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Friday, 24 September 2010 19:24

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.


Friday, 24 September 2010 19:23

A Tour of Taiwan's Temples

When driving through Taiwan's country side or catching the train, one is struck by the incredible number of large and ornate temples that dot the landscape.  Get on board with Paul Farrelly as he introduces some of the more notable New Religious Movement temples that the island has to offer.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:22

Sunday afternoon at Hai Tze Tao

Hai Tze Tao is a new religious movement formed in Taiwan in 1984.  Paul Farrelly had the opportunity to visit their temple in suburban Taipei and film the Sunday afternoon service.  This video includes footage of the service, as well as a brief introduction to Hai Tze Tao and its beliefs.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:13

Lord of Universe Church - from China to Taiwan and back again

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao), which as one of its key tenets, aims to reunite China and Taiwan.  Here Stacey discusses the church's relationship with China and some of its experiences there.
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Stacey also introduces the church here and discusses the time she has spent on long-term retreat.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:09

An introduction to the Lord of Universe Church

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao).  Here she introduces the origins and beliefs of the church.

Stacey also discusses her long-term retreats and the church's experience in China.

Friday, 24 September 2010 00:00

Traditional Chinese religiosity repackaged and exported... to China: How Huang Ting Chan does it

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Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is now regularly conducting workshops in cities on the Chinese mainland.  Here Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, provides some insight into how his Taiwan-based philosophy/psychology group is able to operate in China.



For an introduction to Huang Ting Chan and the concept of huang ting, please watch this video.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:01

What is Huang Ting?

Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is a retreat centre where traditional Chinese religiosity and modern psychology come together. In this interview, Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, introduces the concept of huang ting and explains how despite the advances of modern science, traditional Chinese concepts of the mind remain important.

Monday, 06 September 2010 00:00

Attracting youth to politics in Taiwan

The old cliché has it that a nation's future will be determined by its youth. If that holds true, then Taiwan had best start hooking its young on politics now. The problem is that Taiwan currently holds the lowest birthrate in the world and, much like Japan, faces the prospect of a future in which much of the population will be elderly, leaving very few of the dwindling younger generation to, among other things, run for political office and guide their country into this early stage of the new millennium. In fact, according to the most recent statistics released by Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development, Taiwan’s population will stop growing and start falling in 2022, four years earlier than had previously been predicted in 2008.

This is coupled with the fact that Taiwan is in a uniquely precarious political position. The country, which has been governed separately from China since Chiang Kai-shek evacuated the KMT government to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the communists in 1949, claims sovereignty which is vehemently refuted by China and recognized by only a handful of marginalized nations scattered around Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Statements from the Chinese government routinely make reference to the eventual reunification of Taiwan and China, while the U.S. and Taiwan are bound to the status quo, in which Taiwan governs itself, but makes no strong movements toward formally declared independence from China.

Reports abound in the media that economic and political ties between Taiwan and China continue to grow warmer under the watchful eye of President Ma Ying-jeou of the pro-unification KMT party. This was supposedly exemplified by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in July, a free trade agreement that, among other concessions in regard to banking and investment, will see tariffs on a wide array of Taiwanese and Chinese goods fall or be eliminated altogether. But the fact remains that China continues to point an ever increasing amount of missiles at its neighbor to the west, with that number expected to hit just under 2,000, up from an estimated 1,600, by the end of the year.

Despite this obvious threat, Taiwanese youth aren't exactly chomping at the bit to get involved in political activities or learn about the pertinent issues facing Taiwan. This could pose some big problems for Taiwan in the not-so-distant future. So, what's the best way to get them interested in political matters?

Enter Freddy Lim, an advocate of an independent Taiwan, front man for Taiwan's most well-known metal band, Chthonic, and one of the leaders of GUTS United, an organization composed of artists, musicians, and movie industry figures that strives to get Taiwanese youth to care about Taiwan's political future. Founded in 2002, the group began by organizing concerts surrounding political or social issues, and during the 2008 presidential campaign became more active in attempting to mobilize the young voters of today as well as the voters of tomorrow.

Lim would like to mimic the modern western method of appealing to the young generation through soft means such as music, movies, and fashion. However, living in Taipei, one of the world’s most wired cities, he is wary of the growing contemporary trend of “slacktivism,” by which increasingly keyboard bound youth voice their support in the most passive way possible—at the click of a button.

