In addition to the historical crosswinds discussed in the previous article, Tawain’s modern culture is also painted with the beliefs, customs, and superstitions of multiple religions. Most of these cultural facets were brought to Taiwan from Mainland China, though there are also notable influences from Japan, Europe, and Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes.
Taiwan’s major religions include Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism , and Christianity. It is often hard to draw a line between these faiths, however, as the Taiwanese like to mix and match them pragmatically, using whichever faith is appropriate for the occasion. The situation is somewhat similar to Japan where many people claim, “I want to be born Shinto, marry as a Christian, and die as a Buddhist.” Also, it should be noted that despite practicing various religious rights and traditions, many Taiwanese do not consider themselves to be “religious” per se.
Beginning in India more than 2,400 years ago, Buddhism (佛教 FóJiào) is now the de facto belief system of most Asian countries, and a fast growing alternative to the major monotheistic religions in many Western countries.
The core beliefs center around the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. “The Buddha” or “The Enlightened One”), an Indian nobleman who gave up his life of privilege to focus on the attainment of “nirvana” (a state in which one has overcome all human suffering, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation).
The two main schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, differ rather significantly in their interpretation of Buddha’s message and subsequent scriptures (similar to the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, or Shiite and Sunni). Theravada is more common in Southeast Asia, while Mahayana is more widespread in East Asia. Mahayana includes Zen Buddhism (禪 Chán), arguably the most well-known Buddhist sect.
To learn more about Buddhism, I highly recommend reading any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s excellent books. Hanh, an exiled Vietnamese monk, teacher, author and peace activist, has inspired countless people across the globe, including many practitioners of other religions (Hanh is an adamant believer in inter-religious understanding and respect.)
Taoism (道教 DàoJiào) centers around the philosophies of Lao Tsu (老子 Lǎo Zǐ, literally “Old Master”) as expressed in his ancient, well known work, the Tao Te Ching (道德經 Dào Dé Jīng). The book is so named because of the opening words of it’s two sections:
- Part 1 starts with the word 道 (Dào), meaning “the way of”.
- Part 2 starts with the word 德 (Dé), meaining “virtue”.
- The word 經 (Jīng) simply means “classic”, which the work is now considered.
It is hard to nail down the core philosophies of Taoism as they have been inextricably intertwined with other belief systems such as Buddhism and Confucianism, and the very nature of the Tao makes definition difficult by design. But if one was pushed for a brief description of Taoism, they could point to the “3 jewels of the Tao”:
First of all, there are many names for Confucianism in Mandarin, including:
- “Teaching of the scholars” (儒教 RúJiào)
- “School of the scholars” (儒家 RúJiā)
- “Study of the scholars” (儒學 RúXué)
- “Teaching of Confucius” (孔教 KǒngJiào)
Now that we’ve got the names out of the way, let’s take a look at what concepts they refer to. Confucianism is not technically a religion, but rather a “moral philosophy”. In many ways, Confucianism holds sway over Taiwanese much like Judeo-Chrtistian moral precepts influence many Europeans and North Americans, whether they consider themselves religious or not.
If a person lives up to the Confucian ideal, they would be described as:
- Frugal: I’ve heard a few of my former students claim that “If you passed by one of Taiwan’s wealthiest people in the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice them.” In reality, there are plenty of wealthy or even middle class Taiwanese who go out of their way to show off their status with expensive cars and designer handbags. But again, we are referring here to the Confucian ideal, in which saving is favored over spending.
- Humble: Just as the ideal Taiwanese person avoids showing off their wealth, so too do they downplay (or sometimes, not even realize) their telents, skills, and accomplishments. This also goes for discussing one’s family: talking up one’s spouse or children is considered bragging, not love.
- Loyal: Being loyal to—and abiding by—one’s parents is perhaps the most strongly held virtue in Taiwan. Traditionally, parents chose what university their children applied for, where they worked after graduation, and who they married. Kids now have more say in these matters, but parents still play a large role. When they grow old, parents usually live with one of their children, not in retirement homes as is often the case in Western countries. Children are expected to assume financial responsibility for their parents, too, which is another reason why saving is considered so important.
Beginning in the 16th century, “Ilha Formosa” witnessed a tidal wave of Jesuit missionaries. Centuries later, there was a second wave following World War II, this time including a wide range of Christian denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and Mormans.
Quite a few Taiwanese now consider themselves Christian (基督教 JīDūJiào), including many of Taiwan’s past leaders:
- CHIANG Kai-Shek (蔣介石 JIǍNG JièShí)
- GHIANG Ching-Kuo (蔣經國 JIǍNG JīngGuó)
- LEE Teng-Hui (李登輝 LǏ DēngHuī)
Beyond religion, there are a number of key folk and secular beliefs and values that mold modern Taiwan. Again, the majority of these elements come from Mainland China, with Confucian ideals carrying the greatest weight on people’s behavior.
Keep in mind that there is a large cultural divide between older and younger generations (and between urban and rural areas). As you would expect, younger urban folks tend to consider superstitions quaint remnants of the past, while older folks in the countryside tend to take them more seriously.
Here are a few of the most common superstitions in Taiwan, presented in question and answer form. Interestingly, you will notice that many of them are based off of homonyms (words that sound alike):
Q: Why is there no room number 4 in the hospital?
In Mandarin Chinese, the words for “death” (死 Sǐ) and “four” (四 Sì) sound very similar. As such, many hospitals number their rooms 1, 2, 3, 5, etc., skipping over 4. This superstition can actually be a plus for foreigners, however, since renting apartments on the fourth floor a building can be somewhat cheaper than other floors.
Q: Why do clocks and umbrellas make for bad gifts?
Like the number 4 superstition, this one also relates to homonyms. The phrase “give a clock” (送鐘 SòngZhōng) sound exactly like the phrase used at funerals for paying one’s final respects (送終 SòngZhōng). Similarlry, the word for “umbrella” (傘 Sǎn) shares an unfortunate sound relationship to the phrase “break up” (散開 SànKāi).
Q: Why can’t I stick my chopstick vertically in my rice?
During a Buddhist funeral ceremony, incense are placed vertically in a bowl of rice as an offering to the dead. Doing the same with your chopsticks reminds people of death, is a less than polite gesture to the cook or those around the table.
Q: Why are people afraid to swim in the ocean during August?
During “Ghost Month” (鬼月 Guǐ Yuè), it is believed that the spirits of the dead return from the afterlife (somewhat like Celtic festival Samhain, a precursor to Halloween traditions.) “Ghost Month” coincides with the 7th Lunar Month, which usually falls somewhere in August or September. During this period, many Taiwanese avoid swimming in the ocean (as well as lakes and rivers) as they believe “water ghosts” can steal living souls they happen upon.