Curated by Chen Huiling, Associate Professor and Department Chairperson, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, National Hsinchu University of Education
Religion sheds light on questions of life, spirituality, and individual consciousness; literature touches on the instability of human... (Read more)
Curated by Chen Huiling, Associate Professor and Department Chairperson, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, National Hsinchu University of Education
Religion sheds light on questions of life, spirituality, and individual consciousness; literature touches on the instability of human nature and the entanglements of life, death, love, and hate. Essentially, religion and literature are both concerned with constructing the individual’s place in the world and the meaning of existence; they are both forms of emotional experience that seek to interpret and understand human life and existential consciousness. Ultimately, however, the essence of religious doctrines and rituals involves transcending the worldly and moving toward eternal meanings, hidden and divine; as for literature, its essence is expressed in literary artistry and aesthetic effect. Therefore, if we are to discuss religion and literature, how should “religious literature” be defined?
Primitive tribal “worship” of supernatural authority can be called one of human society’s earliest forms of “spiritual civilization.” There are three major developmental patterns that mark the progression from “spirit worship” to “primitive religion” to “civilized religion”: First, the development of a system of doctrines and literature particular to a certain religion; second, the development of a system of rules and rites that clearly distinguishes one religion from another; and third, a formal organizational structure. This is the basic definition of religion. Spirit worship and religious activities are a foundational element of human society, and literary activities are also a link in the chain of civilization. Therefore, when spiritual truths and meanings or a particular religious awareness lie hidden behind life’s curtains, it is natural for artists and writers to reveal them through imaginative and interpretative forms of expression.
The above history roughly illustrates the integral relationship of religion and literature; however, because of the uneven ratio of implicit and explicit elements touching on religion and literature, it is difficult to reach a consensus on just what constitutes “religious literature.” In a narrow sense, works of religious literature are those that elucidate religious doctrines, exhorting and enlightening; in a wider sense, the meaning can be extended to include works of “religious imagination” and “moral imagination” which engage in philosophical speculation. In calling for manuscripts and setting literary directions, Taiwan’s various religious literature prizes – the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society’s “Religious Literature Award,” the Christian “Xiong Shan Literary Award,” and the Islamic “New Moon Literary Essay Award,” and others – look for works that deal with spiritual philosophy, provide an understanding of a particular religious culture, or seek to purify society, inspire good deeds, or lead people to the truth. Thus, any work that expresses love, care, sacrifice, devotion, tolerance, or other virtues associated with religion may be submitted. Obviously, in addition to theological and religious content, “religious literature” is also concerned with human betterment and literary art. As for selecting the “religions” expressed in Taiwanese literary works, both formal religious creeds and folk beliefs are represented: The Bible’s eschatological doctrines, Buddhism’s three-fold training in virtue, mind, and wisdom; Taoism’s “Treasure of Tao,” which espouses enlightenment for those chosen by destiny; Islamic obedience to the Hadith – the holy sayings of the prophet Muhammad – and the Quran; religious stories (such as Biblical tales or Buddhist allegories); religious concepts (such as confession, redemption, and self-realization) or religious ideas (fate, divine protection, sin), and various other religious media that serve as material for literary production. Judged from this perspective, “religious literature” should be viewed as a “theme,” rather than a literary category. Hence, religious literature can be defined more broadly as the “imaginative literature of religious experience” or “the literary analysis of religious doctrines.” This compilation focuses on the religious literature of Taiwan, in the broad sense of the term; moreover, when seen in light of this “literary theme,” all works that employ the media and materials of religious culture and which seek to enlighten humankind fall into this category. A special explanatory note about Taiwanese folk beliefs: Although such beliefs include “superstitious” and “unenlightening” elements, they also constitute one level of spirituality, deeply influencing Taiwanese people’s worldview, Taiwanese society and cosmology. Hence, in addition to Christianity, Buddhism, Chan (Zen), and Taoism, this compilation also includes materials that embody polytheistic folk beliefs, a syncretic blend of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditions – Taiwanese folk religion’s “primitive” spirit is yet another expression of Taiwanese culture, customs, and traditions.
