“You can find traces of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism under the roof of a single temple.”
It is true that religion in Taiwan can be completely strange, even totally crazy at times. Every year, people travel to Taipei and other places around Taiwan to witness religious processions, ancient Chinese festivals, and other fascinating aspects of Taiwanese religion.
Why learn about religion in Taiwan?
Well, one of the main reasons why I want to tell you about religion in Taiwan is because it has such an important place in the daily lives of Taiwanese people.
Another reason is you’re most probably going to visit a temple (or ten) during your trip to Taiwan and it’s better if you know a bit about:
- some of the most common practices and rituals held in temples,
- the meanings of the symbols and objects around Taiwanese temples,
- how to behave when people are praying, giving offerings, or burning ghost money,
- the different Chinese gods,
- the importance of ancestor worshiping in Taiwanese culture.
Taiwanese Religion and Temples
Temples are everywhere in Taiwan. I thought Thailand was the country with the highest concentration of religious buildings, but no… it doesn’t even come close to Taiwan. Some estimate their number to more than 30,000! For a country that’s approximately the size of Maine or Belgium that’s a lot of temples!
Religion in Taiwan – A Complicated Story!
Constitutional religious freedom and a dizzyingly complicated colonial history make Taiwan a place of exceeding religious diversity. The Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese have all tried to impose their beliefs on the sometimes helpless island, though the nature worship of indigenous Taiwanese still exists today.
Taiwan Religions – Buddhism and Taoism
Most commonly, Taiwanese practice a syncretism of Buddhism (Fo Jiao), Taoism (Dao Jiao) and Chinese Folk Religion.
The colorful temples and wafting incense odors are identifiers of Taoist worship, and Taiwan boasts over 18,000 Taoist temples island-wide.
Taiwan’s Buddhist population can be particularly strict, many of them adhering to vegetarianism. If you spot a restaurant with the Buddhist swastika, it will almost definitely be full vegetarian, not even serving onion or garlic, which strict Buddhists avoid due to strong tastes.
Top Buddhist Temples in Taiwan
My favorite Buddhist temple in Taiwan is the impressive Foguangshan Monastery, located 45 minutes away from Kaohsiung city, in Southern Taiwan.
Two other very important Buddhist sites in Taiwan are Chung Tai Chan in Puli, in Nantou County, and Lei Tsang Zen Temple in Caotun, 30 minutes south of Taichung.
Religion in Taiwan – Festivals
Taiwan’s religious openness, dramatically different from life in Mainland China, gives way to a number of public festivals and celebrations. These festivals are an opportunity for Taiwanese people to thank deities, worship ancestors and have reunions with family members.
Taiwan Religion – Confucianism
Confucianism (Ru Jiao) also plays a tremendous role in many aspects of life in both Taiwan and mainland China. The teachings of Confucius are generally not thought of as a religion per se, but the influence reveals itself in much the same way that other religions do.
There is no deity or spiritual world discussed by Confucius, the emphasis is rather on the self. Confucianism teaches that all humans can strive toward a kind of perfection that consists in a virtuous and self-disciplined life.
Confucianism has had an unbelievably long impact on Chinese culture – the man himself was born in 551 BCE – affecting the way government and education are run even today. Confucius may be to blame (or thank, depending on who you ask) for the rigorous testing culture that is found in Asia.
He was perhaps the original creator of the standardized test, which was used in ancient China to determine qualification for civil service. Confucius believed that no human being was any better than the next, so the government exams were his solution to determining the potential of a given individual.
Confucius Temples in Taiwan
Confucian temples are found in every major city in Taiwan. They usually don’t have statues of gods on display. Instead, you’ll see red tablets with the names of some of Confucius’ disciples (teachers) written on them. Confucius’ birthday is celebrated at Confucius temples throughout the island on September 28th. The biggest religious ceremonies held for that occasion are held in Taipei and Taichung, very early in the morning.
Taiwan Religion – Ghost Money
Generally, the paper being burned is what’s called “ghost money”, or “joss paper” (Ming Zhi), and is offered to the spirits to venerate the emotional and financial debts of one’s ancestors. You’ll see Taiwanese people burn ghost money outside their homes in small “money-burners” placed on the pavement, or at temples in big ovens usually found on the courtyards.
Have you ever heard about the Ghost Festival (Ghost Month)?You should read about it here. It’s a month-long Chinese holiday that is held in the summer. Taiwanese burn tons of ghost money during the Ghost Month.
Foreign Religions in Taiwan
“Foreign” religions are also practiced, albeit not nearly as widely as Buddhism or Taoism. However, Taipei’s Grand Mosque is always available and Protestant churches are fairly easy to spot.
The European colonial influence has not totally disappeared, and Catholicism is still practiced by a small percentage of Taiwanese. The most important thing to know is that in Taiwan you will almost definitely not be discriminated against or unfairly questioned because of religious preference.
You may encounter a lack of awareness; maybe somebody will be shocked if you are a Muslim-American, but beyond that there are usually only the best of intentions.
Taiwan Religion – Some Taboos
Taiwanese are very nice and most of them are easygoing. They won’t get angry if you do something “wrong” in a temple. Still, it’s better if you already know some Chinese religious etiquette, so you don’t offend anyone.
- Try to be as quiet as possible.
- Don’t make jokes, don’t laugh loudly.
- Don’t talk about ghosts.
- Don’t point at the gods.
- Don’t whistle in a Chinese temples. An ancient Chinese religious belief has it that whistling attracts bad spirits.
- Try not to walk in front of someone who is praying and burning incense in front of a Chinese god or an altar.
- Don’t touch the statues of gods, or burning incense sticks in temples.
- You’re supposed to walk around the temple in a counterclockwise fashion.
Read more about Chinese etiquette in Taiwan here!
Video of Chinese Religion in Taiwan
This video is actually a slideshow of 50 pictures of Taiwanese religion I’ve taken around the country since I moved here in 2000. In this slideshow, you’ll see lots of portraits of Taiwanese men and women as well as temples and religious ceremonies and festivals.
Taiwan Religion Links
In Taiwan, the statues of deities often have to be moved from one temple to another. Moving a Chinese god is an elaborate affair that usually involves lots of people, traditional music, fireworks, and palanquins. Check out this page to see pictures of a procession of a Chinese god being moved in Sanyi.
Ancient Chinese Ritual
A shocking, ancient Chinese ritual still practiced in Taiwan. A photo essay about shamanism and spirit possession on Formosa.
Warning: very bloody!
Chinese God of War
Guan Yu is referred to as the God of War, even though he wasn’t a god. He was a general who served under Liu Bei, an ancient warlord. He was alive during the Han Dynasty.