The Worshipers Get Caught Between the Tension of China and Taiwan

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The story is of Chang Ke-chung, who every year journeys from his home in Taiwan to China to carry out a special and sacred duty. He is a worshiper of the sea goddess, Mazu, who has millions of followers in both Taiwan and the ethnic Chinese communities all around the world. According to their faith, a pilgrimage to Mazu’s home temple in Meizhou in southern China is an essential act. “We feel we are Mazu’s children, so it’s like we are accompanying our mother to visit her ancestral home,” says Chang, who leads a Mazu temple in Taiwan. “I’ve been to China so many times now that every time I go there, it’s like I’m home, I’m in my own country,” he continued.

Such sentiments are a delight for people in Beijing but have become a thing to worry about in Taipei. The capital of Taiwan puts worshipers at the center of a political tug-of-war. This has become even more crucial as the presidential and legislative elections are coming up in just two weeks. Many residents of Taiwan worship Mazu, including other folk deities that have roots in China. This is why religious communities in Taiwan and China share deep and emotional ties. This results in paying frequent visits to each other’s temples and taking part in religious processions together.

This has become a fruitful opportunity for China. Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own, is hoping that this deep and close-knit relationship between the people of the two countries will pay off in other ways. The more Taiwanese residents identify with China, the higher the chances will be of “peaceful reunification”. This is why Beijing’s official rhetoric has been constantly pushing close ties with Taiwanese people. In September, authorities also called for the expansion of religious exchanges in a drive for “cross-strait integrated development”. Chinese officials have personally welcomed these Taiwanese groups and in February, when a prominent Taiwanese Mazu leader Cheng Ming-kun visited Beijing, Song Tao, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, personally hosted him during his stay.

Song Tao also called for “spiritual harmony” between China and Taiwan along with asking for more frequent exchanges to “jointly create a bright future for reunification”. Some experts have also warned that China’s influence can go even deeper.

Most of the 12,000 temples in Taiwan are not officially registered. On top of that, only a few release financial statements which makes tracking their funding sources difficult. According to sociologist Ming-sho Ho, this leads to them opening up to “potential PRC funding”. So there have been calls for even stricter regulation along with financial scrutiny of temples. Chang Kuei-min, a religion and politics expert at the National Taiwan University says that it is no surprise that religion is now “part of China’s grand united front strategy on Taiwan”. “Beijing has used religious lineages to uphold the unification narrative. ‘Homecoming’ and ‘both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family’ are central themes in cross-strait religious exchange events,” she continued.

About this situation and China’s preference for the Mazu community, Wen Tsung-han, a Taiwan folk religion expert said “On a basic level China is using Mazu’s maternal figure to attract [the] Taiwanese.” “You identify with your mother, you identify with Mazu. You identify with Mazu, you’ll then identify with China.”


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