“Now everybody does their movements on the Internet. I think that’s bullshit. It’s useless. If you really care about something, you should be there, not in front of your computer,” he says while seated at a table at The Wall, a live music venue in Taipei which he is part owner of.

Though appealing to youth via the web will obviously play a large role in attracting the Net generation, Lim is aware of the need for personal contact and interaction in bringing young people into the political fold and helping them understand the relevant issues surrounding Taiwan and other regions that profess to be sovereign but are nevertheless claimed by China. This summer, he has organized politically-themed summer camps in which dozens of students have participated. He also brought notable political figures to Taiwan, such as Raela Tosh, daughter of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) leader Rebiya Kadeer, who came to Taiwan in July to attend a screening of a documentary, The 10 Conditions of Love, which focuses on her mother. Lim had also invited the elder Kadeer to come to Taipei and give a presentation on the plight of the Uyghur people in September of last year, but she was denied entry into Taiwan by the ruling KMT party.

Kadeer campaigns for the rights of China’s Uyghur people, a Muslim minority largely living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country. The area is rich in oil reserves, and is currently the nation’s top producer of natural gas. But the Chinese government’s main concern these days seems to be the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that has made the American list of terrorist organizations. China has accused Kadeer of having connections to the group, a charge she denies, but the accusation alone was enough for the KMT government in Taiwan to deny Kadeer entry when she tried to come to the country. Kadeer is a former businesswoman and philanthropist who rose to become one of the richest people in China. But in 1999 she was accused by her government of endangering state security. Her crime was sending news clippings pertaining to the treatment of the Uyghur people to her husband in the U.S., even though they were widely available domestically. She spent six years in prison before being released and fleeing to the U.S., where she resides in Virginia, separated from some of her 11 children. Kadeer says her family members that remain in China, like many of the country’s most vociferous political activists, are often targeted for persecution. Two of her sons are currently imprisoned there for allegedly endangering state security.

How does Kadeer’s story and that of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region apply to Taiwan? Xinjiang, along with the Tibet Autonomous Regions, is a modern example of how the Communist Party handles its so-called “renegade provinces,” a label it has applied to Taiwan. China has made no secret of the fact that it remains open to using military force to reclaim Taiwan at any point in the future, and in those regions that hold the word “autonomous” as part of their name, the Chinese military contrarily maintains a strong, controlling presence. The Chinese government has also encouraged the migration of Han Chinese to both Xinjiang and Tibet as a means of further integrating these regions into its One China ideal.

Could this same scenario play out in Taiwan one day? That remains to be seen, but it is a possibility, however remote it may be at present. Taiwan has recently opened the door for a small number of Chinese students to study at Taiwanese universities, though these students will not be allowed to stay in Taiwan and work following the completion of their degrees. Still, this move represents a complete about face from the previous policy of banning Chinese students altogether, a ban deemed necessary to avoid the spread of Chinese governmental and ideological influence in Taiwan. Could this be a sign of future policies that will relax restrictions on the presence of citizens of China in Taiwan? Time will tell, but the admission of Chinese students, along with the fact that Taiwan is likely to lift a ban on individual Chinese tourists traveling within the country, is a sign that China could be wedging its foot in the door in what may become a protracted process of opening that door for larger and larger numbers of mainland Chinese to come to Taiwan, the effects of which Tibetans and Uyghurs alike can attest to.

And yet, the youth of Taiwan seem largely unmoved. This malaise persists despite the efforts of Lim and others to bring to light the risks involved in Taiwan cozying up to China both politically and economically. You can lead a teenager or twenty-something to the relevant information, but you can’t force them to give it more than a cursory glance, never mind become impassioned by it. Lim knows attracting youth to political issues is an uphill battle—one that is not unique to Taiwan.

“Globally, the young people don’t care too much about political things,” Lim laments. “They care more about their own lives, so they don’t pay much attention to serious political issues.”

According to Lim, the way to make politics accessible to youth is to make it fun, rather than boring and preachy, and unenviable task under the best of circumstances. He is always striving to find something that young people can relate to and enjoy, while imparting a basic message that they can latch onto.

