When first arriving in Taiwan, foreigners are oftentimes surprised by the number of temples they encounter as well as the wide range of religions that are practiced here.
“it is so interesting to explore the different temples… to see the different gods and alters, to study the architecture, and to take in a space which represents another understanding and means of accessing the divine.”
Taiwan’s diversity of religions and religious practices can be traced, in large part to the Island’s varied, multicultural history. Different religions were introduced at different periods, which has helped cultivate the plethora of beliefs and practices found in Taiwan today.
“When I go somewhere new in Taiwan, one of the first things that I do is check out the local temple!”– an expat commenting on the topic of this blog post
Native or Indigenous groups were the first people to settle in Taiwan. They have traditionally practiced different forms of nature and ancestral worship, largely depending on their tribe and geographical location on the Island. Taoism, Buddhism, and Traditional Chinese Folk practices were subsequently brought to Taiwan by Chinese immigrants in the course of a number of migration waves over the centuries . Following the arrival of the Dutch in 1624, Christianity was introduced in the form of Protestant missionaries. In 1626 the Spanish introduced Catholicism as well. Islam likely arrived as early as the 15th century, although some historians contend that it took until later in the 1600s to reach Taiwan. The Japanese would bring Shintoism along with certain aspects of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism during the Japanese colonial period beginning in 1895. The Japanese also persecuted “foreign” religions during their rule, which resulted in the suppression of many practices and Islam disappearing from the Island completely until it was reintroduced following WWII.
Today, Taiwan’s religious environment is remarkably tolerant and diverse. In many instances you will see multiple religions worshiping side-by-side as well as people practicing a mix of beliefs that stem from multiple religions.
While we won’t get into all of the religions in Taiwan in this post (this article is meant to be more of an overview), you can learn a little about the three main religions, Chinese Folk Religion, Taoism, and Buddhism, as they are found within Taiwan below:
Excerpted from the American Institute in Taiwan’s Website:
According to a survey by the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology released in 2021,
- 27.9 percent of Taiwan’s population exclusively practices traditional folk religions,
- 19.8 percent Buddhism,
- 18.7 percent Taoism,
- 23.9 percent identifying as nonbelievers,
- The rest of the Taiwanese population consists mainly of Protestants (5.5 percent), I-Kuan Tao (2.2 percent), Catholics (1.4 percent), and members of other religious groups, including Jews, Sunni Muslims, Tien Ti Chiao (Heaven Emperor Religion), Tien Te Chiao (Heaven Virtue Religion), Li-ism, Hsuan Yuan Chiao (Yellow Emperor Religion), Tian Li Chiao (Tenrikyo), Precosmic Salvationism, Church of Scientology, the Baha’i Faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mahikari, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).
In Taiwan, some people are strict adherents to Buddhism or Taoism, but more often they practice a mix of both or with traditional Chinese folk beliefs blended in. It is not uncommon to see practitioners of all three religions burning paper money for the dead, leaving offerings to appease hungry spirits, casting moon blocks for guidance, and taking part in multiple festivals or parades.
Chinese Traditional Folk Religion is a daunting category that encompasses a wide range of beliefs — most coming from centuries of religious practice and tradition in China. Most of Taiwan’s shrines are classified as Folk Shrines despite many also being used to worship Buddhist or Taoist deities. In these shrines as well as temples around the Island you can often expect to find a statue of a principle god or goddess behind an alter containing incense and food offerings. It is difficult to determine how many gods, goddesses, saints, immortals, demigods, heroes, ect., are worshiped within the Taiwanese Folk Pantheon (although one source cited 36,000), but suffice it to say there are many. One reason for this is due to multiple overlaps with Daoist and Buddhist pantheons as well. Generally, you will find people worshiping one or more folk deities, sometimes varying depending on the time, location, or need. Some of the more popular folk gods and goddesses in Taiwan include: Matsu, Bodhisattva Guanyin, Guan Gong, The Jade Emperor, The Yellow Emperor, as well as a number of others.
Taoism, also pronounced “Daoism,” is a religion and philosophy central to China with a long history of teachings and practices. It is grounded in the philosophical teachings of Laozi, a sage in the 6th century BCE, who is credited with the creation of the famous text the Tao Te Ching or “Dao de Jing.” As a tradition, Daoism emphasizes a deep connection between nature, self, and all things. Practitioners follow the Dao or “The Way” as a means of coming into unity and harmony with themselves and the world around them. Daoism is responsible for nourishing and expanding a number of ideas often perceived as central to Chinese culture, including yin and yang, feng shui, and others.
In Taiwan, Taoist priests can sometimes be seen in black robes and distinctive headgear which they wear during rites often while often chanting, cracking whips and blowing through horns. Taoist priests are commonplace during funeral ceremonies as well as temple parades. The Jade Emperor and Guan Gong are among the gods especially revered by Daoist practitioners in Taiwan. Like practitioners of folk religion and those engaged in ancestor worship, Daoists also burn ‘joss paper’ or ‘ghost money’. It is common in Taiwan to see businesses put portable braziers outside and set out tables of offerings, including joss paper which is later burned, on the first and 15th day of each lunar month.
Buddhism first arrived in Taiwan around four centuries ago and has been continued to be brought by successive waves of Chinese migration through the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as in the last century. In recent years it has been one of Taiwan’s more popular and fastest growing religions. Certain aspects of Buddhism such as part-time vegetarianism and a reverence for Guanyin are also commonly observed by followers of Chinese folk religion.
Taiwan typically follows the schools of Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes awakening the path of bodhisattva who works for the benefit of all beings. This factor may also help explain some of the prevalence and popularity of Guanyin, the Boddhisattva of Compassion, in Taiwan. Zen (Chan) and Pure Land Buddhism are both schools which are part of the larger Mahayana tradition.
Want to learn more about religion in Taiwan? Here are some great places to start: