Sun, Nov 09, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Taiwan's religious past in the present

Mark Caltonhill has managed to write a book about Taiwan that is interesting without being condescending

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

There are such incidental insights everywhere in this eminently painstaking book. Tibetan-style Buddhist funerals are gaining in popularity, you learn. The English phrase joss money derives from the Portuguese word deos, meaning god. And the mischief traditionally practiced in the bridal chamber at a Chinese wedding originated from the desire to trick malign fox spirits into thinking there was no need to plague the newly married couple because it had already been done. Or so it's claimed -- a more mundane motive is hard not to credit.

One risk with a book like this is that it'll become a dreary recital of traditions that, though still practiced, are a long way from the world modern young Taipei people live in. Caltonhill avoids this pitfall too, not exactly by irony but instead by a kind of tartness. "One of the strangest sights in Taipei is that of ambulances speeding dying people away from hospitals," he writes. He goes on to explain the reasons, calmly and without bias. It would have been easy for someone with less poise to expatiate on how superior this is to the characteristic Western experience of death in an intensive care unit, far from friends and cultural traditions. It would be equally easy for someone to point to the paradoxical mixture of high-tech and spirit-worship in the Taiwanese world. But this author does neither. He just states and explains. This is a great virtue.

We all bring our own cultural assumptions to a foreign place, and as a result see it wrongly -- see it, in other words, merely as an imperfect version of our own country. Nothing could be more mistaken. Read this book and Taiwan and Taipei will seem different places, and much closer, probably, to how they really are.

There is a short section on imported religions. There isn't room for much detail, but still Caltonhill manages to include some insights -- such as that it was the expulsion of Western missionaries by the Japanese in the 1940s that led to the indigenization and autonomy of Taiwan's Christian churches.

Taiwan's reputation, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, is strong on two things -- ghosts and eating. This book fills you in on the former most comprehensively. Perhaps Caltonhill can now be persuaded to undertake a book on the equally wide range of Taipei's food. But one thing is certain -- Private Prayers and Public Parades will be a hard act to follow.

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