“Cool music, cool movies, cool shirts can attract young people,” says Lim before offering an example. “Most of the Tibet protests in Taiwan can only get three or four hundred people. But [at] the Free Tibet concert there were more than 6,000 people. They may not get the idea at that day, but you just need them to get the most simple message and they will go back to search on the Net. That’s what you do, you give them an idea.”

J. Michael Cole, a former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the current deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, and the author ofDemocracy in Peril, a book detailing the last 18 months of the Chen Shui-bian administration and the first year of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, agrees with Taiwan independence activist and musician Freddy Lim that in order to get Taiwanese youth involved in political activities, the key to their hearts and minds lies in popular culture.

“I think Freddy is bang on, and I’ve actually been saying this for years. Art is definitely something that reaches out and appeals to younger people.”

Freddy-lim-gareth-griffiths2Cole is a veteran of several political protests, which he has attended both as a journalist and a spectator, over the past two years in Taiwan, and has seen the number of attendees slide considerably. He notes that when Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), first visited Taiwan in 2008, half a million people took to the streets of Taipei to protest the presence of the Chinese official. Two years later, the ECFA protest in June barely managed to draw 50,000 people. Cole conducted a quick survey of the attendees, and the most common explanation for the drop seemed to be that people young and old in Taiwan are starting to feel that protests don’t make a difference, and even the diehard Lim said later that he didn’t really want to be there. But no matter what the number of people who have been at such protests is, people under 40 have been but a small minority.

“What really struck me was you look around and maybe 80, 85 percent of the participants are people in their late forties, fifties, sixties, seventies—some even in their eighties. If you’re lucky, you might see 15 percent of people like young adults, or children, or teenagers, who I suspect are there mostly because their parents are there rather than out of their own volition,” says Cole from across the table at a watering hole favored by the foreign correspondents in Taipei.

In Cole’s opinion, Taiwan’s rapid democratization and the relatively quick jump in the standard of living of Taiwanese in the past few decades has given rise to a generation that has no idea what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime, as their parents and grandparents do. Those who lived in Taiwan between 1949 and 1987 existed under what is known as the White Terror period, during which Taiwan was under martial law, and 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the KMT. Those who suffered at the hands of the KMT were labeled as “bandit spies,” and were accused of working for the Chinese communists. But on July 15th, 1987, the longest period of martial law in world history came to an end. All Taiwanese who were either infants at the time, or were born after that date, have no concept of what it was like to live under such oppression. All they have are the history books and the stories of this dark chapter in Taiwan’s past that their elders may or may not choose to share with them.

This knowledge and experiential gap between the current generation of young people and older Taiwanese could account for the noticeable lack of youth at political rallies and protests in Taiwan. Simply put, young people have little stake in the consequences of current political actions, for the time being at least. There is no authoritarian regime for them to speak out or rebel against and, for the most part, they live comfortable lives and enjoy the same freedoms as young people would in any of the world’s fully democratic countries. In other words, they have little to gain by becoming politically active, and little to lose by not doing so.

With that being said, they may find themselves with more to lose in the coming years if the ECFA doesn’t work out in Taiwan’s favor. It will likely take something such as this—something that directly impacts the young people of Taiwan—to get them to realize that their participation in the electoral process will have a direct effect on their own future and that of the nation at large. They may not have had a hand in bringing ECFA to the table, but perhaps, if it has negative repercussions for the people of Taiwan, young voters could play a part in rectifying the situation.

“If the ECFA goes wrong, and if it really starts hurting some industries, if it lowers Taiwan’s competitiveness, if it lowers their chances of getting good paying jobs in Taiwan because companies here can now hire cheaper labor from China, then Taiwanese old and young might become more engaged in politics and actually use electoral retribution to kick out a government that is actually hurting them,” speculates Cole.

Nevertheless, as China and Taiwan move closer together politically and economically, as is the current trend, Cole also believes that it could become more and more difficult for young Taiwanese to identify themselves as being overtly political. With the door open for Chinese investment in a growing number of sectors, including the media, those who are in favor of Taiwan independence, which currently represents approximately one in four Taiwanese, could find themselves having to choose between their political beliefs and their paycheck. Meanwhile, the nearly 58 percent of Taiwanese who support the current status quo could find themselves similarly compromised.

“What I fear is that those young Taiwanese who would like to become involved politically, they’re going to weigh their options and say, ‘If I decide to become very open with my political beliefs, this is going to have an impact on my career,’” says Cole.

