Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 18 News List

The expert on Taiwan's ghost busters

Academia Sinica researcher Paul Katz, defies expectations: he's a foreigner who knows local religious phenomena better than most Taiwanese

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

“Getting picked up in China for conducting field research is common ... . I have friends who have had to cool their heels in a Chinese jail for trying to observe a ritual or ceremony,” Katz said.

Taiwanese religious phenomena have proliferated in the face of modernity, Katz said, and that's why he feels at home in Taiwan.

One might expect that in many societies the rise of capitalism and science would rein in religious beliefs to a degree.

Not so in Taiwan.

With the advent of globalization and the digital age, the practice of religion in Taiwan has only intensified, according to Katz. Rituals and temples are now more relevant than ever in Taiwan, given the roles they play in helping people cope with the stresses and strains of modern life.

“Guilt and sin persist. Rites of affliction in which people punish themselves, are still very cathartic, therapeutic,” Katz said. He displayed pictures of Burning Boat Festival-goers submitting to whippings, and families tossing effigies of themselves into the boat to be burned.

“Then, of course, there are the economic and political aspects,” Katz said.

“As the process of localization in Taiwanese culture has gained momentum after the Martial Law era, temples have become nodes of power. We have our country clubs — the Taiwanese have their temples,” the scholar said. He cited politicians' high-profile visits to temples, saying that the way to power was through such religious hubs.

“Temples are also loaded with money; they're big business here,” Katz added. “And if you want backing and legitimacy as a leader, you need to court these local nodes of power.”

Temples, therefore, thrive in modern Taiwan by being politically-charged, monied institutions that can make or break politicians' and barons' careers, according to Katz.

They also continue to serve humans' ageless need to commune with something greater than themselves.

So what does Katz himself commune with or believe in?

“I believe in a greater power — not quite something like what's painted on the Sistine Chapel, but certainly a presence in the universe,” he said. Despite his keeping a “scholarly distance” from religion, Katz has witnessed many bizarre occurrences, and believes that “there is a [genuine] spiritual power out there, and some people can tap into it.”

“I've come across spirit-mediums who went into a trance and just knew things that they shouldn't have known. I've also seen festival-goers flagellate themselves, leaving nasty scars that heal up only moments later. Strange stuff,” Katz told the Taipei Times.

On the topic of local temples, the academic also explained the phenomenon of “ghost shrines” in Taiwan, which tend to pop up on roadsides and either grow and become grander, or peter out.

“Let's say a corpse washes up after a typhoon, or a person dies in a car crash. The townspeople will often erect a shrine to appease the person's ghost. Then, locals will visit the shrine, many of whom will make illegitimate requests. If their wishes come true, they repay the ghost by building up its shrine, making it huge and elaborate. Of course, if the visitors' wishes go unfulfilled, the shrine is gradually forgotten.”

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