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Taiwan struggling with ancient temple traditions in modern age

2017/07/30 21:24:49

By Elizabeth Hsu
CNA staff writer

For centuries, burning incense has been synonymous with praying at temples, but in recent years Taiwan's government has been trying to encourage an end to, or at least a reduction of, the practice. But it has met with strong resistance.

When rumors spread that the government may ban the burning of incense, thousands of temple representatives and worshipers took to the streets surrounding the Presidential Office in Taipei on July 23 to vent their dissatisfaction.

They were angry with the government for singling out temples while turning a blind eye to industrial pollution in its efforts to improve air quality.

The "Gods on Ketagalan" parade, initiated by a group of temple representatives from Beigang Township in Yunlin County, was meant to be a protest but the designation was later changed to a "religious carnival," after Cabinet officials and ruling Democratic Progressive Party members made efforts to explain that the government's policy is aimed at preventing air pollution by reducing, not banning, the burning of incense.


Banning incense is seen as a threat by the thousands of temples in Taiwan.

Lin Mao-hsien (林茂賢), an associate professor of Taiwanese languages and literature at National Taichung University of Education who specializes in folklore research, says that burning incense and ghost money, also called gold paper, has been a custom in Chinese societies for a long time.

In China, there are records of the custom in the Wei, Jin and South-North dynasties (魏晉南北朝, from 220-589 AD), according to Lin.

He says the commencement of the practice could be far earlier, even back to the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), when Buddhism was introduced to China, along with the rituals of burning incense and ghost money.

Then, people believing in Taoism or other religious beliefs adopted the practice, which has since gradually developed into a common custom.

On the first and 15th day of every lunar month, or on the birthday of a god, people will burn incense and ghost money for the gods.

"Through the rituals, people pray for good fortune and inner peace," Lin says, describing the practice as "spiritual sustenance."

"Without doing so, people will feel unable to connect with the gods," he says.

Also, many temples generate revenue by selling incense and ghost money, so it would be better to just seek the reduction of incense and ghost money burning, while keeping their prices at a certain level to allow temples to maintain their income, Lin suggests.


Improving the quality of incense and ghost money so that they can be sold for better prices could be one solution to keeping the temple culture alive while promoting environmental protection.

It has been several years since the government began encouraging people to adopt environmental friendly ways in religious worship.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) posted an air quality improvement statement on her Facebook page on April 22 -- Earth Day -- this year, urging people to "change their mindset."

"Factories must control pollution and energy consumption, farmers must not burn agricultural waste at will, people should try to use mass transportation as far as possible, and the traditional custom of burning incense and ghost money should keep pace with the times."

Surprisingly, two temples have been at the forefront of change.

Three years ago, Xingtian Temple (行天宮), one of Taipei's most popular, removed incense burners and tables where worshipers would place offerings of food for the deities in order to reduce pollution and waste. It was the first temples in Taiwan dedicated to Chinese deities to do so.

In June this year, Lungshan Temple (龍山寺), also in Taipei, moved to cut the number of incense burners from three to one in an effort to curb PM2.5 particulate emissions.

Lungshan Temple Vice Chairman Huang Shu-wei (黃書瑋) explained that the measure was taken after most temple staff, including himself, have had health problems caused by the dense smoke produced by burning incense at the temple.

Huang has said the index of calcified blood vessels in his cardiovascular system rose to over 1,000 -- the level signifying severe blood clogs could happen anytime -- over the years before the temple cut back the number of burners.

"Would it be nicer to hold less incense, worshiping gods with sincerity?" says Huang.

However, his temple does not ask worshipers not to burn incense, he added, noting that he prefers to let worshipers decide on their own whether to hold incense sticks, rather than forcing them to do so.

Both Xingtian and Lungshan Temples approved the government's environmental protection approach of asking people to reduce the burning of incense and ghost money, saying that the number of their worshipers has not declined after they acted in support of the policy, but on the contrary, has increased.


The magnificent "Gods on Ketagalan" carnival-like parade ended with the organizers' promise to cut the number of incense burners at temples from several to one so that worshipers will only have to burn one incense stick instead of several during their visits.

But they asked the government not to interfere in temples' autonomous management.

"One burner, one stick" is the bottom line, Lin An-le (林安樂), chair of the Beigang Wude Temple (武德宮), emphasized, urging the government not to ask for further reduction.

However, some believe this is delaying the inevitable.

The PM2.5 concentration within temples has been shockingly high, Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) data indicates.

Taking Lungshan Temple as an example, before it cut back the number of burners, the PM2.5 concentration within the temple could reach maximum 400 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), but now the concentration has been lowered to some 100 μg/m3, according to the data.

Tsai Hung-te (蔡鴻德), head of the EPA's Department of Environmental Monitoring and Information Management, explained the government's policy of promoting the reduction of incense and ghost money burning is aimed at "protecting the health of citizens and worshipers."

While burning incense and ghost money often takes place within enclosed spaces, the concentration of pollutants produced by the smoke is higher than that outdoors, causing local air pollution, Tsai said.

DPA data also shows that during the annual Dajia Matsu pilgrimage procession, the PM2.5 concentration along the procession has been detected as high as 1,550μg/m3.

It could instantly surge to 4,188μg/m3 when the procession arrives at a temple, much higher than the World Health Organization average daily concentration standard of 25μg/m3, the data indicates.

Despite the tradition vs. environment dispute, Lungshan Temple's Huang believes that given time, people's worship attitudes and behavior will change.

"Between tradition and cultural preservation and environmental protection, I expect more worshipers will decide on their own to not burn incense," he said.


Related news include:
'Gods on Ketagalan' parade draws thousands of worshipers

EPA mulling inspection of 'ghost money,' incense

Authorities deny rumor of ban on incense, ghost money burning

Temples to rally on Ketagalan, traffic controls planned

Lungshan Temple to cut number of incense burners