In a country with over 15,000 temples, Taiwan is most definitely a country in touch with its spirituality. In the resulting melting pot of Taiwanese culture, elements from some of the world’s oldest religions and ancient superstitions have been brought together to create a wonderful sense of originality and holy unique practices.
A Taiwan itinerary is incomplete without a visit to a temple or two, or even ten!! To the untrained eye, Taiwanese temples can be a total sensory overload of vibrant colours, mystical wisps of earth incense and enough subtle symbolism to put The Da Vinci Code to shame!
Before you step through those highly decorated gates, it’s also valuable to learn some of the basic etiquettes when it comes to Taiwanese temples, as you wouldn’t want to cause offence in someone’s house of worship! So in that case, here’s everything you need to know about temples in Taiwan.
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Religions in Taiwan
The cultural crucible that is Taiwan has had centuries of influence from many major religions. From Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism to Hinduism, Christianity and even Islam, Taiwan has always been a hotbed of religious diversity! Even the island’s indigenous tribes had several of their own unique religious practices before the arrival of Chinese migrants, who themselves went on to create their own forms of folk religion. As such, temples in Taiwan are a unique blend of different religious ideologies and cherry-picked superstitions that formed the building blocks for a completely unique form of spirituality.
Taiwanese temples exhibit an inspiring amount of religious diversity as many of these faiths and their numerous deities often coexist peacefully under one roof, and at times it’s difficult to tell which exact religion the temple is devoted to! That being said, most Taiwanese temples belong to one of three religions; Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
What’s the Difference Between These Religions?
Though many common elements are shared between these different religions, it takes a trained eye to spot the subtle differences between them.
Buddhist temples, unsurprisingly, are filled with Buddha statues and other important figures of Buddhism. These temples tend to have grand designs and it’s pretty common to find a healthy dose of gold inside! Taoist temples have equally vivid designs and usually come with numerous figures of tigers and dragons throughout. In contrast, Confucian temples look pretty basic as the teachings of the religion are the focus, not the beauty of the temple itself.
The last thing you’d want to do is be rude in a house of worship! As an outsider, it’s very easy to commit a religious faux pas without even trying, so it’s good practice to familiarise yourself with the important dos and don’ts.
Before entering some temples, you might have to swap your shoes with slippers, however, this is pretty uncommon in cities and bigger temples. If you see a collection of shoes outside the main door or stacked on a rack nearby, then you’ll know what to do.
A very easy error to make is the simple act of pointing, which is considered very taboo, especially when pointing towards a god! To be more polite, you should try to gesture with an open hand. Many people believe you should do that in daily life anyway!
Aspiring photographers can breathe a sigh of relief as you’re free to snap away to your heart’s delight! Just be mindful of any worshippers and try not to stand between those praying and the shrine itself.
Another great relief for visitors is that Taiwanese temples do not have a strict dress code, especially compared to the likes of Thailand! That being said, rocking up in skin-tight booty shorts and flashing a healthy dose of side-boob probably isn’t appropriate.
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Features of Taiwanese Temples
Taiwanese temples are fraught with symbolism! From head-scratching artwork to mythical creatures and subtle intrinsic designs abound, there is plenty to keep the eyes engaged and to let the imagination wild! Each time you visit the same temple you’ll always find something new, and it could be years before you understand the subtle nuances that make each temple in Taiwan so unique!
As such, let’s look at some of the few common features of Taiwanese temples that are worth looking out for!
Outside the Temple
Find the Figures on the Temple Roof
Much like the rest of the complex, the rooves of Taiwanese temples are a treasure trove of symbolism! Many will have three figures standing at the centre, each representing what locals most commonly pray for; luck, wealth and longevity.
Luck is seen as a man standing in the centre holding a ruyi sceptre, while wealth is as a man holding a child and longevity is represented by an older, bald man with a walking stick.
Confucian temples on the other hand might have a nine floored pagoda at the centre, which signifies the high regard for Confucius. Be sure to count the number of levels the pagoda has, as the higher the number of floors, the higher the temple’s main deity is regarded amongst the other gods.