Are there inherit dangers in this mode of thinking? Definitely, according to Cole, who points to the example of Hong Kong. Prior to the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it has been widely documented that Beijing reached out to members of the business and industrial elite in Hong Kong. These elites, who had much to lose from a financial standpoint if the handover resulted in instability, were offered positions as consultants on government committees in an attempt to consolidate power and ensure that Hong Kong’s absorption back into China after 100 years of British colonial rule would go smoothly. Beijing’s current efforts to absorb Taiwan by offering a series of economic carrots could be referred to as a quiet takeover. Nevertheless, it could result in a similar situation playing out in Taiwan, in which the fiscal motives of the elite, or even just the working or middle class, play a key role in the nation’s political future.

“If you have tomorrow’s leaders focusing more on getting a job and stabilizing the economy and not rocking the boat than actually fighting for what their nation stands for, these are the elite that can easily be co-opted,” Cole elaborates. “Starting in the early or mid-eighties, the Chinese government already was working at co-opting the elite in Hong Kong to make sure that when the handover occurred, the transition would be very easy and in Beijing’s favor, which explains why even today you don’t have a fully democratic Hong Kong.”

If the Taiwanese youth are forced into such a delicate situation in which speaking out in support of their own freedom could put their livelihoods at risk, then who will be their voice on the world stage? Part of the responsibility may fall on young overseas Taiwanese not living in China’s looming shadow.

That’s where organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs Young Professional Group (FAPA YPG) come in. Ketty Chen is the media coordinator for FAPA YPG, a group consisting of Taiwanese Americans aged 18 to 35 that lobbies the U.S. Congress on the issue of Taiwan independence, and a political science professor at Austin College. She believes that, given the fact that Taiwanese Americans have little to fear when advocating Taiwanese sovereignty, they can be all the more vocal with little, if anything, in the way of personal or professional consequences hanging over their heads.

“First, geographically, Taiwanese Americans are able to enjoy the safety of distance while advocating for Taiwan,” Chen states via email. “Secondly, while Taiwanese Americans hold jobs in all kinds of industries in the US, I feel that the proportion of the Taiwanese American population affected by the economic integration between Taiwan and China is not as high as people in Taiwan.”

Despite all the obstacles they face, there are small groups of young people dedicated to spreading political awareness among young people in Taiwan. Sisters Yu-shan and Yu-ting Chang, aged 22 and 20 respectively, volunteer at GUTS United events around Taiwan, and were made aware of political issues by their parents from a young age. For Yu-shan, the low level of involvement of young people in political matters might simply come down to not knowing where to begin.

“Maybe they follow the news, but they don’t know what to do,” she says during an interview outside the Guting MRT station in Taipei on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The sisters are granting an interview before heading to a punk show at The Wall later that evening.

“They think it’s their duty to know what’s happening out there, but they don’t really care,” Yu-ting adds. “

Both Yu-shan and Yu-ting are of the opinion that the voting age in Taiwan, currently 20, should be lowered to 18, which, apart from some countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, is the age of suffrage in the vast majority of countries today. Those who can’t vote, according to Yu-shan, feel that they share no part of the responsibility for the future of their nation. The sisters are also in agreement that both the DPP and the KMT need to do better when it comes to appealing to Taiwanese youth and getting them to care about the future of Taiwan, rather than just paying lip service to those who will one day replace them.

“I think they pretend to like the young generation, but they don’t really take care of us,” says Yu-ting. “When they’re having a campaign they always want the young generation to stand up for them, but when doing real things, they still don’t really care about what the young generation is thinking.”

And therein could lie the heart of the problem.

(Freddy Lim's photos are courtesy of Gareth Griffiths)

Wednesday, 04 August 2010 17:27

A glimpse into Matsu’s island

Have you ever heard of Matsu?

Most of the people I have met in Taiwan or abroad who never been to Matsu refer to it as a military island or think of the famous Chinese Goddess of the Sea: “Mazu” (馬祖). Unfortunately not many people know about this beautiful and quiet island (actually, Matsu is an archipelago of 19 small islands, divided into four townships*), which belongs to Lienchiang County (連江縣) of the Republic of China (ROC). Matsu is situated in the Taiwan Strait, only 10 miles (16 km) away from China, close to Fujian province, but 120 miles (193 km) away from Taiwan. I was astonished to see at Nangan harbor how very close China is to Matsu, just 40 minutes by boat.

