CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


The early Christian encounter with Taiwan Religious Culture

by Chi-Rong Chen (Aletheia University Tamsui, Taipei)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

I. Introduction

In 16th century there was already Christian missionary activity on Taiwan Inland along with the colonial activity from Spain and Netherland.  The Churches built by Missionaries from these countries were mostly among the aborigine people, which eased to exist after the Spain and Netherland retreat from Taiwan Inland.  The Christian Church now in Taiwan society is the successful result of the missionary work from UK, USA, which restarted in mid 19th century.  Due to the unfortunate collaboration between missionary effort and the expansion of colonialism of these centuries, the process of contextualization of Christianity into Taiwan culture can only develop slowly, when not difficultly.  Today in Taiwan society the Christianity remains in the eyes of local residents a foreigner religion.  Although the Christianity reached Taiwan Island almost over one and a half century still in the eyes of Taiwan society the Taiwan Christian Church maintains strong foreigner characteristics.  In the last decades there have been many theologians, who tried in several different tactics to make the Christianity indigenized in the Taiwan society.  By reviewing the early encounter of Christianity of both southern and northern Taiwan one may have some indications of the reason of such permanent resistant of Taiwan society toward Christianity.

II. Taiwan in early 19th century

After the Netherlands missionaries finished their work in 17th century Taiwan, the Englander missionary Dr. James L. Maxwell began his medicine missionary work in southern Taiwan at 1865 and the Canadian missionary Dr. George L. MacKay began his work in northern Taiwan at 1872.  At begin of 19th century Ching Dynasty still maintained a very conservative foreign policy.  After the Opium war between UK and Ching Dynasty at 1842 China was forced to sign Tien-Jin Treaty for allowing free trade of opium and to open seven harbors including Taiwan for trade with foreign country.  Although these missionaries came with the best intention, the whole society in Taiwan pervaded a hostile atmosphere toward any forms of foreign invention, which caused these new beginning of missionary work both in southern and in northern Taiwan countless barriers and obstacles to be overcome.  Shortly after the approval of Tien-Jin Treaty from Ching Dynasty at 1850 the leader of Taiwan province, Hsu Chong-kan 台灣道台徐宗幹 published the “Statement of Taiwan Patriots” 「全台紳民公約」.[1]  In this statement Hsu Chong-kan explained to the Taiwan residents, that because of the Tien-Jin Treaty the officials must let the foreigner come into Taiwan, but the people in Taiwan did not sign any agreement with any foreigner country therefore the people of Taiwan must not pay any attention to them.  This provocative speech manipulates the local residents to set up a highly unfriendly atmosphere toward any foreigner in the society, which explains the difficulty of missionary work beginning at 1865.  To the local residents in Taiwan the appearance of missionaries indicates the weakness of Ching-Dynasty and the intrusion of foreigner influence.  Furthermore the foreign country tended to use the conflict situation between the missionaries and local residents by sending the military to force Ching-Dynasty not only for the protection of local Christian churches but also for more economic advantage.  Reviewing the missionary history in this period it is obviously for us, that the missionaries can not be criticized for the collaboration between missionary effort and the expansion of colonialism.  But the missionaries in the early stage of the Church history in Taiwan did make some critical decisions, which have significant influences of the Church of Taiwan today.  The first example I take, is the first missionary in southern Taiwan, Dr. James Maxwell’s letter to the ambassador of UK, Sir J. Rutheford Alcock in 1868 for political assistant to his missionary work.  Unfortunately this political assistance came in a form of violence, which Dr. Maxwell did not expect.  And the second example is the first missionary in northern Taiwan, Dr. George L. MacKay’s decisive attitude toward the ancestor worship of Taiwanese.  MacKay’s decision in this issue still has tremendous influence on the protestant Church today.

III.  The Missionary Activity in Southern Taiwan

The missionary activity in southern Taiwan was leaded by Dr. James L. Maxwell beginning at 1865.  In May 1865 Dr. Maxwell arrived Da-Kauw, a city in southern Taiwan, along with Rev. Carstairs Douglas and three Chinese Christians.  After Rev. Douglas went back to Amoy, Mainland China, Dr. Maxwell began his medicine missionary work at June 16 in Tainan city.  Dr. Maxwell’s mission praxis soon attracted many to visit, but it lasted only for three weeks.  Before long there was a rumor in the street of Tainan city, that Dr. Maxwell has used dead peoples organs for medicine, such as heart, liver and eyes, that should be the reason why his medicine was so effective.  On July 9. 1865 Dr. Maxwell’s praxis was destroyed by gangsters.   Dr. Maxwell was forced to retreat to Da-Kauw.  In 1867 Rev. Hugh Richie came to Da-Kauw to assist Dr. Maxwell’s mission work in southern Taiwan.  The missionary work made gradually progress.  Several Churches were built.  The conflict between Christian church and the intellectual escalated.  Along in 1867 there were six incidents recorded by Dr. Maxwell, so that in June 1868 he sent a letter to the ambassador of UK, Sir J. Rutheford Alcock.  In the letter Dr. Maxwell wrote:

