper that the women were carrying were placed into it. Fire soon overtook the enormous offering, and the worshipers stood around the burning barrel, prayed, and watched it all turn to ashes. The band played on. As the flames began to wan a woman set off a string of firecrackers, and everybody returned to the temple. I walked back to the burning barrel and peered at the flame still kicking inside of it. A young man and a women then rushed out of the temple and ceremoniously circled the burning barrel and dumped what appeared to be the equivalent of holy water inside of it before rushing back inside.
Burning joss paper is a big part of ancestor veneration, which is still at the heart of Chinese culture. The spirit money is an offering to a person’s or a family’s departed relatives, and it is believed that this replica money can be used by the deceased in the afterlife to purchase what they need. Contemporary practice includes burning paper credit cards and checks, as well as papier-mache cars, toiletries, houses, clothes etc . . .
Venerating the ancestors is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead continue to dwell in the natural world and have the power to influence the fortune and fate of the living. The goal of ancestor worship is to ensure the ancestor’s continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living and sometimes to ask for special favours or assistance. Rituals of ancestor worship most commonly consist of offerings to the deceased to provide for their welfare in the afterlife which is envisioned to be similar to the earthly life. The burning of spirit money enables the ancestor to purchase luxuries and necessities needed for a comfortable afterlife. –Wikipedia
Ancestor worship is a deep part of Chinese culture. Even on the mainland through the gung-ho, anti-religious, communist phase ancestor worship survived. Though most mainland Chinese do not go to temples to worship very often just about everybody participates in the holidays for ancestor veneration. These bonds are just about unbreakable by any force of politics, cultural changes, or other religions.
I followed everyone back inside the temple and watched as a row of women prayed at the alter, each on her knees holding an incense burner. I got the impression that this may have been a ceremony for the deceased family members of the people who were worshiping.
The band continued playing.
A unique religious admixture
Along with the interchangeable and near syncretic practice of Taoism and Buddhism, there is a heavy influence of what could only be called folk belief here in Taiwan. The very ancient tradition of belief in nature, thing, and place deities is still vibrant in Taiwan. Many of the subjects of deification revolve around the idea of protection. An example of this is the wind lion god, which is represented in various forms all around the island. This deity arose in the 17th century when Kinmen was rapidly deforested and thus rendered defenseless against the harsh winds which wreaked havoc across it.
This admixture of spiritual practice was driven home as I visited a museum in the Juguang Tower on the outskirts of Jincheng. An entire floor was devoted to displaying the religious practices of Kinmen, and included exhibits which demonstrated how Taoism, Buddhism, and more ancient belief systems come together in the island’s public festivals. One set of photos displayed the culture’s tradition of shamanism by showing ceremonial self-mortification in the form of men piercing their cheeks with metal skewers as worshipers and spectators watched.
Religions usually compete, here they’re absorbed
Taiwan is a hotbed of religion: Taoism, Buddhism, and folk belief are mixed together so well that it’s now difficult to tell where one faith ends and another begins. Needless to say, Christian missionaries have long been trying to get in on the action.
“It’s difficult to get a teaching job here,” an American guy I met on the island explained, “the missionaries have all those jobs locked down.”
Missionaries under the guise of English teachers is a rising phenomenon in East Asia. Perhaps unable to gain access to the souls of the Chinese outright, they go undercover in the benign roll of “English teacher.” It’s a truly amazing strategy, as there are few better ways for a Westerner to gain access to a population in Asia AND a visa.
“This place is fully saturated with foreigners,” the American continued, “there are around 12 of us here.” It was my impression that he was among the only ones in this group not connected to a Christian mission.
I would normally find myself irritated about what my new friend was telling me — Christian and Islamic missionaries are perhaps the most successful handmaidens of culturecide this world has ever known — but in this case I couldn’t. Christian missionaries have been working in Taiwan since the 17th century, and they have never really made much headway. Though Christian faiths are common in Taiwan and it’s estimated that there are 4,000 churches, less than 5% of the population is Christian. In fact, salesmen of the cross have such a low conversion rate here that Taiwan is sometimes dubbed a “graveyard for missionaries.”
Religions compete, they’ve always had and probably always will. Where two religions that permit conversion exist in proximity to each other they will compete for membership. The world’s two most popular religions — Christianity and Islam — were engineered to be able to out-compete rivals, and they’ve prospered where hundreds of other faiths faded into history. While most religions are in essence very similar to each other, the outer coats of appearance, particulars of practice, the structure of community, and, especially, what they promise their followers amount to sales pitches when in the context of religious pluralism. Christianity is the most popular religion on the planet for a reason, as what it offers is simply amazing: forgiveness, redemption, and the promise of eternal life. Who could ask for anything more in a faith?
But it is my impression that what it doesn’t offer is precisely why it has yet to gain a major foothold in Taiwan: the sanctity of family and ancestor worship. In many cases, becoming Christian here means going against the onward roll of tradition. It means someone turning their backs, to a certain extent, on their family, which is something that Chinese people don’t to do very easily. It is my impression that Westerners cannot truly understand the power of the family unit in Chinese culture. It is something that we can observe and learn about but it is not something that we can feel — we are just not culturally wired in the same way. Generally speaking, there is a major pattern in Chinese culture where people appease the will of their families over that of themselves, and family also includes ancestors.
Most Taiwanese continue believing in a combination of faiths from various traditions and parts of the world. In this global age of rampant religious fragmentation and spiritual disinterest this is truly a unique phenomenon.