Taiwanese religious literature can be traced back to the end of the Ming period, when great numbers of Ming officials and war refugees came to Taiwan with the so-called Ming loyalist Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong). Researchers have termed this stage of the “eastern transmission,” i.e. Buddhism’s introduction to Taiwan, as “scholarly Buddhism.” 1 After Shen Guangwen, who wrote under the pseudonym “First Literary Ancestor of the Eastern Sea,” relocated to Taiwan, he became a Buddhist monk for a time. In poetic works such as the “Mountain Residence” series, Shen reveals the desperate state of mind that led him to take refuge in Chan Buddhism. Traditional literati of the Japanese colonial period were also involved with Buddhism: Southern Seas Buddhist Monthly published Buddhist poetry and essays. Another special type of Taiwanese religious literature derives from Taoist fortunetelling: a spirit-medium goes into a trance and a god is said to possess his or her body. The medium then writes down answers to supplicants’ questions in a form of folk poetry. “New literature” fiction writers of the 1930s also touched on religious issues. Lai He’s “Going Home” depicts the refusal to tear down a Mazu temple and Lü Heruo’s “Geomancy” describes rural fengshui beliefs, exposing traditional superstitions and “base” folk practices in the Taiwan countryside. Conversely, Yang Kui’s “Model Village” portrays a hamlet that is forced to exchange statues of Mazu and Guanyin for images of Shinto gods after Japanese authorities designate it a “model village.” These works describe the loss of traditional beliefs, testifying to hardships suffered under Japanese rule, examining the subtle and complicated relationship of religious and colonial governance. Protestant Christianity came to Taiwan with the Dutch in 1624, and in the seventeenth century Spanish missionaries spread Catholicism in the north and south of the island as well. Muslim soldiers from China’s Fujian province brought Islam in the late Ming-Koxinga period, and Muslims from Yunnan and other areas immigrated to Taiwan in the wake of the Nationalist-Communist civil war, which explains why Taiwan is religiously multicultural. Early Taiwanese (Holo) hymnals, church newspapers, and even some Aboriginal literature were all heavily influenced by foreign religious literature. Scholar Li Chunsheng was one of the Japanese colonial era’s few Christians. His Essays on a Sixty-four Day Journey to the East, clearly sets forth his religious convictions, and can be called another type of religious literature.
Buddhist writings make up the bulk of postwar Taiwanese religious literature, with Buddhist themes emerging in poetry, essays, and fiction. Vastly different from prewar religious works, which for the most part recounted the vicissitudes of Taiwanese history, religious writing in the postwar period employs religious allusions, facts, and rhetorical images as literary motives for laying out plots and circumstances. Modern poets working in a religious vein include Luo Fu, Zhou Mengdie, Xiaoxiao, Ya Xian, Yu Guangzhong, Luo Qing, Chen Yizhi, Xu Huizhi and others. Ya Xian’s long poem “Abyss” delves into Christian themes of “loneliness, death, and evil.” Dark and contemplative, Luo Fu’s “Death in a Stone Room” poems are replete with Chan (Zen) flavor. Practicing Buddhist Zhou Mengdie’s collection The Grass of Returning Souls is fully informed with Zen spirit; “Under the Bodhi Tree,” a poem in the collection, is a spiritual touchstone for those seeking transcendence and enlightenment, exploring life and self-realization via a series of questions. Xu Huizhi’s “The Lost Khata” employs imagery of a khata – a Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial scarf – a boat, and a ferry landing to shine a light on the vortex of human emotions. As for Buddhism and Taoism in essays and fiction, works on the goddesses Guanyin and Mazu are especially worthy of note. Qi Jun, Lin Wenyi, Zhao Yun, Xi Song, and Liang Hanyin have all written about Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. In addition to presenting Guanyin’s enduring popular image as a savior in times of distress, the works showcase the writers’ “childlike” religious devotion and inner realization. Yang Mu’s Doubting God profoundly examines the signifier “god,” critically investigating religion and philosophy. Jiang Xun, Lin Qingxuan, Jian Zhen, and Lü Zhengda have all treated Buddhist themes in their work. Lin Qhingxuan’s “Bodhi Series” essays have also enjoyed great popularity. The power of music is also manifested in religious experience, creating a hypnotic aura, exciting the emotions and causing believers to fall into a trance – in Lin’s essay “The Buddha Drum” the sounds of a Buddhist temple’s bell and drum evoke the sacred experience of religious awakening. Moving from sacred experience to actual redemption, Lü Zhengda’s “Twilight of the Gods” highlights the importance of relying on spirituality in times of distress; thus, the first question the essay’s narrator asks both a condemned killer and the victim’s family is “Do you have religious beliefs?” The essay incisively and sincerely describes religion’s power to redeem, almost as if the writer is directly passing on the word of the spirit.
Dongfang Bai (Tonfang Po), Li Qiao, Chen Ruoxi, Xiao Lihong, Tung Nien, Ruan Qingyue, Shi Shuqing, and Lin Yangmin are fiction writers whose works have touched on Buddhist themes. These writers depict emotional states and social phenomena in order to examine how people react to events in their lives – some obligingly submit to fate while others actively resist life’s circumstances. Tung Nien’s Temple of the Vow of the Ksitigarbha Earth-store Bodhisattva exhibits a very individual understanding of religious consciousness. Although redemption and mercy are ever present and available to all, humanity seems to take this as an excuse to keep on sinning; thus, the bodhisattva vow has been widely misinterpreted as “eliminating human responsibility.” The novel’s title dispels the idea that “hell is eternal”: only by exerting one’s abilities and vows to the fullest can one smash his or her private hell. Dongfang Bai’s “Hair” shows that both worldly desires and worries are ties that bind, intimating that “losing one’s hair” and “gaining the Dharma” 2 is the only way of escaping the mortal world and gaining eternal life.
