Religion in Taiwan
Taiwan practices freedom of religion, generously accepting foreign religious ideas while honoring traditional beliefs: even within the same family, it is common for different faiths to exist. As a result, Taipei has welcomed the development of many different religions.
Traditional Chinese religions include Buddhism, Taoism, and folk beliefs. Taoism is indigenous to China, while Buddhism was introduced from India. Taoists and Buddhists originally worshipped separately in Taiwan, but during the period of Japanese occupation (1895-1945) Taoists were singled out for severe persecution and began worshipping their deities secretly in Buddhist temples. By the time Taiwan was returned to Chinese administration at the end of World War II, the two religions had blended together; while a few temples today are purely Buddhist, most Taiwanese continue worshipping a variety of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk deities in a single temple.
Christianity was brought to Taiwan in the early 17th century by Spanish and Dutch missionaries. A number of Presbyterian missions were founded in early times, including the Panhsi Church of Tataocheng (today known as Tachiao Church) in 1874 and Manka Church in 1884; during the Japanese occupation period, the Chungshan Presbyterian Church, Chinan Church, and Chengchung Church were established.
Numerous other religions took hold in Taiwan in the atmosphere of religious freedom than followed retrocession; in addition to the Chinese religions and Christianity, Taiwan today also has followers of many other religions.
Traditionally, Chinese society has always used a lunar calendar (based on the phases of the moon). The biggest holidays celebrate the changing of the seasons, revealing China’s ancient agrarian roots.
Because most major festivals are timed by the traditional calendar, the dates that they fall on according to the Western, solar, calendar vary from year to year. Some holidays, however, have come to be associated with the Western calendar and occur on the same predictable date.
Some holidays may be of little interest to non-Taiwanese. Unless you have an ancestor who died and was buried in Taiwan, for example, you probably won’t find yourself directly participating in Tomb Sweeping Day. But many holidays are spectacular public events that can easily engage and fascinate visitors from abroad.
Though we won’t cover all the many days of note in the year (click here for a full list of holidays and festivals), here are some of the more interesting occasions you might want to observe:
Chinese New Year
The biggest event on the Taiwanese calendar, like everywhere else in the Chinese world, is the New Year, which marks the beginning of spring. It is a festival of renewal, in preparation for which families clean their houses top to bottom and cook elaborate feasts. It is also very important to settle all personal debts before the end of the year.
On New Year’s Eve, families gather together at home, eat heartily and let loose a lot of firecrackers. Children and elders receive gifts of money, in red envelopes called hungpao. A visit to a Taoist temple is sure to be a fascinating adventure, as crowds gather to pay homage to the gods. Temples dedicated to Kuan Kung are particularly active.
Much like Christmas, Chinese New Year is a family-oriented holiday, when homes are full of life and public places are boarded up tight. So the very best way to experience Chinese New Year is as a guest of a Chinese family.
Two weeks after Chinese New Year, the New Year season officially ends, and its closure is celebrated with the Lantern Festival. In many ways, it is a more dazzling public holiday than New Year itself. Streets, temples, and parks in all the cities are lit up with lights, lanterns, and electrified floats. Everywhere you find lanterns, you’ll find a sea of people – decidedly a crowd lover’s occasion.
Earth God Day
The 2nd day of the 2nd month on the Chinese calendar is set aside to worship earth deities. People lay out special offerings to the gods in their local shrines, and Taoist temples hold more elaborate celebrations.
Dragon Boat Festival
This summertime festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. Naturally, it is most famous for the racing of the dragon boats. According to tradition, in 221 BC, the great poet Chu Yuan drowned himself, and people close by rushed in their boats to save him, to no avail. Afterward, they tried to throw rice to the fish, so that they would not feed on his remains. Ever since boat races have been held in his honor, and everyone dines on tsung tse, dumplings made of sticky rice, and wrapped in leaves of bamboo.
The seventh month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls around August, is a time when the gates of the underworld are swung open, and the spirits are set free to roam the earth. In every street and alley, people burn spirit money to make the wandering ghosts happy, and make special offerings to their own departed kin.
On the 15th day of the month (the full moon), tables are placed out in the streets and laden with food and beverages, enough to satisfy all the unspecified spirits (called “good brothers”) in the neighborhood, while temples hold elaborate rituals.
Throughout the whole month, most Chinese refuse to go near water for fear of water spirits. Those foolish enough not to believe in ghosts might find it an opportune time to hit the beach.
Perhaps the most romantic festival in Chinese culture, the Mid-Autumn Festival is dedicated to the poetic beauty of the moon. Held on the full moon of the eighth month, it is celebrated by outdoor gatherings in the countryside, on mountain tops, or wherever a good view of the night sky is to be had. The festival’s traditional snack is the sweet – and perfectly round – pastry called the “moon cake.” Outdoor barbecues have also become recent popular additions to the ritual. Fireworks are naturally one part of the occasion too.
One of the most rewarding cultural excursions in Taiwan is traditional Chinese Opera. Although this art may be difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate, its enchanting librettos, unique and arresting musical forms and resplendent visual presentation are an essential part of refined Chinese culture. Chinese operas are, of course, first and foremost stories. If possible, read up on the storyline before attending a performance; your enjoyment will increase with understanding.
For the pure classical form of northern-style Chinese opera, Taiwan has two national opera troupes, the Fu Hsing and the Kuo Kuang. The latter has in recent years added newly penned, but very classical scripts to its full repertoire of standard pieces. There is a broad spectrum of other opera styles as well, ranging from tragic to comic, from historical to modern. The most active style in Taiwan, naturally, is Taiwanese Opera, also called gezai opera.
The Cloud Gate Theater Troupe is world renowned for its application of Chinese traditions and Taiwanese folk influences to modern dance. This well established theater company has a loyal following in Europe, but when they’re not out of the country on tour, they perform frequently at home, developing an ever-expanding repertoire of performances.
Taiwan also has a burgeoning subculture of little theater – small, experimental groups that in recent years have vitalized and localized drama on the island.