Albert Shihyi Chiu (邱師儀) gave an impassioned opinion on the spiritual and philosophical immaturity of the Taiwanese, citing qigong masters, temple rituals, doomsday prophets and other eclectic hustlers of heaven, hell and every ghost in between (“Breaking through Taiwan’s babble,” May 19, page 8).
I respectfully disagree with his opinion, not because it implicitly supports secularism — as an agnostic, I am also inclined toward secular philosophy — but because my impression from talking to Taiwanese has been that they are practical about their beliefs. While a few people still surround themselves with superstition, the vast majority are able to separate the possible from the ridiculous. Every opinion I have heard of Wang Chao-hung (王超弘), who “predicted” the nonexistent May 11 earthquake, has been wryly dismissive or humorous (“Are you sure I have to practice my presentation? Don’t you know the world is going to end tomorrow?”)
Furthermore, dealing in the ephemera of folk belief and spirituality is hardly unique to Taiwan. Why single out Taiwanese as philosophically immature when around the world, people are doing the same things with different names and aesthetic trappings? Why criticize Taiwanese when a good portion of the US believed that the world was going to end on Saturday, or when Westerners make, sell and buy “spell rings” and “magic crystals” on the Internet, pay for tarot readings and ascribe supernatural causes to everyday occurrences?
Taiwanese are also hardly alone in other spiritual beliefs: spirit mediums, firewalking and processionals also exist in India, and you’ll see similarities in saint’s day parades in Mexico. You can find an Evil Eye charm in any Mediterranean country for every ba gua mirror and amulet in Taiwan, and if you whittle yoga and taichi down to their spiritual core, you’ll find similarities there, too. For everyone in Taiwan who prays to Confucius or Wenchang (文昌帝君) for a good test score, there’s a kid in some other country begging their own chosen god for some literati luck.
I cannot say that people who believe in these things are intellectually inferior or use religion as an opiate. I believe they have a way of looking at the world that, while I might not agree with it, works for them. To criticize Taiwanese for this is to criticize most of the world. If Taiwanese are not philosophically mature, then nobody is.
In fact, I’d say that Taiwanese spirituality is a part of what I love about this country. I see these beliefs as a window into one culture’s traditions and world view and as artistic expression. Would Mr Chiu prefer that Taiwan become more like China, turning out the “old religion” in favor of ... what? Nothing at all? “Nothing at all” might be my philosophy, but I find learning about the myriad beliefs and traditions in Taiwan to be deeply enriching. Whether or not you burn ghost money or throw fortune blocks, these things do provide the open-minded with a chance to see life and philosophy from a fascinating perspective.