My first trip to Matsu was during the Chinese New Year and I will never forget it. Indeed, as you might say, I did not choose the right time to go to this island. The weather was bad and all the residents of Matsu were going back home to Matsu to spend New Year with their families. My flight was delayed and I had to wait until the next day before to take another plane.... However, there were no normal passenger planes and I had to take a military transport airplane. Everyone was in the baggage hold, sitting all together in two long rows, not so comfortable but quite worth it simply for the experience. Fortunately, the plane trip was short, only 45 minutes, and I did not have to jump by parachute for the landing. This reinforced my strong impression that Matsu is well served by its nickname of Military Island! However, I discovered during my stay on this island that Matsu is much more than just a military island.

Matsu was the furthest military outpost of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalists when the Communists established their power in the mainland in 1949. Since 1992, when martial law on the island was lifted, the number of soldiers stationed on Matsu has significantly decreased, as has as the fishing industry, which has had an adverse effect on Matsu’s economy. Consequently, with the support of the Taiwanese government, Matsu decided to develop a cultural economy. For example, many military facilities and historic monuments can now be visited, such as the secret military tunnels. They were built during the 1950s to hold ships that could launch surprise attacks on the mainland. It is quite amazing that the existence of these tunnels was unknown even by the residents of Matsu until 1992. Capitalizing on the fame of its Goddess namesake, the tallest statue of Mazu in the world is in Nangan Township.

lise_darbas_matsu2In addition, I was quite impressed by Matsu’s unique stone houses, built in the style of Eastern Min architecture. Indeed, the native people of Matsu were originally immigrants from Eastern Fujian or Eastern Min, so they do not speak Taiwanese but the Fuzhou dialect (福州話, or閩北話). One of the most well-known traditional sites, the village of Qinbi in Beigan (dating from the Ming and Qing Dynasties), bears a strong resemblance to Mediterranean architecture. Most of these houses are nowadays not inhabited during winter vacations. They have been restored and converted into art galleries, coffee shops and bed and breakfast guesthouses to cater for tourists. Walking between these houses made me felt like if I was in a small ghost town. There was strong wind coming from the sea, and I noticed the peculiarity of the roof tiles of the stone houses, which were all weighed down with rocks to defend against the wind. Winter vacation is not the ideal time to fully enjoy Matsu, rather the best time to go to this island is from June to November. During this period the weather is much more favorable for hiking and enjoying a coffee on the terrace of stone houses next to the seaside.

Matsu is now trying its best to lure tourist and attract more interests. Before going to Matsu, I heard of Josh Wenger, an American doctoral student at National Taiwan University who won a competition to be mayor of Matsu for a day. In October 2009, inspired by the famous publicity of “The best job in the world” on Hamilton Island (part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef), Matsu had the brilliant idea to create an online quiz of 10 questions on Matsu’s geographical and historical facts to promote itself. The winner had the amazing opportunity to become the mayor of Matsu for one day, with an award of NT$10,000, and a stay of 3 days and 2 nights in free accommodation.

lise_darbas_Josh_Matsu_5I interviewed Josh who was deeply impressed by Matsu, which he describes as an interesting island with a rich cultural heritage and beautiful natural sites, friendly people and exceptionally tasty food, which was some of the best he has ever tasted in Taiwan. The food he enjoyed the most was fresh seafood, such as seafood noodles, the Buddha hands (炒佛手), and fried clams (炒花蛤). I also found Matsu’s food very delicious, for example, I enjoyed eating Matsu’s “Red rice yeast chicken” (紅糟雞) in the small cozy coffee shop “Lady Coffee” (夫人咖啡) next to the coast in Nangan Township.

Josh’s favorite places were in Beigan island, such as “Biyuan Park” (碧園, which means “green garden”) a small beautiful park with plaques containing the names of soldiers who lost their lives serving in the military; the mountain “Bishan” (北竿大沃山) is the highest peak of the Matsu island with an incredible view of Beigan island, and the “88 tunnel” (八八坑道), which originally took its name to commemorate Chiang Kai-shek’s 88th birthday. Since 1992, this tunnel is no longer a military facility, but is instead used by the people of Matsu to keep their best old rice liquor (老酒) in ceramic pots.

