TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Religion in Taiwan is a fascinating topic. One could read any number of academic texts to get a broad description of all the numerous temples and deities. But without actually visiting the temples, and witnessing the imagery, architecture and acts of ritual oneself, bookish analysis will always come up short.
Taiwan is peculiar in the sense that so many religious systems, both local beliefs and those imported from abroad, have come to coexist and intermingle. While Buddhism and Christianity are certainly well represented throughout Taiwan, the largest portion of the population undoubtedly falls into another religious category, that of “Taiwanese Folk Religion.”
Many people who do not even consider themselves religious, can still be found visiting temples to "bai bai" (or offer obeisance), and may often honor their ancestors with religious rituals that originated in ancient China.
Man praying with incense. (Wikimedia Commons)
Trying to wrap your head around all the local beliefs here is no easy task, but if you are just looking for a taste of Taiwan's religious flavor, and you happen to be in Taipei, one of the best places to visit is Longshan Temple in Wanhua district. Longshan is Taiwan's most well known temple, and is one of the most bustling and active religious sites on the island.
The temple was originally built in 1738, as a branch temple of a pre-existing Longshan Temple in Chin-Chiang, Fujian, China. Throughout its existence and many instances of damage, reconstruction and expansion, the site has remained an important cultural and religious center for the descendants of the original Chinese immigrants from Fujian.
The temple's principle deity is Guanyin, a bohdisattva dedicated to mercy and compassion, and who is receptive to virtually any concern or distress someone may have. Besides Guanyin, the temple complex is a veritable hall of fame for many of the most celebrated, (and likewise most consulted) deities in Taiwan.
Lonshan Temple by day. (Wikimedia Commons)
The rear hall of the complex houses Mazu, the matron deity of the sailors and the ocean. She possesses several different aspects, but is prayed to for protection from calamity and misfortune. This aspect likewise relates Mazu to the complex's principal deity, Guanyin, given both of their protective spiritual attributes.
To the right of Mazu, is a hall for King Wenchang, the patron deiy of literature and scholarship, an important deity for those whose future hopes hinge upon the success of their studies. To the left of Mazu is the hall for Lord Guan Yu, a legendary warrior in Chinese folklore, who is consulted for matters concerning honor, justice and to help defeat the odd demon when necessary.
Nearby you can also find people asking for blessings in matters of love, marriage, and childbirth. Those still seeking the love of their lives should send inquiries to Yue Lao, the old man on the moon, who will provide you with a red string that will be your mundane link to a spiritual matchmaking network of sorts. Just remember your soulmate is on the other end, so you must not lose it once it has been granted.
Idol of Guan Yu. (Flickr image)
These are just a sampling of some of the most popular deities, but there are over a hundred housed in the complex ready to hear petitioners and their concerns, whether they be great and small. You can see visitors casting their moon blocks (or Jiaobei) in repeated attempts to first confirm that a question or request is suitable for their chosen deity, and then, to secure the deity's response.
Longshan Temple is a mega-store of deities ready for consultation in a single location. Given the variety of concerns the deities of Longshan temple may help people to address, it's no wonder it is such a renowned and vibrant center of religious activity.
If catching a glimpse of genuine living folk religion appeals to you, then a visit to Longshan Temple is a must. My first visit was on the first day of the Chinese New Year, which was a memorable (and incredibly crowded) occasion.
Recently, I returned in the evening on a weeknight, and saw a much more subdued side of Longshan Temple, cast in candlelight and shadow, yet still alive with the murmur of petitioners and tourists alike. Without the scrambling crowds that always appear for major holidays, the calm night air and the warm glow of lanterns cast across the traditional architecture makes for a very pleasant experience.
Longshan Temple at night. (Image by Duncan DeAeth)