Friday, July 22, 2016

Politics is the Way of the Gods

A hilly street.

Jules Quartly over at the News Lens offers a conventional and oft-written piece on religion in Taiwan (originally for AmCham)...
To an outsider, this religious practice might seem at odds with Taiwan’s status as a decidedly modern and technologically advanced society. Yet the past and present coexist without contradiction in the minds of most of its citizens. The reason is partly historical. While the Communist Party repressed traditional culture, including folk religion, following its takeover of China in 1949, these practices thrived under the Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taiwan.
Actually, the KMT attempted to suppress and reshape local religious practice well into the 1970s, because in many cases it was a source of resistance to the regime and to KMT rule. Folk religion eventually thrived because unlike Communist China, the locals were able to draw on great resources to defeat the Leninist authoritarian party's commitment to suppressing and co-opting local religious practice.

These policies are documented in several scholarly works over the years. They ranged from outright bans on certain songs, to pressure to reduce the size of religious festivals as "waste" (for example to reduce sacrifices or to combine festivals) under the slogan of "Simplify Customs and Save Waste", to taxes on the performances of folk opera for the gods in certain areas. Sometimes county governments would withhold subsidies to local governments hosting festivals felt to be too "wasteful" by the KMT. Thus, religious festivals became acts of resistance to KMT rule and modes of communication between rulers and ruled, and ways to recapitulate and experience the Taiwanese identity of the day (also true of the Japanese period). These attempts by the KMT to suppress local religion eventually died off. After that the KMT adopted a new line, one repeated by Quartly here, that the vibrant local religious scene demonstrated the superiority of KMT rule. What it really demonstrated was KMT failure...

Quartly's piece also demonstrates the very common failure of journalists marveling at the world-famous Matsu procession. He scribes:
One of Taiwan’s liveliest festivals is the Matsu Holy Pilgrimage, which recreates the journey of 19th century devotees who traveled every 12 years from Taiwan to the goddess’ temple in Meizhou Island, off the coast of Fujian in China. The now eight-day pilgrimage from Zhenlan Temple in Taichung to Fengtian Temple in Chiayi is internationally famous and recognized by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage.
...without mentioning its close connection to the KMT and the fact that it has long been run by Yen Ching-piao, widely reputed to be the island's biggest gangster, and his temple association. Years ago I took BBC to task for neglecting this aspect of the pilgrimage. In addition to its local political function and its pro-KMT political functions, the Matsu cult is a key nexus of pro-China annexation efforts (read that post on BBC above). Longtimers here may recall that one of the first direct sailings from Taiwan to China in the modern era was a Matsu ship in May of 2009, heading up by one of Yen's right-hand men. Remember also that one of Jason Hu's projects as mayor of Taichung was to build an enormous Matsu statue facing across the Strait.

Quartly's neglect of the rich political associations of the Matsu cult is all the more strange since he briefly discusses the connection between religion and politics at the end of the article.

This widespread conventional presentation needs to stop...
To an outsider, this religious practice might seem at odds with Taiwan’s status as a decidedly modern and technologically advanced society. Yet the past and present coexist without contradiction in the minds of most of its citizens.
"Past and present coexist without contradiction" is true of any society. I don't know why folk religion would seem at odds with Taiwan's status as a modern and technologically advanced society, since religious practice in every society coexists with what is considered modernity. It should be taken for granted that all societies are like that, and no explanation or mention is necessary. We do not write like that about our own societies, let's not do so about others...
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an angry taiwanese said...

Leadership of Matsu cult = KMT + gangsters + fire walkers + wood heads

Jenna Cody said...

"Past and present coexist without contradiction" is the 21st century wording of "_______ is a land of contrast"

Can I just admit though that I like the Matsu pilgrimage even though I understand some of its more troublesome underpinnings? Can I it? I like it. Is that so bad?

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to Jason Hu's project to build a giant Mazu statue? I remember at one point, he was going to build a giant Jesus statue as well (because fairness), and was wondering what forms I would have to fill out to get a giant statue of my favorite deity up there too. Anyway, the whole thing is a fascinating example of local secularism (?).

Anonymous said...

As for which US party will be better for Taiwan, well, Trump has said that the US should stop defending Japan and Korea, so presumably Taiwan fits in that category. On the other hand, he said he wouldn't mind if they develop nuclear weapons, so look at the bright side.