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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Temple Politics: The Lanterns of Lukang

Lukang's Tien Ho Temple

A huge part of the Taiwan cycling experience for me is not necessarily where I go, but what I see when I go there, or more accurately, how I see it. The landscape is full of meaning and it does not always come in the prepackaged bunting supplied by the Tourism Bureau. Not to brag, but I feel fortunate that I have spent significant time reading and researching Taiwan, to the point that seemingly ordinary things pop out of the landscape and the moments of saddle-top discovery are ceaseless.

Over the past two months I have made several trips to and through the coastal town of Lukang and I would like to spend a little time sharing some insights on the temple as a nexus for cultural, political, religious and economic life in Taiwan. In particular I would like to use Lukang's famous Tian Hou Temple as an example of the politics within the Taiwanese temple and the expression of identity politics within Taiwanese religious life.

Buddhist and Daoist temples in Taiwan are often high on the list of sites tourists would most like to visit. To many tourists and especially "Westerners", temples represent a sort of "authentic Chinese culture" that they seek to view in all its exotic glory, and it fulfills a certain desire for life's "secret mysteries". One recent poster to a bike forum attempted to define east Asian cultures as, "more spiritual and enlightened". Temples and the practices we often see conducted within them are often cited by "Westerners" as demonstrations that Taiwanese culture is undeniably "Chinese". I feel very strongly against this assumption as it neglects to look beyond the superficial and fails to consider the experiential and performative aspects of temple life in Taiwan. Beneath the superficial veneer of glazed tile are symbols and meanings unique to the Taiwanese experience, much in the same way Catholicism, once the domain of another religious based holy empire not unlike the Middle Kingdom, is interpreted by its adherents around the world to fit their own society and experience... making it more an expression of the local through the symbolism of the global.

The idea of a non-nationalist "Chinese" is a often exists in the same place we used to find God in the "Western" sciences; an unproven, undefined, untested, unquestioned truth... a given fact. People often regard the concept of a non-nationalist Chinese in a sort of Potter Stewart-esque construction... "I know it when I see it." But do we really know what we are looking at and how much construction does it require to fit the structures of vastly different governments with vastly different motivations, histories and tropes?

A closer look at Taiwanese temple life demonstrates the dialectic between the various identities that converge in the temple, like spokes to a hub, and how Taiwan's unique experience manifests itself in the displays of a living temple. It also shows how the symbols and meanings within the Taiwanese temple reflect a societal response to a unique Taiwanese experience, changing governing structures and a Taiwan centered historical trajectory.

Couplet From Ma Ying-jiu in a Prominent Place

Upon entering the temple, beyond the ornate sculptures and burning incense, the visitor can see two large, ornate wooden plaques prominently displayed to the left and right of the goddess Mazu, each with a four character phrase wishing luck and bounty on the the temple and the visitor. One of the plaques was presented to the temple by the Secretary General of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and ROC President Ma Ying-jiu. The other by the former KMT Secretary General, Former ROC Vice-President, two time KMT presidential candidate, and Lien family scion, Lien Chan.

It is not unusual for temples and businesses to display plaques like these as a demonstration of their relationship and access to real power. Due to Taiwan's particular historical trajectory, politicians have come to mirror their counterparts in the pantheon of Taiwanese gods as points of power. The display of these plaques serve several simultaneous purposes. The first is for the politician to demonstrate his close relationship with the temple and the gods to imply a type of heavenly mandate, as if it was fated he should be in power.

Moreover, the temple can demonstrate its importance and access to the real power to make things happen that can bring benefit and prosperity to the loyal and the faithful. While the gods are given the authority to bestow luck, change fates, interfere in daily life and secure fortunes in the abstract, the modern Taiwanese politician has the power to make these prayers a reality in exchange for electoral devotion. The politician can control zoning, attract investment, and resolve disputes. At the higher levels politicians also have the ability to influence the outcome of court cases. Politicians offer a real and imagined blanket of security in the mortal world and the Tian Ho Temple is keen to align itself with those who currently hold power. I am aware of several instances where a temple works in conjunction with a local politician for mutual gain. The politician patronizes the temple and brings adherents (who will buy incense, offerings, supernatural favors etc...) and in exchange the spirit medium at the temple will send troubled adherents to the politician for resolution and thus owing the politician his patronage.

Lien Chan's Couplet

In the case of the Tian Ho Temple, the ruling KMT party is clearly entrenched. Temples also serve as points to mobilize political support and many are said to serve as undeclared streams of revenue that flow into party coffers.

With such social and political forces at play within the temple walls, it is no surprise that organized crime syndicates are said to be heavily involved in the operation and mobilization of the temple's economic and political capital. Temples [may] serve as rallying points for organized crime bosses in which politicians can come into open contact with the figures who control several of Taiwan's most important industries.

Beyond the main hall of the temple lies a small court yard. At some point in recent history someone decided to paint a mural in dedication to the temple of origin in Fujian, China. At first glance this may appear to promote and symbolize a close relationship to the authenticity found in China; a major trope promoted by the KMT in over 60 years of ROC rule in Taiwan. The KMT has always sought to push China to the fore of the Taiwanese imagination as a much closer place than it actually is. Most Taiwanese have never been to China and, only after decades of ideological education, conceive of it as an abstract place of imagined ethnic origin, which may not be exactly the case as I argue here.

Over the course of Taiwan's experience between Dutch, Cheng, Qing, Japanese, KMT and democratic government structures and changing motivations of these structures, the Taiwanese temples have also changed-- if not in shape then in meaning. The importance of the temple and its function in society has not been fixed, but it has always been in a constant state of dynamic change and renegotiation to adapt to contemporary Taiwanese life and fulfill a multitude of purposes.

The Inner Sanctum

During the vast liberalization policies of the Lee Teng-hui administrations, Taiwanese were free to openly reinterpret the symbols and meanings of their land and the symbols presented to them by the authoritarian KMT regime. The economic boom of the 1990's, which coincided with vast democratic reforms, allowed new understandings of Taiwanese life and Taiwanese felt free to question their official historical narratives. Taiwanese sought new venues to reframe their world and adjust to the reality of how they viewed themselves and how they viewed Taiwan.

Home Temple

During this period the function of the temple also changed to meet the new social and political realities and religion played a leading role in the shift in the stated identity from Han, then "Chinese" to Taiwanese. Many local entrepreneurs transferred the temple to their own homes or built their own temples to give thanks for their new found fortunes and change in social status. When cross-strait travel was allowed and became less restricted, Taiwanese temples sent delegations to the "home temples", to not only worship at the home temple, but to symbolically transfer the god from the original site in China, to the newer Taiwanese temple; an act of declaring a permanent separation and a declaration of independence for the temple. These pilgrimages did not serve to unite, but rather to transfer authenticity away from the Chinese temple and bring it to the site in Taiwan.

History of Lukang

The role of the temple as a public center was also opened up to encompass local awareness, particularity and history. The sign above tells the story of Lukang, beginning with Plains Aborigines. This is especially important as it seems to intentionally deviate from the old Chinese nationalist trope that often begins with Han immigration to Taiwan and other Han-centric mythologies that frame Taiwan as a periphery of China.

For many decades research into plains aboriginal culture and history was discouraged in favor of a "greater China" view that sought to obscure the Austronesian contribution to Taiwan in favor of Taiwan as part of the Han-Chinese racial nation.

Lantern From The Shinto Shrine

Perhaps the most important, and telling, features within the Tian Ho temple are the two concrete lanterns at the rear of the inner courtyard. They seem to blend into the overall aesthetic of the building and largely go unnoticed.

These lanterns were formerly located at the site of the Lukang Shinto shrine, built by the Japanese during their 50 years of colonization in Taiwan, and later the name of the Showa Emperor was defaced by the KMT during the first several years of Chinese Nationalist (neo)colonization.

The fact that someone preserved and transported these lanterns into a major religious center is a poignant and revealing look into the complexity of Taiwanese cultural life. In both the KMT and the CCP, which both spent nearly a decade (presumably) fighting the Japanese, any symbol of the Japanese colonial period not only raises a deep seeded antipathy toward Japan from Chinese nationalists, but in Taiwan, it also serves to challenge the KMT's own authority as the state.

Defacement By Nationalists

From the earliest moments of contact between Taiwanese and the Chinese nationalists from the KMT, symbols of Japan and the Japanese colonial era have been deployed as a subtle means to challenge the power of the state and especially its implicit sinocentricism.

These are in no way symbols in support of Japan, but rather in support of an alter to the China centered ideology that has failed to reflect all but the views of a minority.

The preservation, and deployment of Japanese era symbolism is one way in which Taiwanese are forcing society and the state to recognize Taiwan's dynamic history from a Taiwan centered perspective and to resist ideological tropes of Chinese nationalism.

These temples are very much a demonstration of Taiwanese culture.

Man Wears His Japanese Military Hat


  1. Sir, fantastic post, learned a lot from it. Two things. Lukang, as far as I can tell from looking at a map, is NOT along the coast of Taiwan. Budai is, Tainan is, Taitung is, but Lukang is inland, no? You wrote: "Over the past two months I have made several trips to and through the coastal town of Lukang..."

    No offense, sir, but maybe you better revise your saddle-top observations a bit, no? Next your are going to describe Taichung as a coastal city?

    Second note: you keep lowercasing "western" and "westerners" when referring to the West and people from the West, and if you do your grammar homework, you will see that the word needs a capital W. Sir?

    But minor things here, and hope you can fix later. The main narrative above is right on and i learned a lot. Life in Taipei is boring compared to what you see there. nice.

    goggled this: "Lukang is situated on the west-central coast of Taiwan , at the edge of the coastal plain." That is different than saying "the coastal town of Lukang" - no? You decide. I will abide.

  2. 1) My apologies for the copy editing. Blogging is often done is spurts and flurries between work. I shall make revisions.

    2) Lukang and tthe lukang area could be considered coastal. The greater Lukang area goes all the way out to the mud flats and oyster beds. The old Lukang port was formerly situated next to the old town, but had already begun silting up by 1750. Now the alluvial plain stretches about two kilometers from the old city... in a similar manner Fort Provincia in Tainan was once several meters from the sea in 1636, and is now inland.

  3. Thanks for notes sir. but one thing: "I have made several trips to and through the coastal town of Lukang...." by saying the town of Lukang is coastal, you are misinforming people overseas who do not know the lay of the land. Lukang is not a coastal town. You are a blogger, sir. A good one. You have responsibilities to be accurate. No? It's like saying Nantou is a coastal county because well, it's near both coasts, as the crow flies. Come on, Sir Andrew. Be honest. Own up, and then saddle up and be off. Your blog is great!

  4. is Erlin a coastal city too?

  5. okay, if you are talking about Lukang Township as a township, then okay,,,but you wrote ''Lukang town'', that is different..... up to you. you decide i will abide. yr blog rocks sir