Tag Archives: Taiwan

3 Taiwanese Rituals Explained

One of the reasons we love to travel is to learn about other cultures and traditions.

Even though I’m familiar with Judeo-Christian rituals, I  could not imagine what worshippers were doing in the Dianji Temple in Keelung, Taiwan. Outside the temple, I watched people put stacks of paper, folded, one page at a time, into a furnace. Why a whole stack? Why one page at a time? And why folded in a certain way? Inside, I saw a few people throwing red crescent-shaped wooden blocks onto the ground. Others were drawing sticks from what looked like an umbrella stand. All this activity was in addition to the expected praying and lighting of incense.

Elizabeth explains the rituals
Elizabeth explains the rituals

Fortunately, this mystery of rituals was explained by our Taiwanese friends Elizabeth and Phillip. We met them on our cruise and became friends. Lucky for us, we happened to bump into them in the Miaokou Night Market just before we arrived at the Temple.

The people throwing blocks were posing a pressing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question to the gods. If the blocks landed one flat side up, one flat side down, then ‘yes’ was the answer to their question. If both curved sides landed up, then a resounding ‘No’ was the answer. If both flat sides landed up, then the gods were uncommitted and the answer to your own question was left up to you.Taiwan20140421_6465

As for the sticks chosen from the umbrella stand, they were fortune-telling sticks. A hidden mark on the bottom of the stick directs the worshipper to their written fortune in a  specific marked drawer in an adjacent chest of many drawers.  If they don’t fully understand or perhaps don’t believe what they read, then they can take the slip to an interpreter in the Temple. There are several waiting by but I didn’t learn if they were monks or trained lay people.

All the Temples have furnaces outside for offerings
All the Temples have furnaces outside for offerings

We noticed that Taiwanese Temples had furnaces just outside the gates for paper offerings. Offerings were made for health, prosperity and to petition for almost anything imaginable. In addition to praying for themselves, offerings are also made for their ancestors. It is believed that the paper money offerings are sent to heaven for their ancestors. This ensures their ancestors’ continued well-being in the after-life and enables the ancestors to purchase necessities and even luxuries for their comfort.

Worshipping their ancestors also ensures their positive disposition towards the living. It is believed that the spirits of the dead continue to live in the natural world and have the power to influence the fate and fortune of those living.

We were told that if someone wished for an iPad, for example, either for themselves or for their ancestors, they would design a paper version of an iPad and include it in the package of other papers that they folded and placed into the furnaces.

The downside of burning offerings is the huge amount of carbon pollution. Lavish amounts of papers tend to be burned to make sure that offerings are well received. During the 7th month of the lunar calendar, called ‘Ghost” month, there is a tremendous increase in paper burning.

In an effort to reduce carbon emissions, bakeries in Tainan City came up with an out-of-the-box alternative. They make layered mango cakes that look just like a stack of paper money. Tainan City was the capital of Taiwan during imperial times and is still considered to be the cradle of Taiwanese development. It boasts almost 2,000 temples.

I think it’s quite befitting that Tainan City, the oldest city in Taiwan, try to initiate a new eco-friendly, albeit highly untraditional alternative, to an ancient tradition.Taiwan20140421_0552


We ♥ Taiwan!

Deena and I both believe that people everywhere are basically good and friendly. The Taiwanese so greatly exceeded our expectations that we were amazed and touched.

From our cruise, we had a one-day stop at the port outside of Taipei.  We wanted to visit a couple of places in the mountains. One was a former gold mine turned into a nice little shopping street, called Jiufen.Jiufen, Taiwan

The real challenge was finding the right bus when neither of us could read or speak Chinese. Our on-board Taiwanese friend, Lucy, gave us the bus map with the route highlighted, brought us to the station outside the port and made sure we knew the bus number to take. When we tried to buy the ticket, though, the clerk mimed for us to go outside to “7-8-8!” Apparently, the bus company and bus number for Jiufen had been changed. Oops!

After wandering all around, we ducked into the train station and inquired at the information booth. The man, who spoke no English, knew exactly what we were asking. He hunted all over his crowded office until he found the little piece of paper where someone had written in English the new directions to find the #788 bus. “Up the stairs over the road, turn right, turn left, down the stairs, wait in front of the medical clinic for bus 788.” That unbelievable helpfulness was a mere foreshadowing of what we were about to experience in Taiwan.

Arriving at the group of bus-waiting Chinese, we tried to confirm whether we were in the right place. One young fellow who spoke English responded with “We are going there too. Why don’t you sit near us and we can make sure that you exit at the right bus stop. We will also show you how to find the correct bus for the way back to the port.”

Joe and his girlfriend, Alice (who didn’t speak any English), adopted us at that bus stop. We walked around Jiufen with them. They introduced us to sweet taro ball soup.

Grandma Lai Sweet Taro Ball Soup, Jiufen, TaiwanAfter our walkabout in Jiufen, they suggested we continue with them because it would be more fun than where we had planned. We enthusiastically agreed. No tour, no guide book, no Internet page can ever replace experiencing a place through the eyes of its own inhabitants.

On the way there, we stopped in Ruifang to change from a bus to a train. We enjoyed some street food with Joe and Alice, including an odd fried sandwich peculiar to Ruifang. It was a ham, tomato and egg sandwich on a long, deep-fried donut. Odd? Yes. Good? Um, the magic eight ball says “ask me later”.

Jiufen, Taiwan
Joe and Alice introduce us to cold, sweet Taro Ball Soup
A shop in Houtong, Taiwan
The paper says “This Cat Is Not For Sale”

We accompanied them by train to Houtong, famous for its cat population. Apparently, a woman who has since died started rescuing cats there. The cats continue to be fed and cared for by the few, remaining inhabitants. The feral cat population seems to own the village, and it’s become a tourist spot for cat lovers, complete with a few shops that sell everything cat-related.Houtong, Taiwan

Houtong itself is an otherwise defunct coal-mining town with a colored history. It was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. There are food shops, a park, an information center about the mine, hiking trails and a tourist center. Not much is in English and to be honest, we were the only caucasions there.

Coal Factory, Houtong, Taiwan
Houtong’s defunct coal factory

In the afternoon, we had to start back toward the ship, and the young couple were going on to another city. To make sure we didn’t get lost, they accompanied us to buy the train tickets, took us to the correct platform and carefully explained where to exit and find the bus outside the Ruifang train station. We were sad to part company with our new Taiwanese friends.

We stopped for a coffee in a mom-and-pop storefront called Grind Coffee between the train station and bus stop. They didn’t speak English but understood “iced lattes”. Indeed, the lattes were excellent and refreshing, but what was even more amazing was the experience. The other customers in the shop kept stealing furtive glances at us, probably wondering what we were doing there since we were (a) white and (b) not with one of the many tour buses that passed through on the way to somewhere else. Finally, one who introduced himself as Tom, asked us where we were from.

Grind Coffee, Ruifang, Taiwan
We meet friendly people in the Grind Coffee shop in Ruifang, Taiwan

We chatted with everyone and took pictures in the coffee shop. Awen offered to drive us back to the port in his car. He dropped us off and then surprised us with a gift of Taiwanese tea in a beautiful red gift box and bag. This act of welcoming to his country was beyond our wildest expectation!

If you ask us which country impressed us most so far, we both firmly answer Taiwan. The mountainous landscape is beautiful and the people are the warmest and friendliest we’ve ever met. When we taste the delicious gifted tea, it warms us and our hearts. A return to Taiwan is definitely on our bucket list.

Jiufen, Taiwan
Jiufen, Taiwan