Following on from my short stay in Matsu, and after having interviewed Josh, I became even more interested by this small island. Although Matsu is not as well known as the main island of Taiwan, it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting historical and natural sites I have visited here. I believe that Matsu is an indispensable destination for understanding cross-Strait relations. Moreover, Matsu’s cultural assets such as the stone houses are some of the most important attractions of the island, and have given Matsu a charm and special atmosphere that seems to be from another time. What was once a frontier of the Cold War is now ideal tourist spot for a relaxing couple of days.

(Photos courtesy of J. Wenger and L. Darbas)


“Matsu National Scenic Area,” http://www.matsu-nsa.gov.tw/User/Main.aspx?Lang=2.

“Matsu’s best-kept cultural heritage: Eastern Min architecture at Qinbi village,” http://www.culture.tw/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1430&Itemid=157

Watch Josh Wenger’s report about his experience being the mayor of Matsu:「 一日縣長」溫賈舒:馬祖的美麗景點,絕對要去看


*Nangan (南竿鄉), Beigan (北竿鄉), Juguang (莒光鄉), Dongyin (東引鄉)

Wednesday, 28 July 2010 22:04

The new frontier in abolishing the death penalty

In the second half of the 20th century, there were many changes in death penalty policy worldwide. After the end of World War II and its atrocities, an abolitionist movement started in Western Europe. The first countries to abolish were Italy, Austria and Germany. They were later followed by Great Britain, Spain and France. After the last major power in Western Europe had abolished the death penalty, in 1981, the issue shifted from a question of criminal justice to a question of human rights and limits on government.

Since then, the number, scope and implementation strategies of international human rights treaties and conventions has increased. Among those treaties and conventions lies the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which prohibits the use of capital punishment, and the UN moratorium on death penalty, a nonbinding resolution reached in 2007 which calls for a general suspension of the death penalty. In addition to these resolutions, INGOs such as Amnesty International have been launching worldwide campaigns to abolish capital punishment.

In 2009, 95 countries had abolished the death penalty, while only 18 of the 58 retentionist countries are known to have carried out executions in the same year. However, despite a decline in Asia’s overall number of executions, the continent still accounted for 90 percent of the world’s execution in 2009, the majority having been carried out in China, although Bangladesh, Japan, North Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam also carried out executions.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that Asia is the new frontier in the movement to abolish the death penalty. First, many countries are already abolitionist or de facto abolitionist. In 1989, Cambodia abolished death penalty, and then Macao, Hong Kong and more recently the Philippines followed suit, while South Korea has not carried out an execution since December 1997. Second, there is ambivalence in other Asian countries that still practice death penalty, as is the case in Taiwan.

In 1987 the Republic of China (Taiwan) emerged from 40 years of an oppressive regime under martial law, where people could be punished by death, secretly and on a whim. As Chiang Ching-Kuo opened up the country economically and began the democratisation process, Taiwan's institutions were still partly in the hands of the system which had allowed for the White Terror and other miscarriages of social justice. A key component of the democratisation process is transitional justice. The term refers to a complete set of policies in order to transform a society and overcome its past of human rights abuses, authoritarianism and societal traumas to a peaceful and more certain future. For some, this 'transition' is still in progress today.

After some controversial cases during the 1990s such as the Hsichih trio case, the number of executions carried out in Taiwan decreased and a change of attitude towards the death penalty began to emerge. Between 2006 and 2009, no executions were carried out, and Taiwan seemed to be moving gradually toward abolition…

In March 2010, a controversy emerged over the death penalty issue when former Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) announced her position in favour of abolishing the death penalty adding that she would not step down over the row about enforcing death penalty. Her announcement led to public protests led by victims’ relatives, such as Pai Ping-Ping, a media personality whose daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 1997. On March 11th, Wang Ching-feng resigned after the Presidential Office stated that the death penalties handed down must be carried out and that any suspension of executions must follow the law.

On April 30th 2010, executions in Taiwan were resumed after a 4-year moratorium on the death penalty, as four men were executed by shooting. Human rights organizations as well as representatives of the international community deplored the executions and asked for the immediate reestablishment of a moratorium.