“For three years the authorities in Formosa have deliberately disregarded the provisions of the Treaty in all that relates to Christian missionaries and their converts.  They have not only refused to protect them, but have secretly and openly steadily opposed their position in the island, and have so acted as to lead their subordinates, writers, chong-iong and others to support that any violence towards Christians would not be dealt with as a criminal offence…. We have no complaint against the people for persecution at their hands, but against the authorities and their subordinates in the Yamen.”[2]

There are two significant matters revealing from this letter.  First: The “Statement of Taiwan Patriots” 「全台紳民公約」from the leader of Taiwan province, Hsu Chong-kan, did successfully provoke the intellectuals of Taiwan society to go against any foreigner including missionaries.  Second: Different mission strategy has been used between the early catholic missionary Matteo Richie and the Englander protestant missionary.  As Matter Richie came to China in 16th century he first contacted the intellectuals of the society.  Dr. Maxwell and Rev. Richie choose the proletariat of the society instead. 

The letter from Dr. Maxwell did not motivate Sir Alcock to take action immediately until another incident of camphor trade broke out.  W. A. Pickering, an adventurer from England and the represent of Elles Co. (怡記洋行)in Taiwan, tried to make a very profitable trade with camphor in southern Taiwan in September 1868, which exclusively belonged to the right of the officials during Ching-Dynasty.  The action of Pickering irritated the Authorities of Taiwan.  Pickering was hunted and drove away from Taiwan.   The ambassador of UK, Sir Alcock then sent on November 2. 1868 two marine military ship ‘Algerine’ and ‘Bustard’ leaded by Lieutenant Gurdon to Tainan, Taiwan.  As British marine troop took An-Pin city in Tainan, the Ching’s official in Tainan Chian So-Jen committed suicide.  A new Treaty was signed by UK consult in Da-Kauw Mr. T. Adokins and the authority of Taiwan represent by Tseng Sian-De on December 1868.  In this new treaty the camphor trade was no more an exclusive right of officials and the damage of Christian church should be compensated and the authorities of Taiwan should ban any form of violence against missionaries and their converts. 

At the end Dr. Maxwell did acquire what he asked for in the letter.  The path for missionary work war pounded smoothly at his time.  The consequence of this issue is that the impression of the collaboration between missionary effort and the expansion of colonialism stay deeply in the mind of intellectual in Taiwan society, which might extend the process of the contextualization of Christianity in Taiwan. 

IV.  The Missionary Activity in Northern Taiwan

In northern Taiwan the missionary work leaded by Dr. George L. MacKay was easier in comparison to Dr. Maxwell’s hard effort in southern Taiwan.  Beginning in 1872 the missionary career of Dr. MacKay has been very successful in the Christian mission of the whole world, because MacKay built 60 churches in northern Taiwan with help from his students during his 29 years mission activities.  The Christian Church in northern Taiwan inherited the legacy of MacKay.  Among this heritage MacKay’s way of handling the ancestor worship of Taiwanese need a further assessment. 

The ancestor worship is a ceremony of every Taiwanese family for paying respect of their ancestor.  It is the most important responsibility of every family member to take part in this ceremony.  During Ching-Dynasty man can even divorce his wife for not having a son, who can hold the ceremony after the man pass away.  The important social function of ancestor ceremony is far beyond paying respect for the family ancestor.  The annual ancestor ceremony can stabilize and re-intensify the relationship between every individual and the family.  In Taiwan society, the family as a basic unit of traditional social structure can give every individual a starting point to build up a normal relationship with other families and as also to build up a normal relationship with the whole society.  The most serious punishment in the traditional Taiwanese family is to be expelled from the ancestor ceremony, for this means one ease to exist in the traditional society. 

In his autobiographic mission record “From Far Formosa” (New York: 1895) George MacKay described the ancestor worship very details and gave a thorough comment:

In a general and broad sense all their worship is ancestral, as their gods are the deified spirits of some of the distinguished dead.  But the worship of their gods is not the real religion of the Chinese, the idol-shrine in not heir most holy place.  Their real religion is the worship of their ancestors, their real idol the ancestral tablet.[3]

MacKay mentions correctly that, the worship of ancestors is certainly of very ancient date, and was sanctioned by the Chinese sage Confucius.  In MacKay details record emerge a vivid picture of ancestor worship:

There are some things that appeal to human nature in this ancestral idolatry.  Its motive may be fear, but its basis is filial piety.  And there is something very solemn about their annual family gatherings before the spirit-tablets of their dead.  The most sacred time in all the Chinese calendar is the last night of the old year, when the chief family feast is held and sacrifices are offered to the ancestral guests.  To be present on such an occasion, the son returns home, it may be, from beyond the Pacific.  The household assemble in their family oratory.  No strange in there.  Before them are the sacred tablets, their household gods, and with reverence they present their offering, burn their sacrifices, and bow themselves in worship.  Pork, fish, fowl, vegetables, and some spirituous liquor constitute the food, which is offered smoking hot, and the spirits feast upon its essence carried up in the ascending steam.  Paper clothing and mock money are burned, and as the smoke curls up the spirits are clothed and enriched.  Lest and vagabond spirit, neglected by its living offspring, should be hovering about seeking an entrance into this hallowed place, a supply of food in set outside the door, that the hungry soul may be satisfied and not intrude.  This ancestral feast of the last night of the year is to the Chinese what Passover night is to the pious Jew.[4]

Being a charismatic speaker George MacKay was a successful missionary in converting people for Christian church.  But he admitted that, it was easy for Taiwanese to give up belief in other religions, it was not easy for Taiwanese to give up the ancestor worship.  “The worship of idols is first given up; but it may be mouths - perhaps a year – before the tablet can be forsaken.”[5]  The following record shows that MacKay did aware the significance of the ancestor worship for the traditional Taiwan society. 