It doesn’t stop there! Temple rooves are also commonly decorated with vibrant dragons, flowers and figures from Chinese mythology which are highly regarded in Taiwan. If you’re eagle-eyed enough, you might even see a fish placed precariously somewhere along the arches, which is said to protect the temple in the event of a fire.
Take a Look at the Dragons
Dragons are very significant creatures in Chinese culture and mythology and thus feature heavily in almost every temple in Taiwan. For centuries these majestic beasts have symbolised power, good fortune, wisdom and enlightenment as well as being temple guardians. They’re often a common feature of many entrances, carved into temple framework and depicted in temple artwork.
Unlike the majestic dragons of my fine Welsh homeland, these dragons are a Frankenstein monster type composite of different animals. Its eyes are those of a cat, while its head resembles a camel, though others say it represents a dog. The horns are from a deer, its mouth from an ox and its whiskers, once again, from a cat. It also has scales of a fish, a mane of a lion, and the claws of an eagle, though its feet resemble the paws of a tiger. As for the body, it can sometimes be that of a tortoise or even a horse!
It’s safe to say these aren’t your typical dragons, yet again there is no such thing as a standard dragon in Chinese culture! The design of each can vary drastically from temple to temple in Taiwan, so study each one carefully!
Find Out Which Lion is Which
Another common feature of many Taiwanese temples is a pair of stone lions placed at the front gates. Though sometimes identical, more often than not each lion has its own gender. Usually, the lion closest to the dragon door (the entrance to the temple) is the male, while the opposite side is female. An easier way to tell is to see what the lion is holding. While the male is usually portrayed as holding a gold coin, the female lion typically holds a lion cub.
Though you should generally avoid going around the temple touching things willy nilly, you are permitted to place your hands inside the lions’ mouth (if you can get to it of course!) Inside you’ll usually find a ball, which may actually move! This is an intentional piece of design that is supposed to show the advanced carving skills of the creator.
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Take a Moment Before You Enter
At the bottom of the front door in most temples is a raised wooden sill, which is meant to be stepped over, never on. This isn’t just some architectural mishap, it was done on purpose to give visitors a brief moment to pause before entering so they can acknowledge that they are entering a sacred space.
This also gives you one last opportunity to study the intricate craftsmanship that went into the doorframe itself, which is often elaborately designed with sweeping dragons (more on why later.) Other temples might have paintings or figures of Door Gods who are there to guard the temple for all eternity.
Inside the Temple
Find Out Where You Are with the Bell and the Drum
As you enter the temple itself, you’ll see a large bell and drum on either side, both of which can be used to orient yourself. The bell is always placed in the east, which is symbolically and often figuratively used to greet the dawn, while the drum is always in the west and used to announce the temple’s closing at dusk.
While some of these might still be functional, others are considered antiques and are simply ornamental pieces. And it should go without saying, DON’T TOUCH!
Look at the Offerings Around the Altars
Much like the ancient cultures that offered sacrifices to their gods, Taiwan has a similar practice to appease their deities, though one with much less bloodshed! Surrounding many shrines are extensive spreads of gifts and donations, usually taking the form of fresh flowers and plates full of food, most commonly fruit. Other common offerings include tea, candles and endless amounts of joss money (more on that below.)
Unique deities may have a more specialised offering. Goddesses are typically given beauty products and flowers while gods of agriculture are offered crops of rice and other produce. Other shrines have specific steps that need to be followed. One good example is the shrine to Yue Lao (the god of love) at Sun Moon Lake. Here, only hopeful singles should pray at the shrine while those already in love should bring offerings as a thank you to Yue Lao.
And not to worry, these food items will not go to waste! After the gods have had their fill, the food will be given to those in need.
Look Around the Smaller Altars
More often than not, temples are not just dedicated to a single deity or god. Instead, the temple typically has a succession of other deities around the temple’s main altar. Each of these smaller shrines are dedicated to a specialised field e.g. love, health, employment, marriage, studies etc.