(Image by Ash Ka)



Monday, 26 July 2010 22:41

Leading the long road to abolition (TAEDP)

Lin Hsinyi is the Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP). In a gradual reaction to the cases of Zhou Xun-shan, Lu Cheng and Xu Zi-chiang, TEADP was established in 2003, and has been working towards abolition ever since, as well as helping appeal death row cases and offering support to relatives of those who have received a death sentence or who have already been executed. They are currently the most active group in Taiwan regarding the cessation of the death penalty and are also members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) and the Anti Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN)

As a recognisable outspoken critic of the death penalty, Hsinyi often receives personal threats on her life and body, a product of the prevailing atmosphere of hate. This atmosphere of hate is something she feels is an obstacle to objective debate on the subject. Hsinyi also feels that the resumption of executions after a four year moratorium in May was a huge setback, yet, she believes progressive steps are still being made. Here she talks about why she does not favour the death penalty as a form of punishment, the obstacles to abolishing the death penalty and what can be done in the future.

Or for readers in Mainland China, watch it here

For more information on the TAEDP, watch their own introductory video, or see the English section of their website.

Friday, 23 July 2010 18:39

A democratic society should not permit state violence!

French Romantic writer Victor Hugo once proclaimed "The death penalty is the essential and lasting symbol of of barbaric behaviour".

From a human evolution standpoint, the way we distinguish between modern civilisation and the barbaric past, is our respect for other humans and life. To kill is an extremely brutal act, regardless of the circumstances, the procedures gone through and by whom it is implemented. There is no way of masking the innate barbarism of killing.

Thus, the more civilised a culture becomes, the more we start to reflect on the death penalty. In the modern world with the International Human Rights Act, the trend is truly moving towards the abolishment of the death penalty. 139 of the world's 197 countries have abolished the death penalty (no executions for 10 or more years), of the remaining 58, less than half of them carried out an execution in 2009. This serves as testament that many countries, after a period of logical analysis have realised that there is a conflict between the values of civilised societies and those under the death penalty system.

For example, many people think that the death penalty is a useful tool for alleviating the pain and anger of the victim's family as well as realising justice. However, if approaching the subject from a victim protection standpoint, then one must realise that punishing the offender with death, may for a short time satisfy the desire for revenge but is ineffective in helping the victim's family live with the loss of their relatives nor does it help look after them in the future. Furthermore the state's responsibility to care for the victims and their families not simply come to an end once the offender has been executed. In other words, the protection of victims and the death penalty system are two completely unrelated issues. Death penalty is also certainly not a key prerequisite to victim protection since in various countries around the world there are organisations of victims families who are explicitly against it and even in Taiwan there is no shortage of cases where the victims families are willing to forgive the murders of their relatives.

A questionable concept of justice

Therefore, what seems like public opinion championing the cause of justice for victims, hence strong support for the death penalty, in fact has complex social and psychological background factors. This was also perceived by Durkheim in his penal theory. To the common people, the message given by the punishment of death isn't one of caring for the victims and their families, nor is it of punishment and teaching a lesson. Neither. It is more a form of excorsising ceremony as a way of recovering what the society's psychology perceives as the broken normal order of things (especially with over exaggerations and demonisation in the media). What shines through this transparent concept is in fact human selfishness and indifference. The majority of the public who praise the death penalty system are only concerned about the disruption to the normal order of their lives. They are not truly concerned for the victims and even less so for the underlying causes of the crime, how to truly deal with the problem or how to avoid similar misfortunes in the future. In other words, this type of justice is actually full of injustice.

The values espoused by modern democracies emphasize that the people should in fact be active participants in the construction of society, rather than indifferent observers. In particular, the state's power is supposed to derive from the whole population. If the people do not fearfully guard against and recall the power of the state to deprive an individual of life; then if the day when state power shakes off the people's reins and becomes the exclusive domain of the dictator, Taiwan's White Terror history could most feasibly return.

Amnesty International has always maintained that the death penalty in itself is full of prejudice, erroneous judgements and abuse, and the instances are uncountable. Furthermore, the public's misconceptions of the death penalty, have rationalised irreparable acts of state violence and this inevitably involves some innocent victims. In conclusion, a democratic society should not permit the death penalty - a cruel and inhumane state violence.

Translated from the Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

Image: Cécile Thimoreau



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