“Ancestral worship has its beauties, and in its exaltation of marriage it may indirectly have been a blessing; but it has its darker side, and in its train follow domestic infelicity, miscarriage of justice, and social and moral bondage that subjects the millions of the living to degrading service of the dead.  A marriage that does not result in the birth of a son, who will guard his father’s grave and worship at the ancestral shrine, is a source of perpetual misery, giving the husband just cause of ill-treating his wife, putting her away, or resorting to concubinage.  Should and only son whose parents are dead be arraigned before a magistrate and found guilty of the most heinous crime, the fact that there is no one else to attend to the offices of ancestral worship would interfere with the execution of a just sentence, as the magistrate would shrink from the responsibility of depriving the spirits of the departed of the care and support they require.  And this ancestral worship blocks the way of all change and progress, because to make any change in social customs of religious forms would disturb the status between men and spirits, and thus prove fatal to the repose of the dead and the safety of the living.”[6]

After this long discussion of ancestor worship MacKay made the following conclusion: “This venerable cultus, the worship of ancestors, in indeed the most stubborn obstacle Christianity has to face.  It is so engrained in the nature, and appeals of touchingly to the heart, that it requires the strongest conviction and the finest moral courage to beak its thralldom and brave the scorn of friends and relatives, to whom neglect of one’s ancestors in the spirit world is the most inhuman and cruelest of crimes.  The gospel of the risen Saviour, shedding light on the immortal life, and redeeming men form the heavy bondage of ignorance, superstition, and fear, is proving itself the only power that can save to the uttermost.  It drives out the false by the expulsive power of truth, and under its vivifying influences the devotees of the tablet turn from the darkening past and look forward and upward to the hills of the Homeland, where the weary rest in the light of Gods.”[7]  MacKay’s conclusion to the ancestor worship more than one century ago is still been followed by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan today. 

In comparison to how the protestant church treated the ancestor worship the Roman Catholic Church went through a rather different process by dealing with the ancestor worship.  In the 17th century as the Jesuits began their mission in China, the Chinese converts were approved to continue their ancestor worship, which is merely a symbol of filial piety to the Jesuits.  Late the Vatican sent the Dominican priest to inspect the mission field in China.  The ancestor worship was then as judged as a symbol of syncretism and officially forbid by Roman Catholic Church.  But after a relative long consideration the Vatican sent in 1939 a verdict for approval of ancestor ceremony for the Chinese Catholic Church.  Today in Taiwan the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church have developed an ancestor ceremony in Christian style, which well be celebrated annually in the last Sunday before every New Year.  The attitude of protestant Church in this prospect is still in a status of indecision.  Although the protestant Church in Taiwan did take this issue of ancestor ceremony very earnestly.  Recently several theses on this topic have been published.  Unlike the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Church in Taiwan the protestant Churches such as the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is in her basic structure not hieratical but a democratic structure.  The decision-make-process on a highly implausible topic like the ancestor worship can take years.


V.  A short conclusion

In this short review of the early encounter of the Christian missionaries with Taiwan culture we can be sure that both Dr. J. Maxwell and Dr. G. MacKay did the best they could to introduce the Christianity to the Taiwan people.  The historical coincidence twists the best intension of Dr. J. Maxwell into the collaboration between the missionary effort and the colonial expansion.  On the issue of the ancestor worship it is imperative that the Church in Taiwan finally be aware of that, it is they own responsibility to discover an appropriate form to witness the love of God in their own culture.  This Awareness of Responsibility is crucial in the endeavor for building a contextualized Church. 

[1] Statement of Taiwan Patriots: 台灣道台徐宗幹,「全台紳民公約」:「英夷犯順,我成皇帝不忍百姓流離,罷兵撫議,准其通商。而不通商口岸....不准夷人登岸....此人人共知者台灣非該夷應到之地....每有夷人前來....地方長官以合約在前,不便過與爭較。我百姓固未嘗與之立約也,且所謂何者,但見之不殺耳,非聽彼之使命也。彼先侮我,我豈能讓彼,我百姓堂堂天朝子民,此地未設碼頭,豈容任其雜處」廖漢臣,樟腦糾紛事件的真相,見:台灣文獻,Vol.17(3)1966,頁86

[2] J.L.Maxwell, Violent Persecution in Formosa, in: The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal, August, 1868,  p.68

[3] George L. MacKay, Far From Formosa: the Island, its people and missions.  New York: 1895   p.131.

[4] Ibid. p.133.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p.134

[7] Ibid.