In Taiwan, the worship of the gods makes up an important part of the lives of many traditional Chinese people. Worship is seen as being vital for a harmonious life. Just as one must build a good relationship with their families or co-workers in order to live peacefully, it is seen as equally important to build a relationship with the local gods.
Types of Worship
The gods of Taiwan are worshiped in two ways. The first is priestly worship. This form of highly ritualistic worship is performed by Taoist priests or Buddhist monks in temples. Priestly worship has set rubrics and follows a calendar. This form of worship is done on behalf of a small or large group of people and has broad based such as good weather for harvests, peace between the spiritual and natural worlds, or cosmic balance. It may be done with or without the participation of non-clergy, depending on the ritual. Priestly worship ritually celebrates the birthdays of major gods. In the second form, private worship, ordinary people worship the gods either in temples, shrines, or in their homes. Both priestly and private worship is done for the sake of harmony; life simply goes more smoothly when proper rituals are preformed. However, health, business success, happiness, and progeny (most often male) are often the direct purposes of private worship.
Places of Worship
In Taiwan, gods are worshiped in three settings. The first place, and the one most obvious to the outside observer, the temple. Most every village or city neighborhood has a temple. Some temples are dedicated to a specific god, such as the Queen Mother of the West. Often, these temples are built with donations made by people who wish to repay the god for their blessings. Most local temples house a variety of gods and worshipers make requests of whatever god they think can best help them. One of the most famous temples in Taipei is the Long Shan Temple. Originally built in 1738 by Fujianese migrants, worshipers come from all over to venerate the huge statue of Guan Yin which survived the destruction of the temple during WWII. Usually, folk temples are served by Taoist priests at the birthday of the gods inside or on festival days. Worship is performed by burning incense, setting food before the gods, and bowing before their statues. Small, private temples can also be found in Taiwan. Since large temples are built in places with good feng shui, places such as mountains, and since neighborhood temples hold only a few gods, some worshipers feel the need to use these smaller temples. Many of these are run for profit, and some have a bad reputation among serious worshipers. Buddhist temples often double as monasteries and retreat centers. Thousands of Buddhists go on pilgrimage on special days not only to worship, but also to meditate and receive spiritual instruction.
The second most important place of worship is the home altar. Every traditional Chinese home has an altar which must be placed in a certain location based on the feng shui of the home. Behind the altar will often be placed a picture of one or more gods or a scene of heaven. The altar itself is divided into two parts. On one side is placed the name tables of family members who have died. The other side is used for the worship of the gods. The type of worship performed here is the same as that performed in a temple, but on a smaller scale. Ancestors are not seen as being the same as gods, but for harmony in the living family, the departed must be cared for as well.
Shrines, depending on the size, may hold one or more gods. They are often put in places where it is thought that they will do the most good. For example, many businesses will have a shrine inside in order to improve their sales. Some shrines are put in dangerous places for the protection of passers-by. This writer frequently passed by a small shrine built into a mountain on a popular hiking trail. Other shrines are placed for the convenience of the worshiper. Near this writers home was a small shrine which people would stop at, bow, and sometimes light incense or pay a little money for bottled water to place before the gods.Sacred space is an important part of any religious system. In few countries will a worshiper find as many opportunities for worship as in Taiwan. While priestly worship is an important feature in the ritual lives of Chinese, each individual person has the opportunity to approach the gods with their needs.
Huan-yue Liu, Folk Beliefs in Taiwan