H-ASIA: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
August 6, 1999
From: Scott Simon <dokuhebi@hotmail.com>

Taiwan Diary #6
Urban Religion, Part I

Modernization theorists believed that religion would fade away in the face of modernity and technological progress. The experience of Taiwan, however, seems to prove the opposite. In spite of Taiwan's rapid industrialization and urbanization (or perhaps because of it), traditional and "new" religions have become a visible part of the Taiwanese urban ethnoscape, and a favorite conversation topic among young and old alike.

Traditional Taiwanese religion was territorial. Every piece of land had (and still has) its Earth God (t'u-ti kung). Villages had their local temples, and pilgrimage networks linked them to higher centres of religious devotion. Temple fairs brought together neighbors and villagers, one's temple affiliation being determined by one's place of residence. Most people were unclear about religion itself, however. Usually unable to state clearly if they were Buddhist or Taoist, most were comfortable saying simply that they "worship" (pai-pai).

Urbanization, however, has extracted people from those traditional social networks and exposed them to new forms of religious expression. Taoists have long paraded their deities through the streets. Now Christians join them, carrying banners that proclaim, "Believe in Jesus and gain eternal life." New religions abound, and old traditions take new forms. Master Cheng Yan of the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation (http://www.tzuchi.org.tw), inspired by contact with Catholic nuns, has founded a Buddhist hospital and university in Hualien. That organization has also studied liturgical forms from Protestant Christianity, as members hold "witnessing candles" during meetings and relate stories of how Buddha has changed their lives. The century-old I-Kuan Tao (http://www.ikd.com.tw), once persecuted by KMT and CCP alike, attracts hundreds of thousands with its claim to combine Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam in the worship of Wu-sheng Lao-mu. Urban intellectuals flock to the esoteric teachings of Tibetan lamas.

Two weeks ago, Ch'an Master Sheng-yen of Faku Shan (http://www.ddm.org.tw), who usually divides his time between Taipei and New York, made a rare trip to Southern Taiwan. About 2,500 people gathered in Tainan's Number Two High School to hear Master Sheng-yen give a lecture on Buddhism. Busloads of people came in, not only from Tainan, but also from Kaohsiung, Pingtung, and Chiayi. Women in white shirts and blue ties escorted people to their proper seats in the auditorium. The ceremony began with nuns leading a chant to Kuanyin. Shortly thereafter, Master Sheng-yen himself entered the auditorium, escorted by six men in black suits and white gloves. He gave his speech in Mandarin, with simultaneous translation into Taiwanese.

"In Tainan," he began, "there are already many temples. One can always worship in those temples. So why should one take refuge in the Three Jewels? After you take refuge, the benevolent gods, Buddha, and the bodhisattvas will protect you."

Whereas one once had to find an individual master, and then work one-on-one to enter the path of Ch'an, Master Sheng-yen has turned Ch'an Buddhism into a mass movement. Faku Shan has Buddhist centres all over Taiwan (not to mention in the USA and Great Britain), where individuals meet for lectures on Buddhism, group meditation retreats, Buddhists choirs, and even organized trips to pick up trash in public parks. Faku Shan even conducts Buddhist wedding ceremonies, a ritual not traditionally associated with Buddhism.

"Some people ask me," said Master Sheng-yen, "if they can become a Buddha merely by following the precepts of a Buddhist (but not going through formal conversion). I say yes. Then why, they ask, is it necessary to take refuge? If a person can practice Buddhism without taking refuge, I will support that person's decision. But there is a problem. How many people can get a Ph.D. without getting an M.A. and Ph.D. first? I can give you the example of a man who doesn't have a degree at all, but he is a university professor. Many Ph.D. candidates study with him. But most people can't do it. Most people have to go to school."

In Tainan this time, Master Sheng-yen accepted about 1,200 new disciples in a public ceremony. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels, the new disciples took a collective oath to believe in Buddha and obey the precepts of avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and drinking alcohol. They then stood in line to give red envelopes filled with money to Faku Shan volunteers and accept a necklace as a sign of entry into the religion. "Today is your other birthday," said Master Sheng-yen. In traditional Buddhism, new disciples receive a dharma name. With so many people taking refuge, however, that custom was no longer practical. Master Sheng-yen suggested people see one of the Buddhist nuns afterwards if they really feel they need a Dharma name. Even Ch'an, it seems, can become a new, mass form of religion.


Religion in contemporary Taiwan is itself a product of modernity. People once participated in temples primarily as members of lineages and villages; they now join religions as individuals motivated by faith. Those who sought Buddhist masters once had to make pilgrimages to monasteries in sometimes remote locations; they can now watch them on TV or look them up on the Internet. No longer struggling each day simply to earn their daily rice, but unsatisfied by a life of consumption and materialism, the Taiwanese have turned in millions to organized religion. Mass conversions to Ch'an Buddhism, in ceremonies reminiscent of Christian baptisms, are a part of this phenomena. Technological progress has not led to the demise of religion. If anything, it has intensified religion and helped it reach a larger audience.

