Monday, October 28, 2013

Tourists continue search for enlightenment (South China Morning Post)

Spiritually motivated travel is perhaps the oldest form of tourism. In Greater China, Taiwan remains the most vibrant religious culture centre, where centuries-old folk temples, especially in Tainan and Lugang, add colour and beauty to urban landscapes.
Taiwan's tourist industry is booming - international arrivals more than doubled to 7.31 million from 2006 until last year - and religious sites have reported growing numbers of visitors from Hong Kong, the mainland and Singapore.

The monastic and educational complex at Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM), 23km northeast of central Taipei, received about 12,000 non-Taiwanese visitors last year, says Bhikkhuni Guo-jiann Shih, director of DDM's department of international relations and development. DDM is also the global headquarters of a Buddhist foundation with affiliates in North America, Britain and Hong Kong. According to Bhikkhuni Guo-jiann Shih, non-Taiwanese visitors are especially interested in tours of the complex, retreats and how the Chan form of Buddhism is practised.

 At the end of 2011, another of Taiwan's major Buddhist organisations opened to the public what is perhaps the island's most striking religious monument. Fo Guang Shan's Buddha Memorial Centre houses a tooth, which the faithful believe was retrieved from the ashes after Buddha was cremated in 543BC. The centre, which cost an estimated US$300 million to build, welcomed 8 million visitors last year. At the original monastery next to the centre, monks, nuns and volunteers gave guided tours to more than 240,000 people last year, including more than 150,000 from the mainland...

This article appeared last Friday in a special report on Taiwan published by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper. To read the whole article, click here. The photo above was taken at dawn recently at Henan Temple, Hualien County.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reawakening a dormant language (Taiwan Review)

In the summer of 2005, Chun Jimmy Huang (黃駿), then a doctoral student at the University of Florida, visited the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, eastern Taiwan. Accompanied by his parents and his sister, Huang was expecting to learn about the people who lived in Taiwan thousands of years ago. By the end of his visit, however, he was feeling somewhat perplexed. 

“Inside the museum, there was a display titled ‘Siraya tools’ that included fishing equipment, bamboo utensils and a cradle,” recalls Huang, now an assistant professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Guam.

The Siraya, an Austronesian-speaking group, dominated Taiwan’s southwestern lowlands before and for some decades after the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) 1624–1662 occupation of what is now Tainan City in southern Taiwan. In fact, the word Taiwan, many believe, is derived from the Siraya language. The Executive Yuan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) recognizes 14 ethnic groups as aboriginal tribes, but in recent years has rejected petitions seeking formal recognition for the Siraya.

“I realized I’d seen several of the museum exhibits in my home in Jiali,” he says of Tainan’s Jiali District. “Until then, I’d thought of myself simply as a ‘Taiwanese’—someone of Southern Min descent,” he explains. Southern Min is a term used to describe the people and languages of one part of Fujian, the mainland Chinese province closest to Taiwan. The majority of Taiwanese trace their ancestry to that part of China.

“I called relatives on my father’s side to ask about our identity. To my surprise, a great uncle told me, ‘Oh yes, our family is actually huan-a,’” says Huang, using a Taiwanese word which literally means “barbarian.” Commonly applied to Taiwan’s indigenous minority in the past, the term is now considered offensive.

This discovery surprised not only Huang, but also his father. “When he was little, his mother, my grandmother, used to take him to worship a pot like ones we’d seen in pictures in the museum. His grandmother called the deity Alid, and exactly the same name was in the notes beside those pictures,” Huang says. “My father, then 54 years old, was rather confused. Like me, he’d always thought of himself as a Southern Min Taiwanese. But later he remembered having wondered why his home religion was different from that of his childhood friends.” In the Siraya language, the word alid originally meant “deity” or “spirit” in the general sense, but in Siraya religion, Alid is also the supreme spirit that is above all other gods. It is the water contained in the pot, rather than the pot itself, that embodies the spirit of Alid...

The rest of this article, which appears in the October issue of the central government's Taiwan Review magazine, can be read online.