Fri, Dec 28, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: A church tour of the Chianan plain

Southern Taiwan has many fascinating churches that blend Christian and traditional Chinese motifs

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

A report in September last year on the Taiwan Church News Network Web site quotes the pastor as saying that, in the past, the Presbyterians reached out to young people, but now that the rural population is dwindling, its most important mission is caring for the elderly.

Southeast Asia-born residents are beginning to join the congregation; many of them have Christian backgrounds, the pastor says, “but previously they were unable to step into the church because of family obstacles. The older generation is now passing, and religious taboos are gradually loosening. It is an opportunity to evangelize these newcomers.”

ST. JOSEPH’S CHURCH

Driving south from Donghouliao on Highway 19 brings you to the busiest part of Yijhu. There, at 423-1 Renli Village (仁里), you’ll find St. Joseph’s Church (聖若瑟堂). This Roman Catholic hall of worship was constructed in 1960 to serve a congregation that had formed a few years earlier. During this period, the Catholic church in Taiwan experienced rapid growth, in large part because of an influx of priests, nuns and lay believers from China.

The exterior and interior of St. Joseph’s Church are quite plain, certainly in comparison to the next church on our tour. Taking Highway 19 into Tainan will bring you to Yanshui (鹽水), a town best known for its Beehive Fireworks Festival, an annual event closely tied to popular folk religion.

HOLY TRINITY CATHOLIC CHURCH

Holy Trinity Catholic Church (鹽水天主堂) is at 19 Simen Road, close to where you can catch a bus from Yanshui to Budai (布袋) via Yijhu, or to the railway station at Sinying (新營). The pale yellow walls and bell tower aren’t much of a hint as to what can be seen within. However, the roof does somewhat resemble that of a local temple, and the apparel of those shown in the mural of Jesus and his followers is distinctly Chinese.

The interior is nothing short of breathtaking. The longer you linger, the greater your wonderment. On the wall behind the altar, there’s a large illustration inspired by da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In this depiction of Christ and his apostles, each man sports Asian facial features and traditional Chinese clothes. Most of them are bearded like the sages of ancient China, and they sit at a table loaded with chopsticks and plates of steamed buns.

In this church’s version of the Feeding of the Multitude, the tree looks very much like those which appear in classical Chinese landscape paintings. There are localized images of the crucifixion, but most striking of all is the dignified individual who looks down over the worshipers from the rear wall. He has a “vast, protruding, bulbous forehead, big ears, long drooping eyebrows, white beard and [a] plump, robe-clad figure.” Those words — written about the Chinese god of longevity, Lao Shouxing (老壽星), by Patricia Bjaaland Welch in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery — perfectly describe this depiction of the Christian deity.

Does any of this deviate too far from the conventions of Western religious art? Not according to Catholic author Angelo Stagnaro. In a May 2017 blog post for the National Catholic Register, he gushes about the church, stressing: “Every aspect of the traditional Taoist temple is replicated, baptized and made Christian all for the greater glory of God.”

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