Many locals come to temples with the hopes of praying to a specific diety for a specific purpose. For example, it’s common to see students flocking around deities of studies and the older generations kneeling before deities of health.
Look Closely at the Wall of Lights
Amongst the bigger temples are what appears to be an enormous wall of twinkling red lights. These are called Guang Míng Deng (光明燈), or blessing lights, which are in fact small boxes with figures of the temple’s main deity within.
Each one has been dedicated by a worshipper to their loved ones through a donation to the temple. The act is believed to bring good fortune to the dedicatee. If you look closely you’ll even see the recipient’s name beneath it. You can usually tell how important the temple is in the local community by the number of guang ming deng that can be found inside. Such is the case in Longshan Temple in Taipei, one of the holiest temple sites in Taiwan!
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Enter the Dragon, Literally!
Once you pass through the front gates of the temple, you still need to pass through a set of doors to get to the inner courtyard, and make sure you choose the right one! Temples generally have three doorways, two of which are usually decorated with either dragons or tigers. These indicate which way you should enter and exit the temple.
In Chinese culture, it’s seen as auspicious to enter through the dragon and exit through the tiger. Typically the right door is the dragon door and the left is the tiger door. However, that isn’t always the case, like at the infamous Dragon and Tiger Pagoda in Kaohsiung! Just follow the locals.
What about the central door? Well, that one is reserved for the gods themselves, and perhaps for the occasional high-profile visit. Neither of these rules is strictly followed anyway. The central door may be opened during festivals or for larger crowds, and smaller shrines may only have one doorway!
How to Pray in a Taiwanese Temple
In the resulting melting pot of Taiwanese religion, elements from some of the world’s oldest religions and ancient superstitious practices have created a very unique temple tradition. Temples in Taiwan have a way to communicate directly with the gods!
This can be done by using Jiaǒ Bei (筊杯) which are red crescent-shaped pieces of wood that almost resemble beans. One side is flat while the other is curved. These blocks can be used to express the answer of the gods to a worshippers’ questions.
First, take a pair of Jiaǒ Bei in your hands and stand before the shrine you wish to pray to. Next, you have to introduce yourself, state your age and your exact address. Now share your deepest wishes and ask a simple yes/no question to the gods. Lastly, drop the blocks to the floor and look at how they landed, their position reveals their answer.
If both curved sides face up, then it’s a no (Yin Jiaǒ, 陰筊), and you should repeat the process.
If both curved sides face the bottom, causing the blocks to rock side to side, this is also a no (Siaò Jiaǒ, 笑筊), which some believe it to be the gods laughing at your question as they see is as irrelevant. You should also repeat the process and alter your question.
If there’s one curved side facing up and the other curved side facing down, then this is a yes (Shèng Jiaǒ, 聖筊) and you should proceed to the next step.
Getting Your Fortune
Once you get a positive answer to your question, head over to a basket full of long flat bamboo sticks and pick one at random. Look at the stick carefully and find a number, usually between 1-100. You then need to repeat the process of dropping the Jiaǒ Bei to see whether or not this is the number you should have. If the gods say yes, head to the next step. If the gods say no (either way), then pick another number and repeat the process until you get a yes!
Once the gods say you’ve got the right number, then head to a large cabinet of numbered drawers. Find your number and take out a piece of paper that has your fortune on it!
If you’re lucky, there might be an English translation on the paper! If not, then there might be a nearby book with a more detailed explanation, however, this isn’t very common. Don’t worry, many temples come with helpful staff that are there to interpret these fortunes for you! They’re either general temple workers or can even be actual monks who will help you understand the fortune based on the question you asked!
Burning Joss Money
Another quirk unique in Taiwan are the small furnaces that are inside each temple, many homes and even businesses. These furnaces constantly burn and spew ash into the air as locals use them to specifically burn joss paper, sometimes known as “ghost money” or “spirit money.”
The paper is burned during religious rites to honour ancestors and various deities. Its a particularly prevalent during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, otherwise known as ghost month, which is a time of remembrance for lost loved ones. This is why they’re also an incredibly common donation you’re likely to find at every shrine in the country!
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