Immortality is a basic human desire. Taoism, a native Chinese religion, was founded by Zhang Daoling during the Eastern Han period. Taoism recognizes Laozi, as its spiritual head, honoring him with the title “Grand Old Master.” Laozi’s dictum “though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away,” 3 Taoism’s priestly rites (e.g. fortunetelling, exorcism, healing, etc.) and polytheistic worship have all deeply influenced Taiwanese folk beliefs.
Taiwanese people worship all manner of gods. Because of the island’s geography, beliefs related to the sea are prevalent. The goddess Mazu (Empress of Heaven), said to protect seafarers, is widely worshipped in harbor and coastal areas. Thus, the goddess is the subject of a rich body of literature – for example, Chen Qianwu’s “Mazu – Belief” poetry compilation borrows Mazu’s image to criticize authoritarianism.
Ye Shitao’s “Third Month Mazu” poems link Mazu’s image as a sacred rescuer and redeemer to the Taiwanese people’s historical struggles for survival and political freedom. In Chen Yuhui (Jade Y. Chen) ’s Mazu’s Bodyguards Taiwan folk traditions and seasonal customs thread the text together, the female protagonist’s travels to foreign lands and search for her roots paralleling the history of the goddess Mazu’s sea journey to Taiwan.
“Mazu literature” is written in accordance with a message derived from native Taiwanese folk beliefs: “The moment of redemption is at hand.” What is implied, however, is the paradoxical intertwinement of femininity, ethnicity, and politics. This in turn is linked to the folk beliefs, rural customs and legends that inform Taiwanese nativist literature, in locales such as Huang Chunming’s Ilan, Zheng Qingwen’s Jiucheng (Xinzhuang), Wang Zhenhe’s Hualian, Li Ang’s Lugang, and Yuan Zhesheng’s Shaoshuigou, which are other “religious foreign lands.”
The countryside, a place of supernatural mystery, is in fact a miniature portrait of “traditional Taiwan,” and a fertile piece of nativist experience. For example, Huang Chunming’s “Grandpa Qingfan’s Story” recounts an area’s history of flooding in a story about a “water ghost.” Huang’s “Listen, Gods!” tells the tale of an old man who worships a great number of deities, yet is disgruntled because he has failed to received their blessings and protection. He even bellows threateningly at the spirits: “Are you listening?” At first glance, this human communication with the divine may seem exceedingly utilitarian, but what it is actually reveals is ordinary country people’s respect for and fear of supernatural powers, as well their simple worries and desires.
The religious affiliations of writers working in the Protestant and Catholic traditions are readily apparent. The works of essay writers Wang Dingjun, Zhang Xiaofeng, and Gao Dapeng exhibit both Christian spirit and a concern for philosophical inquiry. Representative Christian fiction writers include Zhu Xining (Chu Hsi-ning), Chen Yingzhen, Wang Wenxing and Song Zelai, and Chen Ye. Zhu Xining (Chu Hsi-ning) asserted that his monumental unfinished work, The Hua Taiping Family, was “written for the Lord.” Zhu’s “Wolf” is set in the Chinese countryside, but the story’s themes – forgiveness, salvation, and rebirth – are typically Christian. Another Christian writer, Chen Yingzhen portrays intense anxiety over the concept of “original sin.” Chen’s “Judas Iscariot’s Story” was written during the Cold War, when Taiwan was under martial law. Implicit in the story is a heroic concern for reform, but the writer approaches his theme from the perspective of religious purification and redemption.
Having inherited the syncretic Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian tradition handed down in the Ming and Qing eras, and embracing new religions from abroad, Taiwan can be said to be a pluralistic religious society. Indeed, few countries in the world boast such religious diversity. Mysterious and awe-inspiring, religion seems to be a secret realm, distant and transcendent. Nevertheless, religion had its beginnings in “primitive” humans’ thought, understandings, assumptions, hopes and anxieties, and the religious consciousness and folk beliefs that have come into being are, in the final analysis, of the human world. Changes in ideological values and religious beliefs naturally follow in the wake of societal, political, and economic changes. For example, beliefs may evolve from atheism to theism, or from theism to agnosticism; nevertheless, religious consciousness largely emerges in the wake of great social transformation or upheaval; moreover, religious literature is composed of writers’ individualized realizations and experiences. Hence, works for this compilation were selected first and foremost on the basis of their religious attributes and literary quality. Literary forms include poetry, essays, and fiction; the ten selections represent the spirit and substance of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and folk religion as manifested in the religious literature of Taiwan. We hope these writings will convey the religious experiences of ordinary Taiwanese as well as Taiwanese writers’ spiritual contemplations and sacred encounters.
1See Yang Huinan “Analysis of the Characteristics of Taiwanese ‘scholarly Buddhism’ of the Late Ming”: http://buddhistinformatics.ddbc.edu.tw/taiwanbuddhism/tb/md/md03-08.htm
2SA pun: “hair” (髮fǎ)and “Dharma” (法fǎ) are homophones in Chinese.
3Translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English: http://www.wussu.com/laotzu/laotzu16.html
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