August 25, 1999
From: Scott Simon <dokuhebi@hotmail.com>

Taiwan Diary #7
Urban Religion (Part II)

Like Dru Gladney (Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996]), it was food that first drew me to a Chinese Muslim community. I was overjoyed one day to happen upon a qingzhen (halal, ritually purified food) restaurant on Chung-cheng Road in Kaohsiung. I returned a few days later for a delicious meal of lamb meat and beef jiaozi more reminiscent of Northern China than of anything I had ever eaten in Taiwan. The owner of that restaurant directed me to the mosque in Fengshan. Next to that mosque is yet another qingzhen restaurant that serves probably the best beef noodles in Kaohsiung. I immediately became a regular customer. Through dinner conversations with that restaurant's owners and customers, I learned much about Kaohsiung's Muslim community. And it was only a matter of time before I found myself praying in the mosque myself.

There are more than 20,000 Muslims in Southern Taiwan, who worship in a mosque paid for with a grant from the Dubai government. The Muslim community is ethnically diverse, composed primarily of Indonesian and Malaysian guest workers, mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and a handful of Middle Easterners who work or study in Taiwan.

Among my acquaintances there is a middle aged business man with an M.A. in history from Tainan's Chengkung University. His father was a Muslim from Kaifeng, who came to Taiwan with a retreating KMT in 1949 and subsequently married an aboriginal woman. Asked if Taiwanese Muslims prefer to marry within the faith (as Gladney describes for China), he said no one worries about that anymore. After all, he said, there are fewer and fewer Taiwanese Muslims, and they have to live like other people in society. On Friday, they have to go to school or work rather than take the day off for rest and prayer. And when they eat with others, as in the army, they have to eat pork. There is a lot of pressure to assimilate, he said with a heavy sigh.

Noting the large number of foreign workers, I asked how fellow Muslims communicate with one another in the mosque. "They don't," he said. "In fact,there is a lot of animosity." Referring to anti-Chinese riots that have occured in Indonesia, he said, "It's just like you see in the news. The Indonesians don't like the Chinese."

In spite of these difficulties, there are some Taiwanese who convert to Islam. I met one 34 year old man, the son of a Taoist priest. "When I was 28," he said, "Allah sent me a dream telling me to convert to Islam. So I came to the mosque and converted. Since then, I've even made the pilgrimage to Mecca."

An elderly man, also respected in the community for having made a pilgrimage to Mecca, told me about his spiritual path towards Islam. He was raised as a Buddhist, he said, but converted to Christianity as an adult. While reading the Bible, he found some key passages that led him to question his Christian beliefs. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan promised to give Jesus authority over the whole world if he bowed down and worshipped him. Jesus replied, "It is written, worship the Lord your G-d and serve Him only" (Luke 4:8). He interpreted that passage to mean that one should not worship Jesus either. He became a Muslim in order to worship one G-d, the same G-d that had been worshipped by Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The Muslim community in Kaohsiung is very different from the four Muslim communities described by Gladney. Gladney focused on Muslims as a Hui minority distinct from the Han majority. He focused on ethnic markers such as dress which visibly mark off members of the Hui minority from their neighbors. These visible ethnic markers are absent in Taiwan, and even the women do not veil in public. Gladney makes a convincing case that Hui identity in China is reinforced by state politics of identity, such as policies that give minorities preferred admission to college and let them have more than one child. In Taiwan, there is no state policy which recognizes Muslims as an ethnic minority. With less official recognition of ethnic diversity, there is perhaps greater pressure on Taiwanese Muslims to assimilate. Taiwanese Muslims thus perceive Islam to be primarily a question of personal faith rather than as a distinct ethnic identity. Personal identity in Taiwan is based more on a native Taiwanese/mainlander distinction and how individuals deal with an increasing degree of "Taiwanese consciousness."

One Sunday noon, as I was leaving the mosque, I stopped to buy red bean cakes from an elderly woman at the front door. Her weathered face was broad and solid like many that I have seen in Xi'an or Beijing, and she spoke with a heavy mainland accent. I asked where she is from. "I'm Taiwanese," she said. "We've been here for 50 years." I then asked where she was born. "That doesn't matter," she said. "We're Taiwanese now." I apologized for questioning too much, saying I was only curious since I have lived in China for two years and travelled to many places. I have also visited mosques in several Chinese cities. Only then did she come out as a woman from Jiangxi.

Edit date: 8/25/99